The Week That Was, the Year That Wasn’t
It was Thursday, September 11, 2003. The Dodgers had played the first three games of a four-game series at Arizona, winning two of them. Though the two teams had both conceded the division title weeks before to the San Francisco Giants, they were both in the middle of a competitive Wild Card chase involving seven teams. The Dodgers trailed the eventual world-champion Florida Marlins by three games, but with almost 3 weeks of the season left to be played—-18 games—-the Blue Crew was still very much alive. This was the good news.
The bad news was that T.S. Elliot was wrong: September, not April, is the cruelest month. Having pitched marvelously for 144 games, Dodger pitchers woke up on this September morning knowing that their efforts had largely been wasted. While the national media was busy fawning over the Mark Prior and the rest of the Chicago staff, the Dodgers were running away with the MLB ERA title, sporting a 3.16 mark—-significantly better than the runners-up Cubs and their 3.83 ERA. Kevin Brown was healthy and contending for the Cy Young award, and Eric Gagne, Paul Quantrill and Guillermo Mota headed a bullpen that shut down opponents nightly with a 2.46 ERA. Hideo Nomo (3.09 ERA), Wilson Alvarez (2.37 ERA), Odalis Perez, and Kaz Ishii rounded out a five-man rotation that was among the best that Dodger fans had ever seen. If the cliché is true—-if pitching wins ballgames—-then this should have been The Year.
Unfortunately, Dodger hitters didn’t care much for clichés. The 2002 Shawn Green had disappeared, his shoulder laying somewhere down a dark alley off of Figueroa. Brian Jordan was perpetually injured and Adrian Beltre had yet to fulfill the massive potential that had haunted him and Dodger fans for so long. There was no bad luck involved, just bad bats hitting at a pathetic .243/.303/.368 clip. As July wore on and the trading deadline grew closer, Dodger GM Dan Evans had the chips with which to obtain immediate offensive help: highly-touted prospects Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller, Joel Hanrahan, and Franklin Gutierrez. With the pitching staff all but writing letters to the LA Times asking for run support, and fans anxious to see what Evans could get done at the trading deadline, Evans woke up on July 31st and announced to Los Angeles that he had acquired Robin Ventura. Dodger hurlers drank their orange juice, did their stretches, and realized that it if they wanted to make it to the postseason, they were going to have to do it alone.
So on September 11th—-18 games to go, three games behind Florida in the Wild Card race—-Dodger pitchers must have decided to give it one last all-or-nothing effort. Starting that day, they stepped up to cruel realities of the cruelest month and performed like lower-case giants for a week. In seven games, the pitching staff allowed opposing teams to score nine runs—-a paltry 1.29 runs a game. For a week, their opponents’ box-score run totals looked like this: 2, 0, 0, 2, 3, 2, 0. It was perhaps the greatest week of pitching a team had seen since the mound was lowered in 1969. It should have tightened the three-game gap between the Dodgers and Marlins.
Well, the gap tightened alright—-by a half game. While the Marlins went 3-3 that week, the Dodgers went 4-3. In games where Dodger pitchers gave up 2, 3, and 2 runs, the Dodger offense produced 0, 2, and 0 runs and the team went 0-3. It was an exercise in futility.
The Dodgers finished 85-77, a full six games behind Wild Card winner Florida. Kevin Brown was soon shuffled out of town as the suits at Fox decided that they wanted to get out of the baseball ownership game. After all, if $100 million and a pitching staff for the ages can’t buy a playoff spot, why even try? Frank McCourt decided he’d give it a try anyway and bought Evans a one-way ticket out of town sometime in February 2004.
That 2003 team had a lot of positives: a legitimate ace (Brown), a lights-out bullpen, stellar defense (Beltre, Cesar Izturis, Alex Cora), boatloads of veteran experience (Green, Jordan, Fred McGriff), and a slugger (Green) who had hit 91 home runs in the previous two seasons combined. Dodger fans, however, learned (or re-learned) a few hard lessons that summer: sometimes proven sluggers have their shoulders fall off, sometimes veteran experience doesn’t count for squat, and sometimes having the best pitching in the world doesn’t translate into success, especially if your team can’t hit.
2004 was supposed to be a rebuilding year—-Jeff Weaver in, Kevin Brown out, no Vladimir Guerrero, no sign of Green’s shoulder—-fans would have understood if new GM Paul DePodesta couldn’t turn around this old and creaky ship right away. But DePodesta was proactive: he got offensive help before the season started (Milton Bradley), and in July he tried to patch up the team’s weaknesses (starting pitching, Jim Tracy starting Juan Encarnacion every day). The fans fussed but the 2004 version of the Dodgers nevertheless won the NL West and won a playoff game for the first time in sixteen years.
Maybe DePodesta and the Dodgers’ front office need to work on communication skills—-McCourt acknowledged as much when he fired Lon Rosen and a couple of other executives a few weeks ago. But hasn’t DePodesta earned some currency with last year’s success? Instead of analyzing and trying to understand DePodesta’s moves, local media outlets have more often painted the new regime as sort of a new-school Moneyball fighting against an old-school O’Malley. That type of coverage produces attention-grabbing headlines and sound bites for short-attention-span talk radio, but it doesn’t improve our understanding of the team, it doesn’t enhance the fan experience, and it isn’t fair to DePodesta or the players he brings to the Dodgers.
2003 was a great year; I watched almost every cursed inning of that season. I watched Nomo pitch his heart out (for all practical purposes, his 2003 workload probably ended his career), I watched Gagne pitch like no Dodger had since Orel Hershiser in 1988, and I watched Izturis and Cora make one dazzling defensive play after another.
2003 was also a terrible year. I watched Green hit groundball after groundball to the right side of the infield, I watched the Ghost of Fred McGriff take 297 at-bats, and I watched Paul Lo Duca disappear in July, August, and September (his line during those 3 months: .229/.297/.302).
I hope Dodger fans never have to live through a wasted season like 2003 again. Though I’m not sure I understand all of DePodesta’s moves, I’m willing to grant him some deference given his track record and the track record of the general managers that ran things from 1988 to 2003. The GM we had in 2003 (perhaps constrained by Fox) responded to the staff’s 911 calls by bringing in Ventura and Jeromy Burnitz. The year before, Tyler Houston—-Tyler Houston—-was called upon to help a team that would eventually win 92 games and still miss the playoffs. What did DePodesta (supported by McCourt) do in 2004? He brought in Steve Finley (October 2, 2004, anyone?) and Brad Penny, a proven starter who threw eight innings of 2-hit shutout ball in his Dodger debut. Even though injury soured the trade for Penny, I think it’s fair to say that DePodesta tried a lot harder than any other Dodger GM in recent history at fixing the team’s midseason weaknesses. And that, my friends, is good cause for hope.
Hope that never really existed on September 11, 2003.