It’s the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium. So why, contrary to local legend, is no one leaving early? There’s a sense in the autumn air that something dreamy is about to happen, and if one thing is more important in L.A. these days than beating freeway traffic, it’s the burgeoning notion that the Dodgers are heading to their first championship in 25 years — and that anyone exposed to the fun shouldn’t be so Hollywood to snub it.
This is a team with baseball’s best starting pitcher (Clayton Kershaw), its top No. 2 starting pitcher (Zach Greinke), its most audacious character (Yasiel Puig) and its budding Mr. October (Hanley Ramirez). This is a team with the sport’s most comforting TV voice (Vin Scully), its most luxurious setting (Chavez Ravine), its most famous and fan-friendly owner (Magic Johnson) and its proudest social breakthrough (Jackie Robinson). This is a team with baseball’s highest payroll ever ($237.9 million), a team that knows it must spend exhorbitantly in a megalopolis of 15 million people with a myriad of entertainment options, such as the sun and the beach.
Why in the hell would anyone want to go home?
Sure enough, the newfound common sense is rewarded with a late rally and 4-3 division-series clincher. And the fact the hero is potbellied journeyman Juan Uribe — not one of eight or nine other more likely candidates — is precisely why the Dodgers appear to have this, at long last. Uribe was supposed to bunt with his team trailing by a run and Puig on second base, after the Cuban missile had doubled and whipped the usual sellout crowd into a tizzy by motioning for noise and pumping his fist. With none out, having Uribe bunt was another peculiar bit of strategy by manager Don Mattingly, whose strange decisions so far have been the only postseason killjoy. But Uribe fouled off both attempts, leaving him to swing his bat … and crush the ball over the left-field fence, pushing the Dodgers into the National League championship series and setting off a Puig-inspired party/rave that stopped about an hour ago.
The celebration, which included ripping off each other’s shirts on the field and endless drenchings of alcohol in the clubhouse, begs a question: If the Dodgers and their city are this euphoric after one successful series, what kind of earthquake is ahead if they win the NL pennant and the World Series?
“We haven’t won anything yet, but it definitely feels good to get to celebrate. You never want to pass those moments up,” said Kershaw, whose willingness to pitch on three days’ rest paid off, averting a firestorm of controversy.
“This team has a lot of fun,” said Carl Crawford (per the Associated Press), whose two homers kept the Dodgers in the game early against yet another overmatched Atlanta team. “We don’t think about being the team to beat and all that stuff. We just go out and play and try to have fun.”
Then there was Uribe, whose first two L.A. seasons were miserable before he lost 20 pounds this season and became a contributor. When Puig was finished dumping the contents of two Gatorade jugs over his head, the hero spoke to the people. “I do it for the fans,” said Uribe, who in August was picked off third base by a Tampa Bay hidden-ball trick and consequently ridiculed by — yep — Puig. “This moment, I will never forget. I think a lot of people are feeling like that.”
As for Puig, he doesn’t say much to the media, issuing one-sentence answers through an interpreter. That’s fine. His performances serve as ample communication, so long as he avoids the Playboy Mansion and club scene until November.
Though the Dodgers spend obscene amounts at a time when Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have enjoyed success with brainpower and cost-efficiency, they really aren’t hateable. Who can dislike a franchise associated with feel-good elements such as Scully, the Robinson legacy and Dodger Stadium? Same goes for Mattingly, a nice guy who, despite his in-game hiccups, deserves the new contract that hasn’t yet been granted by management. Imagine the heat he would have taken, as Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke pointed out, if Uribe hadn’t homered after being asked to bunt. Said Mattingly: “It’s a good feeling you end up winning because you don’t have to answer all those questions. You try to put the guys in the right position and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it doesn’t and then it still works.”
He and his immediate boss, general manager Ned Colletti, also would have been skewered had the Kershaw decision backfired. Having never pitched on short rest in his major-league career, Kershaw was jeopardizing his golden arm by putting extreme wear and tear on it. Plus, according to STATS Inc., postseason starters working on three days’ rest since 2000 are only 20-32. But the Dodgers dearly wanted to close out the series so they could avoid a Game 5 in Atlanta, breathe for a few days and set up their NLCS rotation, with Greinke and Kershaw going Friday and Saturday. It was a gamble, but Kershaw gave them 91 pitches and positioned his team to win.
“This is the postseason,” said Kershaw, who enjoyed a post-game hug with Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax. “You just go. It’s a one-month sprint.”
But first, the Dodgers had to rage. In the middle of the on-field party was the principal owner, Mark Walter, a financial guy who spearheaded the franchise purchase for $2.15 billion last year and set off industry shockwaves. In the end, Walter and Guggenheim Partners got a bargain — the local TV rights sold for $7 billion, and the fat payroll has led to October success, which will lead to more spending in their zeal to create the most high-powered global ballclub in modern civilization. Think I’m kidding? Wait until the offseason.
What baseball and Fox want later this month, of course, is a World Series between the Dodgers and Red Sox. I’d also enjoy an antithetical matchup — the Hollywood behemoth vs. a low-revenue small fry — but I sense where this is all going. When you a tell a guy to bunt and he hits a series-winning home run, well, L.A. is the town where scripts are written.
And we’re definitely watching a movie, in progress.