ST. LOUIS — Designer suitcases were hurriedly snapped, cartons of soiled equipment rolled out the door. The Dodgers clubhouse was in full escape mode.
It had been an hour since their season was wretchedly ended by the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Friday night in a 9-0 loss in the clinching Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers had been stopped short of a World Series for the 25th consecutive season, and they couldn’t leave this roiling sea of red and regret quickly enough.
All except A.J. Ellis. The team’s staunch catcher remained standing in front of his locker, sweaty jersey still on his back, dirt smudged on his cheek. Ellis wanted to make one more play. Before his teammates disappeared, he wanted to leave them and their crestfallen fans back in Los Angeles with a message.
“It’s fun to be a Dodger again,” he said.
If there is an overriding theme to the tumultuously delightful season in which Los Angeles’ most enduring sports power regained its hold on a city’s heart, that is it.
This was the summer it was fun to be a Dodger again.
On the 25th anniversary of their last world championship, they failed to completely recapture the past. But, for the first time since 1998, when the venerable Peter O’Malley sold the team into years of chaos, the Dodgers gave Los Angeles real hope for the future.
In their first full season under Guggenheim Baseball Management, which bought the team for more than $2 billion, the Dodgers did more than simply assemble the richest payroll in baseball history at around $230 million. By winning 42 of 50 games during one regular-season stretch and winning the National League West and defeating the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, they gave roaring, dancing, Puiiiiiiiging Dodger Stadium fans a show that was often priceless.
It was fun to be a Dodger again, for the expressive players in the dugout, for the towel-waving folks in the pavilion, for that weird dancing bear who showed up on the dugout for a moment during the playoffs.
Barely two years after the financial shenanigans of former owner Frank McCourt drove away fans ands stripped the team bare, a Guggenheim Group led by Mark Walter and represented by Magic Johnson brought the Dodgers brand back.
“Lots of new owners come in and say they are going to turn an organization around,” Ellis said. “Our owners actually did it.”
They brought back drama. The Dodgers began the season with just 30 wins in their first 72 games and had a spot in last place amid predictions that this could be sports’ most expensive bust ever. Their manager, Don Mattingly, was days from being fired and their most popular player, Matt Kemp, couldn’t overcome injuries. All of which set the stage for the arrival of rookie Yasiel Puig and the return of injured Hanley Ramirez, both of which set up that historic winning stretch that carried them into October.
One minute their hopes were all wet. The next minute they were celebrating the NL West division title by jumping into the Arizona Diamondbacks’ outfield swimming pool.
“It wasn’t just what we did that made this year so special,” General Manager Ned Colletti said. “It was how we did it.”
They brought back fun. Improved amenities, cleaner facilities and updated between-innings entertainment made the formerly cramped and tense Dodger Stadium a more fun place for the fans, whose regular-season turnout produced a league-leading 3.7 million attendance figure.
A light touch by Mattingly allowed the players to join that fun with a variety of unique celebration gestures, such as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez’s exploding fireworks fist pump. This unpredictable dynamic reached its peak in Game 5 of the NLCS. Actor Will Ferrell started things off by introducing the starting lineup and saying Zack Greinke would be the game’s winning pitcher. Then, when the game started, Gonzalez hit a home run and taunted the Cardinals by wagging his fingers next to his batting helmet imitating mouse ears as he jogged toward the Dodgers dugout. That was in response to a St. Louis player who had called his celebratory actions two games before “Mickey Mouse.”
Finally, the new ownership brought back a connection. The fans could connect with the likes of Walter and Johnson because they were often seen cheering like kids from their field-level seats next to the home-team dugout. But more than anything, fans connected with the diverse and daring group of players, whose energy was epitomized by the perplexing, popular Puig.
The 22-year-old Cuban showed up on June 3 and Chavez Ravine was never the same. He elicited roars for his giant swings, breathless sprints and joyous gestures to the sky. He was the most exciting player on the field just rounding first base. He threw out a runner from the right-field wall to end his first game. He had two homers and five runs batted in in his second game. He slid at home plate in another game after hitting a winning home run.
Puig also enraged opponents with his gestures and bewildered his own coaches with mistakes in right field and on the bases. He made three awful fielding decisions in the Dodgers’ final loss Friday, two of which resulted in errors. But his No. 66 jersey is now on the backs of thousands, and he’ll undoubtedly be greeted next season with something that only sounds like boos — the favorite new chant of Dodgers fans being his last name stretched out like taffy.
“People have to remember that the kid is just getting started,” Colletti said. “Hopefully this team is just getting started.”
Indeed, most of the Dodgers’ core will return next season, led by baseball’s best pitcher and its most powerful middle infielder. Clayton Kershaw will have to recover from his worst performance of the season in the Dodgers’ final game, and Ramirez will have to recover from a fractured rib that rendered him ineffective in the final series, but both will be in uniform in spring training.
Oh, and you know who else thinks it’s fun to be a Dodger again? Vin Scully is also returning to create this city’s most beloved soundtrack for a 65th season.
Finally, once again, it’s time for Dodger baseball.