Double-Playoff Day Is a First for First-Place Dodgers, Angels

Times Staff Writer

Southern California ascended to baseball nirvana on Saturday, with the Dodgers and Angels clinching division championships 29 minutes apart and raising hopes that the teams could face each other in a long-awaited World Series.

“In the perfect world, we do a Freeway Series -- our place, their place,” Angel owner Arte Moreno said. “Keep it at home.”

For the first time in the 44 years the teams have shared the Southland, the Dodgers and Angels qualified for the playoffs in the same season. The Angels got there first, at 4:12 p.m. in Oakland, securing their first American League West championship in 18 years with a 5-4 victory over the Athletics.


The Dodgers joined them at 4:41 p.m., before a raucous sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium, clinching their first National League West championship in nine years with a rally instantly etched in team lore. The Dodgers stunned their despised rivals, the San Francisco Giants, by scoring seven times with one out in the ninth inning for a stunning 7-3 victory, capped by a grand slam home run by outfielder Steve Finley.

“You couldn’t ask for more of a storybook ending -- to the regular season,” Dodger first baseman Shawn Green said.

The Angels rallied twice to win Saturday. With the A’s five outs from victory, first baseman Darin Erstad tied the score with a two-run double. Outfielder Garret Anderson, who drove home the winning runs for the Angels in the final game of the 2002 World Series, singled home Erstad with the go-ahead run.

The Dodgers and Angels start the playoffs Tuesday, with opponents to be determined. The Dodgers open away from home, against the St. Louis Cardinals or Atlanta Braves. The Angels open in Anaheim against the Boston Red Sox or in New York against the Yankees.

The Giants were two outs from a 3-0 victory when the Dodgers tied the score on a bases-loaded walk, an error and a single. Finley capped the Dodgers’ 53rd come-from-behind victory -- a record for this 115-year-old franchise -- with his grand slam.

“When I was walking to the plate, I was looking around and enjoying the atmosphere,” he said. “I knew I was going to get it done.”


As Dodger Stadium erupted, Finley sprinted around the bases with his right fist high in the air, then disappeared into the mob of teammates awaiting him at home plate. The players promptly donned gray championship caps and white championship T-shirts -- tags still attached -- and soon doused one another inside the clubhouse with champagne and beer.

Outfielder Milton Bradley, suspended for the final five games of the regular season after an emotional outburst directed at fans, watched the game from the suite of owner Frank McCourt. Bradley joined the clubhouse celebration, then paraded atop the dugout to exchange handshakes with fans and at one point held aloft a T-shirt mocking the Giants.

The Dodgers and Angels combined to sell nearly 7 million tickets this year, a record for baseball’s two-team markets.

“The center of gravity in baseball has shifted,” McCourt said. “People see the passion for the game in Southern California. That’s why the fans in L.A. deserve a champion. We’d love to play the Angels in the World Series, but I just want to get there.”

Said Green: “Wow! It would be blue and red all over, I’ll tell you that.”

The Angels painted the town red two years ago, when they entered the playoffs as a wild-card team and won the World Series. Moreno supplemented the talent on hand by spending $146 million on free agents, including superstar outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, but the Angels struggled amid championship expectations and did not occupy first place between the first week of June and the last week of September. They kicked key hitter Jose Guillen off the team for insubordination last Sunday, then won six of seven games.

“In 2002, it was magic,” Erstad said. “Everything went our way. This year, we’ve had some tough stretches.”


Unlike the Angels, the Dodgers were widely left for dead before the season started.

“I certainly feel comfortable saying this team has exceeded everybody’s expectations,” Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta said.

The Dodgers last entered the playoffs in 1996, as a wild card. They last won their division in 1995, under Hall of Fame Manager Tom Lasorda, who led the team to seven division championships, four National League pennants and two World Series titles.

“We were in it a lot of times. We lost that. Now we’ve got it back,” said Lasorda, now a Dodger senior vice president. “We’ve got the division, and we’ve got to go from there.”

In 1988, when the underdog Dodgers won the World Series, broadcaster Vin Scully immortalized the Game 1-winning home run hit by the injured Kirk Gibson this way: “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

Yet Scully, the voice of the Dodgers for 55 years, said this season might be even more improbable.

“It’s been a remarkable year,” he said.

The 2004 Dodgers opened with questionable talent, a recent track record of wilting under pressure, a new owner, a young general manager with no track record and a holdover manager in the final year of his contract.


In recent days, cameras have captured McCourt displaying the emotions of the Dodgers’ First Fan from his front-row seat, responding to a come-from-behind victory by racing along the track surrounding the field and high-fiving fans.

Over the winter, however, McCourt was met with skepticism. After he failed in bids to buy his hometown Red Sox, then the Angels -- and required loans to finance nearly all of his $430-million purchase of the Dodgers -- fans derided him as “McBankrupt” and wondered whether he could afford to pay high-priced stars and his bankers too.

McCourt waited as baseball officials scrutinized his financing and demanded restructuring. The Los Angeles City Council considered a resolution urging the Dodgers be sold to a local buyer.

Meanwhile, Moreno, who had written a $183.5-million check to buy the Angels, launched a splashy advertising campaign proclaiming them “L.A.’s team.”

The Angels pounced on Guerrero after his talks with the Dodgers collapsed, paralyzed by the ownership transition and spurring uncertainty over whether the Dodgers might deteriorate toward second-class status in a town they had long owned.

“I think that was the low point,” said Jon Weisman, a Los Angeles writer and editor who runs the independent Dodger Thoughts website. “I think people really feared for both the short-term and long-term future of the franchise.”


Said McCourt: “I interpreted that as a deep love of the team and a deep concern that the team would be in good hands. I was actually encouraged by the concern, because it said to me the passion is here and the fans really, really care about this team. And that’s the kind of team I wanted to own.”

The team did not appear to be a good one. Although records in spring training do not count, the Dodgers posted their worst spring record since moving to Los Angeles in 1958.

“No matter where you looked, you saw imperfection, and I guess that’s what makes this so rather remarkable,” Scully said.

“Coming out of spring training, there were a lot of doubts about how competitive they would be,” said Kevin Towers, general manager of the San Diego Padres. “Our scouting reports on them weren’t very good.”

The Dodgers had produced a winning record in each of the previous three seasons, however, so the players did not consider this one a lost cause.

“I don’t think we looked at it as if it was a crazy idea that we could make the playoffs,” infielder Robin Ventura said.


Added Green: “It was frustrating, because the transition period came at a tough time where moves couldn’t really be made. We were close for a few years, so a little tweak here or there is all that we needed.”

DePodesta, 31, the general manager hired on the eve of spring training, tweaked away. In the final week of the spring he made six trades, most notably acquiring Bradley and outfielder Jayson Werth for minor leaguers.

The Dodgers won 22 of their first 32 games. They slipped out of first place briefly in May and again in June, then reclaimed the lead for good July 8. Three weeks later, in a startling gamble by a first-place team, DePodesta traded All-Star catcher Paul Lo Duca, relief pitcher Guillermo Mota and outfielder Juan Encarnacion to Florida for starting pitcher Brad Penny and first baseman Hee-Seop Choi.

Penny suffered an injury after winning one game for the Dodgers, Choi failed to hit and neither player is expected to make the playoff roster. But DePodesta hit the jackpot by acquiring Finley for more minor leaguers: Finley has hit 13 home runs for L.A.

“There’s no way to sit here and say, if we hadn’t done anything, we would be in this position,” DePodesta said. “It’s never going to work out every time.”

DePodesta’s predecessor, Dan Evans, traded ace pitcher Kevin Brown to the New York Yankees for Jeff Weaver and two minor leaguers. Weaver had a better year for the Dodgers than Brown did for the Yankees, and one of those minor leaguers -- Yhency Brazoban -- became the setup man for star relief pitcher Eric Gagne.


Third baseman Adrian Beltre, often derided in previous seasons for his inconsistency, blossomed into a most-valuable-player candidate. Shortstop Cesar Izturis and second baseman Alex Cora demonstrated excellence afield and surprising improvement at bat. Opening-day starter Hideo Nomo won only four games, but Jose Lima, who turned down a guaranteed $500,000 from Kansas City to audition for the Dodgers, won 13.

The irrepressible Lima never stopped smiling, remaking the clubhouse in his image. And two stars set an unselfish tone -- Green moved from the outfield to first base to accommodate the arrival of Bradley, and Bradley later yielded center field to Finley.

Manager Jim Tracy never complained about his uncertain future even as his team planted itself in first place. DePodesta said he probably will extend the contracts of Tracy and his coaches after the season.

The newfound spirit even caught the attention of Towers, whose spring analysis of the Dodgers’ recent failings as “more character than anything” so rankled Dodger coaches that his remarks remain posted on their office wall.

“They play with a lot more emotion than they ever have,” Towers said. “They never used to play with a lot of emotion. They had an unbelievable July and August, but they’ve had times when they struggled. They could have very easily folded, but it didn’t happen this year.”

Said McCourt: “I think people relate to them because they are pluggers. They’ve taught us how to win again when it matters.”


The winter will tell about McCourt’s interest in signing players -- especially Beltre and star closing reliever Eric Gagne -- to lucrative long-term contracts, but he has won applause for such details as adding automated teller machines and inviting fans onto the field to play catch.

Even Jack Weiss, the Los Angeles councilman who introduced the resolution urging local ownership, said he has been impressed with McCourt’s stewardship.

“Professional sport is all about one thing -- the scoreboard,” Weiss said. “You can’t argue with the results, and with the level of enthusiasm the Dodgers have generated this year.”

In Boston, angst is a civic tradition. Fans there believe in curses. They expect bad things to befall their Red Sox, and usually they do.

There is no dread surrounding the Dodgers, or the Angels, as they enter the playoffs. McCourt, who has moved his family to Southern California, says he is thrilled to be here.

“It really is nice to be in a place that views the world as half-full, not half-empty,” he said. “I think that’s a very healthy thing.”



Times staff writers Tim Brown and Mike DiGiovanna in Oakland and Jason Reid in Los Angeles contributed to this report.