Saturday, October 17, 2009

Trying to Dodge the Dodgers


For the 5th time in the history of Major League Baseball, two of it's storied franchises are now meeting for the championship of the National League. The Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers have split those first four matchups, each winning a pair.

Most Phillies fans are well aware of who their own team is and what it's history has been, but who are these Dodgers? A brief lesson on the history of the franchise, and a closer look at the current team, and a recap of those previous four Phils-Dodgers matchups should make this a far more interesting series for all Phillies fans.

The first thing that the Phils and Dodgers have in common is that the two franchises were formed in the same year. In 1883, a team from Worcester, Massachusetts in the National League moved to Philadelphia and became known as the Phillies. It is now the oldest continuously named franchise in all of professional sports. That same year, a team that became known as the Dodgers were born in the borough of Brooklyn, New York.

At that time, Brooklyn was not officially a part of New York City, and the team for many years went by a number of different nicknames. The name 'Dodgers' evolved slowly over time before finally becoming official in 1932 or '33 when it began to appear on the team uniforms. The name derived originally from New Yorkers refering to Brooklyn residents as 'trolly dodgers' due to the vast network of trolley cars in the area, and the fact that residents frequently had to scramble in the streets to keep from getting struck by one.

In the early part of the 20th century, Brooklyn sports writers took a character from the play Oliver Twist known as the 'Artful Dodger' who had a street person nature and began using the link to give the team an affectionate nickname of 'the Bums' based on this character. As the team went decades without winning a championship, this alternate nickname stuck as well.

The main rivals for the Dodgers franchise since those earliest days have been the Giants franchise. Both teams were from New York, and this battle for the hearts of the citizens there led to the rivalry. The rivalry continued even after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, because the Giants moved out to San Francisco at the same time, leaving the teams to fight over professional baseball's new west coast fans.

Before moving west, the Dodgers franchise made baseball history when famed General Manager Branch Rickey signed and brought to the Major Leagues the first black player. For decades the Negroe Leagues had existed for black players, who were discriminated against and intentionally segregated. For the 1947 season, Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and formally broke the color barrier.

An informal Phillies-Dodgers rivalry broke out over the next few years in a way very unflattering for the Phils team and its fans. The Phillies were notoriously discriminatory. Some of the team players specifically went out of their way to disparage and play 'dirty' against Robinson in his first few years, the Phillies fans yelled obscenities and insults at him, and the Phils ended up being the last Major League team to finally employ a black player in 1957.

What has now become a famous sports saying, "Wait 'til next year", began with Dodgers fans as they waited frustratingly for a championship. In the 1950's, the team was victimized by two of baseball's immortal moments. In 1951, the hated rival Giants beat the Dodgers in a playoff for the NL pennant thanks to Bobby Thomson's famous 'Shot Heard Round the Word' homerun. In 1956, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series to help beat them.

1955, the Dodgers franchise finally did what many of its fans thought might be impossible. That year the team defeated the New York Yankees in 7 games to win their first World Series championship led by stars like Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, and Roy Campanella. Also members of that team were future Dodger and baseball legends Tommy Lasorda, Don Zimmer, and a 19-year old kid pitcher named Sandy Koufax.

Little could Dodgers fans have realized that two years later their beloved 'Bums' would be gone forever. Following the 1957 season, after failed plans to build a new ballpark to replace their aging home at Ebbetts Field, the Dodgers franchise helped initiate baseball's westward expansion by moving to Los Angeles. The Giants moved west the same off-season, and the two club's rivalry continued out west, leaving New York solely to the Yankees of the American League.

In just their 2nd season in their new home, the Dodgers won their 2nd World Series title in 1959, and baseball became solidified in southern California as a result. The team opened Dodger Stadium for the 1962 season, and it remains home to the team and one of baseball's most beautiful ballparks to this very day. A Dodgers team dominated by the pitching of Sandy Koufax, perhaps baseball's greatest left-handed pitcher of all-time, and Don Drysdale helped the team add two more World Series titles in 1963 and 1965.

For two decades stretching from their final years in Brooklyn beginning in 1954 and continuing through the first half of the 1970's, the Dodgers had been managed by the legendary Walter Alston who guided the club to 7 pennants and 4 World Series titles. When Alston finally retired, he was replaced by a man who would himself become a legend. Longtime Dodgers player and coach Tommy Lasorda, a man who claims to "bleed Dodger blue", took over the helm and would remain as manager into the 1996 season. Between these two men, the Dodgers had an unimaginable string by modern practice of 43 seasons of managerial stability.

Lasorda's early Dodger teams were led by the vaunted infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey, and catcher Steve Yeager, who would play together for almost a full decade. It was this club that first became the Phillies playoff rivals. As the Dodgers came back to contender status in the late 1970's, so did the Phillies team developing with players like Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, and Steve Carlton. The two teams would meet in playoff showdowns for the National League pennant in both 1977 and 1978, and again in 1983.

The 1977 result turned out to be one of the most frustrating and dramatic post-season results in Phillies history. That year the Phillies won 101 games and were considered by many to be the best team in baseball. Gaining a split of the first two games of a best-of-5 series in LA, the Phils returned to Veteran's Stadium and took a 5-3 lead into the top of the 9th inning of the pivotal 3rd game. It was then that what has become known as 'Black Friday' in Phillies history began to unravel.

After the Phils got two outs with nobody on base, and with the fans roaring in anticipation of a 2-1 series lead, and with ace and future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton set to pitch the next game, the Dodgers devastated the Phils and their fans as they scored three runs in excruciating fashion. The Dodgers incredibly won the game 6-5, took the 2-1 lead, and the following day Carlton was defeated in a rain-marred game by Tommy John to advance the Dodgers into the World Series.

In 1978, the Phillies won their 3rd straight eastern title, but again the Dodgers frustrated them with a four-game win in the NLCS. The Dodgers lost the World Series both years to the Yankees. The Phillies finally broke through and won their first World Series in 1980, and that Dodgers core finally won their own the following year in 1981. In 1983 the two teams again met for the pennant, and this time the Phillies prevailed before losing the World Series to Baltimore.

It would be a quarter century before the two clubs would hookup for another National League pennant. In the interim years the Dodgers went though the 'Fernandomania' years of the 1980's when pitchers Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser kept them in contention, culminating in the team winning a dramatic 1988 World Series highlighted by Kirk Gibson's legendary 9th inning pinch-hit homerun to win the first game against Oakland.

The Phillies used a rousing 'Worst-to-First' team in 1993 to return to the World Series themselves, but lost on the legendary Joe Carter homerun for Toronto. It would be an oasis in a 2 1/2 decade playoff drought for the Phils. The Dodgers won western titles in 1995, when they were led by a Philly-area native in catcher Mike Piazza, and again in 2004 but could not win in the playoffs. Finally a year ago, the two old playoff rivals met again for the 2008 NL pennant.

Most Phillies fans are well aware of what happened last season. The Phils held a 2-1 series lead, but LA appeared poised to tie it up as they led 5-3 heading into the top of the 8th inning. With the next game also scheduled for Dodgers Stadium, it appeared that LA was in excellent position to take charge of the series.

The Phillies had other ideas, and fashioned their own revenge for 'Black Friday' by devastating the Dodgers and their fans with an incredible rally. Shane Victorino drilled a 2-run homer to tie the game at 5-5. After a base hit by catcher Carlos Ruiz, Dodgers manager Joe Torre brought in his flamethrowing closer, Jonathan Broxton. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel countered with powerful veteran pinch-hitter Matt Stairs.

In one of the most memorable moments in the Phillies post-season history, Stairs blasted a mammoth 2-run homerun to right field to put the Phils up 7-5. They went on to close out the series in five games, advancing to the World Series where they defeated the Tampa Bay Rays for just the 2nd championship in team history.

Now the two teams are back, meeting once again for the 2nd consecutive season for the National League pennant. While the Phillies have brought in new key faces such as outfielder Raul Ibanez and pitchers Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez, the Dodgers are largely the same cast of characters, but with their youngsters a year older and more experienced and a refurbished starting rotation.

Dodgers young stars such as pitchers Jonathan Broxton and Clayton Kershaw (who lost the first game), 1st baseman James Loney, catcher Russell Martin, and outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are all talented and now are more seasoned. Add in returning veteran outfielder Manny Ramirez, 3rd baseman Casey Blake, shortstop Rafael Furcal, a pair of new infielders in veterans Rafael Belliard and Orlando Hudson, and Japanese import pitcher Hiroki Kuroda (who will start on the mound in Game 3), as well as former longtime Phillies lefty starter Randy Wolf (who will start Game 4) and the Dodgers are once again a formidable, worthy obstacle as the Phils attempt to repeat.

The first two games have seen the two clubs split the results, and the series now shifts to three games at Citizens Bank Park over the next four days. The Phillies stole the homefield advantage by taking the opener behind an offensive outburst and the return to effectiveness of closer Brad Lidge, but the Dodgers tied it up with an 8th inning rally in game two and a tremendous start from Phillies castoff pitcher Vicente Padilla.

Citizens Bank Park will be rocking over the next few days as the team returns home for the first time in 10 days. In the interim, the fans have watched on television through some of the most emotionally and physically draining games that range from a controversial late start, frigid weather, and a miracle rally against the Rockies to the up-n-down split in Los Angeles.

For the Phillies and Dodgers, these next few days will go a long way to deciding, and in fact may actually finalize, who will win the 2009 National League Championship Series pennant and advance to the World Series. It will either be a return trip for the Phils to defend their title, or the Dodgers first trip in over two decades. One thing that is almost certain based on the history is that these two clubs are about to make dramatic history for baseball fans on both coasts.

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