On June 21, the Los Angeles Dodgers were 30-42, 9½ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. Then, in a remarkable surge over the next 50 games, they not only earned themselves a chance to save their season but manager Don Mattingly's job as well, winning a fantastic 42 of 50 games.
As many have been quick to note, the last 72 years of baseball history show that if you go through a 42-out-of-50 stretch during the season, you're going all the way: The last two teams who went 42-8, the 1941 Yankees and the 1942 Cardinals, both capped their seasons with a World Series win. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, though, if you go back further, there was one team with an even better 50-game stretch that didn't win it all -- the 1906 Cubs, who went 45-5. The 1912 Giants also went 42-8 during the season, but lost the World Series.
It's possible that the Dodgers will be forgiven if they make it to the Series and don't win, but more than likely the reaction of the fans and press will be the same sentiment expressed by Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in Moneyball: Even if you've had a stellar season, he explains, "If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit."
After a remarkable turnaround of a different kind, the Dodgers don't just have the best 50-game record in the league -- they've suddenly got the biggest payroll in Major League Baseball, too. The Dodgers have spent more than $200 million on salaries; if they "lose the last game" and don't bring home the title, their fans won't care what they did all year.
The Los Angeles area is the second-biggest market in baseball behind New York, which makes the Dodgers, by definition, one of the three or four biggest money-producing teams in either league -- along with the Yankees, Mets, and Angels. They haven't always acted like a top-earning, top-paying franchise, though: The last time they won the World Series, which was also the last time they won the NL pennant, was 25 years ago. Over that time span, they pretty much surrendered the Los Angeles area to the NBA's Lakers. Even worse, they lost West Coast supremacy to the hated San Francisco Giants, who have won two World Series in the last three seasons.
During that time, the team got far more publicity from the bitter divorce battle of Frank and Jamie McCourt, the husband-wife majority owners who bought the team in 2004, than from baseball. The McCourts brought the Dodgers a disastrous cash-flow problem; the front office cut spending so drastically that fans complained that there wasn't enough mustard on the legendary Dodger Dogs.
Things reached a low point in 2011 when the team filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to keep MLB and Commissioner Bud Selig's office from taking over the team. Court papers indicated that the Dodgers needed $28 million by July 1 just to meet their payroll. As reported by Reuters, "Selig responded to the bankruptcy filing with a statement blaming the Dodgers' financial woes on McCourt's excessive debt and his diversion of club assets to address personal needs."
Relief came in the form of the Guggenheim Partners, led by Mark Walter and the town's biggest sports celebrity -- NBA hero Magic Johnson. The group put up a record $2 billion to buy the team and immediately began pouring money into solving its problems, dishing out an estimated $600 million in salary commitments and more than $100 million on a massive renovation of Dodger Stadium. Some thought the ballpark had become old and quaint -- and it certainly was; opened in 1962, it is the third oldest big-league ball park in the country, after Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park. What the new brass understood, though, was the fans liked the old and quaint look but wanted modern-day convenience, including a state-of-the-art scoreboard, more comfortable seats, and the removal of view-obstructing columns. They also put in new cell phone towers (presumably making it easier for celebs to reach their limo drivers).
There was also, of course, the matter of putting a contending team on the field. In the same year the Steinbrenner family was working frantically to cut the Yankees payroll (to make the team more attractive to buyers, so the rumors say), the Dodgers let theirs soar.The 2013 team carries the biggest payroll in baseball history, an estimated $220-$230 million, which includes deferred payments to former players and the competitive balance "luxury," or competitive balance tax, for exceeding this season's $178 million salary cap limit.
But unlike their American League rivals, the Angels, who spent most of their payroll on past-their-peak big names Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, the Dodgers brought on hot young stars like right-hander Clayton Kershaw, currently the front runner for the NL Cy Young award with a league-low 1.80 ERA, and Korean lefthander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who has won 12 of 16 decisions. The most spectacular new Dodger, though, is Yasiel Puig, 22-year-old Cuban who cost them a hefty $42 million. More than any other player, Puig has sparked the Dodgers' resurgence both this season and as a franchise, hitting over .360 and running the bases with the speed of a Sidewinder missile. Angelenos' favorite recent baseball debate is, Who is the best young player in baseball -- Puig or the Angels' Mike Trout?
For all the tons of cash the Dodgers are pouring into player salaries, though, it's worth noting that the Dodgers, at 74-52, have the same record as the Pittsburgh Pirates, a small-market team that has invested its resources in developing their farm system. After years of patient cultivating, the Pirates are reaping the rewards.
Traditionally, though, big-market teams and their fans don't have the patience to wait for the farm teams to mature. For the prices they're paying for tickets and cable TV packages, the fans -- egged on by the big-city press -- demand winners now. And there'd better be extra mustard for those Dogs, too.