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DON’T WEEP FOR THE BLOATED DODGERS — NO, CELEBRATE THE GIANTS
It’s impossible to summon sympathy for the payroll-filthy, Bauer-tainted champs and their wild-card plight when the Giants are one-upping them with a far more efficient, admirable business plan
So we’re supposed to feel sorry for the bloated superpower, the one that plays in a heavenly ravine, a team enabled by a nameless, faceless blob called Guggenheim Baseball Management? The wing-tipped money dudes who think a $270 million payroll is the cost of doing business?
It’s time to weep, you say, for the consortium that gave Trevor Bauer the richest per-season contract in major-league history, before realizing he was a creep and fixing that problem by devoting a treasure trove of resources to the greatest trade-deadline haul ever? You want to wrap a hug around the Los Angeles Dodgers, when they can snap their fingers and make Max Scherzer and Trea Turner magically appear in a clubhouse of superstars, MVPs and Cy Young Award winners?
All because a postseason format might subject them to a National League wild-card game that could end their season in three hours. All because Major League Baseball, unlike the NBA, doesn’t reseed teams according to records while staying true to a traditional structure that grants a bye to each of the three division winners. This year, it means the Dodgers, despite their 95-54 record, could be headed to a one-and-done scare while the Atlanta Braves merrily advance to the next round from their sickly 76-70 perch atop the NL East. This discrepancy has fueled cries among media and fans in Sports Hollywood — a spoiled and entitled place — that the poor, wittle, boo-hoo Dodgers are victims of an archaic system.
Actually, they are victims of themselves. While grazing in fields of gold, they allowed their rivals in San Francisco to leapfrog them in the NL West with a more efficient, admirable business plan. The Giants are spending $160 million this season, without a tax bill, eschewing the big-money, monster-splash acquisitions that define the Guggenheim Way: Mookie Betts, Scherzer, Bauer. They don’t have an assortment of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers stuffing their roster. Their pitching ace is Kevin Gausman, who wouldn’t crack a Dodgers rotation overloaded with Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. Their biggest find, it turns out, was stealing an MIT economics grad named Farhan Zaidi from the front office in Chavez Ravine, where he watched Andrew Friedman meld analytics with resources and unearth the likes of Max Muncy and Chris Taylor from the MLB hinterlands.
In the tech corridors of the Bay Area, they call it a New Age thing, a chemistry-class spinoff of Billy Beane’s “Moneyball’’ origins in Oakland, impossible to quantify and much easier to capture as a reconfigured culture centered around a sage veteran core — Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt — that contributed to three World Series titles back in the stone ages of the last decade. Zaidi hired a manager in his progressive vision, Gabe Kapler, and maximized a journeyman rental such as Gausman atop a rotation that includes — drumroll please, Anthony DeSclafani, Logan Webb and veterans Alex Wood and Johnny Cueto. The front office also unearthed Mike Yastrzemski, Darin Ruf and LaMonte Wade Jr. from those same hinterlands. The Giants win with balance and lead the league with 227 home runs — but the power doesn’t come from one juiced-up beast, as it did in the Barry Bonds era, but 10 players with at least 10 homers. And the coaching staff? This isn’t a breath of fresh air as much as a tidal wave of against-the-grain evolution, with three hitting coaches and three pitching coaches on a youthful staff that includes Alyssa Nakken, MLB’s first-ever full-time female coach.
Somehow, at 97-52, the Giants own the majors’ best record and have joined the Tampa Bay Rays — again shaming the New York Yankees atop the American League East — in showing how spreadsheets and on-field savvy can overcome massive payrolls. They’ve rattled their southern California rivals to the point Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager, is feeding the outcry that the geography of the NL West is sabotaging the defending Series champions.
“I do like the format of the NBA,” Roberts said. “The two best teams, in the sample of a major league season, should have the best chance of meeting in the postseason, and not just in the first round.”
Instead of moping, how about tackling the challenge and avoiding the wild-card game by winning the division? There’s still time, but as the Dodgers were evening the race, they suffered the kind of befuddling crash that typically has imperiled their season. They scraped out only five hits against a pitcher, Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo, who leads the NL with 15 losses, on a night that exhibited how an inferior Reds team — if not the St. Louis Cardinals or San Diego Padres — could stun the champs in a dangerous wild-card scenario. In a swing that might prove critical, the Giants extended their division lead by inventing an 11th-inning victory as only they can. The hero was Gausman, not on the mound but in the batter’s box, where his pinch-hitting appearance was booed by a home crowd that didn’t realize Kapler had run out of position players.
Of course, Gausman responded by driving in the winning run with a based-loaded, full-count sacrifice fly. “Oh, man, that was the coolest thing I've ever done in my entire career," he said. “When it was 3-2 and everybody stood up, it was probably one of the coolest moments of my life. ... Just crazy."
Just as we find ourselves rooting for the Rays to rise above the major-market colossuses, in cities where fans actually show up for games, the Giants have a lovable mojo that makes them a compelling national story. The Dodgers, with the ongoing drama involving Bauer and sexual-assault allegations, are liked only by their fans — and that is a sporadic loyalty right now. The Boston Red Sox are trying to overcome a COVID-19 crisis caused in part by a pitching ace (Chris Sale) who isn’t vaccinated. The maddening Yankees are struggling to fend off Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Toronto Blue Jays for a wild-card berth. Another big-money franchise, the Chicago Cubs, have been shamed by their mid-market rivals, the Cardinals, who made significant deadline deals while the Cubs were shipping away 2016 Series heroes and beginning a downsizing/rebuild that never should happen in the No. 3 market.
“Life comes at you fast,’’ said team president Jed Hoyer, channeling Ferris Bueller while the crosstown White Sox prepare for the fast lane of October.
In baseball, the teams that think quickly on their feet are rewarded. It’s no coincidence that the most nimble are the hungriest and those least burdened by payrolls, pressures and expectations. The Dodgers could have subscribed to the lesson, but their greedy controlling owners — Mark Walter and Todd Boehly do have names, if not public faces — insisted on ignoring Bauer’s bullying, misogynistic tweets when they might have asked a limited partner, Billie Jean King, what she thought. They thought they could apply a Band-Aid by acquiring Scherzer, who hasn’t allowed an earned run since Aug. 21 and has won 11 straight decisions with a 1.90 ERA and 131 strikeouts since mid-June. But his dominance hasn’t been enough to topple the Giants. “I was there for at least parts of his Cy Young years,” said Turner, referring to their time together in Washington. “And, for me, this is as good as I can remember him.”
And to think before the season, in a New York Times story lauding the Dodgers as a American cultural institution with “visions of transcending mere baseball,’’ team president and chief executive Stan Kasten said, “We have a moral and social responsibility to have a strong community relations program, but also, it’s just good business.’’
Then why sign Trevor Bauer for three years and $102 million?
Consider it the curse of the gods, who must have noticed when the Giants were signing Kevin Gausman to a one-year deal for $18.9 million.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.