Davey Lopes was standing behind the batting cage earlier this week when he was visited by a ghost of a championship past.
It was one of his former Philadelphia Phillies players, and he had a question.
“He looked around the stadium and shook his head and was like, ‘Man, what happened here?’ ” Lopes recalled Wednesday morning. “He was like, ‘Didn’t this used to be the Dodgers?’ ”
During what is arguably the worst Dodgers season since they arrived here 53 years ago, that question has been asked often, but perhaps never more poignantly than this week, during a visit from the team the Dodgers used to be.
Remember October 2009?
It was less than two years ago.
It feels like a lifetime.
During a brisk and promising autumn week that gave no hints of the upcoming doom, the Dodgers played the Phillies in a second consecutive National League Championship Series.
Remember? They were the two best teams in the league. They were two of the most promising teams in baseball. They were two teams with legitimate stars and great pitching and smart managing.
Then, on the eve of the series opener, Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt announced they were separating after 29 years of marriage, a split in a family that soon became a fork in the road.
The Phillies continued their ascent into the baseball heavens. The Dodgers went straight to hell.
On Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, these separate paths were again highlighted when the best team in baseball once again steamrollered the saddest. In front of a scattering of fans who eventually cheered louder for the Phillies, the Dodgers blew a six-run lead to lose, 9-8, and be swept in a three-game series that made an old second baseman sigh.
“Let’s just say it’s been a role reversal,” Lopes said. “The Dodgers used to be the model organization … now that’s the Phillies.”
Lopes played for the Dodgers when they won a World Series title, coached the Phillies when they won a World Series title, then returned home last winter as the Dodgers’ first base coach, rolling up his sleeves and shaking his head.
“It’s disheartening; it’s really sad to see,” he said. “I knew there were some problems here, but I had no idea of the damage that had been done to this organization.”
And Lopes said all of this before enduring an horrific knock-kneed performance by Chad Billingsley. Yeah, the Dodgers pitcher again fell under a Phillies spell, wilting under two leadoff walks and two errors, blowing that big lead against an exhausted team playing for the 20th consecutive day and already packed for the trip home.
“We were such a proud organization, but now … when the O’Malleys sold the team, they took the heart and soul of the Dodgers with them,” Lopes said.
Lopes has done great work here, righting Matt Kemp, returning a work ethic to a clubhouse that had grown stale, bringing back occasional traces of the old Dodgers ingenuity. But weeks like this one make it hard, hard work.
“I mean, at one point, either team could have gone to the World Series, they were both that close,” he said. “But now, you look at what the Phillies have done since then; you look at what’s happened to the Dodgers, it’s really hard to imagine.”
The best way to imagine is to look at the teams’ lineups and dugouts during that 2009 NLCS, and look at them now. With solid ownership spending scads of money, the Phillies have gone from contenders to favorites. With bankrupt ownership spending buffoon money on mansions and manicures, the Dodgers have gone from contenders to just plain creepy.
Start with the managers. Charlie Manuel is still running the Phillies; Joe Torre was no longer comfortable working for Frank McCourt and is now helping run baseball.
Move to the infield. The Phillies catcher, first baseman, second baseman and shortstop are the same. The Dodgers gave away catcher Russell Martin, couldn’t afford to properly replace second basemen Ronnie Belliard and Orlando Hudson, and traded away the hobbled Rafael Furcal.
Now for the outfield. The Phillies have the same left fielder and center fielder while recently replacing right fielder Jayson Werth with All-Star Hunter Pence. The Dodgers also lost just one outfielder. But, because they are broke, they replaced Manny Ramirez with nothing.
Starting pitching? The Phillies added the premium Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. The Dodgers added the generic Ted Lilly and Jon Garland.
Two big-market teams, two big traditional fan bases, two years that divided them into two different leagues. The Phillies are at the top of the majors, the Dodgers are in Triple-Arrgh.
“Our players have never given up under adverse conditions. They have played their butts off. The future here can be bright,” Lopes said. “But how can we make a trade? How can we sign a top-flight free agent? How do we get better under the current circumstances? How?”
The answer, of course, is that they don’t get any better until McCourt gives up his weakening fingertip grip on the team. Until then, just when the Dodgers don’t think it can get any worse, well, witness George Lopez.
On Wednesday afternoon, the comedian threw out the first pitch — shortly after it was announced that his late-night television show had been canceled.