Coast to Coast: Dodgers at Cardinals

The Los Angeles Dodgers arrive in St. Louis, renewed and ready to make a run for the pennant.

The number 24 has been retired in Los Angeles for more than thirty years, to honor Walter Alston, the man who led the former Bums of Brooklyn to their first-ever World Series title. So when Manny Ramirez arrived at the trade deadline, representing the Dodgers' hopes of making a run at their first title since 1988, he had to pick another number.

He settled on 99. Within days, Dodgers fans had spent $125,000 on #99 jerseys, and they weren't old Gretzky sweaters. The hometown fans filled Chavez Ravine to capacity this past weekend – on time for the first pitch, even – and chanted his name all series, as Manny rang up eight quick hits in Dodger blue.

It is said that he is the first legitimate slugger to play for Los Angeles since Gary Sheffield was traded away – which I suppose places forlorn outfielder Andruw Jones decidedly in the "illegitimate slugger" category. Manny underscored the sentiment by booming two home runs and a double for the teeming faithful.

His batting line after three games as a Dodger: .615/.615/1.154, helping to power two wins over the division-leading Diamondbacks.

The excitement surrounding Manny provides a clarifying new emotion for both the Dodgers and their fans: hope. It's a feeling that they haven't had much of out there, in the strange chemistry of the Dodgers clubhouse.

It is not so much a single team divided, as it is two separate teams that have been thrown together.

There is the old bunch, long in the tooth and short on patience, led by the eternally dour Jeff Kent. He, along with Jones, Juan Pierre, Nomar Garciaparra, newly-acquired Casey Blake, Derek Lowe, and perennially rehabbing pitcher Jason Schmidt, represent a faded All-Star lineup from the late 90s, a motley collection of "win-now" veterans. Joe Torre and his college of hardball coaches – Don Mattingly, Larry Bowa, and Mariano Duncan – were brought in to cement that veteran clubhouse, and galvanize them into some sort of hull that, by virtue of their "knowing how to win," could cut through the often choppy waters of a tumultuous pennant chase.

However, none of these players was performing at even close to his prime. Jones in particular barely resembles a major league ballplayer, and there is morbid discussion at Dodger Thoughts about whether he might be having the worst season ever in the game's modern era.

Then there is the team of developing kids, harvested from the immensely productive Dodgers farm system. Precocious talent that typically thrives under patient stewardship and the bright sunlight of opportunity: Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, unofficial clubhouse leader Russell Martin, presumptive ace Chad Billingsley, curveball wizard Clayton Kershaw, and setup-man-turned-closer Jonathan Broxton.

The young kids provide a sense of optimism for Dodgers fans, but that is immediately trumped by the dread of expectation and the sound of the ticking clock that accompanies the old guys. And despite the fact that the team of youngsters had generally outperformed their older counterparts, optimism was being smothered by the team's inability to put forward any kind of winning streak, or keep their heads above the .500 mark in a historically bad division.

Dodgers GM Ned Colleti – the man who inherited many of the oldsters, who signed Andruw Jones to the worst Dodger contract since Kevin Brown, who lured Joe Torre away from both the Yankees and a comfortable retirement, and who simultaneously has tried to shepherd the team's young talent base – surely heard the clock ticking, perhaps counting the days left in his current position. So he borrowed from his crop of youth and participated in a three-way blockbuster that made headlines above and beyond the sports pages.

Into this hurricane steps a dreadlocked man whose very nonchalance creates an eye of calm. A man who makes the short list of greatest right-handed hitters ever to play the game. A man who, like the game's best closers, has the Zen-like ability to immediately forget any of his egregious fielding blunders or the outcome of his last at-bat, whether good or bad.

A man whose infectious attitude, along with the collected brio of David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez, transformed the 2004 Red Sox from a team burdened by the weight of its own history into a team that happily called itself "idiots."

This self-deprecating moniker was the key to their historic triumph. They needed to be able to stop thinking. They needed to be oblivious to the weight of history or the needy expectation of their fan base. And no man did that better than Manny.

So when he says he feels "like I took 5,000 pounds off my back in coming here," it means only one thing to the rest of his division: look out.

 

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