Bless This Mess

Baseball’s richest team somehow became one of its messiest, most likable clubs. How does that happen?
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The Los Angeles Dodgers were the top story in baseball even before Tuesday night’s delirious tussle with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Yasiel Puig’s first games as a big-leaguer have overwhelmed not just for his gaudy stats, but the manner in which he posted them. The numbers, while incredibly impressive, do not communicate the full weight of the experience. In his debut last Monday against the San Diego Padres, Puig reached on a bloop single and infield chopper, arguably two of the least thrilling ways to register a hit. Yet the moments themselves enfolded and expressed much of what makes Puig exciting: his physical strength, his violent swing, the sheer desire evident in his every movement on the field. When he doubled up Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia from the warning track to end the game, it was less a revelation of his talent than a display of his willingness to force himself on the action in any way available. It’s fitting that Puig took a largely unrequested curtain call as many fans left the stadium. He attracts attention in part because he actively courts it.

Puig’s arrival in Los Angeles was highly anticipated because of his explosive Spring Training, quality AA stats, and the simple fact that, like fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, he’s one of the few top prospects who has not been analyzed and categorized for years before his first MLB start. He’s been great enough in this first stretch of games that Dodgers fans would have loved him regardless of his style—after all, the team remains in last place and needs all the production it can get. But it’s unlikely that Puig would have engaged otherwise impartial observers (let alone those like me: Giants fans who were brought up to despise the Dodgers) as much as he has if he didn’t seem to enjoy what he’s doing so damn much. Puig is the rare baseball player who expresses his style immediately, with no need for prolonged study of his habits and nuances. His role in Tuesday’s brawl somehow seemed fitting, both for his empowered non-reaction to getting hit in the head in the sixth inning and his ejection-worthy desire to show Arizona he would stand up for Zack Greinke (who got his back first, after all). Here, as everywhere, he imposes himself upon the action—he does not wait for it to come to him.

***

In that way, he’s somewhat similar to his employers. When Guggenheim Partners assumed control of the Dodgers last summer, they made a point of throwing their money around with all the tact and deliberation of a blue blood’s parody of the nouveau riche. Their most high-profile move, the super-trade of several decent prospects for pretty much all the Boston Red Sox’s highly paid veterans of questionable value, felt like a signal that the Dodgers had a limitless supply of funds, and a willingness to spend them with even the slightest prompting. At the time, my fear was that they would buy their way out of mistakes, essentially redefining what it would mean to run a team well. Forget the Evil Empire—money would render morality irrelevant.

Things haven’t worked out quite as well as planned for the Dodgers, now in last place in an NL West without any obviously impressive teams. Yet, as they await what once looked like surefire dominance, the Dodgers have happened upon something else: goofy, messy likability.

It was almost certainly an accident. In their pursuit of bankable talent, team president Stan Kasten and general manager Ned Colletti cast such a wide net as to bring in every conceivable variety of player. Their biggest acquisition, the Mexican-American (and therefore eminently marketable) first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, conforms to the classic baseball stereotype of the quietly productive slugger, a mild-tempered beast of burden tasked with carrying an offense. Along with franchise cornerstones Matt Kemp (saddled with nagging hamstring issues at the moment, but no less a part of the future) and Clayton Kershaw (sure to become baseball’s highest-paid pitcher ever whenever he signs his extension), Gonzalez represents what Guggenheim money can buy when necessary.

The problem is that Gonzalez was only available to obtain from the Red Sox because the Dodgers agreed to take on several awful contracts at the same time, which speaks to the problem of their current construction. Although the Dodgers have committed gobs of money to improving, the fact remains that their money has bought players who were on the market primarily due to the perception that they weren’t particularly valuable. From Boston’s point of view, outfielder Carl Crawford and starter Josh Beckett were the centerpieces of the Gonzalez trade simply because the franchise wanted to get rid of them so badly. Similarly, the Miami Marlins started their fire sale early and unloaded Hanley Ramirez—now a third baseman, in theory, except the Dodgers have had to play him at shortstop and he’s missed all but nine 2013 games with thumb and hamstring injuries—at a point last summer when the baseball establishment had given up on his ability to become a generation-defining star. In practice, the Dodgers roster is full of big names whose best years are behind them.

Their grotesque approximation of winning baseball is perhaps best exemplified by the continual presence of grit-intensive role players like Nick Punto and Skip Schumacher, whose connections to various playoff contenders over the years have given them reputations among old-school baseball minds as guys who Know What It Takes. Unfortunately, they stink, which becomes all the more glaring when the Dodgers’ marquee players flail in failure and sit out with various ailments. To top it off, embattled manager Don Mattingly has displayed an unfortunate and fetishistic appreciation of the bunt, inflecting the entire organization with accents of the retrograde even as management talks of a shades-only future. It’s strange.

***

The fight with the Diamondbacks was bizarre for many reasons, but it reached the level of a classic on the strength of the Dodgers’ coaching staff acting as if they were the primary combatants, not the peacemakers. Try to process Mattingly throwing Alan Trammell to the ground and hitting coach Mark McGwire screaming into the face of Matt Williams. Then remember that it’s not 1991, and that a reputation alone does not project gravitas. The Dodgers often look like an accidental monument to bloat, a West Coast incarnation of the late-aughts New York Mets. Or maybe they’re L.A.’s newest Spruce Goose.

The bizarre thing is that these additions have simultaneously made the team on the field all the more enjoyable. It helps that Kershaw and Greinke are two of the most watchable starters in the majors, a mismatched ace combo of an unassailable golden boy and an eccentric genius with a history of anxiety and one of the most varied pitch repertoires of this era (he’s even experimented with, if sadly abandoned, an Eephus pitch). The biggest factor in the Dodgers’ favor, though, is that their many players who’ve fallen out of favor still display the considerable skills that helped them to reach those heights in the first place. Ramirez, while a little immature and streaky, remains a dynamic presence in the infield and at the plate, prone to come up with a uniquely amazing play at any moment. When Crawford can get on the field, he still looks like the invasively athletic superstar who could have succeeded in any sport he’d chosen. Despite his injury struggles over the past two seasons, Kemp remains one of the sport’s bona fide all-around stars. No matter what these players produce, they possess the ability to excite anyone who watches them. The Dodgers aren’t particularly frightening, but they do provide some very basic pleasures.

Puig is arguably the purest expression of the organization’s philosophy and predicament. When they signed him last June, they effectively bid against themselves, setting what many considered to be a ludicrously high value just because they could. The early returns have been fantastic, with Puig currently holding a .500 batting average and 1.453 OPS. He looks like the game’s next big star, as well as one of it’s most likable.

But he plays perhaps a little too hard, in a way that’s likely to get him hurt. We know he can’t keep up his torrid stats forever and that the best pitchers in the world will find ways to get him out. He also might be facing a multi-game suspension very soon. It’s entirely possible that his first week will end up as the best he ever has as a pro, and not just because it would be so tough to top. All of which is to say that baseball—the sport as a living, breathing concept—has a weird way of asserting its essential weirdness in scenarios that appear to be sure bets.


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