The (Nearly) Impossible Dream

So here they are, a team that has struggled throughout the season, making the playoffs on the strength of a remarkable second-half efforst and find themselves facing a New York Mets team that has cruised through the season with an outstanding lineup and is an odd-on favorite to trample them.

Sound familar? This could have been written in 1988, used word for word, about a Dodger team that somehow battled into the post-season only to meet the invincable Mets.

The Dodgers lost 91 games a year ago and finished fourth in the five-team division. They survived a surreal winter during which they fired manager Jim Tracy, who had guided them to the post-season just a year before. Then they fired their general manager, Paul DePodesta, who had been interviewing potential managers at the time.

Then owner Frank McCourt had the names removed from the jerseys, making it extremely difficult to identify the flood of new players that appeared at Vero Beach for spring training.

The Dodgers dipped into the long-time rival Giants front office to hire Ned Colletti as General Manager and he rebuilt the team by gathering in numbers of veteran players, and although as few of them were near the end of their career, they had experienced post-season play.

Free agent shortstop Rafael Furcal was signed at great expense, amid screams from 'experts' that he was not worth $13 million a year. But that signing sent the message to the Dodger nation that the club was, indeed, ready to make a committment to winning.

Colletti added former Red Sox manager Grady Little, as well as former Boston standouts Nomar Garciaparra and third baseman Bill Mueller to join the club. Garciaparra agreed to switch to first base to fill a gaping hole

Then 39-year old Kenny Lofton came on board along with 36-year-old Takashi Saito from Japan, a surprise in that he would replace the best stopper in Los Angeles history, Eric Gagne, and traded Milton Bradley had been traded for an outfielder Andre Ethier who became a prime rookie-of-the-year candidate.

Colletti would quickly do a make-over of the bullpen and replace three of the five starters. He called up Saito, Jonathan Broxton, Russell Martin, and Chad Billingsley from the minor leagues. He imported traded for Julio Lugo, Wilson Betemit, Mark Hendrickson, Toby Hall and Marlon Anderson.

Then just minutes before the trading deadline, he made the critical move, dealing Cesar Izturis to the Cubs for Greg Maddux.

Sounds much like the moves Bill Veeck would make with the St. Louis Browns to keep the customers coming in numbers that would allow him to meet the payroll.

But Colletti and Little threw this eclectic mass into the fire of a National League pennant race.

A recipe for disaster, if there ever was one.

The team stumbled up and down the standings, becoming respectible just before the All-Star break, then losing 13 of 14 games immediately after.

Through the long three weeks, Little kept the ship on an even keel, telling everyone that things would turn around.

And darned if they didn't.

But even Little couldn't have predicted that they would go on an even longer streak, winning this time 17 of 18.

The club finished in a breeze, winning nine of the final 10 to run their record to an incredible 40-19 since the 1-13 debacle at the start of the second half.

After struggling on the road all year, they swept the Rockies and Giants to finish in a dead tie for the National League West title.

Only five players were left on the roster among those who popped champagne corks after Steve Finley's grand slam against the Giants on Oct. 2, 2004 when they celebrated in the visitor's clubhouse after Saturday's game: Olmedo Saenz, Brad Penny, Giovanni Carrara, Elmer Dessens (who started the game Finley won) and Eric Gagne, disabled most of the season but who was traveling with the team.
The winning rosters:

  2004               2006 
Robin Ventura  1B  Jeff Kent 
Alex Cora      2B  Julio Lugo 
Adrian Beltre  3B  Wilson Betemit 
Cesar Izturis  SS  Rafael Furcal 
Jayson Werth   LF  Andre Ethier 
Steve Finley   CF  Kenny Lofton 
Shawn Green    RF  J.D. Drew 
Brent Mayne     C  Russell Martin 
Elmer Dessens   P  Greg Maddux
"I think you can consider it a success to a certain degree," Colletti said. "Is it ultimate success? Not yet. But can you measure progress? Can you see progress? There's not a question about that for me."

"I give the organization a lot of credit," pitcher Derek Lowe said. "They told us from day one they were going to get things right, even if they had to continue to make changes all year long, and they did."

"I don't think we've been this good all year," said Grady Little. "When we won 17 of 18, we weren't as good a team as we are now."

"Above any team I've been on," said Jeff Kent, "you can point your finger at everyone from the owner to the last player contributed, everybody did something, and that's cool. This is a good owner who's got some guts and cares, and doesn't allow for his personal vendettas to get involved."

Demonstrating that thought, fourty-year-old Greg Maddux flared a single in the clinching game. Pitcher Matt Cain, 21, paid no attention to him. Maddux quickly slid into second and Cain hasn't even delivered the ball yet. Later Maddux said, "Well, I wanted to get to second so I could score on a triple."

"Too much magic going on here," said James Loney, the rookie first baseman who hit another home run Sunday filling in for Nomar Garciaparra. "I think we have the right (ingredients) here."

"If you're going to clinch it," former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said through a wry smile, "you've got to clinch it against the San Francisco Giants."

"I don't envy them or dislike them," Giants Manager Felipe Alou said. "It's well-deserved. We have to accept the truth that they were better."

Tom Glavine: "Offensively, they don't hit for a lot of power, but they've got a lot of guys who hit for average. They've got a lot of guys who give tough at-bats and they do a lot of running. They certainly pose a problem that way. Their pitching staff - certainly the three guys we're potentially going to face as starting pitchers - are all pretty good and can throw a big game against you."

"There's something in their eyes," Owner Frank McCourt said. "That's a great sign. But I think there's a fire again and an energy again in the organization. The look in the players' eyes is in the organization again. You know, it's been a long time since this organization has been in that place. This is the way it should be all the time. Not that we're going to win all the time, because one team can't win all the time. That's not the way it goes. But we need to have an attitude where we're going to do what it takes to win."

And perhaps rookie Russell Martin summed it all up:

"You know what, Ned?" Martin said.
Colletti cocked his eyebrows.
"We're just getting started," Martin answered.
"I'm glad to hear you say it," Colletti said. "I've been telling people the same thing."

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