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Play ball!

October 03, 2006

BACK IN THE GLORY DAYS of L.A. Dodgers baseball, an 88-win season wouldn't be anything to write home about. Six times between 1971 and 1982 the boys in blue won 88 games or more without even making the playoffs. But traditions are harder to recover than memories, so it is with finger-crossing hope that we congratulate the playoff-bound 2006 Dodgers, 74 losses and all, and welcome what is promising to be a new golden era for professional baseball in Southern California.

This year's team certainly has its scrappy charm. Consider how far they've come -- from a 91-loss wipeout in 2005, followed by a sloppy-looking front office overhaul in the off-season and continuing raspberries for transplanted Boston owner Frank McCourt. Even as late as July 26, the Dodgers languished in last place after losing eight games in a row.

But then came the magic. Thirteen wins out of 14 games here, a bushel of walk-off hits there, a handful of new heroes from God knows where and -- most memorably -- a dramatic ninth-inning September comeback fueled by four consecutive home runs, topped by a game-winner from Whittier native Nomar Garciaparra. This, finally, was L.A. baseball.

While the players deserve the most credit for the turnaround, it was the front office -- namely General Manager Ned Colletti -- that pulled off key trades and retooled the Dodgers' roster when many had already written off the season. What a change from last year, when McCourt was in danger of squandering the team's standing as Southern California's most beloved baseball franchise.

Now, even the most nostalgic fans have to strain to fault McCourt's stewardship. He's the one who hand-picked Colletti, restored the stadium to its mid-1960s pastel splendor and sent a message to Angelenos still smarting from News Corp.'s six years of reckless ownership: The Dodgers care about winning. And with an organization stacked with the best young talent since the 1970s, Chavez Ravine should be seeing plenty of playoff baseball for years to come.

The Dodgers are joined in the postseason by the San Diego Padres, making their second appearance in a row. The Angels, now perennial contenders for the first time in their history, only narrowly missed making their fourth playoffs in five years. All three organizations are run well, play in beautiful parks and draw among them 10 million fans a year.

Even if the Dodgers fall short in October, fans will still have plenty to remember about 2006, from the creaky veterans older than many newspaper editors to the irrepressible rookies acting like they own the place. They say the team doesn't have much of a chance. But they said the same thing in 1988.

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