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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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Dodger Thoughts Year in Review: January-June
2004-12-30 22:11
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

January 2004

January 12: Pawned

I can't believe what I'm reading.

With major league owners scheduled to vote this month on whether to approve the bid of would-be Dodger buyer Frank McCourt, a source said Sunday that McCourt asked Commissioner Bud Selig whether some owners might vote against him if he spent freely to acquire Guerrero yet presented a financing package heavily dependent on loans. Selig offered no assurances, the source said, and McCourt sent word to General Manager Dan Evans to cease talks with Guerrero.
- Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times

Is this for real?

The Dodgers are saving Brown's salary in 2004 and 2005. When the Brown savings stop at the end of 2005, that's when the Dodgers knock $30 million in Shawn Green and Darren Dreifort off the books.

And yet we're supposed to believe or accept that, amid a market correction for player salaries, Vladimir Guerrero's is the one that would drive McCourt out of business?

Did anyone actually think this through? It makes no sense.

If McCourt can't afford to sign Guerrero with the Dodger payroll already on the Atkins diet, he can't afford to buy the Dodgers. Period.

This should unequivocally mark the end of McCourt's ownership bid.

If baseball's owners approve McCourt's purchase of the team, it can only be because they want the Dodgers to be less competitive. They want a weaker team in the nation's second-largest market.

Just out of curiosity, if the Dodgers had not completed the Kevin Brown trade, would that have kept McCourt's bid from being approved? Because with Brown's salary on the books, how on earth would poor Mr. McCourt have afforded his lown payments?

Forget about comparisons to Angels owner Arte Moreno. Frank McCourt is not in the baseball business. He's not going to let a little thing like baseball get in the way of his owning a baseball team and the land it sits on.

Dodger fans are game for any challenge, but having phony challenges thrust upon them for no defensible reason is shameful.

News Corp. is unloading the Dodgers at the local pawn shop, and Bud Selig is all too happy to oblige. We're all being sold down the river.

January 26: Prove Us Wrong, Frank, Prove Us Wrong

The hostile reaction to McCourt over the past two months has debunked the myth that Dodger fans are stupid and apathetic. They haven't bought in to the myth that no owner can be worse than News Corp. And after years under that ownership, they will surely recognize when the future of the team is being trashed.

The good news, of course, is that because of McCourt's cash-poor situation, he may have no choice but to hang onto the prospects - or if he's going to approve a trade, make it a trade for a productive, long-term investment.

We can only hope. We can only hope.

When that door opens and you walk in, Frank, you get a clean slate. Everyone in Los Angeles is perfectly willing to eat their words, to apologize, to say that their fears about you were misguided.

Be smart. Be good. That's the whole ballgame.

January 29: His Team Now

Frank McCourt makes me feel powerless.

He could be the next great disaster for the Dodgers. Or, he could be a hidden treasure of, well, adequacy.

But how disturbing is it that after Thursday's press conference to discuss his purchase of the team, there is nothing that actually inspires confidence? Every potential positive statement made by or about McCourt had to be qualified.

Whatever the future holds, good or bad ... today, the Dodgers really seem to belong to someone else. Maybe this feeling will go away, but they don't feel like the city's team right now. They don't feel like our team.

Literally, they never were ours, but figuratively, they were. Not today.

Consider this: throughout the entire day, I didn't find a note of celebration that the News Corp. (majority) ownership of the Dodgers was over. Can you believe this? A few months ago, the city of Los Angeles would have held a bonfire of revelry at Fox's departure. Today, there's just uncertainty.

January 30: What If the Dodgers Win in 2004?

What should Frank McCourt, the Dodger organization, you or I be willing to sacrifice for a World Series title this season?

Should we be willing to go the Florida Marlins route of shocking titles sandwiching last-place finishes?

The elation that comes with winning a title is huge, and there isn't much that can erase the fondness of those memories.

But most of the time, we are forced to live in the present. And that means the memories only go so far.

The best-case scenario is that McCourt puts together a staff that engineers the moves that make the Dodgers a champion, and in so doing so galvanizes the city of Los Angeles that baseball revenue starts pouring into Chavez Ravine. Short-term success feeds long-term success.

If that happens, McCourt is a hero.

But if in going for broke, McCourt puts himself at risk of going broke, and plunders what's good about the organization to make ends meet, I fear that even a 2004 title might end up feeling sour as soon as 2005.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that not all World Series championships are created equally. Not all of them have the same long-term joy. I'm expressing a particularly greedy view that we should want the Dodgers to win a title, but not have to shoot ourselves in the foot to do so.

February 2004

February 3: Let Vin Make the Call

Over the years, we've probably heard Vin Scully talk about everything there is to talk about - except one thing.

The next Vin Scully.

In my mind, of course, there will be no replacing Vin. I'm well aware Vin has his detractors - people who tire of flubs he makes at the microphone, or who aren't drawn to his style. I accept that some feel that way.

For me, there has never been, nor will there every be, anyone who gives me more joy in listening to the broadcast of a sporting event than Vin.

Vin has been on my mind this weekend, ever since the announcement that all 162 Dodger games will be televised this season. Because there is no indication that Vinny's travel schedule will expand, this year we'll receive even more of our ongoing preview of life without Vinny.

I think we've all wondered about Vin's successor from time to time. I've been in the Al Michaels camp for years; I also still enjoy Jon Miller and Bob Costas. Not everyone in the Dodger audience would agree, but it doesn't really matter; none of those three seem likely to come.

Anyway, this weekend - for the first time, oddly - I started wondering whom Vin would recommend as his successor.

It's a question, because of his nature, that Vin would probably never answer on the record, but I still wonder.

I wonder if, among his unparalleled talents, if Vin has the ability to spot greatness in other broadcasters.

It seems like he would, wouldn't he? Think of Roger Angell, the consummate (albeit East Coast myopicized) baseball writer for The New Yorker. Fiction Editor at the magazine for years, Angell is certainly capable of spotting writing talent. But could he find the Next to be the most literary of baseball scribes?

I don't know (although I have a hunch about Ben McGrath over there). My gut tells me that one artist can pick out another artist. But I don't know. Is it possible that Vinny might not know exactly what makes him so great, or perhaps perceive greatness in another that isn't really there? That he would do as poorly picking a replacement for Dodger broadcasts as Magic Johnson coaching basketball?

Is it possible that one foggy day, way back when, Vin recommended Rick Monday? Seems like heresy to think it.

Certainly, I don't think any of Vin's remarkable poetry has been passed to Monday, tenured as a Dodger broadcaster without any spark of brilliance because he twice rescued flags, one American, one a 1981 National League pennant. Nor do I even think Vin has profoundly molded Ross Porter, likeable in his literal, earnest, Barney Fife kind of way, any more than Andy Taylor trained Barney to be his equal in Mayberry.

When the season finally comes that Vin doesn't ask us to "pull up a chair," I don't expect a new No. 1 from outside the organization. More likely, Porter would become the No. 1 announcer, Monday the No. 2, and the Dodgers would search for a new No. 3. Or, perhaps Porter and Monday would take over the TV coverage, and the Dodgers would hire a 3-4 duo for radio.

Here's what I think. Assuming Vin's fingerprints are not on Monday's hire, the Dodgers should let Vin choose his own successor. Have Vin listen to the tapes, have Vin meet the men or women applying for the job.

It's simple, really. Let Monet pass on his own brush.

Who knows, maybe Vin will spot some 22-year-old, fresh out of college, with crackling talent and an ethereal magic with words, who will bring true joy to Dodger fans for another 50 years.

February 6: More Memories I Need to Share

Three voices I can hear in my head, clear as day.

My late paternal grandfather, saying, "How are ya, champ?"

My late maternal grandfather, teaching us French by saying, "Parlez-vous francais? Chevrolet cou-pay?"

Vin Scully, doing a Farmer John commercial voiceover and saying, "Braunschweiger."

February 7: Only If He Hits Righties Does He Hit Lefties

Ever have one of those moments where one of your lifelong assumptions is turned on its ear?

That happened to me Friday, at least on a baseball level.

I'm writing this still somewhat in a state of disbelief, but I wanted to share with you the discussion that's going on.

The inspiration for the discussion is ex-Dodger Eric Karros, whom Oakland signed to be a part-time first baseman. Rob Neyer wrote about the deal on ESPN.com. The justification for the signing is that, although Karros' numbers against right-handed batters are poor, he hits lefties very well, and is ideal for a platoon.

The numbers are there.

Karros vs. LHP, 2001-2003: 207 AB, .904 OPS
Karros vs. RHP, 2001-2003: 991 AB, .672 OPS

So, here's the revolution.

The best way to look at how a right-handed major league batter will perform against left-handed pitchers ... is to make sure you give heavy emphasis to his stats against right-handed pitchers. ...

February 13: Sucker's Walk

... There are three threads spooling with the Dodger general manager position. There is the incumbent, Evans, who is not perfect, but who in less than three years on the job has removed much of the organizational dead weight and made the idea of long-term success possible.

There is his boss, McCourt, whose sincerity in telling us that Evans is a candidate to keep his job is dubious. (I guess McCourt would argue that he is no different than Democracy itself, which this year will tell George W. Bush whether he can keep his job.)

And there are the candidates. I honestly don't know that much about DePodesta. I've read Moneyball and I've read his speech and I've paid attention to the success of the Oakland A's and what other people say about him, but I'm not going to be the one to argue that I possess a wealth of knowledge about DePodesta. I know he has a bright mind and a sabermetric mind - which to be clear, doesn't prize one stat or another over all else, but factual knowledge over all else.

I don't know if DePodesta is the answer. But yes, based on the information I have, I'd rather that the clumsy McCourt take a chance on him than any other outside candidate.

If I'm wrong about DePodesta, I'll do the Sucker's Walk - with McCourt leading the way.

February 22: Jacksonmania Can Wait

At least they haven't given him a nickname yet, like Dr. K.

The repeated statements by Dodger manager Jim Tracy that the 20-year-old Edwin Jackson will be a point in the starting rotation pinwheel raise questions, despite Jackson's memorable debut victory over Randy Johnson and his 2.45 ERA (163 ERA+) in four rookie appearances last season.

Jackson had a 3.70 ERA in AA ball last season, a mark I'm fairly certain that even Andy Ashby could have achieved. Even with all the promise and hallowed intangibles in the world, Jackson doesn't necessarily deserve an offseason upgrade from coach to first class.

March 2004

March 19: Chances Are

The Detroit Tigers deserve every chance to win the 2004 World Series. And they will get every chance to win it.

That does not mean that someone like me, someone like you or someone with the media cannot comment on how unlikely it is that the Tigers will win. It does not mean that people can't evaluate whether or not the Tigers are making the decisions that will promote their chances of winning.

When I hear people respond to criticism of the Frank McCourt ownership of the Dodgers, either here or in the press, by saying, "Give McCourt a chance," my skin crawls.

McCourt has his chance. He has it - right now. And he's going to continue to have it for quite a while. It's not for anyone in the media to give or take away.

He is not a victim, of a smear campaign or anything else.

"Give McCourt a chance." It's as if the people saying it are John Lennon, the press is Richard Nixon and McCourt is peace. It's absurd.

McCourt has his chance right now.

The idea that the media can't criticize his performance, can't evaluate his decisions, just as if we were evaluating the ongoing efforts of any entitity to succeed, does not make sense.

Edwin Jackson will have a chance to win 25 games this year with an ERA of 1.01 for the Dodgers. Based on what I've seen, I don't think Edwin Jackson will do so. Does that mean I am not giving him a chance?

Readers are welcome to disagree with evaluations, here, in the Times or wherever. Recently, I have disagreed with sportswriters at the Times when they criticized Odalis Perez, when they criticized Dan Evans, when they criticized the hiring of Paul DePodesta. I felt their reasoning was flawed.

I did not conclude that those writers have an agenda against these people - that they want them to fail - because there is no evidence of such an agenda.

In fact, if there were to be any agenda at all, the much more likely scenario is merely that the Times columnists have opinions about what is in the best interests of the Dodgers. A winning team sells more newspapers than a losing team. A winning team is more fun to cover.

Now obviously, there is a difference between me and the Times. Not too many people in this town of millions pay attention to what I say. On the other hand, if the city's largest newspaper opines that something is bad for the Dodgers, it could have influence. It might not, but it might. If Ross Newhan had been pro-Dan Evans, Dan Evans might still have his job today.

That does not mean that Dan Evans did not have his chance to succeed. My criticism of the Times was that Dan Evans was succeeding - they just couldn't see it.

Just because someone disagrees with you, just because someone might not appear to use sensible logic, does not imply evil intentions. I'm not naive enough to think that no one out in the vast media landscape has a bias, but it's a serious accusation, and you had better have a lot of evidence to prove it.

Until you can prove a nefarious agenda exists, all bad logic is is bad logic.

Why do I bring this up today, after a very welcome week of steering clear of any reaction to comments and actions by Frank and Jamie McCourt?

Because I can't help but observe that $4 or $5 has already been quite enough to pay for the smallest bottle of water you can purchase at Dodger Stadium.

I read the news that Dodger ownership is planning to raise the price of concessions and parking, I evaluate it, and I conclude that this will not promote building a better Dodger franchise.

It will increase the McCourt revenue, but it will alienate a fan base that should be courted. Further, I don't believe that money will go toward improving the product on the field. Rather, I think it will go toward simply keeping McCourt afloat - which we shouldn't have to be worrying about.

Believe me, you are welcome to tell me why I'm wrong. And McCourt will have more than enough chances to prove me wrong.

But if people continue to respond to criticism of McCourt by saying that he's not being given a chance, my skin is gonna crawl right out the door.

March 23: Spit Take: James Loney, 2004 NL Rookie of the Year

Predictions aren't worth spit, and I like to get more out of life than a loogie.

But I just have this hunch ...

... that the Dodgers won't cobble together a major-league first baseman
... that Frank McCourt won't allow a trade for a productive slugger
... that James Loney is going to open up 2004 in Jacksonville on a tear
... that people will agonize over bringing him up at too young an age
... that Edwin Jackson's maturity will allow the Dodgers to turn to Loney in the absence of any other options
... that Loney will be called up in mid-June
... that Loney will be the second-best hitter on the Dodgers by the end of July
... that he will enter the NL Rookie of the Year race in the stretch run
... that he will shine for August and September, while Jackson tires from a long season
... and that James Loney will win the NL Rookie of the Year award by a nose over Kazuo Matsui.

We haven't been expecting Loney until 2005, or late 2004. The odds are against anything more than a cup of coffee in September.

March 25: The Tristram Shandy Nightmare

I was about a 3.5 student in my four years in college. That number would have been higher if not for 18th-Century Victorian Literature.

That class was to me what the 2004 season is about to be to the Dodgers.

You understand this intuitively, but we might as state it for the record. The Dodgers are living the nightmare: arriving woefully unprepared for their final exam, desperate for a burst of divine energy. Or at least an easy test.

I lived that nightmare once, just a few months after the Dodgers' last World Series title.

I declared English as my major early in my sophomore year, but by the end I switched to American Studies. I switched because although there were some classes in English that I completely adored, there were others that offered me no love. The trigger was a class on literary theory, taught by Shirley Brice Heath, that at the time held less interest to me than 10 weeks of traffic school.

American Studies was a flexible major that fit in basically any subject at the university as long as America was somewhere in the title. "Sport in American Life" was one of them, and in fact, I never took a class I didn't like in that major. But afraid of becoming too culturally ethnocentric, I would continue to venture outside the box for electives. Which led me, in my senior year, to 18th-Century Victorian Literature.

More than 15 years have passed, but my memories of the class are these: 1) one boring 800-page book after another like Tom Jones, of which I would read about 100 pages before giving up, 2) my least favorite book of all time, Tristram Shandy, which I did manage to finish because it was so mesmerizingly dreadful, and 3) resignation and defeat as I would do the Stanford Daily crossword puzzle in class while my well-intentioned professor lectured, on those days that I could force myself to attend.

To translate this into relevancy, my 18th-Century Victorian Literature classroom experience was as satisfying as the 2003-04 Dodger offseason.

Finals approached, and I had holes in my knowledge of 18th-Century Victorian Literature as gaping as the Dodgers' offensive holes at first base, second base, shortstop, and if Adrian Beltre doesn't heal on schedule, third base. I went over my meager notes and borrowed those of classmates, but little penetrated. My brain wanted Vladimir Guerrero, but all it got was Olmedo Saenz.

I sat down in a classroom on a March day not unlike today, and hoped for the best.

The exam had two parts. Part 1, worth 50 percent of the test, was a list of short excerpts from the texts we (were supposed to have) read, excerpts you had to indentify and contextualize. I only recognized half of them, and gave answers of dubious worth to the rest.

That meant I had about a 15 or 20 out of 50 going into the second half of the exam, the essay. If I scored perfectly on that section, I might reach a 70, or about a C-.

I saw the essay question, and I knew that wasn't going to happen.

At that time, Stanford did not give students Fs. Rather, if you didn't earn at least a C- in the class, you simply got no credit - no units. It was as if you didn't take the class at all. Many people, with grade-point averages and grad-school applications on their minds, actually preferred getting no credit than getting a C- or a C+ or whatever, and would drop a class during the final exam by not turning it in (or by turning in a piece of paper that said, "I drop this class.").

Much of my time writing my essay that day was spent deliberating whether I should turn in my test or not. I had about a B in the class going into the final, so even if I flunked the exam, I probably had a good-enough flunk - an F+, so to speak - to earn a C- for the quarter. Did I want that on my otherwise A-/B+ record?

The Dodgers don't have this choice. The Dodgers have a 2004 season ahead of them, and as much as some might like them to, they can't just drop the class. They're going to have to live with their failure to prepare, a failure born partly of nature and partly of nurture, and just hope for the best. Hope that the season isn't as hard as it looks, hope that it somehow caters to their strengths, hope that they aren't as unprepared as they seem, hope that they can suddenly grow smarter in the final moments.

And ultimately, learn from it all and do better next time.

I didn't drop 18th-Century Victorian Literature. I turned in my exam. Even in the doomed reality of the moment, I wanted the record to show that I took the class. I didn't go through all that tedium and low self-esteem to end up with no testimony of it. Better to finish poorly than not finish at all.

D on the final, C+ in the class.

Postscript: Three years later, I found myself in a graduate school program - in English. And I found myself taking literary theory. And I found on the syllabus a book written by a most vaguely familiar name. Shirley Brice Heath. I looked at her bio, and she had taught at Stanford. And then it clicked. Ah, we meet again, my enemy.

Actually, I don't want to give the wrong impression: She was a very nice person and certainly worlds smarter than me. But it was amusing, as her book was lionized in grad school class discussions, for me to chirp up and say, "Shirley Brice Heath was the reason I abandoned English as a major."

No regrets. You don't have to follow the conventional path to be happy. But your alternative had better be good. I do hope that Paul DePodesta finds the path away from the A's rewarding, and that he doesn't regret switching majors.

March 25: Bert Convy: Actor, Singer, Host, Baseball Man

If you've never heard of Bert Convy, first of all, you're too damn young. Second of all, you missed out an a unique personage in American entertainment history.

Allow me to quote from a a 1976 article appearing on this Bert Convy tribute website:

Just about everyone knows Bert Convy. Afternoons the ladies drool over his great, lean looks when he hosts Tattletales, and evenings their spouses envy his near physical perfection, his easy singing style and casual wit during frequent Tonight Show appearances. Recently, nightclubs have been added to his repertoire so the entire family can marvel at Bert's versatility.

From film roles in such pictures as The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (also featuring Bucky Dent!) to his own prime-time series, The Late Summer Early Fall Bert Convy Show, Convy was everything, I suppose, that Ryan Seacrest aspires to be - and more.

Only today did I learn about Bert Convy, Baseball Player ...

April 2004

April 12: 86 for 89

Adrian Beltre has looked marvelous, by reports from fans on this site and the media, and by my own observations watching Sunday's game on television.

He is taking outside pitches to center and right field instead of trying to pull the ball - and jumping all over pitches in his wheelhouse, the inside half of the plate.

He has walked only once all season. But amazingly, even for this young season, he has yet to strike out. ...

I'm not surprised that Beltre has gone to two strikes in 40 percent of his plate appearances (10 out of 25) - but it's pretty shocking that he's made contact in 100 percent of those situations. That's not the image of the Beltre we know, diving at and missing low-and-away pitches, Raul Mondesi-style.

Even more remarkably, out of 89 total pitches seen this season, Beltre has swung and missed at only three.

Last April, Beltre struck out 17 times.

So, yeah, one walk in 25 plate appearance concerns me. But this isn't any ordinary lack of plate discipline. If Beltre can be a power hitter who makes contact, who resists trying to pull a bad outside pitch, he may force pitchers to pitch much more carefully to him. And then, the walks - and in turn, the complete player we've all been waiting for - may yet arrive.

April 23: Black Tie Optional

As they begin their second homestand of the season, the Dodgers are like a guy in a tux who hasn't showered in three days. They're awful pretty until you get real close.

For the Dodgers to have a 10-5 record while outscoring their opponents for the season by one run, 70-69, is strange at a minimum. It's also something to be concerned about, though perhaps not as much as it appears.

April 29: It's Real, and It's Spectacular

He smashes pitches on the inside half of the plate like grapes in a vat.

He escorts pitches on the outside to right field like a gentleman - he might as well be laying his coat out over a puddle on the outside corner, protecting the dainty feet of a fair young maiden, the way he extends those tailing pitches such courtesy.

There is nowhere to pitch him now. His plate coverage is star-quality. It's dangerous.

So I'm declaring the wait over.

Spread the word.

A real ballplayer has arrived, and his name is Adrian Beltre.

And that talent isn't going anywhere.

No, the walks haven't come - only two so far this season. The cynical men on the mound aren't buying the news - it's April still, and many are seeing the graduated Beltre for the first time. Few of them are yet once-burned and even fewer twice-shy.

They're staying near the plate - and so Beltre swings. And he connects.

He can reach everything now and knows what to do with it. It's become instinct, like learning how to turn into a skid. It's become pure.

He's gone Gagne on us. So go gaga on him. His transformation is that profound.

As time passes, as the pitchers tinker, Beltre's production will fluctuate. The averages could go down - almost certainly will, even though he has not attained a 1.055 OPS this year from anything other than hitting everything really hard.

But I'm here to tell you, there's no fluke here. You can see it. Beltre is no longer chasing the game. He grabbed it with both hands, throttling it. Basic Training is over - no longer a scared, shaky private, he's officer material now. He used to be Swiss cheese at the plate - now he's Teflon.

And, by the way, only one error in the field so far.

I'm serious. Forget all that stuff about what motivates him, forget about first halves and second halves, forget about his appendectomy, forget about his age controversy. Forget the uncertainty. It's not the same guy anymore.

Visiting from out of town? Time you got clued in on what's happening in these parts.

Adrian Beltre is for real. He's a player. He's a Dodger, he's 25, and he's a star.

May 2004

May 7: Give Your Slightly Brittle Manager a Hug

He gives interviews like Defense Department briefings. He dresses his lineups with fashions from the '70s and '80s - the slap-hitting shortstop high, the young third baseman low. He can be too passive with removing his starting pitchers, too aggressive with removing his relievers. And he hasn't reached the playoffs ... yet.

But isn't it about time someone said something nice about Jim Tracy?

There isn't a Dodger fan who would say that Tracy has had championship-caliber talent since he became manager for the 2001 season. But in three years and a month, Tracy is 280-233 - a .546 winning percentage, which translates to 88 wins per 162 games.

It's easy to pick out his mistakes, but like an umpire, the good calls just fade into the background. On more occasions than I can count, he has gotten the right guy in the lineup and made the right move in a dicey situation. He gives players a chance to succeed, but doesn't give them forever. He has won games.

The Dodgers have never been out of the playoff hunt under Jim Tracy. Given the players he has had - a stud here and there, but no team of All-Stars - I wouldn't exactly call Tracy an underachiever.

This year, it's the same story. In some areas, there is talent - in others, it's just a ragtag bunch. The Dodgers may make the playoffs or they may not, and it's very possible that the final verdict on Tracy will depend on the result.

So for now, with the team leading the National League, with the team providing some excitement, let's throw some credit Jim Tracy's way. There are worse epitaphs than, "He must be doing something right."

May 13: Let's Go, Cora!

But I think about the events of that day again and again. And somehow I know that Winnie does too, whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs or the mindlessness of the TV generation, because we know that inside every one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there are people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love. There where moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder."

- The Wonder Years, pilot episode

To watch Alex Cora in the seventh inning Wednesday night was to witness the crescendo of a perfect game in a single at-bat - an ferocious privilege. I can touch my face and still feel the heat from the excitement that built up in me and around me. It was an at-bat of sufficient length to be shown as a half-hour special on ESPN Classic.

It left me with a wish, a wish that all fans from other parts of the country could have seen it.

About halfway into the streak of consecutive foul balls Cora hit, the Dodger Stadium crowd started to take notice. As he reached double digits, a roar started to come with each swing. The scoreboard operator, not at all imprisoned from spontaneity, threw a running tally of the foul balls onto the big screen. Around foul ball No. 11, the crowd was rising to its feet. A cheer of "Let's go, Cora!" sprung from somewhere and immediately swept the entire stadium.

Something epic was happening and everyone knew it. Everybody got it. Everybody got that they were witnessing something special, something spectacular, in a series of liners and ground balls to the right of first base.

Foul ball - roar. Foul ball - roar. Foul ball - ROAR.

Cora was going 15 rounds, the underdog in a fight with an Apollo Creed in the polished Matt Clement. And the Dodger fans were in ecstasy. They weren't playing with beach balls. They weren't leaving early. They were there. They were in the game.

And then, after 14 foul balls, on the 18th pitch of the at-bat, Alex Cora swung and drove a long, high fly to right field. Back went Sammy Sosa, back. At the wall. Gone!

The crowd went berserk. And they earned every bit of their insanity.

Folks, I grew up in the suburbs and I grew up a Dodger fan, and neither has a nationwide reputation for generating crackle or passion or heat. But it is not because we have nothing better to do or nothing else to care about that we go to games, 3 million strong each year.

To anyone who might be reading this from the outside, who has bought into the stereotype of the Dodger fan, who has mocked us, please try to understand. Just try.

Dodger fans are real.

June 2004

June 7: The Man Pays Attention

Vin Scully does more than tell good stories about World War II and point out kids in the stands, in case you hadn't noticed.

As Adrian Beltre came to the plate for the first time Sunday, Scully spotted on our behalf that Beltre was not wearing a left ankle guard and commented that Beltre's ailing ankle must be improving.

Sure enough, Beltre homered to left in that at-bat, homered to right-center in his final at-bat, and in between hit a blistering shot at third base that should have been an RBI double, but instead turned into a line-drive double play.

June 16: Unhold That Thought

It's Adaptation, Dodger-style. It's a view into the process. Dodger screenwriter Jim Tracy and his doppleganger, Jim Colborn, simultaenously supporting and counfounding themselves.

Usually, Dodger fans see only the end of the inner management conversation - a decision to hire someone, to fire someone, to start someone, to bench someone.

With the Untitled Hideo Nomo Project, we've entered the collective Dodger mind in messy, uncompleted thought.

Back and forth Tracy and Colborn go, writing over each other's dialogue, acutely aware that Nomo is not performing and unsure how to proceed. From the Times, the Daily News and MLB.com, you can piece together the different forces pulling at the Dodger manager and pitching coach.

Let me take the writers away from the script and try to act as therapist.

Tracy and Colborn say that you don't give up on a guy who has pitched so well over the past two seasons, figuring he will come around. Consider a middle ground, however. Consider, as we've said before, a move out of the starting rotation, so that Nomo can enter a game at less meaningful point and prove that he can piece together two solid innings, then three solid innings, then four solid innings, then five solid innings. However long it takes.

Tracy and Colborn say that they have few other options to replace Nomo with. Consider that you only need one option to succeed. Consider that Edwin Jackson can certainly produce an ERA lower than Nomo's 7.56. Consider that however concerned you are with the development and psyche of the 20-year-old Jackson, you were willing to test those by placing him in the starting rotation in March. Replacing the obviously ailing Nomo offers considerably less pressure.

A therapist doesn't dictate how a client should act. A therapist helps a client see more clearly so that the client can better choose how to act.

Provided they are not backed into a stubborn, defensive corner, Tracy and Colborn know what to do. The next act is already in their heads. They just need to let it out. Right now, we're watching the journey.

June 13: The Atrophy Trophy

Last week, I wrote that Eric Gagne had pitched only 4 1/3 non-blowout innings in the past 30 days.

It's now 37 days, and the number of meaningful innings remains the same.

There is surely no one more aware of this than Dodger manager Jim Tracy. What may explain Tracy's reluctance to push Gagne into games sooner are the outstanding efforts by Guillermo Mota, Duaner Sanchez and Wilson Alvarez. Sure, Gagne is better than these guys - but not ridiculously better.

However, Tracy should not confuse the 2004 versions of Darren Dreifort and Tom Martin with outstanding relievers. If Tracy is going to look for ways to get his best pitcher into more games, he might think about going to his best relievers sooner, bypassing Martin and Dreifort until absolutely necessary.

We're not just talking about games like the one Friday, where Tracy chose Martin over Gagne in a 1-1 tie - though it didn't take hindsight to realize that a rested Gagne, or at least the surprising Sanchez, belonged in that game. It's also the games where the team is down by two runs in the fifth inning. There's no law that the Dodgers must turn those games over to Dreifort. Not every day, but some days, they can go to the core of their relief staff sooner.

If it means that on some day, the Dodgers end up with Dreifort pitching in a crucial late-inning situation, so be it. At least the Dodgers won't be going days at a time without Gagne seeing meaningful action.

June 18: Rousing!

... And then, Eric Gagne. Imagine a seven-year-old spying Superman on a fly-by. That's how you have to hear Vinny's call on the final pitch of the game - a called strike three, of course.

"Oh, yes! Oh my gosh, what a pitch! That's amazing! That's not fair. After a 97-mile-per-hour fastball, you can't tell, but that pitch was in the 60s ... a rainbow curve."

June 20: Rashomon Project: 'Yankees Suck' Is a Figure of Speech

In 1769, the first European land expedition party through California came upon a river, which they christened "Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula." By 1781, a settlement was established there, which was named "El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula" or "The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion." The official name of the city founded there was shortened to "El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles" and came to be known by its shorthand version, "Los Angeles." (Source: Los Angeles Almanac)

By sheer happenstance, the second of the two words in this village's name started with a vowel, which made it ideal, 200 years later, for basketball fans in Boston, baseball fans in San Francisco, and others to initiate and perpetuate a cheer, "Beat L.A." Conversely, the second initial of the various sporting rivals of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles is not a vowel, rendering "Beat S.F." or "Beat N.Y." insufficiently melodious for effective use.

As a result, fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club have had to find other ways to confront their opponents. This past weekend, facing the New York Yankees for the first meaningful games in 23 years, some Dodger fans began chanting, "Yankees Suck," which spread fairly effectively through the stadium at an intermittent rate, though by no means a relentless one, at least on Saturday or Sunday.

What was so interesting at the ballpark Sunday, sitting in the stands, standing in the food lines, walking through the aisles, was how many Yankee fans one could hear responding to this cheer by citing evidence that the Yankees, in fact, do not suck. As if this were an epsiode of Law & Order, they objected, pointing out, for example, that the Yankees have the best record in baseball, that they have won more World Series titles than any other team and more league championships than any other team. The literalness with which they responded to this chant could only have been exceeded if they had also pointed out that no, in fact, the Yankees do not purse their lips and use their saliva in an inhaling fashion to enjoy a lollypop, nor do they perform oral sex on other men, that in short, they really do not suck.

There's no denying the obnoxiousness of the "Yankees Suck" cheer, any more than the obnoxiousness of the "Beat L.A." cheer. In general, I'm from the cheer-for-your-own-team school for a number of reasons - some vague feeling that it's impolite to jeer or boo, some vague fear that negativity toward the other team will incite its players to do better. But grudging respect is pretty clearly the subtext of these types of cheers, and I found it hard to believe, all annoyance aside, that the Yankee fans didn't enjoy the "Yankees Suck" cheer deep down - for the very opportunity it provided them to point out how great the Yankees are.

And so, for all of the electricity the night offered, it was also all very civilized. No roughhousing that I could see. Time after time, the "Yankees Suck" cheers would fade, the momentum of the game would shift, and a "Let's Go, Yankees" chant would rise up among the transplants. Not once did one group try to shout down the other. Yankee and Dodger fans, taking turns. Global politicians, take note.

Make no mistake: Fans of both teams really wanted to win this game. The shared history of the two teams, the fact that Sunday's attendance was another near-record crowd at Dodger Stadium, capping a record for a three-game series here (more than 165,000 fans), the fact that this was the rubber game of the series, was all part of the zeitgeist - the stakes were defined. Sunday meant one game in the standings for either team, but meant even more in terms of pride, in terms of self-esteem. With division rivals looming on the schedule for the week ahead, the loser of the game was destined to forget about it within a day, but the winner would be welcome to crow about it until October.

For the first few innings, I wondered what they were saying about the game, and in particular the Dodgers, on ESPN. Though the Dodgers perform on national television from time to time, there is an unavoidable reality that in baseball, the Yankees are Broadway, and the Dodgers hadn't performed on Broadway in 23 years. The Dodgers have an outstanding defense, for example, but no one outside the pueblo would ever notice until Cesar Izturis' Ozzie-like backhanded stop of a high hopper Friday night - against the Yankees. Dodger fans have been staying to the end of the game, to see Eric Gagne pitch, for about two years now, but as far as Newsday writer Jim Baumbach was concerned, when the Dodger fans remained in their seats until the very last pitch Friday, this was "unheard of in Los Angeles."

No - it was plenty heard of in Los Angeles, actually. But it was unheard of in New York. Anyway, it's heard of now. And - no surprise - it happened again Sunday.

After the start-of-game shadows gave pitchers Jose Contreras and Jose Lima a false sense of security, both pitchers were tagged with rough innings in the second and third, respectively, with Lima emerging ahead, 4-2. The Dodgers missed a chance to extend their margin in the bottom of the third inning when Milton Bradley inexplicably did not go from second to third on a groundout to second base by Shawn Green, leaving him one base short when Paul Lo Duca launched a one-out deep fly ball in the next at-bat.

As lively as the first three innings were, the middle three were tame. The biggest cheer from the crowd came during the KissCam segment in between innings, when the Cam focused on a man and a woman, and the woman turned - not to kiss the man to her right, but instead the woman to her left.

The game reignited in the seventh inning - and there was no relief from its intensity at that point until the game ended. The flames were kindled when, after Lima gave up a leadoff single to Jason Giambi, Dodger manager Jim Tracy forced us to go through the motions of Darren Dreifort and Tom Martin, rather than going straight to Guillermo Mota - even though you could sense that Mota would need to bail the team out anyway.

A key play in the inning came when ex-Dodger Gary Sheffield, target of half-hearted boos by some, hit a vicious sinking liner at Dodger left fielder Dave Roberts. Roberts had a chance to make a diving attempt, but in doing so would risk the ball skirting past him for what would probably have been a triple. Instead, Roberts played the ball for a single, holding Giambi at second. Though the tying runs were on base, there was some relief in knowing that Dreifort was past his biggest challenge. And indeed, Jorge Posada hit into a routine double play.

All Dreifort had to do was get past Hideki Matsui. But wait - I forgot - Matsui is left-handed, so of course Martin had to face him and give up an RBI triple that barely missed being a home run. Now, finally, Mota could come into the game and retire pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra on a fly ball.

Then, just minutes after Roberts played a ball conservatively in left field, he came to the plate and lined one to left field himself. Only this time, the left fielder, Matsui, charged the ball even though it was an automatic double. The ball sped under Matsui's glove, and Roberts, untethered, raced around the bases with time to spare before Matsui could retrieve the ball. The Dodgers led, 5-3, and the crowd danced on air.

(And see, if ever there was a time for the "Yankees Suck" cheer, this was it - as this was a sucky play by Matsui. But it didn't come. So you can see my point. It's not meant literally.)

In the top of the eighth, in an event obviously but altogether effectively staged since the stadium cameras were trained on it from the start, Dodger owner Frank McCourt gave Jack Nicholson an LA cap to replace the yellow-Laker-colored NY cap he was wearing. Nicholson promptly disposed of the cap like it was a stinky rag, and everyone laughed - yes, it's a ballgame here, a rivalry, not a war, and ain't that how it should be.

In the eighth, the crowd got nothing less than a memory it could keep forever. Eric Gagne vs. Alex Rodriguez. Hey, turns out you don't need to pay $5,000 for ringside seats to see a heavyweight prize fight - you can just go down to Dodger Stadium.

Inherting a runner at second base from Mota, Gagne got his first two strikes on Rodriguez with identical 89-mph breaking balls. He then struck out A-Rod on nothing less than a pure challenge pitch, a sandblasting 96-mph 2-2 fastball in the heart of the zone that I can still feel the wind from.

Gagne came right after Giambi leading off the top of the ninth and allowed a home run, cutting the lead to 5-4, and of course, even though the homer could be explained away as Gagne pitching to the score, not messing around with a batter who wasn't the tying run, it was completely realistic now that the record-setting save streak was about to end. Too bad the Tony Awards just passed, because what a story that would be for Broadway, huh?

If you want to measure the quality of a baseball game by how nervous you get that the team you are rooting for might lose, this was one high-quality baseball game. I don't know if it came across that way on its various broadcasts, but man, I cared deeply about what was going to happen next.

Sheffield grounded out, hard (is it ever anything less with Sheffield?) to Adrian Beltre. Posada flied out, medium-deep, to Roberts in left center. And up came Matsui, who had the big hits both Saturday and Sunday, yet now, because of his error, found himself in need of redemption. Classic Yankee Bernie Williams was on-deck to pinch-hit in case Matsui got aboard.

Matsui took the count to 3-2, then took a pitch that, from my angle on the second level between home and first, looked high and outside. It seemed that home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg took a moment to think about it - before he rang Matsui up. "Home-team call!" someone exclaimed bitterly. Like that has never, ever happened in the Bronx, I suppose.

Out we walked from our seats, "Yankees Suck" being shouted by a few people here and there. Out we drove from our parking spot, "Yankees Suck" being shouted by a guy smoking from behind the wheel of his pickup truck.

I'll clarify it for the record. The New York Yankees lost two of three games this weekend. They made some mistakes in this series - Classic Yankee Derek Jeter making more than one with his bunting and baserunning. But the New York Yankees most certainly do not suck.

As it turns out, however, neither do Los Dodgers del Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.

June 23: Role Reversal

4/25/03 Dodgers 8.5 games behind Giants
6/18/03 Dodgers 0.0 games behind Giants
7/08/03 Dodgers 8.5 games behind Giants

5/12/04 Giants 8.0 games behind Dodgers
6/22/04 Giants 0.5 games ahead of Dodgers

What happens next?

I still don't think the Giants have the pitching depth to sustain a division-winning record nor the organization depth to significantly improve.

But they are more than pesky.

June 25: Blah

Blah. Blah blah blah. Blah blah, blah blah, blah blah blah blah. Blah.

Bleah.

June 30: Reputations Don't Drive in Runs

After Dave Ross slid like a runaway boulder into second base and Cesar Izturis gazelled it to first to avoid an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the eighth inning Tuesday, Paul Lo Duca came up in a 1-1 game, runners at the corners, two out, Shawn Green on deck.

Lo Duca is a contact hitter batting well over .300. Green is a slumping hitter hoping to stay at .260. Does draw a walk occasionally, though that's about it in his post-surgery world.

Giants manager Felipe Alou decided he would rather have Felix Rodriguez face Lo Duca. Most of the group I was with at the game felt the opposite, me very much included. We came to the conclusion that the only reason the Giants pitched to Lo Duca was because of the past-its-expiration-date reputation Green has as a dangerous hitter.

The last thing you like to do is load the bases with an intentional walk and leave your pitcher with no margin for error. But when the guy on deck is hitting like Shaq at the free-throw line, isn't he the one you want to take your chances with? When you need just one out, don't you want to go with the guy most likely to produce that out.

Definitely seemed that way at the time, and Lo Duca's game-winning hit did nothing to change that.

Back at home, we can look at the stats and see that thanks to his walks, Green's on-base percentage is the same as Lo Duca's - and higher than Lo Duca's against right-handed pitchers. Given that a walk would have been as damaging as a hit with the bases loaded, it was more than fair that Alou went after Lo Duca.

Let's close with a hypothetical, however. Dave Roberts was apparently nursing an injury and unable to play Tuesday. Say the bases do get loaded for Green. Does Dodger manager Jim Tracy let Green bat, or does he pinch-hit Roberts, who has a higher on-base percentage, who can draw a walk as well as beat out an infield hit?

You can be fairly certain that Tracy would leave Green in to bat - even if he believed Roberts would have the better shot to win the game. Tracy would be hoping for the hit that would turn Green's season around, and beyond that, Tracy doesn't want to have to face the grand jury investigation that would arise from pinch-hitting for a $16 million-a-year player.

No. You don't go seismic in the middle of the game.

Nevertheless, the day is coming. Tracy sees the lemon in Green and is just waiting to squeeze the lemonade. You don't get the sense Tracy really thinks Green (who, incidentally, loafed it like Roman Meal on a foul fly ball to right field early in Tuesday's game) is coming around, but rather that Tracy is keeping Green at No. 3 to humor him, to placate him, however temporarily. And though Tracy may believe - perhaps rightfully - that without a productive Green, the Dodgers don't stand a chance, you sort of feel like Tracy is eager to try to see just how far the Jayson Werths and Jason Grabowskis can take him.

Just a couple more 0 for 4s like tonight, and those Dodger fans impatient for Green to drop in the order may finally get see it happen. It won't be a happy day - far from it. And it's not like anyone else besides Adrian Beltre is any kind of pyromaniac in the batter's box. But for too long now, as noted baseball critic Gertrude Stein would be happy to tell you, with Shawn Green, there's been no there there. And Jim Tracy can see the emptiness as well as you and me.

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