Dodgers' magic ride ends in NLCS
The clubhouse felt more like a somber graduation than the start of something big
Manny Ramirez is likely gone, and the futures of several veterans are up in the air
Ramirez's parting word to this reporter: "The [price] of gasoline is up, so I'm up."
LOS ANGELES -- There was no champagne in the Dodgers' clubhouse Wednesday night. The bottles of Moet the team had become so familiar with over the past three weeks were being popped and sprayed in the boisterous visiting clubhouse that could be heard through the double doors and down a hallway of old retired Dodgers jerseys that only further served as a reminder of how long it had been since the Dodgers had done something meaningful in October.
"It's been a long, long time since we've tasted winning," said Dodgers owner Frank McCourt following the Dodgers' 5-1 loss to the Phillies in Game 5 of the NLCS. "At some point in time, organizations need to stop talking about winning and go win. That's what we did this year. We won and now we need to move forward because we didn't win it all."
Before McCourt left Dodger Stadium, he took one last painful look at the scoreboard, which officially marked the end of the most memorable season the Dodgers have enjoyed in the past 20 years. It was a magical run that began when the Dodgers traded for Manny Ramirez at the end of July, transforming the team from an uptight .500 team to a carefree group that would go on to win the NL West and sweep the Cubs in the Divsion Series, the team's first playoff series win since 1988.
Yet, despite a youthful returning roster that includes Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton -- all players drafted in the past six years by the Dodgers -- the clubhouse felt more like a somber graduation than the start of something special with more "goodbyes" and "good lucks" than "we'll get them next year."
While the Dodgers have a core of good young players that could shine in Los Angeles for the next decade, there is no secret that this group rode Ramirez's do-raged dreadlocks, baggy pants and care-free attitude to the brink of the World Series. That's partly why there wasn't much room for optimism after the Dodgers were eliminated by the Phillies.
There are few that believe the Dodgers will actually re-sign Ramirez, the biggest superstar the Dodgers have had since Fernando Valenzuela captivated the city nearly 30 years ago. While the Dodgers have vastly overpaid for the likes of Andruw Jones, Jason Schmidt and Juan Pierre during Ned Colleti's tenure as general manager, it was Ramirez, who cost the Dodgers nothing, who paid the biggest dividends both on and off the field. Yet, the odds that the Dodgers will offer him a deal anything longer than three years and for anything more than $20 million per season seem remote, which would leave their chances of keeping him just as far-flung.
"I'm looking at a seven-year deal" said a smiling Ramirez, who collected eight hits in this year's NLCS, which tied a Dodgers record. "I want Alex [Rodriguez] money. I would be 43 at the end [of the deal]. I can make it."
Not only is Ramirez expected to leave, but the future of fellow veteran free agents Derek Lowe, Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake are also up in the air, which means next year's team could be led by its young and still inexperienced core. If that is the case, it's a strategy Dodgers fans are used to by now. The Dodgers have always had great homegrown talent. They had five straight Rookies of the Year from 1992-1996, but were only able to claim one division title and no playoff wins during a 15-year span that saw them cultivate some of the best sheer talent in the game but rarely any success on the field.
In the end, Ramirez's time with the Dodgers may be remembered as nothing more than the beautiful summer fling you look back fondly at years later. A magical, no-strings attached relationship that you knew was too good to last, but too good to pass up. It might not have been marriage material, but it was probably the best time you'll ever have.
It seemed like many Dodgers fans, resigned to the fact their team would be knocked out of the playoffs and that Ramirez would be gone, had already moved on before Game 5. Aside from the red, white and blue bunting, the NLCS logos painted on the field and the chilly mid-October conditions, it felt like a normal Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. A late-arriving crowd, plenty of empty seats and fans more enthralled with the wave and bouncing beach balls than the game. In fact, the stadium was nearly half empty for the opening pitch and never quite filled up despite tickets being sold for less than face value by scalpers and online outlets before the game.
They weren't entirely wrong in staying away as the Dodgers gave them little to cheer about, falling behind 5-0, before Ramirez hit one last solo home run in the bottom of the sixth inning to prevent a shutout. Those that were at the game and stayed to the bitter end showered Ramirez with chants of "Stay, Manny, Stay," as he walked off the field for the last time.
"That happened to me in Boston, too, so I'm used to it by now," said Ramirez. "Let's see what's out there. I'm just going to go home, relaxing and watch the World Series since I have nothing better to do, and we'll see what happens."
Before Ramirez walked out of the Dodgers clubhouse for possibly the last time, he hung his blue L.A. hat over a postcard he had pinned up before the playoffs of a Chihuahua wearing goggles and looking up at the sky with the headline, "The Sky's The Limit."
The postcard was sent to him by a fan along with a fortune cookie message, that reads "Don't look back -- Always look ahead." That has served as Ramirez's mottos since he's been in Los Angeles. Ramirez, however, will not be relying on the wisdom of fortune cookies and postcards to decide where he will be playing next season.
"I'm going to see who's the highest bidder," said Ramirez before laughing. "The [price] of gasoline is up, so I'm up."