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This was the summer I'd teach my son to hate the Dodgers. Austin is five, rapidly approaching that pivotal age when we make the first major decision of our lives, and maybe the most lasting. Careers, marriages and cellphone providers can change. Your favorite baseball team is forever.
Dodger Stadium is the closest big league ballpark to our home, which constituted a monumental risk. I grew up rooting for the Padres and cannot stand the thought of my son adopting another team in the National League West. The Angels are fair game. The division, however, is sacred.
About the time preschool let out in June, the Dodgers were 30--42, last in the West despite a $223 million payroll. See how they waste all that money? the paternal brainwashing went. Small markets build character. Check out the A's. It was safe to spend Sunday afternoons at Chavez Ravine in Row O of the upper deck—"tippity top," my son calls his preferred perch above home plate—because the Dodgers weren't giving anyone much to cheer for. The defining quote of the first three months of their season was, "All talent and no grit isn't going to get you there." I didn't say that. Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly did on May 22, when he was reportedly on the verge of being fired.
The Patriots won 18 straight games six years ago. The Heat won 27 straight five months ago. But those were juggernauts with established stars in sports in which outcomes often seem inevitable. The Dodgers, on the other hand, haven't been to the World Series since 1988, they are less than two seasons removed from the Chapter 11 hearings of disgraced owner Frank McCourt and their most popular player—Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig—didn't even arrive in the majors until June. Nothing could prepare a parent for what the Dodgers have wrought in the past 60 days.
Through Sunday they had won 42 of 51 (that's more than the Astros all season), 25 of 29 since the All-Star break and 15 of 17 in August. They're as automatic as a morning Sig Alert. They've won after being down five runs in the seventh inning against the Blue Jays, down three in the ninth against the Rays and down two in the ninth against the Mets. And this isn't like the Heat reeling off 27 in a row—it's like the Knicks doing it. The Dodgers went from last in the NL West, 9½ games back, to first, with a 7½-game lead. They took 15 straight on the road. They've won in blowouts (10--2 in San Francisco, 14--5 in Toronto) and by the thinnest margins (three times escaping 1--0). After one of those 1--0 duels Puig slid home to celebrate a walk-off bomb, and when kids were allowed to run the bases afterward, my son joined the throng and slid as well. I knew when I spotted the raspberry on his leg that I'd lost him.
The right team, at the right moment, can capture a generation in addition to a pennant. Two years ago, under McCourt's tight-fisted reign, the Dodgers ranked 11th in the majors in attendance. This season they're first. Sure, L.A.'s payroll could cover the Braves' and the Pirates' combined, but most of the overpriced have been injured. Utilitymen Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto have played more than Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.
Handicapping baseball's postseason is as foolhardy as filling out an NCAA tournament bracket, but who will beat the Dodgers with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu at the top of the rotation, with Kemp, Puig, Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the lineup? The day Austin asked for a Kemp jersey tee, I flashed back to a scene from the seventh season of The West Wing, when White House communications guru Toby Ziegler sneaks into his son's room one night and slips a Yankees hat over the Orioles cap on the bedpost. "Trust me," Ziegler whispers. "You'll be happier."
The Dodgers are the new Yankees, with a television contract that feeds them $300 million a year and an ownership group fronted by Magic Johnson that is eager to reinvest. Collecting shiny free agents on swollen salaries is no longer enough. Late last month reports surfaced that the team was moving toward signing Cuban shortstop Alexander Guerrero to a seven-year contract worth $32 million. Maybe Guerrero becomes the next Puig. Maybe he doesn't. The Dodgers must have him, just in case, because they don't lose anything anymore.
That's life at the tippity top.