Dreams and Nightmares

Writing up a postmortem of the NLCS for Baseball Prospectus today, I was forced by the events of last night in Fenway Park to graft a new head onto my piece like some Dr. Frankenstein. Having watched enough of the Red Sox from the vantage point of a Yankees fan last year, I could see all too well what was in store:

No lead is safe.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from rooting against the Red Sox over the past decade or so, it’s that in Fenway Park a ballgame is never as over as it seems based merely on a lopsided score. The Green Monster, the Pesky Pole, and the odd angles in between all appear designed by some sadistic baseball god to exert a gravitational pull towards entropy — an entropy where the only thing more chaotic than the endless rallies which generate a seemingly insurmountable early lead are the endless rallies where that lead is swallowed into some rip in the space-time continuum which leaks odd bounces and extra outs. It ain’t over ’til it’s over, indeed.

Thursday night’s ALCS Game Five was just such a game, yet another surreal encounter in a series that has been full of them. With the defending World Champion Red Sox having been pushed to the brink of elimination by three straight losses to the Rays by a combined score of 31-13 and with the Monster having been used for target practice by its upstart visitors, the early home runs hit by B.J. Upton, Carlos Peña, and Evan Longoria — a trio that’s now combined for 10 in the series — felt like reruns. By the time the Rays took a 7-0 lead into the seventh inning, they’d been prematurely anointed AL champions by the TBS crew and most of a country that’s forgotten the lessons of the 1999 Division Series and the 2004 and 2007 ALCS. For those of us wanting to see the villain killed off, it’s just another installment of that z-grade horror series, Nightmare on Lansdowne Street.

Scarred by such lessons, I’ll confess to having not let myself get too absorbed in this series thus far, particularly because of my immersion in the NLCS as both a diehard Dodgers fan and a hopefully more level-headed analyst. I love a post-season doubleheader as much as the next man, but there’s no suffering through five-and-a-half hours of strike-zone nibbling, ineffectual relief pitching, and multiple lead changes for a man with a Tivo and a desire to some claim on sanity, particularly one with the sting of the Dodgers’ defeat still fresh in mind. Prior to Thursday night, I might have admitted it was my loss, but fast-forwarding to the improbable heroics of David Ortiz and J.D. Drew in front of a reanimated Fenway crowd reminded me down to the pit of my stomach that I haven’t missed a damn thing. I’ve seen this show before, thank you, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t end well.

As for the Dodgers, who bowed out on Wednesday night, here’s some of what I had to say:

Still, it was a thrilling ride for the Dodgers, the best they’ve given their fans in the 20 years since Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershier willed another injury-wracked team past the heavily favored Mets in the NLCS and then the equally heavily favored A’s in the World Series. Derided for winning just 84 games, these Dodgers put their strongest team on the field in October, one that over the course of a full season might have been ten wins better than their final record, and one that clearly illustrates that for all the faults of their management — the wasteful contracts dispensed by Ned Colletti, the lineup dickering of Joe Torre — the team’s deep reserves of both talent and money can make them a formidable club when they do get it right.

As for what comes next, the Dodgers face some truly vexing questions with regards to their free agents. Can they afford to keep Ramirez, given the probability that he may command something well beyond $100 million to cover the twilight years of his late 30s and early 40s? Can they afford not to, given that they haven’t had a single player hit over 20 home runs for them since 2005, and that Manny Being Manny was such a huge hit with the fans of Los Angeles? If they keep him, can they dig a ditch deep enough to sink the costs of both Juan Pierre ($28.5 million remaining) and Andruw Jones ($22.1 million remaining, in a heavily back-loaded deal), both of whom want out of LA every bit as badly as the fans want them gone? Will they let rotation anchor Derek Lowe walk after he piled up 135 starts for them over the past four years, tied for second-most in the majors? Will they pick up the $8.75 million option on Brad Penny, who put up a 6.27 ERA after a Cy Young-caliber season, and who has managed just one more start over the past five years than Lowe has in four? What of Furcal, who’s had stretches of MVP-caliber play when healthy, but who was limited to just 36 games this season? If they let Furcal, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, and Casey Blake all leave, how many of their infield spots will they turn over to youngsters Blake DeWitt, Chin-Lung Hu, and Tony Abreu? Can they trust Colletti to make better decisions than the ones that put them into such a bind this year? These things give Dodger fans plenty of reasons to lie awake at night.

For better or worse, such decisions will be dealt with in due course. In the meantime, this Dodger fan would like simply to say thank you and farewell to the exciting and occasionally frustrating club that provided such a thrilling joyride over the past two and a half months after so much disappointment prior. Having watched Ramirez star in so many installments of those aforementioned Nightmare on Lansdowne flicks, it was refreshing to sit back (or, more often, bolt upright) and appreciate his tremendous gifts as a hitter, even if he did shoot a man in Boston just to watch him die, or whatever crimes it was that the mainstream media would have had you believe he committed to grease his skids out of Beantown.

Furthermore, it was a gas to watch the Dodgers’ highly-touted young nucleus, which bore such harsh criticism for their late-2007 fade, shed some baggage by helping to capture the NL West flag and then to roll past the heavily-favored Cubs in the first round. If Kemp, Martin, Billingsley, Ethier, Clayton Kershaw, Hong-Chih Kuo, James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, Cory Wade, et al weren’t good enough to be National League champions yet, they’re still on the sunny side of 27, and time is on their side. It’s been 20 years since the Dodgers were such fun, and I already can’t wait for the next one to start.

The end wasn’t pretty, but it was a great year for the Dodgers. Reading the entertaining post-mortem on the excellent and well-named Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness blog, I was reminded of all of the improbabilities that occurred between spring training and the team’s elimination:

Who could have seen Nomar and LaRoche getting hurt in the same spring game? Is it more surprising that DeWitt was the Opening Day 3B or that he was the starting 2B in the NLCS? Are you more amazed that Andruw Jones had quite possibly the worst season in baseball history (even those against ardently his signing never saw this coming, don’t lie) or that Joe Torre would actually bench Pierre? That the shortstop who would get the most at-bats this season would not be Rafael Furcal or Chin-Lung Hu, but Royals bust Angel Berroa? That Russell Martin would make only four fewer starts at third base than LaRoche? That Kuo would become one of the most dominating relievers in the entire sport, and that Wade would become a huge part of the bullpen? Every team has injuries, but how many teams can claim to be in first place in September despite having their Opening Day starting pitcher, ace closer, shortstop, second baseman, third baseman, and center fielder either on the DL or in the minors?

Some seriously crazy stuff had to go down in order for the Dodgers even to assemble the unlikely cast that they did, let alone to get so far into the postseason, and if that doesn’t sum up baseball’s charms, well, I’ll once again invoke some familiar words:

You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.” — Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

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