Hollywood Swingin': Cardinals at Dodgers

Behind catcher Russell Martin, the youthful Los Angeles Dodgers are bouncing between karmic highs and lows as they prepare to entertain the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend.

In 1988, October of twenty years ago, real life trumped Hollywood. Since that day, baseball in La-La Land has never been quite right.

In '84 we saw Roy Hobbs run the greatest home run trot ever shown on the silver screen, complete with haunting score and iconic light show. It was perfect Hollywood magic, down to every last detail.

Four years later, though, a hobbled Dodger team scrapped its way out of LA to the World Series and faced off on the small screen against the fearsome Dennis Eckersley, down one run and two outs. These men had no access to Hollywood trailers or makeup artists, no stand-ins, and no second, third, or fourth takes. They were dirty, hurting, mustachioed, real. And as a pinch-hit game-winner disappeared over the fence, the small stage of real life suddenly became twice as large as the big screen.

If Bobby Thomson's home run to beat the Dodgers in '51 was the single greatest hit of the Ralph Kramden generation, Kirk Gibson's Game One winner should be recognized not only the epochal moment of ours, but also as the full extension of the Dodgers' karmic pendulum. Even as the Dodgers went on to win that series in '88 over Tony La Russa's heavily favored Athletics team, its momentum as a franchise was turning around, swinging backward.

Since that series ended, nothing has gone the way it should for the boys in blue.

Out of 14 winning seasons in the past nineteen years, the Dodgers made only four playoff trips, and have won only a single game in those four series. Despite turning over a new generation of stars with an unprecedented five consecutive winners of the Rookie of the Year award, despite a sure-fire hall-of-fame manager in the bunker to rally the troops, no dynasty could be made.

Ten years down fortune's slippery slope, the team's deed changed hands from the venerable to the venal, as the O'Malleys were introduced to Rupert Murdoch, nouveau riche media tycoon. In that same year, the team's leader and most powerful of its ROYs, Mike Piazza, was traded away after brief and unsatisfying contract negotiations.

LA Times columnist Bill Shaikin was reminded of this moment upon Piazza's retirement this week, and said of this watershed event: "The Dodger Way was no more. It is a decade later, and the Dodgers have yet to recover the tradition, the loyalty and the championships." (Link via Dodger Thoughts.)

A year earlier, manager Tommy Lasorda, literal godfather to Piazza and figurative godfather to a generation of Dodgers and their fans, had made his peace with the game and was enshrined into the Hall. With each departure – Lasorda, O'Malley, and Piazza – a piece of Dodger fandom died. Attendance took a brief dip from its always lofty rank as the mourners pent themselves in, but the turnstiles were soon humming their usual tune again.

In the intervening decade, the franchise has changed hands once again, and experimented with managers and general managers alike, finding favor with very few. The current leadership tandem is made up of a veteran-friendly manager who carries supreme star power, and a general manager who is expected to chaperone the next wave of youthful superstars.

And while things still aren't going as might be expected, these Dodgers are showing that sometimes that's okay.

Rookie catchers aren't supposed to take over their clubhouses immediately after landing in the big leagues, nor are they supposed to steal 21 bases in a season. Russell Martin has done both.

Teams aren't supposed to play better after losing their highest-paid player, but the Dodgers have won three in a row after a knee injury to the severely slumping Andruw Jones was disclosed. The loss of the team's biggest free agent acquisition has settled an uncomfortable four-man logjam in the outfield between the veteran duo of Jones and Juan Pierre and the emerging tandem of Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp.

In fact, Jones joins Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Schmidt, and Rafael Furcal on the well-paid-to-not-play list. Of the foursome, only Furcal has been missed, and coincidentally it appears he will be the first one back. Garciaparra's services at first base have been fully replaced by sweet-swinging lefty James Loney, and his brief turn at third base is now being taken by a surprisingly effective Blake DeWitt. And while no full-time replacement for Schmidt has been found, hard-throwing Hong Chi Kuo has been lights-out in long relief and looks more than ready for a debut as a starter.

However, all the troubles to be expected of a roster in the throes of change have come to be. This is a streaky Dodger team, which has winning streaks of three (current) and eight games, and losing streaks of four and five already on the young season. Perhaps they don't know yet who they are, or which way the pendulum is swinging.

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