As we enter what will be for this fan my 36th season of watching baseball playoffs, I think about how this year is different than previous years. At my age and in what has become a time of reflection, finding myself between jobs and uncertain about my next steps in life, I am reminded that each season and each year is unique with its own peaks and valleys, as well as its share of smooth and bumpy rides along the way.
I’ve talked previously about how my baseball heart was first broken as a young 9-year old Expos fan on Blue Monday in 1981, and how through the great wonder that is baseball, that has brought me full circle to life as a die-hard Dodgers fan, hoping, rooting and waiting for the boys in blue to be the ones who bring me tears of joy, and not the tears of despair they brought this sensitive 5th grader back in October 1981.
All baseball fans enter each season with a level of optimism and hope. It’s one of the many beautiful things about this sport, but this year felt just a little different. There was a special level of optimism going into this year for this fan, after the magic of 2016, the team’s first year under Dave Roberts. I re-read my Opening Day post for Dodgers Nation recently and can honestly say that nothing has changed about how I feel. Even when things did get off course, as they painfully did during that losing streak in September, I knew in my heart of baseball hearts that the ship would get righted, and that the optimism for this team would last far beyond Opening Day.
And so we come to the playoffs, and how this year has a decidedly different feeling to it. I think back to previous playoff rounds since 2014 (which my first year fully in the throws of Dodgers fandom, having signed up for MLB TV during Josh Beckett’s no-hitter in May, and never looking back) and how yes, each playoff year felt hopeful, because “anything can happen in the playoffs”, but there was never the kind of feeling many of us fans have this year.
A friend and fellow baseball fan asked me recently why this year feels different. Even though my standard line to friends in previous seasons has been “this is the year”, this has been the first year in all of my years as a baseball fan that I mean it, feel it, believe it.
So what exactly is different?
Many things, and mainly, I believe there exists a deeper emotional connection. These are good guys, under an exceptionally great leader and coaching staff. Have you ever thought to yourself that you like some of the players on the team more than some of your own friends, and kind of meant it? My friend and fellow Dodgers blogger Andy swears she likes Clayton Kershaw more than her own husband, and there is a possibility that I’m single because no man would be better for me than Rich Hill.
But all kidding aside, there is still that emotional connection we have to these men who we often feel we spend more time with than our own people. And like many parents, I would imagine, feel about their own children, we only want what’s best for them, made so much easier when we know they’re good people, with leaders like Turner, Jansen and Utley emerging to join Kershaw as the emotional backbone of this team.
Baseball, on and off the field, has always been about the people and relationships for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to become closer to other Dodgers fans on Twitter, so this year the team’s experiences feel even more personal, sharing them with friends who have simultaneously been hanging on every pitch, every inning like I have. Like many others I’ve become acquainted with throughout Dodgers Nation, this season has seen a lot of ups and downs and changes in my personal life – changes that put real life in perspective but also make me appreciate that special “escape” of Dodgers baseball more than ever. Having this soft place to land has been a lifesaver in a lot of ways for many of us, and while a winning baseball season ultimately comes down to the team on the field, this team going all the way could feel sweeter than any other year because it feels like the culmination of years of loyalty and hope shown by its large, passionate fanbase. And for many of us, we may need this World Series win as much as we want it. Knowing we will share the joy and agony of postseason baseball together is comfort all on its own, and for that, I am grateful.
And of course, above all, the play on the field. The team won 104 games this year so has set expectations higher than they’ve ever been, and rightfully so. Going into the playoffs has never felt so hopeful before, mainly because of how they have played and shown us what they can do. Thinking back on the previous 3 postseasons, they each, of course, had some sliver hope attached to them, but like baseball seasons of my youth as an Expos fan, the other shoe always felt like it was inevitably about to drop.
2014 – The team had faltered down the stretch and sputtered into the playoffs, running on a Kershaw and a prayer, forcing him to have to go too far into games. The sight of him walking off the mound after giving up that 3-run HR to Matt Adams will forever be burned into my brain. The season ended in St. Louis with Carl Crawford at the plate and runners on base, but even if they had pulled out a win in Game 4 and Ethier hadn’t been picked off third late in the game, in hindsight it really didn’t feel like they had any hope in Game 5.
2015 – They beat Bumgarner to clinch in SF, which was sweet on its own, then had their NLDS overshadowed by the Utley slide and all of its controversy. Kershaw then threw a gem in Game 4 in New York in front of hateful Mets fans, and hope abounded with Greinke on the mound at home in Game 5. Many still point to letting Daniel Murphy go from first to third as the key to that loss, but this fan remembers too many Dodgers left on base early on, when they could have gotten to deGrom when they had the chance. We will never know what might have happened vs the Cubs in the NLCS that year, but it still didn’t feel like they quite possessed the postseason magic they would have needed to get any further.
2016 – A much deeper emotional connection to team because of Dave Roberts and the then improbable 2nd half come back. The team had become much more than just Kershaw. All season, though, the Cubs were just so good that it was easy to think this was destined to be their year, and at one point it felt like we should have just been happy that the Dodgers beat out the Giants to make the playoffs. Then, when the boys went up 2-1 on Cubs in NLCS on the strength of a masterful outing by Rich Hill, hope temporarily abounded until it was soon crushed even before the series even headed back to the dark, cold confines of Wrigley Field.
After each season-ending loss, there were varying amounts of disappointments and tears, and there may be again, but as sure as I sit here unsure about much of what the future holds, I think of Vin Scully’s final words to us on his last Dodgers broadcast last October:
There will be a new day, and eventually a new year. And when the coming winter gives way to spring, oh, rest assured, once again, it will be time for Dodger baseball.
This year may see its own heartbreaking ending, or it may end with a Dodgers win for the first time in 29 years. As in life, we can’t always write that ending ourselves, but can only do our best to enjoy the moments we have while they are in front of us, and appreciate that the world will keep on turning whether we spend the first week of November watching a World Series parade weave its way through the streets of LA, or curled up in the fetal position counting the days until Spring Training 2018.
So with an unprecedented level of excitement and anxiety, I say bring it on, playoffs! My liquor cabinet and I are ready…for whatever you have in store for us this year.
(Please join me @GJOH29 along with @DodgersNation as we enjoy this playoff ride together)
[button color=”red” size=”big” alignment=”center” rel=”follow” openin=”newwindow” url=”http://www.dodgersnation.com/dodgers-clayton-kershaw-2017-stats-against-rockies-and-diamondbacks-kl0292/2017/10/03/”]Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw 2017 Stats Against Rockies And Diamondbacks[/button]