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Dodgers clinch a West tie

Just making it to next week won't be enough

September 25, 2008|Bill Plaschke

Soon, perhaps today, there will be champagne spraying from the weary fists of Dodgers division champions.

Here's hoping none of it lands on Newk.

Please, for now, keep the bubbly and beer and contentment away from the stately man in the spotless silk suit and fitted fedora.

After spending years standing on a Dodgers pitching mound and behind Dodger Stadium home plate, Don Newcombe understands Dodgers success.

And simply qualifying for the playoffs isn't quite it.

"Just making the postseason is not Dodger tradition," Newcombe said Thursday. "Getting to the World Series, winning the World Series, now that is Dodger tradition."

Lots of people have been thinking it; thank goodness that Jackie Robinson's buddy finally said it.

Winning the Western Division title with a makeshift team populated by growing kids and aching veterans and one certifiable nut is a great feat.

But it's not enough. Not here. Not now. Not if the Dodgers want to convince fans that the long-clouded sky above Chavez Ravine is once again, you know, blue.

The Dodgers cannot dance into next week, they have to march there. The Dodgers cannot be satisfied with next week, they have to want four more.

Simply making the playoffs is not enough when you haven't won a playoff series in 20 years.

When you've only won one playoff game in those 20 years.

When the winning pitcher in that game was Jose Lima.

Twenty years after Orel Hershiser's greatness, the Dodgers fans sadly cling to Lima.

Twenty years after Kirk Gibson, the Dodgers fans rest their fitful heads on Steve Finley.

During Wednesday's victory over the San Diego Padres, which combined with the Arizona Diamondbacks' loss cut the magic number to one, the loudest and most heartfelt cheers weren't for anything on the field.

Those sounds, that feeling, erupted only when the Dodger Stadium outfield video board replayed Gibson's 1988 World Series homer.

Dodgers fans threw their hands into the air with a sense not only of exultation, but longing.

They deserve to feel that way again. They deserve to cheer that way again.

Simply making the playoffs is not enough when your fans are happiest when reveling in something that is 20 years old.

This playoff berth is as transient as the other four they have earned since 1988.

Once again, they need to win at least one playoff series to make it stick.

And they need to listen to Newcombe's advice, gleaned from Robinson, on how to do it.

"Jackie and I used to talk about how everybody gives 100%, but this time of year, that's not enough," Newcombe said. "You have to give 10 to 15% more. You can't be satisfied with your best. You have to give better."

In recent years, this satisfaction guaranteed despair.

Two seasons ago, thrilled to win a wild-card berth on the season's final weekend, the Dodgers flew to New York like kids on a field trip.

Joe Beimel cut his hand on a beer glass. Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew ran over each other at home plate. The Dodgers were swept by the Mets, and it was like that previous six months never happened.

"It was so terrible," recalled first-base coach Mariano Duncan. "It felt so bad, you almost wished we hadn't made the playoffs in the first place."

Four seasons ago, thrilled to win the division on Finley's walk-off grand slam, the Dodgers flew to St. Louis like a happy family on a vacation.

In the first game, the Cardinals hit five home runs.

In the second game, Finley tried to crush a full-count, bases-loaded pitch with the score tied in the fourth inning. No grand slam here, only a fly out that ended the threat and opened the door to another Cardinals rout.

At some point, for the culture here to change, this postseason history must change.

"There's no reason it can't," said Newcombe. "I look at these guys like I looked at Steve Garvey's group. I look at Russell Martin and I see the potential to become Roy Campanella."

Newcombe's point was that the postseason gives any of these current players chances to become Dodgers legends, if only they believed in Dodgers legends.

"Times change. People change. But the Dodgers should not change, we should keep expecting championships," Newcombe said.

Who knows?

Derek Lowe, who loves pressure so much he won the clinching game in all three 2004 postseason series for the Boston Red Sox, could become another Bulldog.

Manny Ramirez, who has stirred the Dodger Stadium crowd like few others in the last 20 years, could become another Gibby.

Dodgers postseason history has plenty of vacancies. Somebody just has to show up.

"I don't care about any other teams, I don't care about what anybody says," said Newcombe. "Remember, man, we are the Dodgers."

He remembers. You remember.

Will they?

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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