For those refined gentlepeople who prefer the cerebral grace of baseball to the plebian savagery of football, October is the greatest of months. Will Leitch looks at each of the eight playoff combatants. Now up: The Los Angeles Dodgers.
Until the Dodgers did right by the denizens of eastern Missouri, southern Illinois and parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kentucky by sweeping the Chicago Cubs out of the playoffs last season, the franchise, one of baseball's signature pieces of china, had not won a postseason series in 20 years, when Kirk Gibson was limping around the bases and Jack Buck's eyes were making him incredulous. This was so long ago that Dennis Miller, long-haired, sane and sufferable back then, in the anchor's desk at "Saturday Night Live," made a joke about it on the air five minutes after it happened. This is a very long time.
Los Angeles has been through a lot since then, race riots, O.J., mudslides, blackouts, David Lynch giving weather reports on the radio, Kobe, but they've never quite had the Dodgers at the center of the conversation the way they supposed they always should be. The Dodgers have been Vin Scully, plodding away alone every night like a national treasure encased in a snow globe, and they have been derivative would-be Lakers. The team never really adjusted, never really came down from the Gibson-Tommy Lasorda Dodgers, and they moped around with would-be replacements, your Jim Tracys, your Grady Littles, a brief flirtation with a by-then-obviously-crazy Davey Johnson. This team played Eric Karros at first base for 10 years. Eric Karros is a fine player, but if he is your signature attraction, your beacon in the storm, one can argue that you have chosen to have no soul at all. One can argue that you are killing time.
The Dodgers realized around 2004 that it was time to rip out the guts and start over, and they turned in a direction that couldn't possibly have fit in with their inherent character, hiring "Moneyball" cast member Paul DePodesta — the nerd, the Demitri Martin — to remake the team in Billy Beane's image. DePodesta made a few mistakes, the "fuck off you better believe I'm in charge" Brad Penny trade, and never understood that even though he had been asked to reinvent Think Blue, he hadn't, not really. He thought he was Conan O'Brien; the Dodgers secretly wanted Bob Hope; he turned out to be "Late World With Zach Galifianakis" on VH-1, ahead of his time, sure, but still unwilling to bend enough to understand what he'd been hired to do in the first place. He was born to be a doomed folk hero, a sitcom a small number of fans are rabid about but one that inspires most of us to shrug our shoulders and wonder what all the fuss was about. The best thing one can say about Paul "Google Boy" DePodesta is that his tale was the first time smart people picked up their paper and realized, "Hey ... Bill Plaschke is an idiot. I had no idea."
What DePodesta really did, though, was pave the way for Joe Torre and Manny Ramirez, the guy who made the Dodgers realize their true personality is like its city itself: Transplants tired of the anger planet elsewhere, heading to the sunshine and the convertibles and they "hey, man, will you read my screenplay?" All the gorgeous vacancy of Los Angeles that makes the rest of us despise the place while understanding, deep down, that we'd all be happier, probably, if we lived there. Torre gave the Dodgers class, Ramirez gave them drama and spectacle, and, ta-da, the Dodgers were the Dodgers again. Hell, Kirk Gibson's really a Tiger, deep down. The Dodgers are happy to take your disgruntled and tired, give them a tan and polish 'em up.
The ultimate irony of the Dodgers' success this year is that they're based in the principles DePodesta championed, and was run out of town for: This team gets on base like crazy. The lineup didn't turn out to be as deep in 2009 as everyone had been hoping — Russell Martin fell off a cliff, and we shouldn't have expected all that much from Rafael Furcal in the first place — but it is relentless, sort of a Yankees lite, like Torre now, really, hanging around, hanging in, looking up and saying, "hey, doggone it, look at that, we ended up here again." The rotation succeeds because of the bullpen; you just have to hang on, Wolf, Billingsley, Kershaw, and the geniuses at the end will take care of the rest. The Dodgers are not exciting, and if if weren't for Manny, they'd be a bunch of blandly efficient gods chugging to first base, waiting for you to figure out which one is Ethier and which one is Kemp and which one is Loney. Everyone will talk about Manny all October, but he's a name, not a number. You get a sense that no one in the clubhouse dislikes him, but no one talks to him much either.
Amusingly enough, the Dodgers have become a hot "overrated" pick this postseason, reminding people of the Cubs of last year, proficient in all ways and excellent in none, coasting on a stressless regular season with a foundation easily cracked in October. I am not so sure. The Dodgers are a young team disguised as one making a last lap around the track. They lull you into submission. You feel confident, you see Randy Wolf, you pshaw and then you look up and you're down 5-3 in the seventh, and when that happens against the Dodgers, in their stadium (where they won 50 games this year), you've already lost. Sleep on the Dodgers at their peril. They still haven't figured out a personality outside of interchangeable kids and transplants, but isn't that what Los Angeles has always been about anyway? Forget about it, Jack. It's Mannywood.