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What a difference a year makes for the Dodgers

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Fri June 15, 2012
Matt Kemp and the Dodgers are having a banner season in Los Angeles.
Matt Kemp and the Dodgers are having a banner season in Los Angeles.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Dodgers have new owners and are in first place
  • Last year at this time the owners were in divorce court
  • The team suffered on the field and at the box office

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

(CNN) -- "When you and I went to dinner in Arizona in the spring of 2011," I say to Ned Colletti, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, "you thought your team might be a lot better than it turned out to be."

"It tells you that I don't know what I'm doing," he jumps in, finishing my thought.

"And when we went to dinner in L.A. before this season," I remind him, "you sure as hell weren't sure your 2012 team had a shot to be the best team in baseball."

Colletti is cool about being kidded because he's been around long enough to know how high and low and fast and slow and screwy and curvy and uncontrollable baseball can be.

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He says, "Well, how's that saying go, 'The whole is greater than the sum of its parts?'"

Everything that goes wrong one year can go right the next. Every guy who hit .200 can hit .300. Every guy on the DL can be an MVP. Every team's owner who files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection can sell that same team for $2 billion and change.

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Well, OK, not EVERY team. But maybe the Dodgers are too big to fail. Maybe you can't keep a franchise this strong down too long. Maybe the bum breaks even out. Maybe a new owner and a new cash infusion and a new attitude can create a new mood. I don't know. Call me maybe.

I can tell you this much: For years and years before the last owner owned the Dodgers, the Dodgers owned this town. The seats were filled. The team took five World Series championships and nine National League pennants after bolting Brooklyn to go west. If you count the Brooklyn years, these boys of summer won six Fall Classics and 22 pennants.

Something happened to the club that brought you Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider and Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, alas. Something unfortunate. Something unforeseeable.

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An organization that oozed success and epitomized class was being abandoned by some of its fan base. The seats WEREN'T filled. The team wasn't succeeding. Its owner was in divorce court and its financial statements were in bankruptcy court. A lawsuit and a criminal investigation were pending over a parking lot incident in which a Northern California man was beaten into a coma. Dodger Stadium attendance in 2011 was down more than 627,000 from the year before.

Unthinkable. Unacceptable.

I wondered what it would take for the Dodgers to straighten this out. Would it take years? Would thousands of fans who once jammed the freeway near Stadium Way now steer clear for good?

Well, they aren't totally back, the team or the fans, but you've got to admit, it's getting better.

For much of this season, Los Angeles (that famous ice hockey town) has owned the best record in all of ball. I know quite a few folks who thought the Los Angeles team of ANAHEIM might become a dominating one in 2012, what with having signed the Sultan of St. Louis Albert Pujols to a contract through the year 2022 or 2032 or 2525 or whatever it was they did. But the Dodgers? No way.

After all, what did they have?

They had a hard-hitting hitter, Matt Kemp, who might have been his league's legitimate Most Valuable Player last season, having come in second in a vote to a guy who later was accused of using a banned substance. They had a hard-throwing thrower, Clayton Kershaw, who was indeed his league's most valuable pitcher, having racked up a record of 21-5. They had a left-handed swinger, Andre Ethier, whose production had tapered off sharply in 2011 after a hot start.

And .... and ... ?

They had a team that ended up 11.5 games out of first place. They had an owner fans resented, with a big "FOR SALE" sign in the yard. A much-loved ballclub and ballpark suddenly had five popular people -- Kemp, Kershaw, Ethier, a certain redheaded gentleman in the radio-TV booth (initials V.S.) and a nice lady named Nancy Bea who plays the organ.

How low would they go?

It wasn't as if the Dodgers hadn't been down on their luck before. On October 29, 2005, the owner fired his general manager. He was Paul DePodesta (aka the true identity of the Jonah Hill character from "Moneyball"), who, for all his calculations and acumen, had just fielded a Dodgers team that won 71 of 162 games.

Colletti was hired. His teams proceeded to go to the playoffs of 2006, 2008 and 2009.

He had money to spend. He tinkered, he tweaked. Ethier was acquired in a December 2005 trade. Kershaw was drafted in June of 2006. There were signings and experiments that did not pan out, but there was also Manny Ramirez, who was acquired by Colletti from the Red Sox in mid-2008 and turned the whole left field pavilion into his own personal "Mannywood."

In the first rounds of the '08 and '09 playoffs, the Dodgers not only beat the Cubs and Cards, they swept them.

That 2009 team had a record of 95-67. It was the first Dodger club since the championship run of 1988 to win that many.

Ah, but prior to that 2009 NL championship series, snap, things changed. It was announced that owners Frank and Jamie McCourt were kaput. They had separated. As soon as the Dodgers were eliminated, Frank McCourt eliminated Jamie McCourt as the club's CEO. That same month, she filed for divorce. A day after she did, Frank McCourt's side claimed Jamie McCourt had a guy on the side.

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What a mess. And it got messier. There were good players (Randy Wolf, Orlando Hudson) who were not offered new contracts. There were players (Juan Pierre) who got traded, players (Ramirez) who got put on waivers and permitted to leave. You couldn't help but interpret it as the Dodgers cutting costs. Their catcher (Russell Martin) was not offered a new deal, even though no heir-apparent was apparent. Rafael Furcal ($13 million salary in 2011), Hiroki Kuroda (nearly $12 million), Jonathan Broxton ($7 mil) ... those guys, too, had to go.

Critics and skeptics no longer saw the Colletti who landed productive guys like Ted Lilly and Juan Rivera without giving up much in return. They focused instead on risks like Andruw Jones and Juan Uribe who didn't produce.

I told people that the GM, given resources, could field a team that true-blue Dodger followers were proud of again. Some of them scoffed.

Excitement didn't return until Magic Johnson and associates laid their billions on the table, making McCourt green but gone. Happy days were here again. Soon, these solvent Dodgers would surely solve all of the fans' woes, from finding a new third baseman to fixing the long traffic jams and the long lines for a hot dog. Snap, just like that.

And on the field?

Well, there was no waiting. Colletti did what he could. There were new arms, like those of Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang. There were the unrelated Ellises (catcher A.J. and infielder Mark) who were much better than anyone anticipated. There was a battle-tested bat (Bobby Abreu's) that the GM went out and got.

Best team in baseball? Maybe not. Best record in baseball? You bet.

As I watched a victory parade Thursday morning through the streets of Los Angeles, the ice skate guys were kings for a day, I looked at the baseball standings in the paper. Only one team had won 40 games already in 2012. It wasn't the Yankees. It wasn't the Angels. It wasn't the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals, who had lost Pujols. (See how quickly fortunes can change?)

It was the Dodgers.

"I wouldn't even use words like 'best team in baseball' because there's no such thing," Colletti tells me on the phone, grateful for a good start but understandably cautious. "In our case, we're a good example of a bunch of guys who get out there and give you everything they've got."

Oh, and there's something else some of them got: Kemp's got a big new contract. Kershaw's got a big new contract. Ethier's got a big new contract.

Now THAT's moneyball.

L.A. is a player again in the baseball business. It might not be a hockey town for very long.

How do you feel about the L.A. Dodgers? Let us know in the comments below.

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