Here come the Dodgers: A perfect test, but the MLB dynasty without a crown

LA spent $1.5 billion the last six seasons to all measure of success ... short of a long-sought World Series victory.

The Dodgers are rolling to a seventh straight NL West title, up 13.5 games at the break.

COMMENTARY

Thirty-one years ago, Vin Scully dubbed it “the Impossible Dream, revisited,” as the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers swarmed Orel Hershiser at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. They were nobody’s pick, both before the season began and certainly in that World Series, facing the marauding, 104-win Athletics, but you know what happened. Kirk Gibson, whose force of will whipped the Dodgers into shape and won him the NL MVP completely independent of the thing you remember, perhaps the greatest singular baseball moment of the last 50 years.

It is the beacon of the last Tinseltown World Series championship, won for $15 million and change, or roughly half what they’ll be paying each of the next three seasons for the start of Clayton Kershaw’s decline from superhuman.

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I will admit to needing little excuse to bring up the Gibson home run. The 1988 season is my baseball fandom starting point, and though I lacked the historical context that night to understand I really shouldn’t be believing what I just saw, there’s a small Dodger Blue flame still burning for me that sparked when the Oakland team that ransacked the ‘Morgan Magic‘ Red Sox in the ALCS took one on the chin.

The Gibson home run, however, remains relevant to the current Dodgers, here for a revenge-not-really series at Fenway Park this weekend. It’s the last transcendent moment, and it’s from the Reagan Administration. Thirty-one years isn’t near the 86 we knew, but it’s a generation for a jewel franchise all the same.

Gibson’s glory has been feeling on the cusp of a happy retirement for six years now, to be replaced with an HD party replete with Magic Johnson tweets. Alas, Los Angeles has gotten this.

2013: $237 million payroll (No. 2 in MLB), 92 wins, lost 6-game NLCS to St. Louis
2014: $257 million payroll (No. 1 in MLB), 94 wins, lost 4-game NLDS to St. Louis
2015: $291 million payroll (No. 1 in MLB all-time), 92 wins, lost 5-game NLDS to the Mets
2016: $253 million payroll (No. 1 in MLB), 91 wins, lost 6-game MLCS to the Cubs
2017: $254 million payroll (No. 1 in MLB), 104 wins, lost 7-game World Series to Houston
2018: $195 million payroll (No. 4 in MLB), 92 wins, lost 5-game World Series to the Red Sox

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That is $150 million just in luxury tax overage payments to win six straight NL West titles, back-to-back NL pennants, and … no big trophy. All while their rivals in San Francisco have hit for three championships in a five-year span, including one in which their best player was Aubrey Huff.

Up 13.5 games in the 2019 NL West, it’ll be seven straight for LA barring something historic, their future much clearer than that of the Red Sox they’ve come to visit. I certainly don’t mean to diminish the importance of the here and now for Boston, these three games with MLB’s best team preceding 21 in 21 days against AL East competition and 14 against the Yankees and Rays to get us through the July 31 trade deadline.

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This weekend isn’t ‘it,’ but it’s certainly the start of ‘it.’ The break let both line ’em up how they like, though Nathan Eovaldi would certainly bump Eduardo Rodriguez from Friday in a perfect world, and LA would rather a healthy Rich Hill on Saturday over Ross Stripling, who’s thrown 12 innings total with a 6.75 ERA filling in for Milton’s own. We’ve been over it, however. We know what we’re waiting for, and that it’s shocking we’re still waiting.

“The fact is we still have the second part of the season and we know we’re going to improve,” Sox manager Alex Cora said during All-Star festivities.

“It’s going to get better,” J.D. Martinez added.

“We know it’s going to change,” Cora said. “We will play better.”

It makes all the sense in the world, with London behind them, with a home-heavy slate, with a .606 winning percentage (43-28) since opening 6-13. At some point, though, we just need to see it.

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Same goes for these Dodgers, a dynasty we’ll forget until they deliver the big one.

The Atlanta Braves were the team of the 1990s, but 14 postseason trips delivered just one World Series championship. Those aforementioned Oakland A’s won 104, 99, and 103 in three straight years, but sandwiched beating the Giants in 1989 with the Dodgers upset and an arguably worse sweep by the Reds in 1990. St. Louis has two runs of six postseasons in seven years since 2000, splitting a pair of Series appearances in each.

We could go on: Philadelphia made October in 6 of 8 years from 1976-1983 and only won it all in 1980; the Angels did the same from 2002-2009; Pittsburgh started the 1970s with five division titles in six years, then lost every series outside of their 1971 title run …

These Dodgers really only have one modern contemporary, though: Those Cleveland Indians we just celebrated at the All-Star Game. Six AL Central titles between 1995-2001. Pennants in 1995 and 1997, glories long remembered from what was then a new Jacobs Field, but yielding only a 6-game Series loss to Atlanta and a Game 7, extra-inning crusher to the fifth-year Florida Marlins.

Like these Dodgers, they fired a manager in the midst, Mike Hargrove taking the fall after Pedro’s 1999 ALDS masterpiece because he couldn’t get Cleveland to the “next level.” (The Dodgers preferred “it might be best for both sides to start fresh” when they mutually parted with Don Mattingly after 2015.) Unlike them, though, Cleveland never had even a top-three payroll in their run, letting the likes of Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez walk for mega-deals.

You don’t spend $1.5 billion for divisions and pennants. You spend it for championship parades.

LA comes to Fenway leading the National League in both OPS and ERA — among starters and relievers individually in the latter. Cody Bellinger’s the betting favorite for NL MVP. Hyun-Jin Ryu, who’ll oppose David Price in a must-see Sunday Night Baseball, is second choice behind Max Scherzer for NL Cy Young. They’re stacked with talented rookies, most notably Alex Verdugo, the top prospect they refused to trade and who’s arguably been their third-best hitter despite bouncing around the outfield. (He’s largely settled in center.) They’ve got better odds to get back to the World Series than the Red Sox do to get through the wild-card game.

And so little of it will matter, fair or not, until October plays out.

“I think the sum of what we’re doing, what we’ve done is — the arrow is pointing certainly in the right direction. And baseball is so unpredictable,” manager Dave Roberts said after his former team celebrated at Dodger Stadium last fall.

“And we’ll get over the hump. It’s not easy. It hurts. It’s disappointing. All that. But to say we didn’t win a championship, and to say it was an unsuccessful season, I think that’s doing a disservice to everyone in that clubhouse.”

That may be the case, but it was the case here for an awful long time. Roberts didn’t play in Boston for long, but he knows that the trophy makes a big difference.

“I’ve got nothing but great memories, even flying into Logan and just this time of year, this city, the leaves changing,” he said during last year’s World Series. “And then you drive up to Fenway Park and it all just kind of comes back to you, 2004.”

There couldn’t be a better test this weekend to see how ready these 2019 Red Sox are to make the run they need to make than the 2019 Dodgers.

For the boys in blue, however, their test is still a couple months away.