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Mudville: June 23, 2024 9:45 am PDT

I Love LA

BY KEVIN KERNAN

In baseball you need character – and characters.

Here is today’s question at Baseball or Bust: Where have all the characters gone?

Spring training starts this Super Bowl week with the Dodgers and Padres opening camps in Arizona because they have an early start to the regular season, a two-game series in Seoul on March 20 and 21.

Hey, with no WBC this spring, MLB has to have some kind of early money grab, so they are taking the show on the road to South Korea. And what a show. The Dodgers will be the biggest draw in the game everywhere they go this season because of the signings of the free agents Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The Padres have got a lot to prove to show they are not duds again, the Dodgers are studs, at least in the payroll department. I’m old enough to remember the Yankees powerhouse teams from way back when and they were known as US Steel.

I’m calling these Dodgers, the “World Series’’ Dodgers, there is irony in the nickname because the World Series is something the Dodgers have not won during a full season since 1988. They’re due and they spent the money to make it happen, now they have to show they have the character that matches their payroll. I want to see the Dodgers step out of their comfort zone and talk a little trash and play with a little more spirit and toughness as manager Dave Roberts asks his players to dig a little deeper.

In their race to another NL West title I would like to see the Dodgers show a lot more Hollywood pizzazz, be characters as well as showing character on the field, something that the Tommy Lasorda, Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser, Mickey Hatcher, Mike Scioscia Dodgers did back in 1988 to destroy the highly favored A’s in that classic World Series I covered.

Have some fun, Dodgers.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tyler Glasnow during DodgerFest at Dodger Stadium on February 03, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

They have been much too buttoned up as an organization. And it is not just the Dodgers. Too many teams are too high strung – and I believe that is because of the pressure of constant measurements and Nerd Ball being put on individual players today.

They’ve forgotten it is a game and it is supposed to be fun.

There is so much emphasis on individual drills and measurements, the team aspect of winning has been lost. Everything is measured from their first pitch in the Pitch Lab to the last swing in the batting cage.

The message being sent is always about the individual’s numbers and not team numbers; the only numbers that really matter are wins and losses.

By the way, have you noticed that seemingly every team has a Pitch Lab now and still, pretty much every team is wracked with pitching injuries – and pitching, especially starting pitching, has never been worse? Sure some aspects of pitch labs are beneficial like finding a balanced delivery but pitchers, let’s get back to solid mechanics, reading opponents’ swings, throwing ground balls and having some fun out there on the mound and not just worrying about getting two times through the order and what was your velocity and spin rate.

I’m not saying you have to be Mark Fidrych smoothing out the dirt on the mound, but show a little style.

Let’s have more fun in baseball across the board, and by fun I don’t mean staring down your home run that goes all the way into the front row of seats and then flipping the bat high in the air, that’s become a little overdone, save it for the biggest moments, I  mean having baseball fun, the pure joy of playing the game, making that diving catch, going from first to third on a base hit, being happy that you made contact, even weak contact, to drive in a run. Winning. Make the game human.

I truly believe that was one of the secrets of the Texas Rangers success last season. They leaned on one another in a baseball way. Bruce Bochy took the pressure off his players by allowing them to be ballplayers, not robots where everything is measured, everything is pre-planned, everything is calculated pre-game, and no in-game adjustments made.

Less hugs, more thugs.

Bochy is a special kind of manager who can make adjustments, not every manager can and not every manager has the will to stand up for what he believes or has the backing of the general manager to make those tough decisions.

Instead of his players playing tight and being a segment of another daily math equation, Bochy’s big baseball brain figured out things for his team and as a result he allowed his players to just play the game and that is how a rookie like Evan Carter could join the Rangers late in the season and be a difference maker.

You know what is the most fun of all: winning. Winning with personality and winning as a team is the way to go. Evan Carter is a ballplayer. Same for World Series MVP Corey Seager and iron man Marcus Semien and pitcher Nate Eovaldi.

That is why I was deeply encouraged by Mookie Betts comments at Dodger Fest or whatever they call it this week. Could it be a new dawn for the Dodgers? Consider this all part of my spring training primer of bringing joy back to the game and leaving the measurements behind; and this is not just for the Dodgers, this is for every team, except the Rangers, they don’t need it because they have Bochy.

Here is what Mookie said about teams playing his star-studded Dodgers this season, and get me a box of popcorn: “Every game is going to be the other team’s World Series, it is what it is, it’s what we signed up for,’’ Betts said matter of factly.

It is what it is.

Exactly Mookie, and if teams don’t like that comment, do something about it. My favorite thing about this statement is all the talking heads losing their heads about Mookie’s reality-based comment.

Mookie took heat but that’s because the baseball world, the talking heads and the numbers analysts and all the stenographers out there, not to mention the world of fandom, have gotten pretty soft. When players say something provocative about success and expectations for their team it’s as if they committed some kind of sin. How dare you!

You can’t do that in the “Kindness Lives Here’’ world of 2024 baseball. That is much too harsh. Too bad.

Randy Newman said it all in the 1983 song I Love L.A. but the Dodgers in their last three playoff appearances have been as soft as the sand on Venice Beach. That song was an anthem in 1984 in the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics and again in 1985 – and I was there all those games, too. The song is still played every night at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers better be ready for the heat every night so it finally creates a postseason where they will not be swept away by a “lesser’’ opponent. Last October it was the 84-win Diamondbacks who humiliated the 100-win Dodgers in the NLDS, winning three straight. The year before that it was the 89-win Padres who embarrassed the 111-win Dodgers in the NLDS.

The year before that it was the 88-win Braves who ambushed the 106-win Dodgers in the NLCS.

If you’re counting, the Dodgers have won 10 of the last NL West titles, but lost three straight October series, and even worse, have lost seven of their last eight playoff games in that stretch. Here are some numbers that matter over that period of losing seven of eight, the Dodgers are hitting .200 and averaging 2.5 runs per game.

With that kind of playoff production, the pitching had  better get better and you sure could use Ohtani’s bat. Shohei will not be pitching for a while but don’t forget the Dodgers also traded for Tyler Glasnow from the Rays.

By spending well over a billion dollars this off-season the Dodgers put themselves in the bullseye and by re-signing Clayton Kershaw for his 17th Dodgers season they have taken a bit of the pressure off Kershaw – because he is no longer the one carrying the starting pitching load, and I like that, too.

The Dodgers better believe in themselves, that’s the first step to success and I’m here for the spice. I’m here for some personality from the players and from the broadcasters, too. I’m not here for math class. To many baseball experts, GMs included, and it goes without saying ALL assistant GMs, they are only about the measurements of the game instead of talking baseball and maybe talking some trash, too.

Start talking about the art of the game and also the motivation of purely wanting to go out there and kick the opponents’ butts.

Less hugs, more thugs.

A little bit of a killer instinct can go a long way. More players who will do anything to win and win as a team, that’s what the Dodgers and so many teams need.

Drones, there is no spin rate for the heart.

That is where real baseball people, real scouts, real development people, real coaches and a real manager come in and Dave Roberts has it in him; I know he does because I witnessed the stolen base at Fenway Park in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees when Roberts stole second off Mariano Rivera and then was singled home by Bill Mueller to turn the tide and save the Red Sox Lost Souls in that curse-breaking series – one incredible baseball moment in the history of the game – a stolen base for the ages.

Manager Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers hugs Miguel Rojas #11 during DodgerFest at Dodger Stadium on February 03, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

It’s ironic that this generation of baseball GMs totally gave up on the value of the stolen base, kind of like batting average, it didn’t matter anymore, until the rules were changed drastically last year to make a stolen base so much easier now than in 2004 year when Roberts stole 38 real bases in 41 tries. And who changed the rule to make a stolen base pretty much a walk in the park, Theo Epstein, whose career benefitted immensely from Roberts real stolen base that was green-lighted by manager Terry Francona.

Interesting that Epstein is back with the Red Sox now in some undefined capacity because the Red Sox owners have been so busy with their other sports, they have totally lost touch on how to build a baseball team.

How much fun was that stolen base for Red Sox fans and the Red Sox? That was a team that wasn’t afraid to say they were going to beat you. Theo has come home just in time for the 20th anniversary of that World Series Champion team, his timing is always pretty good. That was a team of self-professed “Idiots’’ who knew how to have baseball fun and other fun, too. Kevin Millar wasn’t the best player, but he may have had the best team attitude.

I remember asking Millar once about his approach to the game in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and Millar told me that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, one of the toughest players to ever play the game, was a baseball inspiration to him. That’s why Millar wore No. 15.

That particular Red Sox team never worried about stats. They lost themselves in having fun as a team, playing baseball and leaning on one another. Once again, there is no spin rate of the heart that is easily measured.

Betts was a big part of the Red Sox winning the 2018 World Series. He was also a huge part of the Dodgers winning the 2020 Covid Shutdown World Series and Game 6 when baseball officially jumped the shark as Rays manager Kevin Cash, wearing the protocol blue mask, marched to the mound and took out Blake Snell with one out in the sixth inning with the Rays leading 1-0. Joe Buck was on the call, and it was one of his best calls, “Man, talk about a short leash … 73 pitches, two hits, nine strikeouts,’’ Buck said. He then pointed out that Betts and the No. 2 and No. 3 hitters for the Dodgers were 0-for-6 with six strikeouts against Snell.

Bad move, Rays.

Betts soon doubled against reliever Nick Anderson, a wild pitch scored a run and then Betts‘ speed scored the go-ahead run on World Series MVP Corey Seager’s ground ball to first. The Dodgers were on their way to a Fake World Series title.

Taking out a dominating Snell was what the Nerds did and Snell was furious. Baseball, pretty much, hasn’t been the same since until Bochy brought some sanity back last October with his pitching decisions.

Betts will have another chance at a World Series this year, a real World Series, if the Dodgers meet the challenge. Every team’s World Series will come in games against the Dodgers as Betts boldly said and good for him to let his team know what is coming.

The Dodgers World Series comes in October, if they can make it there. I don’t know if the Dodgers can, but I Love L.A. just for the fact that Mookie Betts is talking the talk.

Baseball could use much more of that and fewer measurements.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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