Before he hit an iconic home run that propelled the Dodgers to their most recent World Series championship, Kirk Gibson was part of a Detroit Tigers team that started the 1984 season with 35 wins in their first 40 games.
Those Tigers ran away from the American League. They led their division by double digits in July, won it by 15 and finished with 104 wins, eight more than anyone else in baseball.
Now part of the Tigers’ broadcast team, Gibson watched the Dodgers come to Detroit in August, fresh off an historic 43-7 stretch and running away from the National League.
There will come a time for these Dodgers, as it did for his Tigers, Gibson said, when they will start to feel the weight of what they have done.
Late in that 1984 season, he said, the Tigers began to feel the pressure to finish it off, the realization that anything short of a World Series victory would waste all they had done, make the regular-season success empty and label their season as – a failure.
“I don’t know if ‘failure’ is the word. But extreme disappointment,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said to that idea.
This is not the first time the Dodgers have dragged “World Series or Bust” expectations into October. The highest payroll in sports will do that. But this is the first time since 1974 they head into the postseason having posted the best record in baseball during the regular season.
The longest-tenured Dodger and a part of seven previous playoff teams, Andre Ethier watched most of this summer’s magic from home, waiting for a herniated disc in his back to allow him to play again (and wondering if it would). He sees the emptiness of falling short.
“I feel like winning the NL West five years in a row leads to complacency. Especially for this team, this organization, even for the fans,” Ethier said. “You get used to winning five NL West titles but you really haven’t achieved anything. You haven’t. In the big scheme of things.
“That became a reality that last homestand when we were playing the Giants. You look across at a 60-win Giants team and how many guys in this clubhouse, how many fans – it’s tough to say this but – would love to be in the Giants’ situation and have three World Series under their belts in these five, six years while we’ve won these five NL West championships?
“It doesn’t matter how many games you win. It’s about getting to the playoffs and winning a World Series. … There’s no banners out there saying we’re NL West champions five years in a row. The only banners hanging out there are World Series championships. A 104-win season, 90-win season. They don’t mean anything unless you win it. No one is going to remember in five years if this team won 104 games if we don’t win the World Series.”
Oh, they will remember. But not fondly.
But they won’t be alone. Winning 100 games in the regular season has not meant much in recent postseasons.
Last year’s 103-win Cubs team was only the third team since the 1994 strike season to win 100 games and cap it with a World Series title. Four reached the World Series and lost. Five lost in the League Championship Series. Nine 100-win teams didn’t even make it out of the first round.
“The ultimate goal is to win a championship,” Roberts said. “When you play for the Dodgers and you haven’t won in awhile, you’ve won the division five years in a row and you haven’t got the ring … it’s a challenge that we all have to embrace. You can’t run from it. We’ve got to respond. Up to this point, we’ve done everything we could to put ourselves in the best position to accomplish that goal. Now it’s up to us to finish it.”
Only two players on the Dodgers’ current roster have been to the World Series – Chase Utley and Curtis Granderson. Only Utley has a ring. But he was also part of a 102-win Phillies team in 2011 that lost in the first round of the playoffs – an example of Billy Beane’s “crapshoot” theory of postseason outcomes, illustrating how a good regular-season team is not always the best postseason team?
“I don’t know if there is much of a difference,” Utley said. “You obviously have to have a lot of talent. Guys have to want to win. You need a few breaks here and there. Sometimes you create them. Sometimes they just happen. But I like our chances.
“I don’t think it’s a crapshoot. I think everybody who is in the postseason is good teams. It comes down to starting pitching, good defense and timely hitting.”