LOS ANGELES – It’s been a while since I’ve had this much anticipation about a series at Dodger Stadium, and it’s not so much because the Braves have won 10 of 12 games and because the Dodgers started out 9-1 and have baseball’s hottest hitter (Matt Kemp).
No, it’s because the king is dead, metaphorically speaking.
Since the Dodger franchise got out from under the dismal ownership tyranny of Frank McCourt four weeks ago, when the group that includes Magic Johnson, film mogul Peter Guber and former Braves president Stan Kasten, among others, bought the team for $2 billion, I’ve looked forward to seeing Dodger Stadium again as we’re accustomed to seeing it.
That is, with energy emanating from the crowd and smiles on the faces of the courteous ushers, and with the beautiful, venerable ballpark hopefuly spruced up and clean the way it was for decades until the O’Malleys sold the Dodgers and it slowly became Just Another Franchise under Rupert Murdoch and Fox, then something much worse under the feuding McCourt husband-and-wife tandem.
But as much as I’ve looked forward to returning, my anticipation pales next to that of Braves broadcaster Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame pitcher whose 324 wins included 233 in 16 seasons with the Dodgers from 1966 through 1980.
“I’m excited for them, because I have to admit that I haven’t felt good about the custodians of our [Dodgers] history or the guardians of our future for a while,” Sutton said. “And now, I know Magic is a guy who’s so community- and people-oriented, and he has an appreciation for, and friends on, the Dodgers. And I’ve seen Stan at work on four or five different levels.
“So I just think it’s a great situation, and I already have friends out there who are enthusiastic and say they can’t wait to get back. And I think one of the best things that could’ve happened is they’re playing well. They have a foundation for a good ballclub, and now they’ve got people who really give a damn about what has happened in the past. They care about Carl Erskine and [Don] Newcombe and [Jackie] Robinson and Carl Furillo – not just the big guys, but maybe the guys who were the small bricks of history. So that means a lot.”
Sutton’s an Alabama native who lives near Palm Springs, Calif. In recent years he’s only made it out to Dodger Stadium for the Braves’ annual visit, but he knows plenty of people with connections to the team going back decades, people who live in Southern California and have winced and cringed at the steady erosion of the franchise in recent years.
Those people, like millions of Dodger fans, are now hopeful optimists, their spirits buoyed by news that the drawn-out, ugly divorce of the McCourts — and their divorce from the team, save for parking-lot revenues – is no longer The Story with the Dodgers.
It’s back to baseball, and an ownership group that plans to restore the franchise to its glory, on and off the field.
“My page in that [Dodgers] history book is certainly a small one,” Sutton said. “But we knew a lot of people, and we were people who helped create whatever size – a paragraph, a sentence, a page — in the history books. So there were often times where we thought the people in charge thought the history started the day the ink dried on their deal [when the previous owners purchased the team]. And that’s kind of painful.
“I was there at a good time to get to know Erskine and [Roy] Campanella and [Maury] Wills and [Johnny] Roseboro, all the guys that you never heard brought up and you never heard them talked about [in recent years]. So to me it was painful, because they were friends of mine and they were people that led me down the right path. So I feel better now. I feel good about it.
“I still have friends who were there when I played there, who were in concessions, who were ushers. Some come to see my in Palm Springs and sit around and lament [in recent years] – and the statement they made was, you’re only here three days a year. You really don’t know.”
Now, the cloud has lifted. Dodgers from the past – as well as the present – are thrilled that the team is under sound new ownership that’s not looking to run the grand franchise on the cheap and neglect the living museum that is Dodger Stadium, one of the last surviving old baseball palaces.
“Magic has been there forever and has been a Dodger fan,” Sutton said. “Stan loves baseball – very few people know how much Stan Kasten knows and loves the history of baseball. He’s a baseball historian. He can cite you chapter and verse of so many things. So I like having him pulling on the reins.
“It’s like the Fourth of July, I think this was an explosion [when the team was sold] that was the beginning,” Sutton said, “of something that’s going to be good for Los Angeles and for the Dodgers.”
• Chipper’s last stop at Chavez: His .240 average in 58 games at Dodger Stadium is his lowest at any current venue where Chipper Jones has played at least 20 games, but that doesn’t at all correlate to his enjoyment and appreciation of the ballpark nestled in the hills just a mile or two from downtown L.A. It should be noted, he does have 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 221 at-bats at the stadium.
“I do enjoy playing there,” said Jones, who’ll turn 40 on Tuesday, in the middle of his last scheduled series at Dodger Stadium before he retires after the season. “I grew up a Dodger fan, so it was always a dream of mine to play there. It’s probably, I think, the most beautiful place to play a baseball game. Chavez Ravine is a pretty awesome place.”
Understand, Jones grew up in Central Florida at a time when the Dodgers trained in Vero Beach and there were no major league teams that played in Florida other than spring training. The Dodgers were one of the high-profile national teams that appeared often on TV.
“While I don’t have the same feelings about the Dodgers that I did when I was a kid, they’ve got a great club,” Jones said. “It’s always been a tough place to play.”
He added: “I miss listening to Vin Scully on TV.”
Scully, the 84-year-old legendary Dodgers broadcaster, missed five early season games with a bad cold, including his first missed home opener in 35 years.
Scully doesn’t do many road games anymore but hasn’t announce any plans to retire. Chipper scoffed when I suggested he might ride off into the sunset the same year as Scully.
“Nah, Vin isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “Vin’s a lifer.”
By the way, Chipper missed the first and last games of the four-game series at Arizona. He was held from the series opener after his left knee swelled during the long flight from Atlanta, and got another rest, as planned, in Sunday’s day game after a night game Saturday.
He did pinch-hit Sunday, and after the game I noticed Chipper limping more than usual. Don’t know if he did something while trying to beat out the double play he grounded into, or if it was just a bit more than his usual postgame soreness.
When I asked him whether he thought the short flight from Phoenix to L.A. might be easier on the knee than the longer flights from Houston to Atlanta and Atlanta to Phoenix that necessitated missed games (and fluid drainage after the Houston-Atlanta flight), he said there really was no way of knowing until he actually made the flight and woke today (the knee was sore the morning after the longer two flights).
He had arthroscopic surgery on the left knee March 26, and manager Fredi Gonzalez and head trainer Jeff Porter are trying to make sure Jones gets enough rest after returning from that DL stint in the minimum 15 days and without a minor league rehab assignment.
Jones agreed with the amount of playing time he’s gotten early.
“At least here in the beginning while I kind of play myself into shape,” he said. “That’s the main thing. And still with some residual knee stuff, he [Gonzalez] been good about playing me a couple of days, giving me a day off if I need it. And gradually, hopefully I won’t continue to need days off every couple of days, maybe start giving me one off every week or so.”
In his first three games off the DL, Chipper went 5-for-12 with two homers, five RBIs, two walks and a .500 OBP. He played six games since them and gone 3-for-17 with a double, three RBIs, two walks and a .250 OBP.
Against tonight’s starter, Capuano, he’s 1-for-13 with five strikeouts.
• Heyward’s Dodger blue(s): It’s still too small a sample size to stress about, but Jason Heyward is well aware of his statistics against the Dodgers, who’ve given him fits like no other team has. The Braves right fielder is 3-for-49 (.061) with three RBIs, three walks and 18 strikeouts against the Dodgers, including 0-for-24 with no walks in his past eight games.
Heyward is 2-for-31 with 11 strikeouts in eight games at Dodger Stadium.
“I was talking to B-Mac [Brian McCann] about it, actually,” Heyward said. “About how we all have places that are tough to play us as hitters. Like he said, ‘You’ve only had two years. Just stay with your approach and you’ll be fine. Go out there and don’t even think about that.’ And I’m not. I’m just going to stay short to the ball like I’ve been doing, and just make adjustments.”
He hasn’t faced Chris Capuano, who thrived against the Braves last year with the Mets. Heyward faced several tough Dodgers lefties in the past including last year, when he struggled against lefties like never before in his pro career.
So far this season Heyward has hit .304 (7-for-23) against lefties, with two doubles, a homer, seven RBIs and a .360 OBP.
“You’ve got to give credit to that pitching staff that we’ve faced out there,” he said, running through a few that came immediately to mind, lefties and righties. “[Chad] Billingsley, [Clayton] Kershaw … in 2010 they had [reliever Hong-Chih] Kuo, throwing 97 at the time. And [Hiroki] Kuroda, who almost no-hit at us at home. So give them credit. But at the same time, the more times you can face a pitching staff over the years, the more comfortable you can get.”
•Tonight’s matchup: Simply put, the Braves really need better results in tonight’s series opener from Jair Jurrjens, who has an 8.10 ERA and .362 opponents’ average through three starts.
They hope he can pitch like he has in the past against the Dodgers – he’s 3-1 with a 3.06 ERA in six career starts against the Dodgers, including 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two during the past two seasons. He is 1-0 with a 3.31 ERA in three starts at Dodger Stadium, where he got no decision in an April 2011 start after allowing one run in six innings.
Matt Kemp is 4-for-14 with a homer against him, and Andre Ethier is 5-for-11.
Dodgers lefty Capuano is 3-1 with a 1.56 ERA in his past seven games (six starts) against the Braves, including 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two starts last season with the Mets. He had 19 strikeouts in 14 innings of those two games, including 13 strikeouts with no walks in a two-hit shutout Aug. 26, the game that began the Braves’ 10-20 season-ending skid.
“He’s got a really good changeup,” Chipper said. “It’s more like a split than it is a changeup; it disappears on you. It’s not going to be easy [facing him] this time, either. Hopefully JJ can keep us in the game and we can fare a little better against him.
“I like the way we’re playing right now. We can beat you a bunch of different ways – we can win a slugfest and we can win a 2-1 game. A lot’s been said about the amount of runs we’ve scored to this point, but we’ve won some close games the past 10 days.”
Michael Bourn was 3-for-24 with two runs, no RBI and one stolen base in his first six games. In 10 games since then, the Braves leadoff man is 19-for-41 (.463) with 10 runs, four RBIs, six stolen bases and a .522 OBP and 1.107 OPS…. Freddie Freeman hit .162 (6-for-37) with one extra-base hit and one RBI, a .205 OBP and a .189 slugging in his first nine games. In six games since he’s 11-for-23 (.478) with five doubles, three homers and 14 RBIs, with a .478 OBP and 1.087 slugging percentage…. Matt Diaz is 12-for-25 with a homer and five RBIs at Dodger Stadium, and 6-for-18 against Capuano…. Southern California native Freeman is 4-for-13 with two homers in four games at Dodger Stadium… Jack Wilson is 10-for-27 vs. Capuano.
• Let’s close with one from the late, great songwriter and longtime Los Angeleno Warren Zevon, which you can hear by clicking here.
“JOIN ME IN L.A.” by Warren Zevon
Well, they say this place is evil
That ain’t why I stay
‘Cause I found something
That will never be nothing
And I found it in L. A.
It was midnight in Topanga
I heard the DJ say
There’s a full moon rising
Join me in L. A.
wake up . . . wake up
I was at the Tropicana
On a dark and sultry day
Had to call someone long distance
I said “Join me in L. A.”
Join me in L. A.
– By David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog