LOS ANGELES – As fat baseball wallets collided Monday – the supposedly multi-talented, lavishly spending, underachieving Los Angeles Dodgers and the supposedly multi-talented, lavishly spending, underachieving Los Angeles Angels meeting in the first of a four-game Payroll Series – it was worth remembering that even teams expected to win big can get stuck on losing.
In 1962, in Dodger Stadium’s debut season, Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills and his roommate, catcher John Roseboro, stood in the outfield during batting practice one day early in the season commiserating about how awful they were playing.
“We basically decided to quit and go into business together,” Wills said. “We were going to get a gas station going, a two-pump gas station.”
Fortunately for the Dodgers, they gave it a few more days. Wills ended up winning the National League MVP award in ’62, and he and Roseboro were key components of a 1963 World Series champion.
Of course, it’s a different game now, and players with $20-million-a-year guaranteed contracts don’t contemplate pumping gas.
But in some ways it’s the same. The 2013 Dodgers, purchased last year for a staggering $2.15 billion, now featuring a $200-million-plus payroll second in baseball only to the New York Yankees, face the same dilemma as the 1962 Dodgers, whose stars didn’t make $100,000 a year, much less $100,000 a day: how to pump some life into a lifeless team.
Wills, now 80 and a roving instructor for the Dodgers, said he doesn’t have any magic strategies.
“It’s not easy to figure out, but I do know you have to fight through it,” Wills said a couple hours before the Dodgers, in last place in the NL West with a 20-28 record, took on the 23-27 Angels, who are nine games out of first place in the AL West despite coming into Monday’s game with an eight-game winning streak. “You don’t necessarily need to change things. But you do have to reach back and find something more in you. I was taught early in my career that no matter how hard you’re trying, there’s always something more there. I reached back and found it.”
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly seemed to be saying something similar last week. The national media was reporting that his firing was imminent. Mattingly responded by uncharacteristically criticizing his players, saying that you can put together a team full of talent, but it isn’t going to win without some grit.
If he is looking for grit, he found it – for one night, anyway – when the Dodgers rallied from a 6-1 deficit for an 8-7 victory Monday that ended the Angels’ winning streak.
Yet the tension in the Dodgers’ clubhouse remains palpable. Mattingly is benching veteran starters daily – Andre Ethier one day, Matt Kemp another day. On Monday, it was both Ethier and Carl Crawford sitting down.
Mattingly, asked if he still was grouchy this week, said no, “I’m tired.”
He was backed last week by team president Stan Kasten and GM Ned Colletti. But he’s still on the last year of his contract, so what happens if the team still is this bad a month from now?
The Dodgers have been hurt with injuries (especially to pitcher Zack Greinke, who made just his fifth start Monday, and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who has played only four games but soon is expected back from a hamstring pull), by a leaky bullpen and maybe most glaringly by the lack of offensive production of middle-of-the-order guys Kemp (.260, two home runs) and Ethier (.253, four home runs).
Kemp, who hit .324 with 39 homers and finished second in the MVP voting in 2011, had shoulder surgery in the offseason. He has lost his power and his way at the plate.
And his confidence?
“Matt Kemp has a lot of confidence, but when you struggle as much as he has, it can zap your confidence a little,” Mattingly said. “It does get chipped away a little.”
It got chipped away some more Monday night, as Kemp looked completely lost in going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts.
But confidence can be rebuilt, and the Dodgers needed only to look across the field to believe this. The Angels were in pretty much an identical situation as the Dodgers eight games ago.
They were 15-27. Their veteran superstar sluggers, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, for whom the Angels committed $375 million during the last two free-agent signing frenzies, were struggling, as was their young stud, outfielder Mike Trout. Their longtime manager, Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher, was rumored to be in jeopardy of being fired.
“For a while, we couldn’t pitch and couldn’t get that clutch hit and weren’t playing defense, and that doesn’t add up to a lot of wins,” Scioscia said.
Before Monday’s game, he sat in the visitors’ dugout with a smile, made wider by his team’s turnaround.
“What’s wrong with your Dodgers?” someone asked.
“You mean my Angels,” he said. “We had a long tailspin, but we started to pitch better and hold leads much better and play better baseball.”
And, just maybe, they dug a little deeper and found something more.
That’s what Maury Wills did.
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