LOS ANGELES — At some point, you just have to get over it. Many or maybe all of us have survived a “threshold” moment. In a literal life-or-death situation, it’s called the quietus — that moment when the living ceases to exist in this realm and moves on to whatever comes next.
Every team in every baseball postseason series goes through a moment of quietus, when the raised fist of an umpire tells everyone that the last out has been made. Game over. Series complete. It’s one of the uniquely great things about a clockless sport like baseball, where the most optimistic among us can keep hope alive for our team, until we can’t.
“We’ve been in the process of turning the page,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said on Opening Day. “A lot of good things happened last year. Now, as 2018 starts, I know our guys are really looking forward to this day.”
The quietus struck the 2017 Dodgers on the first night of November, when Corey Seager grounded out to kick off the Astros’ celebratory melee at Dodger Stadium. That ended what had been a glorious seven-month quest for the Dodgers, marked by 104 regular-season wins and the club’s first pennant since 1988.
The quest ended one step shy of Valhalla. Their pennant drought had ended, which we were reminded of again on Saturday when the Dodgers held a ring ceremony to commemorate their National League championship. But their title drought extended yet another year, reaching 29 seasons. An entire generation of Dodgers fans has grown up without knowing what it’s like to win it all.
“In the industry, the media and the fans, until you start the new season there is going to be talk [of last year],” Roberts said. “That’s just kind of the way it goes. Certainly it’s in our minds. No doubt. It’s always going to be in our minds. But I think our guys are doing a very good job of understanding that we can’t change it and looking forward.”
This season marks the 30th since the Dodgers last won, and the 60th year since the franchise picked up and moved from Brooklyn to L.A. During their first three decades out west, the Dodgers won five World Series. If the Dodgers don’t win it this season, their title drought will have extended to half the time the team has played in California.
If not for that result on Nov. 1, 2017, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. To come so close seems like it would be paralyzing. When pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, everything rolled back to zero. For the Dodgers to get back to the same moment will take months of work, work that they all but completed last year.
How do you recover from a near miss at that level? How do you stop looking back, and return to the same levels of intensity and focus that marked last season?
“I almost think it would be harder to get back to the grind if we had won Game 7,” said Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi. “This organization is still so hungry to get over that hump. We obviously got as close as you can without getting there. I think the hunger and motivation is very much there.”
Teams recover, of course. The 2014 Royals lost a Game 7 with the tying run on third base when the World Series ended. They were so traumatized that they won the title the very next season. The 2016 Indians lost one of the most epic Game 7s ever, in extra innings, and like the Royals had the tying run on base when the Series ended. The Indians didn’t win the title last year, but they did win 102 games.
“We have to be over it,” first baseman Cody Bellinger said. “It’s a new season. Time to move on.”
You do it because you have to. The baseball world moves in one direction: forward.
“We’re very much a glass-is-half-full organization,” Zaidi said. “We feel great about what we accomplished last year. But there was no panic [in our offseason]. We believe in our process and our talent.”
Here’s a portrait of spring training with a team that was one win from a World Series title:
It’s a lazy late-winter morning in Arizona and nothing much is happening. Dodgers camp has been dull. Most of the players in the clubhouse, the ones destined for the 40-man roster, were in the organization at the end of last season. The most notable new face is familiar — outfielder Matt Kemp, a former Dodgers All-Star reacquired for reasons that had little to do with his remaining on-field ability.
The most dramatic thing that had happened in camp to that point had been an outbreak of illness that swept through the team’s facility at Camelback Ranch. Players and staff were sent home early one day when that happened and the entire facility was decontaminated.
The lack of excitement is why this particular day carried with it a whiff of anticipation: Kenley Jansen and Corey Seager were playing. It was just a “B” game, but neither Dodgers cornerstone had been playing in games. Seager was being protected because of the elbow soreness that plagued him last season. Jansen had turned up with a tight hamstring. Their maladies were the closest thing to drama.
Spring training “B” games are amazing, played on a back field surrounded by chain-link fences, and the dugouts are contraptions that you’d expect to find at a small high school. The rules are lax — Seager batted leadoff each inning to get in extra work. No one seems to keep score.
Seager had two fielding chances, both of which resulted in routine throws that he executed with no apparent difficulty. He also swatted a home run during his first at-bat, reminding everyone why we care so much about his elbow in the first place. He was fine and in his soft-spoken way, he fielded questions afterward.
“I wasn’t really worried about [the elbow],” Seager said. “I was just more worried about getting into some games and into the flow of things.”
Oh wait: Here’s some drama, if you look hard enough. That morning, Roberts was asked if he might give Seager some extra days off during the season.
“If there is a day after night game, or we’re running him out there too much,” Roberts said. “We’ll manage him week-to-week.”
Seager doesn’t want days off. Or won’t admit it, if he does. When asked whether he was on board with Roberts’ plan, Seager said, “No.” He paused as if to elaborate, not something he’s prone to do. Then he said, again, “No.”
That’s about as much conflict as there was in Dodgers camp, with the possible exception being the team’s clubhouse doubles pingpong tournament.
Meanwhile, back in the “B” game, after a few innings Jansen took a seat in the bullpen area. His wife watched the proceedings nearby while his young son entertained swooning fans by throwing a baseball, running to retrieve it, then throwing it again. Take note, scouts: He’s a righty.
When Jansen walked out to the mound for his outing, it was a far cry from his usual “California Love” entrance at Dodger Stadium. He rolled through three batters, throwing mostly sliders instead of his signature cutter, and then walked off the field and picked up his son, holding him while he did a TV interview.
In the clubhouse, Jansen walked over to his locker with several reporters standing nearby. But there were no questions. It was spring, he’s Kenley Jansen, he threw the ball like Kenley Jansen. Nothing happening at Camelback Ranch was going to fast-forward the Dodgers to October.
Two days later, Jansen was slated to make his official spring debut with an inning against the Royals. Roberts quipped to reporters that because Jansen’s workload had been so limited — by design and because of injury — he had enjoyed a longer offseason than any of them.
Jansen spent much of the pregame session with a pitching wedge, trying to knock golf balls into a wood-and-netting contraption called “The Chipper.” A couple of hours later, he walked out to the mound, hit 94 mph on the radar and tossed a perfect inning on 13 pitches.
“I feel great!” Jansen pronounced afterward.
That’s where the Dodgers are right now. The same core players are back. They’ve won the NL West five years in a row. Continuity like this can be a sign of stagnation, but that’s not the vibe you get from the Dodgers. It’s more like a sense of collective assurance.
At the same time, the story of the Dodgers’ 2018 season can’t be written until what seems like a sure-fire sixth straight trip to the postseason. Everything that happens from Camelback Ranch through the dog days of August will be mere prelude. The entire morning had been, for lack of a better term, boring.
When you’re as good as the Dodgers, you can afford to be boring because you know how much excitement lies ahead.
Nothing in sports lasts forever. Elite athletes don’t stay elite for long. Players get injured or age out of the game. Other teams rise up. There are no guarantees that L.A will get another opportunity in the Fall Classic with this group, even though the Dodgers are so well-positioned to get back there. Because the Cubs are, too, and so are the Nationals, and that’s just the prime contenders.
In a different era of Dodgers baseball, this winter might have played out differently. To come so close to winning it all when you have the resources — both in terms of cash and prospect depth — that the Dodgers have, you might be inclined to do something rash.
That is not how the team operates. Star power combined with elite depth characterizes these Dodgers. They spend richly but rationally, while keeping the minor league pipeline full. It’s the glitz of Los Angeles combined with the discipline of a small-market club, the latter a trait team president Andrew Friedman brought with him from his days in Tampa Bay.
“Part of our thought process was that we’re a pretty deep team as it is,” Zaidi said. “Let’s not force guys down the depth chart that we want to get opportunities for.”
So the Dodgers had a dull winter. Kemp was acquired in mid-December coming off a season in Atlanta in which he posted minus-1.3 WAR in 115 games while battling lower-body injuries. L.A.’s rationale for the trade was this: By taking on the final two years of Kemp’s contract and moving the 2018 money that would have gone to the quartet of players sent to the Braves, the Dodgers would be able to stay under the luxury tax threshold. That reset repeater penalties, which has un-glamorous benefits in things like tax payouts and amateur player acquisition.
The trade makes it easier for the Dodgers to be players in the next free-agent class. That may mean nothing more than re-signing Clayton Kershaw, who can opt out of his current deal after the season. Or it could mean a run at Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. It’s good to have flexibility.
But first there’s the 2018 season and that missing last step from last season. When you come so close and haven’t won for so long, can such a passive approach be justified?
“We didn’t really have any clear needs,” Zaidi said. “That was something we said in our first press conference after the season. For the most part we weren’t going out there to fill a particular position. Like every team, we’re going to look for chances to get better, but we didn’t have a shopping list, is the way I’d put it.”
If you don’t like that answer, you weren’t really paying attention to how the Dodgers got to the World Series last season. Unwanted veterans like Brandon Morrow and Chris Taylor didn’t stir any hearts when the Dodgers took interest. But both were key components of the historically strong regular season and the postseason run.
Morrow defected to the Cubs via free agency, but Taylor is now the everyday center fielder. No one around the team seems to marvel at that, even though it’s something no one would have predicted a year ago. Taylor, a man of few words, is so embedded at this point that his manager rarely even speaks to him.
“We have that kind of relationship,” Roberts joked. “We have a great relationship.”
Taylor’s ascension is more than the story of a player finding himself mid-career. It reflects a key trait about the way the Dodgers operate. It’s not just about financial resources. It’s not just about paying equal attention to the traditional areas of scouting and minor league development. It’s also about finding diamonds in the rough and having a coaching staff that helps second-chance veterans become better versions of themselves.
“Part of having depth is also creating opportunity,” Zaidi said. “We can talk about depth, but no player wants to view themselves as depth. Every player believes in his ability to be a big leaguer and believes he has a chance to impact the team, given that chance.
“We want our players to believe that opportunity is real. We want to be able to point to guys as examples of players who might have been generically referred to as depth at one point but wound up being a lot more than that.”
One of those players this year could be reliever J.T. Chargois, plucked off waivers during spring training from the Twins. A fireballing righty, Chargois’ professional career to this point has been one of injuries and disappointment — he missed two full years in the minors because of elbow problems. On Opening Day, with the Dodgers trailing the Giants 1-0, Chargois became the first reliever called upon by Roberts during the 2018 season, coming on for Kershaw. He mowed down three straight Giants, striking out Austin Jackson and Andrew McCutchen, and touched 96 mph on the gun.
“We sort of threw him in the fire,” Roberts said. “He executed pitches, so his stuff really plays. From what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of emotion, but he’s shown that he can channel it in the right way.”
It was just one game, but it’s not hard to envision Chargois becoming this year’s version of Morrow.
“Everyone is trying to become more efficient,” Chargois said, having clearly already adapted to the official team lexicon. “Whether it’s a teammate or a coach trying to help out, we’re always trying to get better. It’s one thing I love about this team — it’s a great learning environment.”
As for this year’s version of Taylor, how about Kemp? After he was acquired, it was widely assumed the Dodgers would either flip Kemp to another team or set him adrift. But Kemp relished returning to his old team, and just wanted a chance. And the team said it’d give him one.
“We were candid with Matt that we made the trade for financial reasons,” Zaidi said. “But he told us is that all he wanted was an opportunity. He loved being with the Dodgers before and he just wanted a chance to earn a spot on the team and earn playing time. So far both sides have kept up their side of the bargain. We’ve been open-minded about him and he’s been terrific on and off the field.”
Kemp showed up to camp in — you know the words — the best shape of his life. Except he really did, arriving in Arizona noticeably leaner. He moved better and put up good spring numbers. Lo and behold, Kemp started in left field on Opening Day, drawing a tremendous cheer from the home fans during introductions.
Like all the Dodgers, with the possible exception of Kershaw, Kemp is now just one of the guys, not the MVP-caliber star he was in his first L.A. stint. He’s older, wiser and perhaps a little more appreciative of what it means to don Dodger blue.
“I was excited when I got traded here in the offseason,” Kemp said. “It was crazy. I had to work hard in the offseason and work to show them exactly the type of player I’m capable of being. I’m just happy to be back. It’s really exciting.”
Part of last year’s story, too, was rookies. Bellinger clubbed 39 homers, finished fifth on the team in WAR and followed Seager as the Dodgers’ second straight NL Rookie of the Year. There might not be that kind of impact from a rookie this season, but if needed, it’s not hard to envision righty Walker Buehler or outfielder Alex Verdugo breaking through in a similar way.
It’s all part of L.A.’s no-stone-left-unturned approach, overseen behind closed doors and innumerable computer screens by an expansive front office staff. Yes, it’s a little boring. But it works.
You might have viewed the Dodgers’ season-opening festivities as an in-your-face reminder of how long it has been since their 1988 title. You can’t blame the team. We all love to celebrate round-numbered anniversaries, and that L.A. team was awfully memorable. Who hasn’t seen Kirk Gibson’s homer off Dennis Eckersley replayed a million times? We all remember Vin Scully’s unforgettable epilogue: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
Gibson was there to throw out the first pitch, one day after he autographed the seat where that famous home run landed. That seat is now covered in blue and beginning this year is called “The Kirk Gibson Seat.” The story of Gibson’s homer was told in a short documentary on the scoreboard, then he came out of the dugout carrying the same bat and took a couple of swings from the on-deck circle. Orel Hershiser, his Cy Young-winning teammate on that ’88 team, and Tommy Lasorda, his manager, took part in the ceremony.
The Dodgers lost their opener to the hated Giants 1-0, the franchise’s first 1-0 loss in an opener since 1930. Joe Panik curled a homer around the right-field foul pole off Kershaw for the game’s only run. No one was too worked up about it, of course. What is one game for a team that has achieved everything together? Well, almost everything.
Then it happened again in the second game — a 1-0 Giants win. Once again, a Panik homer accounted for the lone tally. This time it came off Jansen, whose velocity was down a few ticks. The second loss came on Kirk Gibson Bobblehead night.
If the Dodgers needed a wake-up call, they had it. Two games. Zero runs. Logan Forsythe, moved to the hot corner because of an injury to Justin Turner, was hitless in both games and committed three errors in the second one.
Just like that, if you’re a pessimistic Dodgers fan who thought the team should have been more aggressive over the winter, you see ominous portents everywhere. Jansen’s velocity. Turner’s busted hand. The viral outbreak at Camelback Ranch. The sewage flood at Dodger Stadium earlier in the week during an exhibition against the Angels. There is even the name of the Giants’ early-season hero: Panik.
Freaking out is obviously pointless. That’s doesn’t mean there isn’t a lesson here. The lesson is that no two baseball seasons are alike. If the Dodgers get back to the World Series, they’ll have carved out a different path than the one they took last season, even as they rely on so many of the same faces.
“Players will tell you that they are at their best when they are comfortable and they know their roles,” Zaidi said. “Speaking for myself, in my 14th year in baseball, I value continuity a lot more. Whenever we’re thinking about a transaction, I always ask myself, ‘Is the upside worth the potential disruption?’ It used to be just, ‘Does this make us better on paper?'”
Continuity isn’t a frequent topic in baseball analysis, and it’s hard to think of an objective way to measure its effect. That’s different from saying it doesn’t matter. Roberts had a friend come in during spring training to address the team about that very topic — continuity, connection — though he stopped short of calling it a motivational speech. Still, Roberts is a believer in continuity.
“[Continuity] builds up trust,” Roberts said. “You start to learn what guys can and can’t do. In spring training, I can trust that the players and coaches know what they have to do to get ready for a major league season. And in the day-to-day practices of the regular season, guys know the strengths and weaknesses of the other teams. The continuity that we’ve had here the last couple of years is really instrumental.”
Another thing that characterizes the Dodgers is the unique makeup of the clubhouse. From the irrepressible Yasiel Puig from Cuba, to so-everyman-he’s-kind-of-fascinating Midwesterner Rich Hill, the Dodgers have personalities of all types and from all corners of the globe. Eight different nations are represented in the L.A. clubhouse, the most in baseball.
That all-corners approach seems appropriate for an organization so thorough in its processes, though the Dodgers have long been one of baseball’s most diverse teams. It makes for an interesting mix of clubhouse personalities that despite their differing backgrounds seem to mesh just fine.
“It’s pretty seamless,” Roberts said. “It’s funny hearing what people think is normal and how they adjust. For me, to get an outside view of how these guys interact with one another, it’s a lot of fun.”
Looking around that clubhouse, you couldn’t help but notice how similar it looked after the game on Nov. 1, when the atmosphere was a little more somber. Chargois wasn’t there, nor was reliever Scott Alexander. Kemp watched the World Series on television, with what he has admitted was a bit of jealousy.
“That’s one of the advantages of being in a market like ours and having the resources we do,” Zaidi said. “When you have a team that succeeds on the field, it’s easier to keep that team together. In 2017 and with this team, that’s been a little bit of a theme.”
In other words, those Dodgers are pretty much these Dodgers. They didn’t trade for Giancarlo Stanton or re-sign Yu Darvish. Don’t mistake that for a concession. Simply put, the Dodgers are good enough to be boring. According to baseball-reference.com, last year’s Dodgers had 49.5 WAR as a team. Players accounting for 48.4 of that WAR are back. The stars are back but so is the depth. If you’re tired of seeing the Dodgers in the playoffs, 2018 likely won’t be your year, either.
“[Possible transactions] have got to clear the internal bar,” Zaidi said. “We like the guys we have. It’s good for the group of guys we have here to feel like [positional] competitions are being kept in-house as opposed to introducing different variables into the equation.”
That’s a very Dodgers way of putting it and, really, why would L.A. have shaken things up? This group has been knocking on the door together. It’s fitting they get another chance to stare down their annual quietus and, instead of succumbing to it, take that last step through to the other side.
For the Dodgers, the time is now. Thirty years is a long time to be living in the past.