The six identities of the post-1988 Dodgers

My five-year-old son, Matty, claims to be a Dodgers fan and I have no reason to believe that he would lie to me. If he continues to root for the Dodgers and read about their history, he might lament that he missed out on a time when they were truly the epitome of stability in baseball.

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From 1950 to 1998, the team was owned by the O’Malleys. From 1954 to 1996, they had a grand total of two managers: Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda. They had superstars who seemed to exude a certain amount of class, showmanship and wore the Dodger blue with pride.

The wait between pennants was never long. Since arriving in Los Angeles in 1958, the Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1959, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1974, 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1988 (not to mention division titles in 1983 and 1985.)

Since 1996, when Lasorda retired? After having two managers in 42 years, they will go into spring training with their seventh manager in 14 years. Since the O’Malley’s sold the team? They have been changing identities faster than Darkman (how about THAT for an obscure reference?).

In the 22 years since the Dodgers last World Series appearance, they have had six different identities that promised brighter days.

Identity No. 1: Superstars come home! (Early 1990s)

Coming home was the theme, with Los Angeles natives Darryl Strawberry, Brett Butler and Eddie Murray joining the team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Another LA native, Eric Davis, joined the team in 1992.) This would be a family affair, with Lasorda leading the way, along with some holdovers from the 1988 team (like Orel Hershiser, Tim Belcher and Mike Scioscia) as well as the young stud Ramon Martinez.

It looked like it was going to work in 1991 when they won 93 games, had a six game lead in July and were in first place by themselves October 1 with four games to play. But the Giants took two of three on the last weekend, allowing the Braves to win the division. Then age, injuries and Strawberry’s demons caught up with the team as they became a 99-loss team the next year.

Identity No. 2: Building stars from within (mid-1990s)

The Dodgers needed to find some youth; some people grumbled that Lasorda had lost his touch. Then the Dodgers went on a mind-boggling run of developing star rookies. Eric Karros won Rookie of the Year in 1992, Mike Piazza in 1993, Raul Mondesi in 1994, Hideo Nomo in 1995, and Todd Hollandsworth in 1996. They were true star-quality players. Piazza became the glamorous face of the franchise, and—with his connection to the Lasorda family—he was a feel good success story. Karros, Mondesi and Hollandsworth looked like they would protect him in the lineup for years to come. Nomo opened up the leagues to Japan and the Dodgers became the team to root for in Asia—pre-Ichiro.

Combined with Ramon Martinez’s development and the rise of other young arms like Ismael Valdez and Pedro Astacio, it looked like Lasorda may have another great homegrown Dodger team to win pennant after pennant.

They did indeed win the 1995 NL West, but Lasorda’s heart gave out in 1996—ending a remarkable run as manager. The 1996 squad went to the post-season but were crushed by Atlanta. New manager Bill Russell had the most talented squad in the National League West for 1997, but they blew a mid-September lead to the Giants. By 1998, the O’Malleys sold the squad to Fox and Piazza was dealt away after a contract dispute. No O’Malleys, no Lasorda, no Piazza—these suddenly were the Dodgers in name only.

Identity No. 3: The sheriff and the village idiot (late 1990s and early 2000s)

After a disappointing 1998, Fox had no interest in the Dodgers as a rebuilding team. They wanted to win NOW! New GM Kevin Malone, who was his own biggest fan, proclaimed, “There’s a new sheriff in town,” and started spending like crazy.

So, in came Kevin Brown from San Diego for (at the time) the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher. Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort and Valdez would flank Brown in the rotation. Gary Sheffield arrived in the Piazza deal. Devon White, Mondesi, Karros, Todd Hundley and a young, potential star, Adrian Beltre, helped round out the lineup. Shawn Green was also given a huge contract. Most importantly of all, Davey Johnson came in to manage, and said, “the village idiot could manage this team to the playoffs.”

They should have hired the village idiot. It was a team that looked good in theory and looked good while being presented to the Fox folks. But the 1999 squad gave Johnson his first full losing season as a manager and by 2000 he was fired. By 2001, after a screaming match with a Padres fan, Malone resigned.

In 2002 their highway rivals, the Angels—managed by former Dodger star Mike Scioscia—beat their hated rival Giants, managed by former Dodgers’ star Dusty Baker, in the World Series. The Dodgers, despite 92 wins, were a non-factor in L.A. The Dodgers, just five years after Lasorda’s heart attack, looked like a franchise adrift.

Identity No. 4: Enter the McCourts (Early to mid-2000s)

The McCourts bought the team prior to the 2004 season and brought in Paul DePodesta to assemble a team and purge the stench of Fox. The Dodgers at this time were a strange collection of good, but not great, players. Beltre had an MVP-type season (which he translated into a monster contract from… Seattle). Players like Shawn Green, Paul LoDuca, Cesar Izturis and Jayson Werth (yes that one) along with such pitchers as Jeff Weaver and Kaz Ishii made up their nice, but hardly star-studded, roster.

In fact, it was the only team I can remember that was truly defined by its closer. Eric Gagne was the most visible and popular player on the team, especially coming off his Cy Young season in 2003.

The 2004 squad had wonderful highlights— of Steve Finley launching a walk off grand slam to clinch the Division on the last weekend of the season and Jose Lima throwing a complete game shut out in the playoffs against St. Louis. There was little time, however, for Dodger fans to get attached to this squad. By the end of the next year, manager Jim Tracy was gone and the team looked almost totally different.

Identity No. 5: The Grady bunch (2006-2007)

If you looked casually at the Dodgers in the mid 2000s, you would have seen they made the playoffs in 2004 and 2006. Without doing any more research, it would be safe to assume that basically the same group of people played in those two playoff series over three years. You couldn’t be more wrong. The GM was different. Paul DePodesta out. Ned Colletti in. The manager was different. Jim Tracy out. Grady Little in.

The entire 25-man roster for the post season was different. Read that sentence again. Not one player from the 2004 Dodger playoff roster played in the 2006 playoffs for the Dodgers. THAT is some serious turnover. Homegrown players like Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, James Loney and Jonathan Broxton had all arrived. So did a healthy influx of new veterans like Nomar Garciaparra, Brad Penny, Greg Maddux, J. D. Drew and Mister Happy himself, Jeff Kent.

This group made the playoffs in 2006 and was part of the WIDE OPEN NL West in 2007. (In the end, only two games in the loss column separated the third-place Padres from having home field advantage throughout the playoffs.)

The Dodgers looked like contenders, until the clubhouse—filled with the veterans and kids—became intolerable and Grady Little could not control the mini-Civil War erupting in Chavez Ravine. Little showed the baseball world that the Red Sox didn’t fire him just because he left Pedro in too long. So, Little was out and the Dodgers looked like they’d found their best makeover yet.

Identity No. 6: Father Joe and Mannywood (2008-2010)

Joe Torre was coming to town. In one move it looked like the Dodgers were making the big turn to winning a pennant. Torre brought instant credibility and respect. There would be no fractured clubhouse with Father Joe there. (This of course ignored the fact that the Yankees DID have a fractured clubhouse by the time Torre didn’t come back.) The Dodgers had respectability but they also were trailing the Diamondbacks. And while they had good players, they lacked star power. Then Manny arrived.

Having Manny Ramirez on your team can best be described as a weekend in Las Vegas. When it starts, it is the single greatest feeling in the world. You can’t believe how much fun you are having. Then there are a few problems but you think “Hey. OK… that’s part of the game.” Eventually, however, you begin to think, “Oh dear Jesus… this has to end now or else something truly awful could happen. WHAT WERE WE THINKING?” When it’s over you exhale and say, “Thank GOD.” But you look back later and admit to your friends: “It was fun, wasn’t it?”

That’s Manny. That was him in Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles. In 2008 it was all smiles, homers and dreadlock wigs… and the Dodgers made it to the NLCS for the first time since 1988. Torre had turned the Dodgers around. A pennant was inevitable at some point in the near future.

In 2009 their aim was high, but there were problems afoot. They needed an ace. The pitching staff was nice, but with CC Sabathia, Johan Santana and Cliff Lee (among others) changing teams, the Dodgers sat back and didn’t go for that big arm in the rotation. In the meantime, Mannywood’s fun dimmed with the steroid suspension and with him not exactly running out every ground ball. Once again they made it to the NLCS, but they lost to the Phillies—denying Fox an anticipated “Torre vs. the Yankees” World Series.

The McCourts’ brutal divorce proceedings kept the Dodgers from making that big trade for an ace—and without it there was little hope for a pennant. Manny’s time in LA ended with a whimper as he was waived to Chicago, and Torre retired, handing the keys to an unsuspecting Don Mattingly. Meanwhile, some of the bright young players—like Loney and Kemp—seem to be on the block. The 2011 Dodgers look to be far behind the World Champion Giants, and even the Rockies.

So what will be the next incarnation for the Dodgers? Will Mattingly have a winner on the field? Or will there be some person we haven’t even heard of yet who will be the great homegrown Dodger hero.

The Dodgers need an Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter or even a Ryan Howard or Tim Lincecum. A star player to be the face of the franchise… who understands what the fans expect and delivers on the ultimate stage. Maybe then they can have the centerpiece of an identity that will work.

Work on it, Dodgers. I have a son who is rooting for you.

References & Resources
Baseball Reference, Baseball Digest, Sports Illustrated

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Comments

  1. Steven Booth said...

    Nice, entertaining read. I really liked the Manny-Las Vegas connection. They haven’t done anything amazing this offseason (left fielder anyone?), but they did solidify the starting pitching, and it is a wide-open division this year, so who knows? Good job.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    Terrific stuff, Paul.

    As a lifelong Giants fan, the difference between the arch-nemesis Dodgers of my youth—the rock-solid, organizationally flawless, perpetually competitive O’Malley Dodgers—and the chaotic, rudderless, not-always-good-but-always-surprising franchise they’ve been for the past couple of decades is remarkable.

    At the time I never thought I would say it, but at this point I really do miss the old Dodgers:  I assure you they were fearsome, but they were absolutely an arch-rival demanding respect, and when the Giants (all too rarely, of course) beat them, one gained a true sense of accomplishment.  Nowdays we just sort of hang around and wait for the Dodgers to beat themselves.

  3. David Young said...

    “The Dodgers need an Albert Pujols or Derek Jeter or even a Ryan Howard or Tim Lincecum. “

    Clayton Kershaw stands on the threshold.

  4. Daniel Anderson said...

    Excellent article!  As a diehard Dodger fan, I am still getting over how the McCourts quit on the fans last August 31 when they simply released Manny Ramirez and didn’t even get a peanut vendor in return.  They just gave up with more than a month left in the season!  What a betrayal to the fan base that supports the Dodgers year after year after year with one of the two or three best attendance records in the game.  As far as I am concerned the McCourts can’t sell the team fast enough because they have lost all credibility.

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