LOS ANGELES -- The notion of “chemistry” is a curious one in sports. When you win, everyone celebrates your chemistry. When you lose, the culprit is often a lack thereof.
Chemistry also gets debated as a “chicken or egg” quandary. Does chemistry create wins, or do wins create chemistry? Assuming, of course, chemistry is more than just a cliche’ to begin with.
Believers cite this variable as an essential ingredient for team success. Skeptics downplay it as a convenient, dumbed down conclusion, then point to the three-peat Lakers, who feuded their way to back-to-back-to-back titles. They paint chemistry enthusiasts as armchair psychologists who rely on body language and facial expressions for analysis, rather than getting to the heart of the matter: The team just stinks.
Still, chemistry must play some role in sports, because too many athletes, coaches and people who’ve been in the actual trenches are likely to invoke the phrase. Granted, they’re often just as unlikely to put a finger on exactly what “chemistry” means and its tangible effect on winning. But generally speaking, I’ve encountered more people in sports who subscribe to the notion of chemistry than dismiss it.
Don Mattingly is among those buying in.
“Honestly, you know what I believe in,” responded the Dodger manager on Sunday when I posed the question. “I believe the power of a group of guys wanting to go for something, and all of them on that same page.”
Mattingly’s take actually coincides with my long-held theory on chemistry: It’s displayed most prominently not when a team is rolling, but rather when the chips are down. A unified front comes naturally when you’re dusting the competition. However, chemistry is truly forged -- and in turn, utilized -- during the low points, when wins are suddenly hard to come by, and guys must lift each other to reverse the tide. That’s not to say winning is as simple as a “Lean on me” sing-along. Talent obviously matters, and if you don’t have the horses, a team may struggle even while armed to the teeth with positivity. Still, I do believe a genuine desire to get each other’s back can be the X-Factor for a team trying to get over the hump.
In any event, the Dodgers suddenly find themselves in the position to test my theory. Despite injuries all season to players like Matt Kemp, Mark Ellis, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley’s erratic nature, and dependence on the untested likes of Nathan Eovaldi and Elian Herrara, they remain (currently) in control of the NL West, and have even held the best record in baseball over stretches. Their success is a remarkable feat, perhaps even one credited in some part to good chemistry. However, after Tuesday's 2-0 loss to the Giants, they’ve also lost eight of their last 11 games, and during last week’s series against Oakland, generated a grand total of two runs. It’s fair to wonder if their luck under trying circumstances has been pushed to the limits, and whether a watered-down roster is capable of holding down the fort any longer without Kemp in the lineup.
This is when chemistry truly matters, and when we get an idea of its power. For what it’s worth, these Dodgers believe in their makeup and synergy.
“When you don’t like people around you, I don’t care what you say, it’s hard to come to work and be happy,” said Tony Gwynn Jr. Saturday while appearing on 710 ESPN’s ESPNLA On Air. “That’s in general, on anybody’s job. When they’re happy with what they’re doing, they’re happy with the people around them, they tend to perform better. And I think it’s no different in our game of baseball. We’re around each other 162 days, hopefully more, and when you’re around people that much, you need to kind of like them a little bit. You need to at least like being around them.
“We enjoy each other’s company. I think that’s why we’ve played so well and I think that’s why we’re gonna come out of this rough stretch and be alright.”
Added Lilly on Sunday, “There’s usually gonna be some bumps in the road where things aren’t gonna go well. You’re playing well, but you’re getting beat by a run or two. Those are the times when you find out what the chemsitry is really like.”
James Loney knows a thing or two about the difference between good and bad chemistry, having been a part of recent Dodger squads not exactly spilling over with solidarity. I covered the Dodgers when Loney was a young pup and Jeff Kent was parked at a corner locker reading a motorcycle mag and avoiding human interaction like a germ-phobe avoids a hand shake during flu season. Before Manny Ramirez’s arrival, these teams hardly channeled the Three Musketeers (“all for one, one for all”), and the inability to forge a sum greater than their parts never surprised me. And the 2012 Dodgers may not be able to sustain such a goal, either. But it won’t be for a lacking of trying.
“Yeah, I feel like we’re probably more of a team (as compared to a few years ago),” Loney said. “We’ve got a good unit. We pull for each other.”
The power of that chemistry and how much it really counts is sure to be tested.