You can see it in the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch clubhouse, where cliques have been transformed into a congregation.
During a recent morning break amid another slow day of spring training, everyone is hanging out with everyone else. There’s a group of guys playing video games, another group playing ping-pong, another group studying computer screens, but everyone moves easily between the groups, shouting to each other from across the room, the noise so loud and joyful that even Yasiel Puig disappears in the commotion.
“I’m now able to see firsthand what I saw on the field last year,” said new reliever Sergio Romo, who until this year pitched for the San Francisco Giants. “Everyone on this team seems very close and united, very caring, very aware of what’s going on around them, everybody talking, hanging out, everybody knows everybody.”
You can also see it on the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch field, where spring games are no longer home run-hitting contests, where even the longshots with the astronomically high uniform numbers are working pitchers like it’s a pennant race, full counts, extra bases, exhibitions filled with meaning.
Even the few folks who show up for these early spring contests are taking it seriously. During the seventh inning of a recent game, with the home team trailing the Colorado Rockies, 7-1, in the spitting rain, about 100 fans nonetheless starting to clap and chant “Let’s go Dodgers.”
“Our expectation is to win the World Series,” pitcher Rich Hill said. “The more you believe that, the more you talk about it, everybody starts feeling it and realizing it.”
Their expectation is not crazy. Their culture is not phony. This system has already succeeded. This roster has already won.
In 30 years, I’ve never written these words this early, but, people, spend a couple of days in spring training and it becomes pretty obvious:
If the Dodgers can stay reasonably healthy, this is a team that legitimately can break its 29-year drought and finally return to the World Series.
They believe it. They act like it. They buy into Andrew Friedman’s roster and Dave Roberts’ lineup card and, more than anything, each other.
“I walked into the clubhouse and right away I could tell that, man, this was a special place,” said top outfield prospect Alex Verdugo. “They all know each other, they know what’s expected, and they know where they’re going.”
The same basic group of players finished two victories short of that goal last year while losing to a Chicago Cubs team that even reasonable minds must admit was infused with magic. By every indication, this could be the season that the magic finds it way here.
“We understand that last year, we were right there, right on the brink of making something special happen,” Hill said. “We’re starting this year with the mind-set that we’re taking everything all the way.”
The momentum began last fall, when all the craziness of the summer roster moves and rotation turns began to finally make sense. By the time the Dodgers began the playoffs, the plate appearances had become unselfish, the relief pitchers didn’t care about their roles, and everyone — witness Charlie Culberson — truly believed he could be the hero.
“Last year, a lot of our time was spent creating a culture and getting guys to buy in,” said Roberts, who began the season as an untested rookie and ended it as National League manager of the year. “Now there’s an understanding of where we want to get to, and our thoughts behind things.”
The momentum continued this winter with the most impressive wheeling and dealing of Friedman’s three seasons here — because he rarely wheeled and barely dealt. He instead smartly understood the strength of what he and General Manager Farhan Zaidi had already built. They spent a lot of money, but they spent it on the right people. They spent it on Dodgers.
Kenley Jansen stayed. Justin Turner stayed. Chase Utley stayed. Hill stayed. The heart of the team’s veteran leadership group, plus Clayton Kershaw of course, remained intact . . . setting the stage for a repeat of last season, only better?
“As we got to the end of the 2016 season, one thing we felt very strongly about was trying to keep that core group together,” Friedman said during a recent interview at Camelback Ranch. “That growth from February to October in 2016 was significant. It created an environment that was very conducive to winning.”
Friedman added Tampa Bay clubhouse favorite Logan Forsythe to play second base, brought in San Francisco hero Romo to set up Jansen, picked up outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to hit lefties, and the environment is now very conducive to a potential championship.
“It’s a collection of really good baseball players who care,” Freidman said. “The way the roster complements one another, the depth, the overall vibe among the group is something that will serve us extremely well throughout the season and the inevitable ups and downs that will come.”
The starting rotation, long criticized for not being October deep, now has that depth with Kershaw, Hill, Kenta Maeda and several other candidates, including future star Julio Urias.
The infield is solidly veteran on the corners and downright exciting up the middle, with Adrian Gonzalez and Turner sandwiched around MVP-candidate shortstop Corey Seager.
The outfield has so many pieces — from Joc Pederson to Andrew Toles to Andre Ethier to Scott Van Slyke to Gutierrez — that Puig becomes just another guy who is no more important to this team than anyone else, and is no longer treated that way.
Then there’s the bullpen, and who knows how many relievers Roberts will run out there, but one thing is certain. A 29-year-old guy with a Dodgers-record 189 saves will be there at the end, with Jansen having become the second-most-valuable player in uniform.
The most valuable, of course, is Kershaw, who represents not only the Dodgers’ greatest hope, but also their biggest fear.
If there is one thing that could derail this chug toward potential glory, it’s that herniated disk in Kershaw’s back. He seems fine, he looks strong, he says he feels great, and he recovered well enough last season to dramatically pitch the Dodgers into the National League Championship Series with the Cubs. But the disk was never surgically repaired, so it was no surprise recently to see a team doctor watching Kershaw throw a bullpen session. And the rest of the Dodgers will probably hold their breath for the next eight months.
But, oh, what a ride it could be.
“This year, guys get it,” Roberts said, smiling wide, nodding his head, just like the rest of us, can’t wait to get it started.