09/26/08 2:58 AM ET
Dodgers returning to scene of October
Despite struggles, LA makes playoffs for third time in five years
By Ken Gurnick / MLB.com
Eight hours later, following a meaningless loss to the Padres, the party was on. Mitch Poole, the clubhouse manager that has cleaned up every Dodgers championship celebration since 1985, said he's never seen anything like it.
Frank and Jamie McCourt sprang for the good French stuff, 150 magnums of Moet & Chandon champagne, supported by 30 cases of Budweiser. Some players, seeking a greater soaking effect, emptied gallon jugs of milk on the nearest head.
"We ought to save a little," said one player. "There's a few more rounds to go."
This, however, was not a time for looking ahead. The jubilation quickly spilled out of the cramped clubhouse and onto the field, where manager Joe Torre addressed the crowd that wouldn't leave, then handed the microphone to the man who put the Dodgers over the top for their third postseason appearance in the five years of the McCourt Era.
"What's going on L.A.?" asked Manny Ramirez. "Thank you, all the L.A. fans for your support. Mannywood."
Wine connoisseur Nomar Garciaparra had a death grip on the neck of a bottle of Cristal, a gift from wife Mia Hamm for drinking, not spraying. Angel Berroa, who revived his career and became the starting shortstop, made the rounds wearing goggles and a snorkel.
While Ramirez tossed candy and gum into the crowd and teammates sprayed fans with beer and champagne, players turned the clubhouse into Animal House for more than an hour before team buses headed for the airport.
"We need a couple of days to dry out," Torre said.
The insanity continued even as the party wound down. This turned out to be the pre-arranged annual rookie dress-up travel day, and 11 rookies were given outrageous outfits to wear on the bus and plane en route to the final series of the regular season in San Francisco. Fittingly, the theme of the costumes was trashy women of the evening.
"You guys will fit right in in San Francisco," cracked one of the staff.
Quite a jovial turnaround from a year ago, when the Dodgers season imploded in turmoil that led to the departure of manager Grady Little after only two seasons; the hiring of Torre; the expensive signings of Andruw Jones to boost the offense and Hiroki Kuroda to bolster the pitching staff; and the vocal mandate from McCourt to "win now."
With the heat on, the Dodgers played a first half that looked a lot like 2007. Jones was a record-breaking flop. Injuries again shredded the roster, with key players like Rafael Furcal, Brad Penny, Garciaparra, Jones, Jeff Kent and Takashi Saito missing major portions of the season.
But general manager Ned Colletti, with all indications that his job was on the line, first closed the black hole at third base by acquiring Casey Blake, then trumped every trade the Dodgers have ever made by landing Ramirez.
Instantly, a stumbling offense became a consistent run machine and a dour clubhouse was transformed into Manny's Disco, with Ramirez and his meringue tunes bouncing off the walls and energizing even those teammates who hated the music.
Since he arrived, the Dodgers are 29-21, which included an eight-game losing streak that could have buried the club if it hadn't been immediately followed by an eight-game winning streak that has turned into a title run of 18 wins in 23 games. Even if his swing can't be copied, the Manny swagger and confidence has rubbed off onto the rest of a team that went from hoping it could win to believing it would.
"I think the reason this team feels so good right now is that we played like one of the best teams in baseball the past month," Russell Martin said, and the club's 16-6 record bears that out. "Everyone stepped up when it meant the most. We all realized how good we are right now."
While Ramirez was the final piece, as well as the biggest, of the puzzle, the Dodgers wouldn't have won if not for a pitching staff deep enough to survive the losses of its Opening Day starter (Penny) and closer (Saito). First Chad Billingsley came of age, then Derek Lowe reclaimed ace status with a remarkable run down the stretch. Kuroda performed pretty much as expected for a No. 3 starter while 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw stepped into the rotation to provide quite a contrast with 42-year-old Greg Maddux, acquired when Penny couldn't return from shoulder problems.
Saito's injury triggered a domino effect of promotions in the bullpen, with Jonathan Broxton becoming closer, Hong-Chih Kuo setting up, Chan Ho Park in a remarkable comeback season and rookie Corey Wade, who opened the year in Double-A, the unsung workhorse.
Offensively, outfielder Andre Ethier's all-around tools sent Juan Pierre to the bench and Matt Kemp took over center for Jones, occasionally rising to his immense potential, occasionally not. Catcher Russell Martin's numbers were down a bit from his Gold Glove/Silver Slugger 2007 season, but he still was the club's only All-Star. James Loney led the club in RBIs.
Blake DeWitt came out of nowhere to open the season starting at third base and close the season starting at second base and nobody could have predicted either. Berroa was taken off the scrap heap at midseason and revived his career as the new shortstop.
Now, Colletti teams have reached the postseason two of his three seasons and the franchise in three of the past five years for the first time since 1981-85.
Despite the late date in the season, the Dodgers still have three possible opponents for the division series that starts Wednesday. If the Milwaukee Brewers win the Wild Card, the Dodgers will play the Cubs. If Milwaukee doesn't win the Wild Card, the Dodgers will play the NL East champion, either the Mets or Phillies.
Regardless, the Dodgers will open on the road because, while they will finish in first place, they'll finish as the worst first-place team in the league. Even if they win their final four games, they will finish 87-75, assuring the lowest win total for a Dodgers first-place team since 1900, when 136 games was a full schedule.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.