The 2009 Dodgers were the best Dodgers team of my adult life. We lost Manny Ramirez to a suspension, and it turned out we didn’t even need him. Kemp & Ethier could swing the bat just as well…and could actually play defense. Casey Blake & James Loney were also credible bats, and Rafael Furcal was still a speed demon. Billingsley was still good, Kershaw was blossoming, and most importantly, we had an ACTUAL BULLPEN.
…but the Phillies had Jimmy Rollins, who blew everything for the Dodgers with a game-winning hit off of “unhittable” closer Jonathan Broxton.
Now Jimmy Rollins plays for the Dodgers and could face Broxton (currently a St. Louis Cardinal) in this year’s NLCS. The question is: will Rollins deliver, as he always does, or will the Dodgers choke, as they always do?
To answer that, we need to examine all that has happened between 2009 and now. Dodgers fans have watched prospects disappear in favor of overpaid “veterans” and young Cuban divas. They have watched players like Russell Martin, James Loney, and Matt Kemp, all of whom were seen as “washed-up,” experience a resurgence once they sported the uniforms of other teams.
Worst of all, Dodgers fans have watched their rival San Francisco Giants earn 3 World Series rings in 5 years. All 3 championships were well-deserved and made for great baseball, but in the world of sports rivalries, the only thing worse than seeing your team lose is seeing your team’s arch-rival pop champagne.
As a Dodgers fan, and a Dodgers fan who lived in Northern California for 7 years, at that, let me attempt to explain what it is like to see the Giants win, even-numbered year after even-numbered year, while your team is largely seen as a joke.
2010: Turning the Page
After the Dodgers’ heart-breaking back-to-back losses to the Phillies in ’08 & ’09, the team declared bankruptcy. The Dodgers had always made headlines by signing big-name free agents in the off-season (Jason Schmidt, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez), but all of these signings hurt the team significantly, and now, in 2010, we were scraping together pennies just to sign a utility infielder…and to pay off the owners’ divorce.
Meanwhile, the Phillies traded their ace lefty, Cliff Lee, for Roy Halladay, the man who was called “best pitcher in baseball” at the time. At the trade deadline, they landed another elite pitcher, Roy Oswalt. Plus, even will all these moves, they still retained their former World Series MVP, Cole Hamels, and the trio of elite pitchers was nicknamed “H20” (Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt).
The 2010 Phillies were seen as the favorite to go all the way. The Dodgers were washed up, and the San Diego Padres spent nearly the entire season in first place. Nobody was talking about the San Francisco Giants. Even most Giants fans didn’t think this was their year, but they were wrong. We all were.
Before 2010, the Giants were a team tainted by the steroid use of their most famous player and universally mocked for recklessly handing Barry Zito a 7-year/$130 million contract. Promising young pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez made the team fun to watch, but without a solid leadoff hitter or a big bat, they couldn’t get the job done.
The Giants didn’t splurge on expensive free agents in the 2009 or 2010 off-season. Instead of giving up top-shelf pitching talent for a solid lead-off hitter like Carl Crawford (who now plays for the Dodgers and is a disaster), they trusted Andres Torres to do the job, and he did it well. The line-up had power, too, what with the likes of rookie catcher Buster Posey and veteran infielder Juan Uribe.
Later in the season, with the Padres enjoying a comfortable first-place lead, the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles began searching for a contending team on whom they could dump their designated hitters. The Giants snagged Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell to start games in first base & left field, respectively. Next, the Florida Marlins placed outfielder Cody Ross on waivers, giving the Giants a total of five hitters capable of delivering clutch home runs.
Oh, and there was another rookie that year…Madison something. Nobody was talking about him yet, but eventually, he and Posey would become the face of the franchise.
Long before the Giants catapulted into first place on the last day of the 2010 season and stunned the Phillies in the NLCS, Dodgers fans were already writing off 2010 as an extremely disappointing year for their team. Manny Ramirez spent most of the season injured and was traded to the White Sox as soon as he became healthy again. The farm system was being gutted to meet the team’s most immediate needs, but the returns were never good. And of course, the team was still bankrupt with no solution in sight.
For me, a life-long Dodgers fan living in Northern California, married to another life-long Dodgers fan living in Northern California, 2010 was only going to get harder.
That year, I took my wife to a Dodgers-Giants game at AT&T park. We were decked out in blue Dodgers raincoats as we sipped hot chocolate and attempted to tough out the San Francisco frigidity…and another chilling Dodgers loss. My in-laws were there, too, also wearing Dodger gear, and as we walked back to the parking lot, we kept getting yelled at and booed by drunken idiots.
My mother-in-law walked with a cane and didn’t do stairs, but as we attempted to take the elevator, a blockade of inebriated Giants fans appeared and declared, “No Dodgers fans shall pass!”
We thought they were joking, but they kept yelling at us, kept telling a disabled person that she couldn’t take the elevator (which was there for the sole purpose of accommodating persons with disabilities) because she was a Dodgers fan.
This is the reason why I find sports rivalries idiotic.
Back in Sacramento, most of my friends were Giants fans, and while I didn’t feel personally victimized for liking a rival team, I did feel left out. Everyone was so excited to see their beloved Giants’ unexpected reversal of fate. They had all stomached the Battle of the Bay, the even more disappointing 2002 World Series, a potential move to Tampa Bay, and repeated steroid allegations against their star player. Now, the days of #torture were coming to a close. It wasn’t quite like being a Red Sox fan in 2004, but the excitement was still hard to ignore, even if you were on the wrong side of it.
I couldn’t hate the Giants. I respected the individual players too much to hate the team. Cain & Lincecum were two of my favorite pitchers to watch, and Posey, a power-hitting catcher, was like a young, better-looking Mike Piazza (except Posey could actually play defense). Bochy was a far better manager than Joe Torre or Charlie Manuel, because he knew how to work with the pieces he had. The Phillies had better players, but Bochy knew when to pull his best hitters and replace them with better defenders in order to preserve the lead. Bochy used his bullpen masterfully while the Phillies’ upper management was placing all of their trust in three starting pitchers.
Publicly, I rooted against the Giants for the entire postseason, but every time I won, I thought to myself, “This win is good for baseball.” And when I saw my orange-and-black-clad friends celebrating in the streets and on social media, I quietly celebrated with them.
2012: Stop Believing
For Dodgers fans, 2012 was a far more disappointing year than 2010, because in 2012, we actually thought we were going to win. The year before, Matt Kemp had fallen just one homer shy of the 40-40 club and a few votes short of the league MVP, and this year, he was promising his fans 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases.
More importantly, Frank McCourt had negotiated a TV deal with Time Warner and was able to sell the team for over $2 billion. Payroll was now endless, and the team immediately began upgrading their lineup, acquiring players like Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, and Adrian Gonzalez. Former World Series champions Josh Beckett and Joe Blanton joined the starting rotation, and the Dodgers claimed Cliff Lee on waivers, although they were ultimately unable to work out a trade. The Dodgers also took on the remaining 5+ years of Carl Crawford’s nine-figure contract, even knowing that he was recovering from Tommy John surgery and would spend that entire season on the disabled list.
Even the Yankees didn’t spend money this recklessly.
The problem, though, was not that the Dodgers spent money recklessly; it was that the Dodgers spent money recklessly and lost. The league even added a 2nd Wild Card team that year, and the Dodgers still couldn’t make the playoffs. They once again watched their arch-nemeses in San Francisco win it all, and win it in the most satisfying of all ways.
For the Giants, 2012 was the year of the comeback. First, they knocked the Dodgers out of postseason contention. Then they came back from an 0-2 deficit against the Cincinatti Reds and a 1-3 deficit against the Cardinals, both of whom had better records than the Giants in the regular season.
…and they pulled it off largely thanks to Barry Zito, whose contract, up to that point, was seen as one of the worst in baseball.
Zito’s comeback in the NLCS was the classic redemption story every player dreams of. Without him, the Giants would likely have lost the pennant, and their 2010 Cinderella story would have been called a fluke. In the six years leading up to the 2012 World Series, Zito had made over $100 million to pitch ineffectively while Cain, Lincecum, Sanchez, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong all posted much more impressive records for a fraction of the price.
But with a second World Series ring to show for it, most Giants fans stay positive and maintain that Zito’s lengthy contract was worth it.
As a Dodgers fan watching Zito dominate a stunned Cardinals lineup, all I could think was, “Why couldn’t that have been Darren Dreifort on that pitcher’s mound? Why couldn’t that have been Jason Schmidt? Why do the Giants’ so-called ‘disappointing players’ always come through when it matters, while our so-called juggernauts always buckle at the knees when the pressure gets too intense?”
The Dodgers took on over $200 million in new payroll obligations in 2012, and they didn’t even win a division title. That same year, the Giants’ most expensive free agent signing cost them $1.25 million, and they won everything.
So of course, the Dodgers’ takeaway from this was, “Let’s spend even more money and build a team with even less chemistry!” They signed top free agent Zack Greinke and South Korean righty Hyun-Jin Ryu…and they offered a lengthy extension to their left-handed platoon batter, Andre Ethier, for reasons still unknown. The result was an injury-plagued roster, a crowded outfield, and a trio of pitchers trying to compensate for a weak bullpen and inconsistent 4th & 5th rotation starters.
In 2013, the Dodgers made the postseason, and the Giants did not…but with all the money the Dodgers spent just to get spanked by the Cardinals (the same team the Giants had beaten the year before), Giants fans still had every reason to gloat.
2014: Bumgarner > Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw was the league MVP in 2014. In 236 innings pitched, he struck out 232 batters, allowed an average of 0.915 Walks/Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP), and gave up an average of 1.83 earned runs per nine innings (ERA). Sports analysts were beginning to suggest that Kershaw was better than Sandy Koufax, a statement most Dodgers fans would have considered blasphemous in years past but were now perfectly willing to accept. Jay-Z said it best: “Men lie, women lie; numbers don’t.”
But postseason numbers don’t lie, either, and unfortunately, most of the Giants’ pitchers post better records than Kershaw in the postseason, particularly pitchers whose names start with “M” and end with “adison Bumgarner.”
Picture this: you have two pitchers. One is unbeatable in the regular season but wears out his arm when it comes time to chase the pennant and fails to get this team to the World Series. The other is slightly less unbeatable in the regular season, but once he gets to the postseason, he’s nearly superhuman, to the point where they have him pitching 5 innings in Game 7 after delivering a 9-inning shutout three days earlier. Who is the better pitcher?
We all know, but as Dodgers fans, we just don’t want to admit it.
The 2014 Dodgers were eliminated from contention on my birthday, with Kershaw recording the loss. Watching Kershaw melt down in the 1st and 4th games of the series was a sad sight to behold. It wasn’t all his fault: his infielders played sloppy defense and he wasn’t granted the strong bullpen that Giants’ pitchers have enjoyed year after year…but he still lost.
By contrast, when the Giants placed all their hopes at victory in the hands of one pitcher, that pitcher delivered.
The 2014 Giants had once again snuck into the postseason at the last minute, but they once again managed to beat teams with much better records and stun the world with another improbable World Series championship.
This time, however, the series came down to the wire. The Kansas City Royals were able to force a seventh game, something that the Giants’ previous 2 challengers had failed to do, and the Giants held onto a 1 run lead for 7 innings, all thanks to the insurmountable efforts of a pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw.
I watched the 7th game at DeVere’s pub in Davis. When they handed the ball to Bumgarner (pitching on 3 days’ rest), I couldn’t believe it. It was so unlike Bochy to rely on one pitcher to carry the team for five innings of relief. The Giants had won their other two championships thanks largely in part to their relief pitchers, and now they were giving the ball back to the guy who started the Game 1 and Game 5, trusting him to finish Game 7. Doesn’t he know that’s the type of pressure that Clayton Kershaw caved under?
Yes, but Madison Burgarner is not Clayton Kershaw. He’s better than Clayton Kershaw. I’m a Dodgers fan and I say that with no sense of shame.
As I worked my way through a plate of lamb sliders and Irish nachos, watching Burgarner work his way through hitter after hitter, all I could think was, is this man human?
And then I reached a point where, even though I was rooting for the Royals, I would have been more disappointed to see Bumgarner fail than to see the Royals win. I was witnessing a legend in the making, and watching Bumgarner blow this lead would have been tantamount to a 6-year-old watching Santa Claus take off his fake beard and drive out of the Macy’s parking lot in a Buick.
I needed to believe in white knights, even if this particular white knight donned orange and black.
2015: All in on Blue
Giants fans have a theory that their team only wins in even-numbered years and/or only wins during years in which Taylor Swift has released an album. This October, the year is odd-numbered, Taylor Swift is still enjoying the success of last year’s album, and the Giants have officially been eliminated from postseason contention. The Dodgers are the NL West Champions for the third consecutive year, and if they want to get to the world series, they will likely have to get past the Cardinals, a team they don’t play well and a team that the Giants always play well.
Anything can happen this October, but the most likely thing to happen will be another year of Giants fans gloating on my Facebook page about the fact that, after 4 years and over $1 billion spent, the Dodgers have failed to construct a team with anything to brag about other than the fact that Clayton Kershaw plays for them. And that’s precisely the problem: Giants fans don’t brag about the fact they have Bumgarner; they brag about the fact that they’ve earned 3 rings in the past 5 years.
Anything can happen this October, but until Kershaw and Greinke get this team to the World Series, they will never be as good as the North Carolinian who wears Jersey no. 40 for San Francisco. Kershaw can win MVP, Greinke can win the Cy, but without a championship, they’re both just two overpaid players with nothing to show for their accomplishments.
You don’t like it? You should go and put a ring on it.