By Jon Weisman
It’s easy, even conventional, to think of a team’s rooters as something like a singular, cohesive voting bloc, which is why we have terms like “Dodger fans” or “Red Sox Nation.” And fundamentally, Dodger fans do share a common goal, a common dream. We are Dodger fans, they are Giants fans — over there are Angels fans and Padres fans, and so on from one side of the continent to the other, all of us wearing our colors and our pride in an annual baseball Olympics.
But within a fanbase, just like within a city, state or country, there are deep divisions, with different politics, different attitudes and often a real struggle to connect, whether played out in ballpark conversations or on social media. We’re factionalized and entrenched in our beliefs, and our common passion seems at times only to intensify the divisions rather than bridge them.
After the Dodgers serpentined through an 8-5, 14-inning, 51-player, 334-minute, 467-pitch loss to the Washington Nationals on September 3, I found myself frustrated more by these inner conflicts than by the Dodgers’ inability to come out on top. The loss was painful, the anger more so.
Not everyone feels this way. Depending how you follow the Dodgers, depending on what you read, how much you interact on Twitter or comment rooms or how like-minded you and your friends are, these divisions might barely exist for you, if at all. Depending on your personality, they might not even matter.
But if you navigate the different, conflicting worlds, a day like September 3 rubbed the edges raw.
I wrote most of this piece on the evening of September 3, then put it aside for a quieter day. Five months ago, emotions were running very high.
The Dodgers entered play against Washington having spent the previous 38 days in first place in the National League West. At the end of each of the first 13 innings against the Nationals, the Dodgers never trailed.
On the previous night, it was not the Dodgers, but rather Washington — the only team in the NL with a better record than the Dodgers — that had looked foolish, and not just because of Clayton Kershaw. The Nationals were Keystone Cops on defense September 2, offering unmistakable proof that at any given moment, the elite can look ridiculous.
The starting pitchers September 3 formed a mismatch. Carlos Frias, with 14 1/3 innings, a 5.65 ERA and no Major League starts, against Jordan Zimmermann, with a 2.93 ERA and a 3.08 ERA in 117 previous starts over the past four years. On this day, the Nationals should have crushed the Dodgers.
They didn’t. The teams were scoreless after six innings. Frias matched zeroes with Zimmermann, stymieing Washington.
United we celebrated the magic of Frias, divided we contemplated what was to come.
Most everyone has one kind of complaint or another with the Dodgers — even in first place, because not even a first-place team is perfect. As in politics, even within the same party, some will find one issue more frightening than another: It’s the pitching, it’s the fielding, it’s the leadership, it’s the karma. That’s before we even travel the Old School-New School, sabermetrics vs. intangibles road.
Throughout it all, you can find a line that divides Dodger fans into two parties: pessimists and optimists. It’s not only about seeing the glass half-empty or half-full. It’s far more pronounced. A glass that some see filled with possibilities, others can find barely a drop of redemption. Some took the Dodgers being in first place at the start of September at face value, some found the standings irrelevant because, as sure as the sun will come up every morning, the Dodgers will fall short.
And so after Frias’ triumphant 77 pitches, while some looked ahead with anticipation, grateful to be in the game, others assumed that the offense, impotent in a way not to be excused, not even against the No. 2 pitcher in the NL behind Kershaw in WAR, would never come through.
Then in the seventh, Zimmermann slipped. After Nationals center fielder Denard Span seemingly rode in on snowmobile to rob Hanley Ramirez of a double near the wall in left center, Carl Crawford sneaked a naughty two-bagger just beyond first base. The next batter, Justin Turner, claimed he was hit by a pitch, then had his claim laughed out of court. Then, Turner blasted a home run. It was an amazing moment in an amazing season for an infielder who had become so integral to the Dodgers that it was hard to continue calling him a backup.
Before the glow from that moment had barely had time to recede, a cadre on Twitter waited for the Dodger bullpen to blow the game.
And hey, they were right. They were right this time, and as we know, they’d be right other times. Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen each walked a man in the eighth. Jansen got out of the jam, but could not find shelter in the ninth, when not only did Adam LaRoche hit a home run, but a third, go-ahead run scored on a single, a groundout, a stolen base and another single.
The pessimists were vindicated, and without a doubt emboldened to predict future disasters.
Should it have mattered that the Dodger bullpen, as vulnerable as it was, succeeded far more often than it failed? This is not opinion, this is not wishcasting — this is fact. It succeeded far more often than it failed. The postseason was the ultimate aberration.
Should it have mattered that even though the Dodgers were diseased when batting with the bases loaded, they led the National League in the exponentially more common situation of runners on base and runners in scoring position?
Should it have mattered that Don Mattingly, castigated across large swaths of the Internet for one set of moves, pulls the right lever in countless other ways?
Should it have mattered that the Dodgers rallied two more times in the game, once with another reminder that other great teams make blunders (Jayson Werth with the biggest drop of a ninth-inning fly in the Dodger outfield since Matt Holliday in the 2009 National League Division Series), once by a moment of pure, dramatic heroism: Crawford’s two-run homer in the bottom of the 12th after the Dodgers gave up two in the top of the inning.
Should it have mattered that other teams lose games too?
Should any of this offer hope, a reminder that we are not defined by our very worst any more than we are defined by our very best?
One party says yes. The other says no.
I understand the value of lowered expectations. I understand pessimism as a defense mechanism. There’s safety in pessimism.
I understand disproportionate reactions — on the drive home from that long day from Dodger Stadium, I shouted curses in my car (windows up) while in traffic. There’s release in anger. We don’t always mean what we shout.
I also understand the kind of myopia that focuses inordinate attention on the shortcomings that surround you and doesn’t notice the shortcomings that plague others.
But I can’t pretend to understand those who go claim to know the future, who don’t merely fear future disappointment but rather are convinced they have proof of it. Because that flies in the face of everything sports and life have taught us, that in the world of human beings, the unexpected happens. And yes, the odds are worse for some than others, but certainly it didn’t make sense to plant the flag of hopelessness on a first-place team.
I don’t believe in blind faith — I disavow it. But blind cynicism is no better. I believe in weighing possibilities, and then watching the dice roll and seeing if they come up seven, as you might expect, or snake eyes.
It’s not my place, nor my desire, to unite Dodger fans in one way of thinking or diminishing anyone’s fervor. Wouldn’t dream of it. But with 2014 receding more and more behind us, I do dream of a more meaningful and rewarding day, where passion can walk alongside humility. None of us know as much as we’d like to think we do.