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At long last a title and love for Dodgers

September 26, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

A season of grand cacophony climaxed Thursday afternoon in a most beautiful silence.

When the Arizona Diamondbacks lost to the St. Louis Cardinals at 2:32 p.m. Pacific time, the Dodgers officially clinched the National League West championship.

Nobody was on the Dodger Stadium field. Nobody was in the Dodger Stadium stands.

There was only the sweet sound of a six-month sigh of relief.

And then, bless some stadium employee, there was Randy Newman, his trademark song blaring over the loudspeakers, echoing through the Chavez Ravine stillness.

Those who love L.A., it seems, are falling back in love with the Dodgers.

"All we've been through, for 162 games, to get to this one step," said infielder Nomar Garciaparra. "A huge step."

It was a sometimes pained, often plodding step. But in the end, with the fresh footprints of kids and the giant ones of Manny Ramirez and Joe Torre, it was a perfect step in the long road toward reclaiming the Dodgers' spot as the city's premier sports franchise.

"They've accomplished something very, very big," said owner Frank McCourt. "This is another step toward bringing back our culture of winning."

The Dodgers, who have won just a single playoff game since their last World Series title in 1988, will begin the five-game National League division series next week at either Chicago, Philadelphia or New York.

The journey there began Thursday in much the same way it evolved during the season -- with a little confusion, a little awkwardness, but much unabashed fun.

Many players arrived at the Dodger Stadium clubhouse early for Thursday night's game with the San Diego Padres, gathering to watch the end of the Diamondbacks game on television.

By all accounts, when the final out was recorded, they shook hands, hugged, then turned on the clubhouse stereo and began bopping to "Paper Planes," a hip-hop song by M.I.A. that is played after every Dodgers victory.

It was as if they had just won a game without playing a game.

No champagne was popped, although Casey Blake apparently didn't need any.

"I'm drunk already!" he reportedly shouted.

"I've never experienced anything like that," Torre said.

Neither has Ramirez, perhaps because he wasn't there.

The guy who has carried the Dodgers on his bat since arriving here from Boston on Aug. 1 didn't even know the Dodgers were champions until he was at the stadium later that afternoon, on the elevator descending to the clubhouse.

"Somebody told me," he said, shrugging.

And what did you say?

"Nothing," he said, smiling.

Don't you think this will inspire your teammates?

"I haven't figured them out yet," he said, still smiling.

At least Ramirez knew the Diamondbacks were playing.

Andre Ethier, a young outfielder who has thrived since Ramirez's arrival, was having lunch at Philippe's in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon when a fan approached him.

"What's the score?" asked the fan.

"The score of what?" Ethier said.

He did not know that the Diamondbacks were playing an afternoon game. He quickly summoned the score on his phone and noticed the Cardinals with a three-run lead that eventually became a 12-3 victory.

"I was like, 'Oh, OK,' " Ethier said. "Lunch was a little better after that."

The real party began about eight hours later, after a meaningless loss to the Padres. Because it was a loss, the Dodgers felt they could not celebrate on the field, so they respectfully disappeared into the dugout and didn't begin spraying champagne until they had reached their clubhouse.

Led by Russell Martin, the Dodgers eventually brought the party outside, with Martin and others spraying champagne on some of the remaining fans.

Joe Torre then grabbed a microphone and thanked the crowd, ending the surreal day with dignity and a promise.

"I have a feeling we're going to have a little more fun for about a month," said Torre.

If a few of the players seemed dazed, well, few people thought they would have survived this long.

The Dodgers ended last season with a clubhouse mutiny that led to the dumping of then-manager Grady Little.

Torre was hired to control the mob, but initially the young players weren't listening, the old guys weren't producing, and it was a mess.

Three weeks into the season, they were in last place, seven games behind Arizona.

Of the first 157 games of the season, they were first place in just 14 of them.

Only two members of the opening-day starting lineup -- catcher Russell Martin and first baseman James Loney -- are starting at those positions today.

In the span of six months, injuries sidelined the Dodgers opening-day shortstop, second baseman, center fielder and starting pitcher.

Torre held frequent one-on-one meetings. Sometimes he prodded. Other times he pushed. Mostly, he just massaged.

"I told them, you can't busy yourself with what you don't have," Torre said.

"Nobody is going to feel sorry for you in this game. They're going to run over the top of you. You have to win with what you have."

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