GLENDALE, Ariz. -- An unexpected thing happened late in the summer of what had once seemed a nightmare 2011 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers -- who had been undermined by the failing ownership of Frank McCourt; who had fallen to 14 games under .500, at 37-51, on July 6 -- simply did not want the season to end. They went 41-28 after the All-Star break. Each of the seven teams with better second-half records made the playoffs, and the Dodgers felt sure that they could have joined them, had only the season extended just a little bit longer.
This is the time of year when general managers earn their money. They do it not so much by writing huge checks to free agents, but by making moves on the margins that are more about evaluations than expenditures. Everybody wants to find the next Matt Capps, John Buck or Kelly Johnson, all of whom were non-tendered by their previous club last winter, or Andres Torres, signed as a 31-year-old minor league free agent in 2009, or Colby Lewis, who was signed out of Japan, or Rafael Soriano, who was obtained in a trade for Jesse Chavez.
PHILADELPHIA -- When the NLCS was over, and the Dodgers were done again, eliminated just like the year before in five games by the Phillies, iconic Dodgers manager Joe Torre gathered his mostly young troops together, and he spoke of progress. It seems like a tough sell job, with the result from one year to the next being exactly the same. But Torre could sell parkas in L.A.
1. Even without a rainout, the Yankees or Angels could become world champions by playing 11 games in 28 days without ever being scheduled to play three days in a row. Springsteen would be embarrassed by that schedule, and he just turned 60. That's why if you're a baseball fan, you root for rainouts the next two nights in New York.
There are times -- like when he's conducting a giant yoga instruction on the outfield of Dodger Stadium to help boost the team's female fan base, or when he's conducting a champagne-spraying exhibition in the middle of the Dodgers clubhouse after they've clinched a return to the National League Championship Series -- when everybody wants to be around Andre Ethier. Then there are the times when absolutely no one wants to be around Ethier. This usually occurs any time he makes an out.
Like Bernard "Beanie" Campbell, Vince Vaughn's character in Old School, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti isn't much of a talker. But as his players danced around the visitor's clubhouse at Busch Stadium and drenched each other with beer and champagne in a frat-house type scene worthy of the hit comedy from 2003, Colletti stood on safe and dry ground outside the door and recalled one of the rare times this season when he had addressed his team. It was on the first day of spring training in Glendale, Ariz., and his message was simple.
LOS ANGELES -- This being Los Angeles, the Dodgers are never far from the intersection of Hollywood glamour and baseball drama. There is the retinue of celebrities who attend games at Dodger Stadium, the endless parade of movie references between innings on the scoreboard, and the "Think Blue" sign nestled into the hills beyond the leftfield wall that calls to mind the iconic Hollywood sign just a few miles away. And against a back wall of their home clubhouse is a faux a movie poster, showing a jubilant bunch of Dodgers piling on each other after a walk-off win that reads "The Dodgers star in ... THE COMEBACK KIDS" and a tagline promising "It's never too late."
The power is still out in major league baseball. While last year's home run decrease drew headlines, this year's has gone largely unnoticed. The rate of homers per game this season (1.03) and per at-bat (one every 33.33 ABs) is higher than each of the last two years, but still trails by a wide margin the numbers from the first part of this decade. In 2000 there were 1.17 home runs per game and a longball every 29.39 at-bats. In fact, the last three seasons rank at the bottom of the decade's standings in both categories. (Part of this, though it's unclear how much, is certainly due to MLB implementing a steroid-testing program for the 2004 season.)
1) Forgetting Manny for a second (and that isn't easy), the Dodgers have terrific young positional talent. It starts with the big four of Andre Ethier, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Russell Martin. All are under 27, and only Loney is mature beyond his years, according to Dodgers personnel. So there's plenty of room for growth here. Regardless, they're no dummies and all seem to understand the importance of Manny. Of greater significance, they all can play.
There was no doubt, the kid could pitch. And at 6-feet-3, with a powerful left arm, high school senior James Loney had scouts crowding around the backstop, oohing and awing in advance of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. But once Loney stepped in the batter's box, the crowd thinned and the interest of most scouts waned. But not Chris Smith.
In the final week of spring training, when Joe Torre was still getting used to his new shade of blue, he looked out over the field at Angel Stadium before an exhibition game and was reminded why he wanted to be a manager in the first place. Scattered around the field were about half-a-dozen players under the age of 25, either taking batting practice, fielding ground balls or shagging flies. "It's the fun part," Torre said. "It's watching young talent develop and grow. It's looking in the eyes of young players and sensing when they reach the point that they come to the ballpark knowing what to expect, what to do."
1. Think there is something to be said for playing in the intensity and pressure of East Coast baseball in the AL East for six months? Of the 12 teams to play for the AL pennant in the past six years, seven have been from the AL East. And if you go back to 1996, more than half the teams to reach the ALCS have come from the East (14 of 26). That's not an East Coast bias; those are the facts. Here are the Division Series playoff records for each division since the expanded playoffs were first used in 1995:
Manny Ramirez, who sleepwalked, sat out and complained his way through the first part of the season with the Red Sox, transformed the storied-but-struggling Dodgers franchise in the second part. The man can play just about any character he wants, and he's well into Act III now. In Game 1, Ramirez reprised his role of October dynamo, which led of course to a familiar ending for the lovably predictable home team.
The Cubs come into the postseason with a team that makes for a study in contrasts when it comes to its assets: a broad and deep collection of hitters to attack the other team's pitchers, balanced against a stars-and-scrubs pitching staff that runs perhaps no more than six men deep before trouble arises.
After five weeks honing pickoff plays, relay throws and bunt coverages, Dodgers first baseman James Loney and shortstop Chin-Lung Hu attended to one final piece of spring training business. Standing face-to-face on the infield last Thursday in the twilight before an exhibition game against the Angels, the 23-year-old first baseman from Texas and the 24-year-old shortstop from Taiwan choreographed the celebratory handshake they plan to employ for the next seven months, an elaborate blur of fist bumps, chest thumps and hand slaps that would make even Jose Reyes and David Wright take notice. When Loney and Hu were satisfied with their timing, the season could begin.
This spring SI.com senior writer John Donovan is touring the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues to cover baseball's biggest newsmakers. Today he reports from Dodgers camp in Vero Beach, Fla. Next stop: Indians camp in Winter Haven, Fla., on Tuesday.
Regarding your NL MVP candidates, how about those two guys in Florida? Yes, the Marlins are not in playoff contention, but it's hard to ignore Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera, especially considering they're first and second, respectively, in the NL in VORP, and rank in the top three in Runs Created. It looks like you went through all the playoff-contending teams, and chose a "good" player from each. Let me ask you: If Cabrera were on a playoff-contender this season, would there be any doubt who the MVP was? -- Carolyn, Boca Raton, Fla.
I. Orwellian Dodgers: Heading into the All-Star break the Dodgers are in the midst of an exhilarating division race. Through the first three-plus months of the season, Los Angeles, San Diego and Arizona have engaged in a game of musical standings atop the NL West.
With the All-Stars named on Sunday night, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the top fantasy players at each position based on their performances in the first half and their rankings on Draft Day. You might be surprised to learn that you could have had a lot of these first-half stars late in your draft.
When the Milwaukee Brewers called up RHP Yovanni Gallardo to the big leagues on Thursday, it signaled a new era in Beertown and the end of the rookie impact players for 2007. Gallardo joins a roster full of homegrown prospects who are quickly becoming MLB stars and has the potential to be this year's biggest impact rookie pitcher. Fantasy-leaguers have been waiting for this promotion since Opening Day, as Gallardo was already a well-known name before he dominated the Pacific Coast League this season.
Al-Jazeera television has broadcast a 25-second, silent videotape showing three of four hostage Christian Peacemaker activists, and said that the men asked their governments and countries in the Persian Gulf to work for their release.
Arabic news service Al-Jazeera has aired video from a previously unknown group showing four kidnapped Western aid workers affiliated with a Christian organization in Iraq, along with a statement from the group calling them spies.