The Dodgers came within a victory of a winning the World Series last season.
That wasn’t much of a consolation, was it?
The Buffalo Bills once came within a Scott Norwood field goal of claiming a Super Bowl and that didn’t earn them a piece of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Championships are all or nothing and the Bills still have an empty trophy cabinet. The four consecutive Super Bowl appearances they made are remembered less as an achievement and more as a failure for their inability to win one.
Now, here are the Dodgers in what is arguably their most consistent run in the last four decades.
For the first time in franchise history, they will play in a third consecutive National League Championship Series when they open their best-of-seven series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday.
The Dodgers have won six division titles in a row. They reached the World Series last year.
But the number that really counts is zero, which is the number of World Series they have won in the last 30 years. If that doesn’t change in the near future, this period of resurgence for the once-bankrupt team will be known more for what they didn’t do than what they did.
The Dodgers know that.
“Nobody ever really remembers second place and says, ‘Oh, we went to the World Series,’ or whatever,” outfielder Matt Kemp said. “They want you to win.”
Especially in Los Angeles. Especially when the team in question has a history as rich as the Dodgers.
If, say, the San Diego Padres won six consecutive division championships, their fans would be delighted, regardless of how each of the six seasons ended. The city of Atlanta would respond similarly toward the Braves if they made three consecutive NLCS appearances.
As a player who returned to the Dodgers after making stops with the Padres and Braves in recent years, Kemp is especially familiar with how expectations differ from market to market, from organization to organization.
Kemp saw and heard that again last week, when the Dodgers won their NL Division Series in Atlanta. The home fans didn’t boo when Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen recorded the final out. They didn’t even exit from SunTrust Park in silence. Instead, they broke into a warm applause to show their appreciation for the Braves’ unexpected success.
Kemp chuckled when he was asked if he could ever imagine the Dodgers receiving a similar ovation in the immediate aftermath of an elimination.
“I guess it’s a lot different,” Kemp said. “It’s just like the Lakers. If the Lakers don’t win, the fans are going to be mad. If the Dodgers don’t win, fans are going to be mad. They want us to win – and we want to win.”
Kemp emphasized how the Dodgers understand the demands of their fans because the players themselves share their expectations.
“I think once you get to this point, it’s disappointing if you don’t win it,” he said. “You can say, ‘Yeah, we had a pretty good season,’ but nobody wants to say that. We want to say we had a really good season and we won it all.”
Nothing about this is unreasonable. The Dodgers shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than the likes of the Padres and Braves. Their larger fan base is why they were able to land an $8-billion television contract, which, in turn, is why they had the wherewithal to assemble one of the league’s most expensive rosters while stocking their farm system.
“Obviously, in some people’s eyes, winning the championship is the only thing that is a sign of success,” manager Dave Roberts said. “You could argue every year there’s 29 teams that fail. So, obviously, this market, this team, what we’ve accomplished in the three years that I could speak to, our goal is to win a championship. We haven’t done that yet. I can be firm when I say that if we don’t win a championship, we didn’t accomplish our goal. I do know that.”
But Roberts intimated that he didn’t think the absence of a championship should be equated with complete failure.
“There are a lot of good things that have happened up to this point,” Roberts said.
In the postseason, too.
Clayton Kershaw emerged from the bullpen to close out an NLDS against the Washington Nationals in 2016. Justin Turner hit a walk-off home run in Game 2 of the NLCS last year that fell on the anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s famed home run.
The memories of triumph, however, are overshadowed by the images of defeat, such as that of Kershaw giving up two leads in Game 5 of the World Series last year or Yu Darvish melting down in Game 7.
Perhaps wanting to avoid any chance of being branded a failure, general manager Farhan Zaidi refused to say much about the implications of not winning a championship.
“Winning the World Series is the goal,” he said.
And if you don’t?
Zaidi laughed and referred to his previous statement.
“I can say that five more times, if you want me to,” he said.
Would he rather be the Miami Marlins, who have rarely been competitive outside of the two years they won the World Series, or the Washington Nationals, perennial contenders who haven’t triumphed in October?
Zaidi laughed again.
“Nobody’s actually giving us that choice,” he said.