It was in an uber on the way back to Sherman Oaks after “The Rich Hill Game” that I swore off the Dodgers – not as a team, definitely not in my heart, but from ever expecting them to actually win a World Series. I still remember the Yasiel Puig blast in the bottom of the sixth inning, a moment I was certain would take its place in the Dodgers pantheon along with Kirk Gibson‘s blast in 1988. The energy in the stadium at that moment was as frenetic as I’d felt at a sporting event, and I was nearly driven to tears with joy. The Dave Roberts/Rich Hill ‘miscommunication‘ followed, and the entire season fell apart, along with the very fabric of my Dodgers fanmanship.
The offseason was rough. To cut to the chase, I didn’t want the Dodgers to acquire Bryce Harper, even though he, along with Puig, would qualify as what passes for my ‘favorite player’ as an adult. But then the Dodgers traded Puig! I despised the move, until I realized that it could only mean one thing – the Dodgers were going to get Harper!!! Why else would they trade the beloved, albeit inconsistent, fan-favorite? It had to be the genius of Andrew Friedman’s front office because, well, Matt Kemp was jettisoned in the deal too.
They were clearing out salary. . .then the days ticked by. So did the weeks. Then they signed AJ Pollock. Okay, quick pause for my thoughts on Pollock, the former Diamondback that would wreck the Dodgers when he was healthy: oft-injured, a pesky hitter with decent pop, a scrappy fielder that could pick off a runner, and a guy that could really help your team as your second-best outfielder. But the Dodgers signed him, seemingly instead of Harper, and that pissed me off. He was going to play 100-120 games per season for the Dodgers, I thought.
Spring Training started and not only was Harper unsigned, but the Dodgers were effectively out of the running. Until they were back in it. My heart was in my throat – would they really pay the rumored $40-$50million/season he’d require for a short contract? You think Guggenheim, you think about the disastrous TV deal that benefits nobody except the coffers of the organization, and you say, “it’s not my money – let’s do it.” But the Dodgers are too smart for that. From a business perspective. But what about the fans, you ask. And what about me? I personally want the first flag in 31 years, and with this offseason, one of minimal tinkering – Pollock, Joe Kelly, Russell Martin, and that’s it? Did the team actually get better, as some say, with addition by subtraction?
I personally feel the Dodgers are a worse team in 2019 than they were in 2018. Yet they still may be positioned to achieve the ultimate goal simply because of how the team is constructed. Back-to-back World Series provide a strong proof of concept, that the depth in this organization – and its deft application by Roberts – is a winning formula for the regular season.
Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger figure to be in the lineup every day in 2019. Corey Seager returns; he’s looked slick at shortstop in the spring, and still has one of the sweetest swings in the game. Kiké is now Enrique Hernandez, and after a two-year journey under Chase Utley’s wing, seems to have finally matured – with a revamped swing – and won the starting second base job outright. Austin Barnes will land somewhere in between the energy-infusing, quick-twitch backstop he was in 2017 and the disappointment he was in 2018, and splitting the job “60/40” with Russell Martin will provide a solid catching tandem. Max Muncy is a problem at first base, both defensively and offensively – he looked, in Spring, more like the player the A’s released in 2017 than the 2018 Home Run Derby participant. I do feel that Bellinger’s outstanding glove is nullified by placing him in right field. Joc Pederson is who we think he is, a 25-30 home run bat that will hit around .229 in a full season, but he may not get the chance as this is make-or-break time for Alex Verdugo, who looks primed to win one of the starting outfield slots by early May, and has proven everything he could at the minor league level. Chris Taylor is still going to provide a ton of backward K’s to go with his near-20 home run season, and is a great super utility player. And yes, David Freese is on the club again, an underappreciated piece in this mosaic of pretty good ballplayers up and down the roster.
The pitching, as always, is the key. We knew Kershaw wasn’t ever going to make 30 starts again, but to begin Spring Training with a balky arm and start the season on the Injured List is a cruel reminder for Dodger fans. With the brittle Rich Hill also shelved with a knee sprain, the Dodgers will look to the resurgent Hyun-Jin Ryu to start Opening Day, and hopefully repeat a wildly successful 2018 campaign. Walker Buehler, the true Ace, is back in the fold, but the organization is “slow-playing” the Justin Verlander clone after extending him last year. Additionally, Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling are back, and Julio Urias is going to get his chance to stick in the rotation, unless the innings limitations are imposed upon him as well. Regardless, the depth is there but another arm – Dallas Keuchel, anybody? – would go a long ways in quieting concerns about another season of record-breaking trips to the mound by Honeycutt & Roberts.
I do like the bullpen, led by the newly-svelte Kenley Jansen, fresh off of heart surgery and full of guile, with (hopefully, the 2018 version of) Pedro Baez showing up as the set-up man. Joe Kelly is a little bit of an overrated acquisition as his career stats don’t exactly jump off the page, but he’s a veteran and as they say, his ‘presence’ should help the younger releivers, such as Caleb Ferguson and Yimi Garcia. Scott Alexander and Dylan Floro round out the pen, and yeah – if this sounds familiar, it’s because this really is nearly identical to the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers.
That’s right, the team that went to the World Series. The Nationals have a fearsome rotation; the Cubs underperformed in 2018 and still went to the playoffs; the Phillies, as you may have heard, acquired Bryce Harper. The Mets are improved and the Rockies are still tough. But realistically, is there a National League team better positioned than the unimproved Dodgers? I really don’t think so. This organizational philosophy is clearly successful and they have laid the blueprint for regular season and (at least, National League) playoff success and they are continuing to follow the same formula.
For as much flak as Dave Roberts takes for his ‘game management,’ he’s one of the most adept clubhouse generals in all of sports and universally beloved by his players. That is not insignificant in the grind of a 162-game, nine-month season. Just make sure this year that when they’re in the World Series again, there are no more miscommunications. It would be too much for my heart to bear.
And as always, the obligatory Vin Scully reference:
It’s time for Dodger baseball. . .
As I sat down to do my analysis, I really thought I was going to see more of a discrepancy between these two teams. The Red Sox won 108 games; the Dodgers needed an extra game to get to 92, in a supposed ‘weaker’ division, and in the ‘junior varsity’ National League. The Red Sox cruised through the season, having won more than 67% of their games up to this point; the Dodgers were nine games out of first place on May 8th, and 10 games under .500 on May 19th. In addition to the extra win necessary to get into the Division Series, they were taken to seven games by a good, but not great, Milwaukee Brewers team. The Red Sox, on the other hand, dismantled the Houston Astros, last year’s World Champions, by taking the final three games of the series in the Astros’ home park. So through that lens, the Red Sox should be a huge favorite. It says here, however, that these two teams are VERY evenly matched – and whoever wins this series better be packing some scary costumes because they will need the full seven games to hoist the trophy on Halloween night in 2018.
Red Sox postseason bullpen stats:
Red Sox 2018 Postseason Batting:
Dodgers 2018 Postseason Batting:
I’ve had nearly the entire calendar year to internalize the impact of Vin Scully’s retirement.
It’s different than when an athlete opts to end his playing career. Kobe Bryant & Derek Jeter received the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar treatment with tours, gifts, roasts, etc.; others, such as Barry Bonds or Allen Iverson, are forced to abandon their ride into the sunset. Magic Johnson, Barry Sanders & Bo Jackson are examples of retirements that were shocking in their suddenness. Each fantastic playing career carries specific moments over a generation – or if the athlete was particularly transcendent, generations plural – and defines a city, an era, a specific way of playing the game; something that entrenched the athlete in the milieu to the extent that their retirement itself was notable.
But for many Dodger fans and Los Angeles natives – and for me, specifically – the career of Vin Scully is inextricably intertwined with Life in L.A.
There was Vin when I was doing my homework in Mrs. Saunders class in first grade. There was She Is Gone. . .In a Year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened. There were the sombreros being thrown to the sky when old friend Pedro Guerrero made the last out (a GIDP) of Fernando’s no-hitter. There was Vin in Spring for Henry Rodriguez’ four-homerun game. Vin was there when I came home from my first JV game as a 14-year old sophomore. It was Vin, as my Dad would kick back on the floor with his Golden Retriever, Doc, the two of them laying with the screen door ajar, letting the dulcet tones of Vinny complement the perfect San Fernando Valley summer breeze.
Vinny introduced me to Mike Piazza. Hideo Nomo. Ramon and Pedro Martinez. Omar Daal. Ismael Valdes. Vinny was serenading me as Eric Gagné, the mediocre starting pitcher morphed into Eric “Game Over” Gagné, still the most dominating pitcher I’ve seen, asterisk or not. Vin was in love with the O-Dog. Vinny ushered in Mannywood. Yasiel Puig became The Wild Horse.
In recent years, Vin was not there for the playoffs; first because of organizational ineptitude in the 90’s and subsequent Fox era, but mostly because of the Business of Baseball, which precluded ‘local’ broadcasters from doing much of the TV postseason work. Also, Vin’s age (the voice is truly timeless; humans, even a Saint, are not) demanded that the rigors of a baseball travel schedule were simply too much and the road games were increasingly narrated by Rick Monday, Ross Porter, Steve Lyons. Or Charley Steiner. Eric Collins. Recently, L.A. legends Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra have seen more TV work as Vin only works home games and the occasional trip to San Francisco. And Joe Davis, The Man Who Has to Follow in Scully’s Shoes, does a great job – but he’ll forever live with the moniker he’s no Vin Scully. So there’s less Vin now than ever.
And that’s okay. I’ve become busier. We all have. My son, Felix, is nearly 3 years old. And besides, “baseball is too slow.” But maybe that’s a good thing? When I do get to hear Vin, which I did about 30 times this season, I’ve flashed back to those serene summer nights in Sepulveda. I’d get off of a three-way call on my parent’s landline, run out to do a cannonball in the pool, careen back in the house, grab some Cap’n Crunch and Get Back to This One. You could always Pull Up a Chair, but if you couldn’t, that was okay. Vinny was going to see you again tomorrow night.
I really began to appreciate Vin and think about the dreadful and imminent end of Scully’s magical run a few years ago. I wondered if I’d enjoy Dodger games, or the Dodgers, or honestly, baseball, as much when he was gone. I didn’t want to find out, but knew it would happen. And when Felix was born, I wanted him to be able to hear and recognize Vin’s warm voice and that musical cadence. We sit and listen to games – a few innings, in Felix’s case, and I’m always sure to emphasize Vin Scully. He’s not likely to remember these nascent memories, especially of some old broadcaster, but I’m glad that I did have these years to share, and pass down the tradition.
Vin Scully is the narrator of this City I Love. Vin Scully is not just the voice of Los Angeles, he is Los Angeles. He came west as the city was just finding it’s sea-legs, a post-Baby Boom bastion of suburbs and planned communities that required you to have a car. No, really – that was a novel concept in 1958, and it’s exactly why Vinny became Los Angeles. You were, and still are, in a car all the time, and Vinny was painting games nine months out of the year. Until he’s not. And then what? Life goes on. L.A. will be here, Vinny and my Dad will hopefully live well into retirement, and the Dodgers will continue drawing 3 million fans per year. Baseball will certainly move forward. So will I, so will Felix.
But it will be different, an impact unknown. There may be a void, there will definitely be a ripple in the fabric of my fanmanship. But I do know that Vin Scully’s retirement will be more poignant and powerful than any I’ve experienced in sports.
I sent a letter to Vin during the first Dodgers season after Felix was born. I didn’t expect nor receive a response, and was told that he actually receives more mail than anybody in the organization. Maybe he read it, likely he did not, but the copy is below and the sentiment still holds.
Because Vin Scully really enhanced my life. And proud Los Angeles native or not, I’ve never said that about any type of celebrity before. And I certainly haven’t said it about an athlete. I do have a sombrero, but I’m not going to throw it to the sky, Vin. I’m just hoping that I can enjoy and cherish your five remaining telecasts and maybe, just maybe, the Baseball Gods will reward you and the fans whom you’ve impacted with one more improbable October.
July 15, 2014
Mr. Scully –
I just want to reach out and thank you for your presence within the Dodgers organization and the City of Los Angeles. I am a second generation Los Angeles native, and recently had a son (Felix) that will be the third Lovett male to be serenaded by your voice from April to October of each year.
You are truly the voice that defines summer and provides the soundtrack to our great city. I am proud to be able to pass on the tradition of ‘listening to Vin’ to my son.
In short, your legacy and influence is immeasurable and I cherish each of your broadcasts, and I appreciate your commitment to pulling up a chair and ‘getting back to this one’ in beautiful Chavez Ravine.
Enclosed is a picture of the three of us – my father, Stu; my son, Felix & me.
With admiration and appreciation,
So if there was any question, Dave Roberts not only has put his imprint on this organization but is making it clear that this is an era where on-field management is a conduit for the front office yet still can have a major and positive impact (as opposed to being a puppet).
Removing Rich Hill yesterday during a perfect game, based on the fact that he was starting to have a little bit of “heat” on the blister finger (causing him to miss three of his last six scheduled starts), the move is objectively understandable. I would be extremely agitated if I was Rich Hill – or, frankly, any other Dodger – but the team won the ballgame and Roberts made the right move.
Roberts earnestly & honestly addressed his decision after the game (“I’m going to lose sleep” “I’ve never had a win feel like a loss”). He is clearly a team-oriented manager that understands what it’s like to be in those players’ cleats, and again, what he is done with such an undermanned, chronically injured, oddly constituted team this year has been nothing short of remarkable.
Image: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
My takeaways from this trade deadline:
1) Dodgers. Boring moves. I’d like to think they’re not done; I’d love to see them acquire Archer, whom I really believe has Ace ‘stuff’ without much mileage on his arm. Not to mention his contract; $6mm, then $9mm/year through 2021. Might be the most club-friendly deal in baseball. Reddick is solid, but I really do think Puig will be a star player – I really do. Maybe it’s just not meant to be in L.A. Rich Hill is a total yawn and totally in the Alex Wood/Brett Anderson/hey-let’s-get-a-solid-but-not-spectacular-fourth-starter-type mold of this front office. Not inspirational. Then again, I’m not in favor of a ‘balls out’ approach if (maybe they know) Kershaw isn’t coming back. Unless you get Archer and Sale, it’s not happening without Kersh.
Corey Seager reminds me SO much of Clayton Kershaw in his approach, composure, poise, maturity, overall grasp of the game and awareness of his role & importance on the team. I’ve been reserving my enthusiasm for what seems like such an obvious superstar (and thus potential bust) but he really seems to understand the game and his role. And his approach is beautiful. Relaxed swing – he chokes up! – and literally goes oppo with ease, and power. His glove has surprised me as well, and damn – I’m genuinely excited for his future. Clayton has anywhere from three to fifteen (Randy, Nolan) years of dominance remaining, and Corey has about four years until he hits his prime – but he’ll be a superstar by next year. Could be really fun times at the Ravine for years to come.
Excellent piece, Tom Verducci.
Thank you, Sports Illustrated.
The Ghosts of Kershaw – his postseason struggles are well-known and discussed ad nauseam. Career postseason, he’s 1-5 with a 5.12 ERA (as opposed to a 114-56, 2.43 ERA regular season career). That said, the (active) Mets have hit a cumulative .213 w/ a .553 OPS vs. Kershaw, and this includes a near-perfect game in July (ended up with a 3-hit shutout, 11 K’s). He also has a career 2.07 ERA in Chavez Ravine.
Bonus Postseason Observation: