The clubhouse was quiet, but not like it traditionally is after a loss. This time, there simply were too many people around for it to be that quiet. Too many reporters asking too many questions about what had gone so unthinkably wrong on an evening when the Dodgers seemed to have everything lined up in their favor before they took the field. They had Clayton Kershaw on the mound. In a last-minute development, they had Hanley Ramirez, in whatever condition he was in, in their lineup. And they even won a small victory before the game even started, Scott Van Slyke refusing to leave the field or break from his national-anthem stance until Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly did so across the way, and Kelly finally blinked when an unamused plate umpire Greg Gibson told them it was time to stop this silliness because there was a game to play.
After that, though, nothing had gone according to script. Kershaw blew up. Kershaw doesn’t blow up. Ever. Kershaw is about to win his second National League Cy Young Award. He is unflappable. At times, he is unhittable. And there was no way he was ever going to blow up in the N.L. Championship Series, in a game the Dodgers had to win to extend their season. But somehow, some way, he had. And somehow, some way, the Dodgers had been shut down AGAIN by Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha, who took home the NLCS Most Valuable Player award because in two starts, he blanked the Dodgers on seven hits over 13 2/3 innings.
And somehow, some way, the Dodgers had missed the World Series for the 25th year in a row.
Dreams die hard, and this one died as if it plunged from the top of the Gateway Arch. The Dodgers had the highest payroll in baseball. They had new owners who made everybody forget all about that guy from Boston whose name nobody seems to bring up anymore. They had a rotation full of aces and a lineup full of impact hitters and a bullpen that was money. But yet, when the misery of this 9-0 humiliation to close out the season was finally complete, the Dodgers scurried to get off the field and up the clubhouse tunnel in an attempt to minimize the amount of time they had to watch the Cardinals literally dancing and singing in the rain, having just punched their fourth ticket to the World Series in the past 10 years.
The disappointment cuts deep, as much for the Dodgers’ fans as for the players themselves. And as general manager Ned Colletti pointed out after the game, there is always next year, but this year, this team, this particular group, is gone forever.
A missed opportunity. A dream that died hard.
“This is sports, and it’s supposed to be exciting,” Colletti said. “I think this group of guys was exciting in a lot of ways. I’m going to miss these guys, because it’s never the same group. Even if everybody came back, it’s still never the same guys. I’m going to miss these guys. I think that is why I’m unhappy to see the season end. This is a special group of people.”
The Dodgers have a handful of free agents, some of whom they probably will retain and some of whom they won’t. We’ll get into more detail on that in the coming days. They will make trades this winter to address some needs, and probably sign a moderately priced free agent or two, as well. When they do, when the proverbial hot stove heats up, the fans will get excited, and when spring training rolls around, that excitement will reach a crescendo all over again. And while the memory of tonight won’t go away, the bitter feeling of disappointment will be long gone, replaced by the renewed hope of another season fast approaching.
Right now, none of that is important. Right now, if you are a devoted Dodgers fan, all you are feeling is despair and maybe even a little hopelessness. After all, if THIS Dodgers team can’t get to the World Series, if what was arguably the deepest and most talented team in the franchise’s long, storied history — and certainly the most high-priced — then what hope do the Dodgers have?
Well, take heart, my friends, and consider this: the current playoff format is a complete and total crapshoot. It doesn’t reward you for being the best team in the postseason. It rewards you for getting to the postseason, showing up every day, taking each game one at a time and plodding along until you have managed to win 11 games (12 if you came in as a wild card). This year, that team isn’t the Dodgers. Next year, even in the unlikely event the Dodgers have a slight dropoff in talent from this year’s team, it very well might be.
Take these Cardinals, for example. In 2004 and 2005, they entered the postseason with great teams. Loaded teams. Stacked teams. Teams with deep, power-laden lineups and solid starting pitching. Teams that could have, and possibly should have, won the World Series. And yet, neither of them did. The 2004 squad rolled into the World Series, but then got humiliated by the Boston Red Sox. The 2005 team was headed off in the NLCS by the Houston Astros, a wildcard team from the Cardinals’ own division.
Profound disappointment. A sense of an opportunity having come and gone, without ever being realized.
And then, in 2006, a very mediocre Cardinals team barely won the N.L. Central. They won 83 regular-season games. That’s a shade above .500, but it was good enough to win a truly awful division. And then, the Cardinals played a game at a time. And pretty soon, they had vanquished the San Diego Padres, the New York Mets and the heavily favored Detroit Tigers. And the mediocre, 83-win Cardinals were world champions.
My point is, with the playoff format the way it is now, the way it has been since the switch from four divisions to six in 1994, you simply can’t go in thinking, “world championship or bust.” It doesn’t work that way anymore. Of the past three World Series champions, the 2010 Giants, the 2011 Cardinals and the 2012 Giants, all three were considered long shots when the playoffs began. Not one of them could make the argument it was the best team going in.
That said, and payroll aside, the Dodgers were vanquished in this NLCS by a superior team. The Cardinals were the best the N.L. had to offer in 2013. In 2014, this Dodgers team only figures to get better. The bulk of the rotation, Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, will all be back, along with a presumably healthy and hopefully rejuvenated Josh Beckett and a surgically repaired Chad Billingsley. They may lose Juan Uribe to free agency, but the core of Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez all are under control for next season, such an embarrassment of riches that the Dodgers may trade one of them this winter just to clear a spot in the lineup.
The program cover in the photo above was wrong. That wasn’t “next year,” 1952, and so the never-ending “Wait ‘Til Next Year” battle cry of the Brooklyn Dodgers lived on, for three more years, until they finally got that elusive first World Series title in franchise history in 1955. And you know what, 2014 might not be next year for the Dodgers, either. Or it might be. Or they might come even closer than they did this year, and fall even more tantalizingly, agonizingly short than they did on Friday night at Busch Stadium.
But it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out, isn’t it? And no matter how heartbroken you may be right at this moment, come spring, you and the Dodgers are going to be ready to start on this road all over again — all the while believing that it just might be the year when this team finally gets to its intended destination.
Until then, just remember, time heals all wounds. But as much as those wounds may be hurting right now, they are an important part of why you love this team and why we all love this game.