Every time you shuffle a deck of cards, it’s likely to be the first time that card order has ever occurred in history. Baseball can feel like that: With 162 games, 9 batting slots, 2-3 pitchers per game, different field dimensions, launch angles, ball movements, situational decisions, strategy, and positioning… your team always seems the victim of random yet preordained cruelty. This brand of pain, the manner in which they fail always seems designed just for your agonizing pleasure. Except much like cards, if you play enough games, the tragedy of luck fades away. Losing happens with almost-exact fairness. Talent vincit omnia.
That’s not to say baseball is a closed circuit. Just as the improbable river card falls even at the final table, the game does tear at the fabric of reality. Genuine mysteries and anomalies do occur every year— even though, by definition, they would not then be anomalies. This year’s mysteries were plain to see: How did the Diamondbacks lead the division every month and start golfing early September? How did the Marlins trade MVPs in back-to-back years? How in the living hell did the Orioles lose by 61 games in the sabermetric era? Even as these Shakespearean turns fall into place, time and time again, we as sports fans do not blink. The gutshot straight draw just happens sometimes. So I would turn your attention now to a most durable mystery, the team that bets into aces and bluffs its way out: the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers.
Amid the chaos theory of a 162-game season, you can filter the seemingly random from the truly baffling with prior archetypes: Big Bats and Bad Pitching (Rockies), The Dynasty That Never Was (Cubs), The Dynasty In Puberty (Yankees), The Still Very Real Curse (Braves), We’re Mad You Think We Gave A Shit (Cardinals), Lovable David Meets Payroll Goliath (Brewers), and on and on and on. Well, I love baseball and I love playing cards. I still have no idea how this season happened or what it even was. Honestly, right now, the Dodgers being one win from the World Series is like seeing a three-Joker flop in a WSOP event. This team was never, not for one full series, a fundamental baseball team: 26th in runners stranded, 23rd in strikeouts, 15th in hits, 18th in GIDP, 27th in RISP, 16th in BA. So how did they win all those games? Second in home runs, first in walks! Magic watches the end of Moneyball, with its resigned lament about needing the basics, and falls on the floor laughing.
I keep returning to the poker analogy because it’s the only feeling that mirrors this season. Not just the emotional highs and lows, but the way a talented pro (playing so sloppy) seems smiled upon by external forces. You watch helplessly as smart, young sharks with solid hole cards, desperate to even see the last horseshoe, get mowed by a bad beat again and again. The Dodgers refuse to play contact baseball? Pitching goes on an absolute tear. Bullpen submarines after Kenley? Home Run Derby. Baez sucks? Baez good. Cut Kemp, Praise Kemp. For Christ’s sake, Manny Machado just did an interview defending not running to first base.
In their DNA, we do not find a team that “finds a way to win” or “steps up when others falter”. We find dozens of individuals constantly repairing their own game, who just so happen to share the same field. They traipse through rivals’ house fires and rarely get burned. You cannot even look to the benches for a story of never-say-die chemistry, for the team was patched together with marquee rentals and overworked, IR-replacement newbies. No one expected the postseason until Game 163; an air of indifference hung thicker than any smog. The only person who always believed was Dave Roberts, but he might be permanently stuck in nirvana.
In such cases, you have to look past analytics, luck, and in-game management to explain success. Phil Ivey isn’t a multi-bracelet, millionaire poker god because he crunches the numbers better than other players. Phil Ivey is a god because he plays like Phil Ivey and no one else can. Last year, the Dodgers enjoyed a season quite similar to the 2018 Red Sox: 104 wins, MVP candidate, Cy Young candidate, a second ROTY, complete and utter dominance. No, dominance doesn’t even begin to describe it… this does: the 2017 Dodgers went 1-16 starting August 26th and still won the division by eleven games. In effect, the Dodgers were building an identity they could fall back on—moonshots into the Chavez Ravine—which culminated in a 7-HR Game 5 spectacular showdown for the ages. But even as the fireworks erupted, it all felt fraudulent. Perhaps never in baseball history has a team scored so many runs and hung in so many tough games, against nothing less than a juggernaut, while looking hopelessly lost at the plate. Someone should have told them to dial back the looping, highlight swings and get on base… but how? How do you tell a team entrenched in their best record since 1953 to stop going all-in?
That’s the thing about baseball, moreso than any other sport: your team narrative looms over everything. With literally hundreds of variables, it takes investment in a system and an ethos to maintain relevance. Cleveland has “rebuilding”, the Yankees have “droughts”, and there are rarely ever 7-9 Seahawks teams making a sudden playoff run. Sneaking into the playoffs after thirteen dozen games is virtually impossible; even the marginal teams have to be at least pretty good, which means being great carries enormous velocity in the freefall. After so many torturous years of being the Chokers—they’ve lost more World Series than all but five teams have even been in—the Dodgers had a new identity as the long ball titans. Predictably the elusive long ball disappeared, Clippers became the old LOB City, Train Noise in seven.
Even as a relatively new fan, it’s clear that Vin Scully’s words define the franchise and especially those of two moments: “In a year of the improbable, the impossible has happened!” (Kirk Gibson) and “In the history of the Dodgers, nothing comes easy” (2013 NLCS). Fans point to these exclamations as gentle proof of underdog status, even as the team wins its sixth NL West title in a row. And sure, it eases the pain to know generations before have suffered like this, as will generations after. But—and perhaps because I am new to the experience—I see real value in ugly as a bonafide ballclub ethos. Let them have their Ruths, their Papis. In Game 4, the Dodgers choked… down on the bat against 98-plus fastballs. More than that, the Dodgers flailed. Cody Bellinger, 2 for 24 at that point, stuck his bat out like the ball was headed for his Lexus. Cody Bellinger slid through right field, center, and a little of left for a game-saving catch. Puig swung a tennis backhand from the senior home. You still couldn’t say they were playing like a team—neither team was in the bottom of the 58th—but the Dodgers had stopped chasing the myth of themselves. And clobbered the Brewers fifteen hours later.
Likely the Red Sox will roll into town with their all-world bats, cannon in right field, and suspect closer now fully loaded. Or still the much-lauded talent might show up in Milwaukee. But if the Dodgers do make it and it does become a real contest, it probably won’t be the long ball that does it. It won’t just be their rotation, fallible even being led by a top-five ERA in the live ball era. It won’t– okay, it will be Kenley. But victories, if they come at all, will fall in line with the story of the 2018 Dodgers. To a man, everyone on the team has been a hero and a goat this season; yes, even Grandal. In a perverse way, that takes all the pressure off. Offense cannot lean on defense or vice versa, no one player can take the blame if they fail, and no one can answer the bat signal but Turner. This team? This team doesn’t play it traditional; after all, they have drafted the Rookie of the Year four times in a row, twice. This team is a goddamn tough opponent because they don’t sweat what they should be or what formula spells t-i-t-l-e. Not anymore. They know that, for whatever reason, Lady Luck has been flirting for a long time. She draws out haters, expectation, and heartbreak. But all they’ll ever ask for is one more card.