Do you know where to find the most beautiful view of Los Angeles? Yes, that’s a little vague. Some may say the hills of Hollywood or the beaches of Malibu or Pasadena at sunset or a bunch of other things. So let’s narrow it a little: The most beautiful view of downtown Los Angeles, particularly at night?
Many others have said this before, and I agree: It’s exiting the press or reserve level at Dodger Stadium. Up there, you can look downtown in its golden eyes. The skyline stands tall without obstruction, sparsely lit. On a foggy night, it will have a faint glow. On a clear one, it beams into the night, like those sky lights that trace across the dark overhang, drawing attention. I’ve always loved the US Bank tower that stretches higher than the others. You can feel on top of the city from that place on Chavez Ravine, the pinnacle of attention. You can also feel intimate and hidden, behind the buildings and the lights and the sprawling landscape. And if the Dodgers are playing well, working on a season that seems headed for October, Dodger Stadium can make you feel both on the same night.
It’s rare. There’s probably been only three times in my life where I have felt that way. There was October 2004, when the Dodgers lost the first two games of the NLDS to the Cardinals in St. Louis. They returned to L.A. for Game 3 on a Saturday, and Jose Lima threw a complete-game shutout. It was a total “Dodger Stadium” pitching game – Lima threw a lot of strikes (74 of 109 pitches), but he had only four swing-and-misses and only four strikeouts. Seventeen balls went in the air. It didn’t matter. It was the first playoff game at Dodger Stadium since ’96 (when L.A. was swept in the NLDS) and the first playoff victory at home since ’88 (when L.A. won the World Series). Lima did his ‘Lima Time’ thing after every big out, and the crowd ate it up. You would have thought Lima threw a two-hitter with 14 strikeouts. I sat with my dad about 15 rows above the Cardinals’ dugout. I’ve never heard the stadium come even close to as loud as it was that night.
There was September 2006, when the Dodgers trailed 9-5 to the Padres in the ninth before Jeff Kent and JD Drew hit back-to-back homers. San Diego brought in Trevor Hoffman, who was three saves shy of Lee Smith’s career record, and Russell Martin hit his first pitch into the left-field pavilion. Three in a row. And then Marlon Anderson hit Hoffman’s second pitch out. Four in a row. They went to extras, San Diego scored one in the top of the 10th, and then Nomar Garciaparra hit a two-run walkoff in the bottom of the inning to win it for the Dodgers, 11-10. That win gave L.A. a 0.5-game lead over the Padres in the NL West. I sat in the right-field stands with some buddies and threw a handful of sunflower seeds into the air as soon as Garciaparra made contact.
And then the third time was solely because of Manny Ramirez. It was October 2008, Game 3 of the NLDS, and L.A. just swept the Cubs to earn its first playoff series victory since the ’88 club. Ramirez had a knock and two walks in that game, and after it was over, my dad and I stuck around with the rest of the ballpark. Nobody really wanted to leave, as the players spilled back out onto the field, spraying the fans over the dugout with champagne and beer. Manny got doused with a bucket of water in the dugout and then grabbed the PA microphone to say a few words to the crowd. “We’re gonna party at my house tonight,” Ramirez said. “We’re gonna party like rock stars. If you can find my house.”
The words almost became immortal because of the love for Manny since he joined the Dodgers that summer. Those three months of baseball in L.A. were beyond any kind of party the city could throw.
The Dodgers are in a similar position this summer, an eerily similar position, but it’s different, and it doesn’t make much sense. Two weeks ago, the Dodgers traded for Hanley Ramirez and there was a little buzz. They had sent a good young pitcher to the Miami Marlins, Nate Eovaldi, a kid you don’t like to send away. But it’s a baseball trade, and in these things you have to give something to get something. The Dodgers were 2.5 games back of the Giants when Hanley joined the lineup, and when he banged a triple off the wall in St. Louis in his first Dodger at-bat, there was a little something there. He did his eye thing to the dugout, beamed that bright smile, and a sense of rejuvenation, of renewal, washed over the club. It felt like the mark of a new season.
In 14 games, that feeling vanished as quickly as it came. With Manny, it exploded. Why? Perception and immediate performance have a lot to do with it, but it’s strange because the circumstances of the ’08 Dodgers and ’12 Dodgers are practically the same.
When L.A. traded for Manny, it was three games back of the Diamondbacks in the NL West. The Dodgers didn’t give up much. They sent a minor leaguer and Andy LaRoche to the Pirates, who sent Jason Bay to the Red Sox, who at that point just wanted a divorce with Manny. So the Dodgers got a 36-year-old player who had forced his way out of Boston (in part) by refusing to play because of knee pain — and then forgetting where the knee pain actually resided – and couldn’t play even passable defense in one of the least-demanding defensive positions and was also headed for free agency in the offseason. The Dodgers were 2.5 games back when they traded for Hanley, and with him they got a 28-year-old player who is capable of playing at least average defense at one of the most demanding defensive positions and is under contract for two more seasons at a reasonable price (compared to his talent). Hanley also brought a reputation from Miami as being coddled and unmotivated – a supreme talent who unleashed hell on opponents with that talent only when he felt like it. For all of Manny’s faults, he was widely respected for his preparation and work ethic.
On an abstract scale, the team around both players was about the same. In ’08, the Dodgers ranked 24th in baseball in runs. This year, the Dodgers currently rank 26th. In ’08, the Dodgers were second in baseball with a staff ERA of 3.68. The current Dodgers rank second with a 3.35 ERA. On the whole, the ’12 Dodgers play better defense with plus-8 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs, compared to the minus-11 number posted by the ’08 team*. In Manny’s first 14 games with the Dodgers, the club went 9-5. In Hanley’s first 14 games, L.A. went 7-7. But if you visited Dodger Stadium, you would never know any of this.
*FanGraphs tried to figure out how much of the minus-11 number was attributed to Manny’s two free-spirited months in left field, but their calculator crackled and popped and then exploded. So, you know, let’s just call it even.
L.A. didn’t just get behind Manny, it marketed Manny, promoted Manny and sold Manny. There was “Mannywood” in the left field corner, where people bought jerseys and wore wigs and leaned back and pointed two fingers at Manny when he did that to them. Every swing was a moment for joy and capitalism. There’s none of that with Hanley and hardly any of the excitement and anticipation that engulfed the Dodgers after Manny arrived.
This week, when the Rockies were in town, Hanley jogged out to shortstop in the top of the first inning and you looked but paid little attention to him. If your eyes were drawn anywhere, they were drawn to Matt Kemp roaming center. Hanley came up the plate for his first at-bat, and there were cheers, but faint ones.* He looked good at the plate and still took those beautiful swings with the big leg kick and healthy load, releasing it all in one powerful corkscrew motion on his back leg, nothing leaking to his front side. He stood out because few players simply look as physically gifted as he does, but he didn’t captivate, he didn’t engage an audience. I didn’t expect this at all, but it seemed as if more people came to see Shane Victorino than Hanley Ramirez. It couldn’t have been more different from Manny’s time here.
*Without looking at the official attendance, I would guess there were about 25,000 people at the game. I’d give you 30,000. If the attendance figure was reported higher than that, it’s a lie.
There are two obvious reasons for this, I think. When the Dodgers traded for Manny, he had hit .299/.398/.529 and 20 homers in 100 games with Boston. Manny hit 20 homers total the previous season, but the last image of him was sprinting in from the outfield in Colorado as the Red Sox celebrated a World Series title. Everyone knew Manny was still capable of being an elite hitter, but they were also seeing that, too. When the Dodgers traded for Hanley, he had hit .246/.322/.428 and 14 homers in 93 games with Miami. The previous year, Hanley played only 92 games and hit 10 homers and had a .333 OBP. He copped a bit of an attitude and threw his superstar weight around with the Marlins. But 2010 was a great year, and 2009 was a superb one – 25-year-old Hanley hit .342/.410/.543 and was the NL MVP runner-up. Everyone knew what kind of hitter Hanley was capable of being, but that wasn’t his reality at the time of the trade. He sulked and jogged and seemed disinterested, and we were left to wonder not where the talent went but why the desire seemed to fade.
The second obvious reason is what Manny did in his first two weeks with the Dodgers compared to what Hanley has done. Manny’s first 14 games in L.A.: .423/.524/.769 with five homers. Hanley: .226/.328/.358 with one homer. Manny went gangbusters on Los Angeles and reached a level similar to the one Bryce Harper achieved at the time of his call up earlier this season – you actively thought about the timing of their at-bats so you could be by a TV, computer, iPad, phone or whatever and not miss it. Everyone is still waiting for Hanley to catch a little fire, put together a little streak, pump a little life back into Dodger Stadium. There are very few players in baseball who have the mesmerizing level of talent to reach that Manny/Harper level, and Hanley is one of them.
I sat behind the plate and looked out at Hanley at shortstop and looked around the ballpark, trying to gauge if there was anything different because of Hanley’s arrival, even a small ripple of belief that this team was going somewhere, that Hanley could take it there. There were some scattered Hanley shirts but more Victorino ones. Cheers lifted up from the stands when Hanley came to the plate, but parents weren’t pointing their kids to the batter’s box when he stepped in, like everybody did for Manny. I tried to imagine what Vin Scully was saying in his booth a couple levels above, how if anyone could stir a little excitement around this place it was him, but I just couldn’t feel it.
And I thought, “What’s the deal here? Yes, it’s a week night. Yes, it’s the Rockies. But it’s also August, and there’s also a division for damn near anyone to claim. Magic Johnson, the face of the new ownership, is sitting off the on-deck circle. If anyone paid attention to the trade deadline, they’d see there are almost no financial restrictions on the front office. Everything is in front of this franchise, there to be had. What’s going on?”
I couldn’t figure it out. Sure, there’s something fun and magical about a star player coming to town and, for a couple weeks, hitting like nobody has possibly ever hit in this ballpark before. Cities and fans get behind that, and Hanley hasn’t done that. I get it. But a small fact: After Manny’s first two weeks with the Dodgers, they were tied for the division lead. After Hanley’s, they are 1.5 games back of the Giants. A division title is there for the Dodgers or the Giants or possibly the Diamondbacks.
Those October nights that make Dodger Stadium the gem of Los Angeles aren’t all that far off in the standings. There is time left for the stadium to reach full capacity and produce decibel levels reserved for historic moments and Lima Time. There is time for Hanley to do what Manny did, to be THE star in a town that adores them.
For now, Dodger Stadium is quiet.