“Till I opened my eyes and walked out the door
And the clouds came tumbling down
And it's bye-bye goodbye I tried
And I twisted it wrong just to make it right
I had to leave myself behind
And I've been flying high all night
So come pick me up
- Ben Folds, “Landed”
Well, the Fat Lady may have sung tonight (after Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., neither of them remotely rotund, sang the National Anthem), but it was really the tune carried by Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels, setup man Ryan Madson and closer Brad Lidge that set the tone for what turned out to be the deciding game of the NLCS. Jimmy Rollins led the game off with a home run and, despite one last bomb from Manny Ramirez into the right center field bleachers, the Phillies never looked back and the Dodgers were never really in the game. Chad Billingsley flopped for the second time in the series, going not quite three innings and looking terribly overmatched and under-confident all the way. Russell Martin looked tired, ill-at-ease and not up to the task of hitting fourth behind Manny, and he swung the bat like it. Blake De Witt snuffed out two potential Dodger rallies by hitting into two suffocating double plays, the first one first-pitch swinging just like Andre Either in that crucial Game 4 loss Monday night. And Rafael Furcal supplied a genuine freakism by setting a dubious LCS record—three errors in one inning, this from one of the most dependable, athletic, naturally spectacular players in the game at the shortstop position. Both Casey Blake and Matt Kemp missed deep center field home runs by mere feet, long outs gathered up by series villain (and damn fine center fielder) Shane Victorino. Jeff Kent had his shot in the eighth inning with two men on and two men out but struck out, and Nomar Garciaparra could not extend the ninth inning, popping up on the infield in front of the Phillies dugout for the final out of the 2008 Dodgers’ improbable, thrilling, heartbreaking run into October. (The Dodgers tried to conjure the ghost of Kirk Gibson, it being, after all, 20 years ago this very night that Gibson ripped the game-winning homer off of Dennis Eckersley to kick-start the Dodgers’ 1988 World Series triumph. But it would take far more than replaying that familiar videotape on the Diamondvision screen to inspire the kind of comeback that would elude the Dodgers this game.)
Truth be told, the Phillies showed themselves to be the grittier, better team in this NLCS and they deserve to play the other gritty, determined team—the Tampa Bay Rays—in the fall classic. Cole Hamels did not, like Dan Haren and Brandon Webb and Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano (and Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield), roll over and play dead. The Phillies’ defense remained coiled and alive and ready to spring into dazzling action at the crack of a hard line-drive that should have been a base hit but instead was magically turned, over and over again, into an out. And the Dodgers, despite we fans’ insistence that it wasn’t over till it was over, looked deflated in the wake of that frustrating Game 4 loss Monday to Philadelphia, a game they had in hand until the eighth inning, a game they should have won, and they played like it tonight. Maybe I allowed myself to believe a little more than I normally would in the Dodgers’ chances in part because of the gigantic boulder than the Rays have managed to roll up the hill this year, in the shadow of back-to-back previous seasons with the worst record in baseball. If the Rays could do it, why not the Dodgers? Well, if the Phillies are better than the Dodgers, one has to think that, barring an unlikely Red Sox comeback to overtake Tampa for the ALCS, that the Rays are the best team of the four possibles going into the Series and that the Phillies are likely to have their hands full with these young upstarts. And the Dodgers, for all their looseness and fun and the incredible run they had from the beginning of September until the evening of October 15, 2008, were simply not as good all the way to the end as they could have been, as they often were.
I’m sad tonight, you bet. I stayed after the game and watched Tommy Lasorda come out and speak to the 2,000 or so fans that hung around in the stands, not wanting to let go of the season just yet, all the while the Phillies and their small group of faithful celebrated along the first base dugout. I saw Nomar and Manny both return to the field, a half hour or so after the final out, still in their uniforms, suggesting to me that they weren’t quite ready to let it go either. And I wish that the Dodgers were flying back to Philly tonight, perhaps to the same destiny as the one they arrived at tonight, but at least having left Dodger Stadium to something more than the bittersweet reminisces of the roller-coaster ride of a season that played on the Diamondvision screen, perhaps flying east on wings borne by the adrenaline-fueled cheers of 56,800 fans who, if for only one more game, still believed. But that’s not the way it is. Cubs fans and Brewer fans and Angel fans and White Sox fans already know this tune, the one the fat lady sings so pure and true, and we Dodger fans are learning it right now. (Red Sox fans will be the next to be serenaded.)
And so, rather than allow myself to get mired in the misery of dashed hopes, I choose to think back on the excess of joy and happiness and giddy highs provided by this 2008 Dodger team and think about the possibilities for a rejuvenated franchise that seems, for the moment, to be traveling in the right direction at last, after 20 or so years wandering in the Southern California desert. When I remember all the laughs and thrills watching this simple, beautiful game, played by these youngsters and seasoned professionals, all rejuvenated by the presence of late season additions like Casey Blake and, of course, Manny Ramirez, I realize how special this season really has been. (I’ll never forget taking my six-year-old daughter out to see Manny’s first game-- she fell in love with the dreadlocked superstar that night, and I think she fell a little bit more in love with baseball that night too.) The 1988 World Series Dodgers were a team I was aware of (I moved here in 1987), but I didn’t start following them with any consistency till about 1990, and I didn’t become a real fan until, ironically, 1994, the year without the World Series. So postseason magic has been in short supply since I’ve been paying attention, and even though the spigot was shut off early I have most certainly enjoyed drinking deep from it during the last two series, and I fully expect that the Dodgers will be in a great position to quench my thirst yet again this time next year.
So thank you, Joe Torre, Rafael Furcal, Juan Pierre, Andre Ethier, Manny Ramirez, Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Casey Blake, Blake De Witt, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Greg Maddux, Clayton Kershaw, Cory Wade, Jonathan Broxton, Chan Ho Park (way to get that one hitter to ground out tonight, Chan Ho), Hong-Chih Kuo, James McDonald, Joe Beimel, Takashi Saito, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Angel Berroa, Rick Honeycutt, Don Mattingly, Mariano Duncan, Larry Bowa, Kim Ng, Ned Colletti, Tommy Lasorda, and yes, Frank and Jamie McCourt (but not Andruw Jones), for a truly maddening, thrilling 50-year anniversary Los Angeles Dodgers season. May 51 be, like Nigel Tufnel’s amp, one better than 50, a loud, fulfilling blast that makes good on the many promises, big and small, held within this wonderful summer and played on a sound system only turned up to 9, maybe 10. 11 is going to sound good.
And now I can go back to writing about movies, which is in many ways a relief. When movies break your heart, they most often do so with that intent, with (hopefully) a streak of artistry to help expand the experience of pain into one of greater understanding. But baseball, despite its individual artistry and the beauty of the game itself, has no design other than the one imposed on it by the rules, the efforts of its players and the fickle winds of circumstances which can change several times during the course of one game, let alone an entire season. The pain of heartbreak brought on by the ups and downs of baseball is perhaps less profound, but it is also less immediately easy to shake because it can seem so random, so unforgiving, so unmoved by the individual devotion of the people who follow the game closely. I look forward to a few months unbuffeted by hopes raised and dashed on the diamond, to being once again more exclusively susceptible to the crazy highs and modulated lows (and the dropped-out bottoms) that only movies can provide. But then February will come again, and those perfectly kept outfields will come calling again, and I will respond.
Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies, and good luck to the Tampa Bay Rays. The 2008 World Series should be a very good one indeed, even if my boys can’t be there.