On August 23, 2018, the Dodgers were 4 1/2 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West with 34 games to play.
Now, we know that in 2018 Los Angeles came back, won the division and went to the World Series. Then, we did not. Then, I dare say, more people thought the Dodgers wouldn’t come back than thought they would.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, who were in first place in the NL West on April 1, May 1, July 1, August 1 and September 1, have been eliminated.
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) September 23, 2018
Now, the Dodgers are five games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West with 47 games to play. Will the Dodgers come back? We have no idea.
This is another chapter in our great adventure, another milepost in our epic journey of suspense. And we can rue the uncertainty and curse the inanity all we want, but baseball does not exist without it.
We can lie to ourselves and say that it shouldn’t be this hard, certainly not with a team as fortified with all 10 essential vitamins and minerals as the Los Angeles Dodgers. But it’s always going to be hard. Because it’s baseball, and because baseball is played by humans. Because baseball is the human condition.
Of late, I’ve been fascinated by Cody Bellinger, the way others have been horrified by him. Quite possibly, Bellinger has been having the most miserable season by a Dodger since Andruw Jones’ ill-fated 2008 — in fact, until about a week ago, Bellinger was threatening to bottom Jones for the lowest batting average for a listed starter in Los Angeles history. Despite Bellinger’s youth, despite his two-year-old Most Valuable Player status and one-year-old NL pennant heroics, despite public knowledge that he is recovering from two serious injuries over the past 10 months, patience for Bellinger’s season-long slump has been expectedly thin. From some quarters, angry. That comes with the territory. There are no free rides, not even for superstars. I dare say Bellinger’s demeanor, his (to frame it one way) glassy glances, parallels Jones’ reflexive smile in the way that it is charming when he’s doing well, vexing when he’s not.
Maybe it’s because I’m all too familiar with underachieving, but while I’d like nothing better than to see Bellinger smash every pitch for a home run, the slump has made me invested in each at-bat he takes like never before. To see stars humbled might not be pretty, but it’s one of the most mesmerizing aspects of baseball. And to believe in a ballplayer finding the dawn after the darkness — and maybe, just maybe see that happen — is one of the most rewarding.
I don’t know if Bellinger will come all the way back, even with the recent uptick in his production. But I believe he can. To quote Shakespeare in Love:
Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
The Dodgers are not Cody Bellinger. More likely than not, the Dodgers will win 100 games by the end of September. They are, even with their noxious 1-12 performance in extra-inning games and walking wounded and inconsistent consistencies, at worst the second-best team in the NL. Maybe the second-best team in the major leagues. Maybe, though the standings don’t show it this minute, the very best.
Of course, the standings don’t show it because the 2021 San Francisco Giants have been playing, to quote myself from Twitter, like a team that found a magic lamp. and their first wish was for a million wishes. I have made peace with the notion that it doesn’t matter how many runs the Giants trail by or in what inning they trail, that they will win, inevitably, inexorably. Believe it or not, I actually have a favorite Giant all of a sudden, and his name is LaMonte Wade, Jr., this out-of-nowhere first baseman-outfielder playing the 2019 Matt Beaty role for San Francisco, because Wade just quietly goes about his business, which seems to be validating my belief that every time the Giants need him to get a hit, he will get that hit. He absolutely will. None of this is literally true, but that doesn’t make me any less resigned.
And then there’s this. Within my body, along with the customary four humors of blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, now churns a fifth, which is a growing feeling that Mookie Betts isn’t going to play for the Dodgers again this year. I have no inside information. I know nothing more than you do. I haven’t asked anybody about this. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so much that I’m wrong. But I’ve got just a terrible feeling about the way his hip injury has progressed, the way his health has regressed — and yes, the fact that he had just gone from being mookie betts to MOOKIE BETTS over the past month at the plate even plays into it. There’s just this feeling that the gods do not want any Dodgers to fly too close to the sun in 2021.
And yet, I feel empowered.
First and foremost, I feel empowered by the fact that this time, the Dodgers are the defending World Series champions, and for me that means that I don’t have any of the desperation I felt in the months and years leading up to October 2020, nor any of the horror. Nothing can match that despair, and nothing ever will again.
I feel empowered by the fact that, despite rose-colored hindsight that would lead you to believe the Dodgers cruised to their eight straight division titles, that’s not remotely true. They have been down a number of times before, and they have come back.
I’m even empowered by the potential of what would be one of the greatest ironies ever for a Dodger fan — the potential that the Dodgers would pull a move straight from the Giants’ playbook and win the World Series as a Wild Card entry into the playoffs. Seriously, just take a moment and imagine this. Yes, the Wild Card game is a tossup that no Dodger fan wants to be a part of, but should that happen, that is such a tantalizing outcome to have on the table.
I’m empowered by understanding that neither baseball nor life walks a straight line. I’m empowered by the power of a curve.
When the Dodgers were losing three of the first four games of the 2020 National League Championship Series, I took my biggest Twitter beating of the year, maybe ever, by merely suggesting that the season wasn’t over, that the Dodgers could come back. Not that they would come back, but that they could. Many people simply didn’t want to hear that. Some people were ferocious in telling me they didn’t want to hear that.
This is not me saying “I told you so.” (Well, maybe it is a little.) But more than that, it’s me saying that I get that I’m different when it comes to fandom. I get it. I understand cynicism — I’m far more cynical about myself than some of you are about yourselves. Many of you who are cynical about the Dodgers are optimists where it counts, where it really matters, where it’s really useful. I am an optimist where it doesn’t.
With the Dodgers, I’m empowered by hope.
And the hope is real. I don’t think the Giants actually found a magic lamp. Their good times could run out. The Dodgers could gain five games in a week — heck, in 1982, they gained 10 games in 12 days. Let’s bring this back to the top: Only three years ago, the Dodgers were in worse shape in the NL West standings and ralied, and the team that was in first place went 11-24 the rest of the season and finished third. Let’s even add this to file away: On September 28, 2018, the Dodgers were a game behind the Rockies with two to play. And Los Angeles went to the World Series.
The despair set the stage for heroes.
I’ve learned an obvious truth, the hard way, that people don’t like to be told what to do or how to feel, that it’s better to express one’s self in “I” messages. That means, in this case, that Dodger fans don’t want me to tell them to embrace the uncertainty.
Instead, I should say something like, “I really hope the Dodgers win, but I embrace the uncertainty.” And what you do with that information is up to you.
I really hope the Dodgers win, but I embrace the uncertainty.