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Sunday morning, Dodger Stadium, Dave Roberts' office, about 90 minutes before game time. You can feel the Sunday morning pregame sag emanating from the clubhouse, but Roberts is having none of it. He is upbeat in the relentless but unforced way of a teacher in an inspirational Hollywood adaptation, and he's got important work to do. One unfinished task is nagging at him: Game time is nearing, and he has yet to have an individual conversation with every player on his roster.
It's something he does before each game, he says, and today there are four players in the room down the hall who might feel forgotten. When I ask him to name them, in a sort of testing way, Roberts says "Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Alex Wood and Luis Avilan," without pausing or breaking eye contact.
"As a player, I remember the coaches and managers who made a point to connect with me," Roberts says, and as I barge in with another question, he raises a finger -- "and I remember the ones who didn't."
A baseball season is a search for rhythm. Teams strive to impose flow onto a schedule that resists it. Elements exist outside a continuum; there is no natural connection between games or plays or pitches. Is a season 162 one-act plays or one long, sprawling novel with 162 subplots? It's up to the individuals to provide the connection, to link at-bats and pitch sequences and win streaks.
Times are good as Roberts bounds out of his office in search of the neglected four. It's mid-August, and his team is rolling. Everyone's happy and cared for. His capital-C Culture is working. But the eternal question that guides Roberts today is the same one that will soon haunt him when those connections snap: How does a group of big-ego big leaguers, each convinced he's the leading man in his own story, recognize that he is instead a supporting actor in everyone else's?
In August, I spent 11 games with the Dodgers -- three in Arizona, five in Los Angeles, three in Detroit -- chasing the answer to that question. During those 11 games, I watched Justin Turner hit two homers in a game twice, each time running around the bases with a sly grin on his face, slightly behind his beard and ahead of his hair. I witnessed Cody Bellinger homer against Zack Greinke and explain it by saying, "It felt great because I didn't feel it." I listened as Yasiel Puig said he doesn't get tired of winning because when he was 15 or 16 he played on a team that lost 58 of 60 games. Day after day, I saw Hyun-Jin Ryu sprawled on a clubhouse couch, phone in hand and earbuds inserted, watching videos from what appears to be the Korean version of the Food Network. The Dodgers won eight of the 11, reaching a peak of 53 games over .500, and over the course of that stretch I heard every possible mutation of the question How do you explain this?
But later that month, something extraordinary and oddly compelling happened: The Dodgers' season became a rebellious teen, requiring constant surveillance lest it devise something even worse. And so I returned during a series against the Rockies -- and saw three losses that ran their streak to 16 in 17 games, and 11 in a row -- chasing answers to slightly different questions. I listened as Ed Sheeran's sugarcoated walk-up song for Turner began to sound like a funeral dirge. I watched a grumpy Puig stand at his locker after a Saturday night loss and put on a sharp gray suit with the force and vigor of a firefighter unrolling a hose. I saw a group of young men avoid eye contact with an intensity I never thought possible. Over the course of those games, I heard every possible mutation of the question How do you explain this?
The Dodgers' ridiculous first half -- which led to a ridiculous margin in their division -- allowed the team in the season's final months to adopt the role of animals of the Galapagos, free to evolve without fear of predators. They experimented with different lineups, used the 10-day disabled list at will and began the mental assembly of their playoff roster.
A late-August/early-September reset invites skepticism, especially one that amounts to a series of spring-training-like workouts: Adrian Gonzalez off the disabled list and at first base, a decision that led directly to Bellinger spraining an ankle after an awkward catch in right field in Detroit; call-up Alex Verdugo getting starts amid a search for a left-handed-hitting center fielder; Corey Seager, with a tender elbow, being rested for almost two weeks as a precaution against further injury.
Taken individually, considering the Dodgers' place in the division and the historic pace they were then on, each move could be defended as measured and well-considered. Cumulatively, though, they amounted to a backfire caught in a shifting wind; it created something it was intended to prevent, and something they were powerless to stop. As the losses accumulated, my mind went back to something Roberts said in Detroit: "We've turned over every stone looking for a potential weakness." As one player described it, "It wasn't broke, but we fixed it anyway."
Sound is a living organism in sports. Losing must be endured amid a penitent silence. The stillness feels parentally invoked: Just sit there and think about what you did. Winning, of course, is the loudest sound there is, a boisterous affair, full of music and laughter and verbal savagery.
Game one of my first trip, Phoenix, a 6-3 loss to the Diamondbacks, and more than 45 minutes after the game, all but one Dodger has showered. Several have departed the clubhouse, and every other player -- except one -- is in the process of leaving. The room is underwater quiet. Catcher Yasmani Grandal sits in front of a computer at a table in the middle of the room, in full uniform, spikes still on his feet, his body curled into a comma, the screen in front of him presenting the frame-by-frame forensics of every pitch from the past three hours. He seems unaware of anything around him: the emptying room, the muttered curses, the frenzied but surreptitious cleanup. His head leans, his eyes strain to pick up the subtlest clue, his hand hovers over a notebook that contains all his secrets. His printing is meticulous.
What is he looking for, and why can't it wait? "I look for anything I can see," he says. "I look for location, sequence, with runners on, what they're trying to do. What the base coaches are doing, what the guy on deck is doing. If it just so happens they're trying to pick up signs, I look for that too. I like to sleep on things, and watching that video after every game, win or lose, gives me reassurance of what we need to do the next day." (The next night, the Dodgers win, pushing their record to 80-33 . How much of it is related to Grandal's work is unknowable.)
A month later, on a Tuesday night in San Francisco, music is thumping through the visiting clubhouse in AT&T Park. Just minutes earlier, the Dodgers finally broke their 11-game losing streak. Roberts has commemorated the evening by saying, "Usually there are a lot of handshakes, but tonight there were more hugs." Puig has just finished dancing on a couch. Bellinger gets dressed and says, "This is awesome. I haven't heard music in 12 days." As reporters wait for Clayton Kershaw to arrive at his locker, someone turns the music off. Puig is having none of it, and the music returns.
Amid the joy and the chaos, Grandal sits at a computer, the notebook beside him, going through every pitch in silence as if he's sitting in an empty classroom. He has taken off his jersey and exchanged his spikes for shower shoes. The difference between winning and losing? Sometimes the difference is less obvious than others. Sound is one tell. Grandal's footwear, apparently, is another.
APPROXIMATELY 3:20 P.M. on Aug. 8, a Tuesday, Bellinger walks out of the players' lounge in the visiting clubhouse in Arizona eating a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar. He gazes at it in rapt wonder, turning its intoxicating pink-and-white-speckled goodness around in the air before taking a bite. Almost 45 minutes later, after he finishes dressing for batting practice but before he heads to the field, he enters the players' lounge and emerges with another one.
"They're so good," he says. "I can't help myself. They're in every clubhouse -- so convenient. It's ridiculous how much ice cream I eat."
The next day, at 3 p.m., Bellinger stands at his locker and confesses that he just consumed another Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar. "That's the only one today, though," he says, the hurt evident as his voice lowers. "There aren't any more left in there."
Bellinger is 22, just turned, which means he has another six to eight years of unlimited ice cream consumption ahead of him before Scott Boras convenes an intervention. The larger point, though, is Bellinger's willingness to laugh at himself, rather than stare in doe-eyed panic when a reporter notices the sheer volume of his ice cream intake. He exudes a level of professional cool that doesn't seem possible at his age. (His father, Clay, has three World Series rings from the Yankees and Angels, but Cody was little and doesn't remember much. Mostly just the parades.) Unlike 23-year-old teammate Corey Seager, who projects himself as a baseball life-form devoid of personality, Bellinger dropped into stardom like it's an old couch that long ago formed to his body.
"I guess I'm mature," he says. "I mean, I'm really immature, I'm just a kid, but I have a lot of feel around the clubhouse. I just figure, who knows if any of this" -- he opens his hand to the room to encompass this team, these teammates, this season -- "is ever going to come around again?"
As we stand at his locker (I'm careful not to step on, kick or brush against his Yeezy 350s), he wants to talk about the time Joey Votto reached first base and said, "Listen, man, just because you're young doesn't mean you have to fail."
It's a swipe at one of baseball's most enduring adages: No matter who you are, pitchers will figure you out. You're going to fail, it's just a matter of time.
In Los Angeles before the Dodgers' ninth straight loss, at 2:40 on a Saturday afternoon, Bellinger and Walker Buehler are talking quietly while the televisions hanging from the ceiling show a replay of the Chiefs-Patriots game. Unlike the good times, when 25 guys free-ranged through the clubhouse, it now feels like an oversubscribed viewing. The September roster sits at 39, and there are a lot of wide-eyed, close-mouthed young guys tiptoeing around like the carpet is filled with land mines. Every day that they keep clear of veteran Chase Utley, who marches to his locker with his state trooper bearing and yoga instructor posture, is a good day.
There's an edge to the room, like its strung with razor wire. I ask Tony Watson how he's doing and he says "Good." I ask Ross Stripling and he says "Fine." Their answers are friendly but clipped, pre-emptive and a little challenging. I'm good. Anything else? I get it, nine losses and counting -- and then I ask Bellinger, and he smiles and says, "Just trying to finish strong."
Hey, the crash may happen. Votto might be wrong. Still, Bellinger refuses to accept the inevitability of a catastrophic fall. The disposition he's showing the world right now is pretty much one big shrug. It's all new, the winning and the losing, and it may never come around again.
Justin Turner is -- and I mean this as a fierce compliment -- a spore, capable of multiple mutations and resistant to adverse environmental conditions. He challenges our idea of what an athlete looks like: the sun dog beard, the bright red hair bouncing behind him as he runs. Be honest: If you looked at his profile photo without knowing his occupation, how long would it take to guess $12-million-per-year professional athlete?
It would take longer still to guess that a guy who looks like such a goofy prankster is the amiable leader of a reserved group that comprises the highest-paid roster in the sport. His path to this point is well-trod soil; the rough years with the Mets, ending in his nontender in 2013, followed by a revival born of a lift-and-elevate rebuild of his swing.
"It's a game full of labels, and usually you're getting labeled for something negative," he says. "After that, you're working your whole career to get out from underneath that label. I feel I was labeled in New York, and it took them letting me go and coming here to get away from the label."
I ask what the label was, and his voice acquires a brittle edge. "Apparently after I left they said I didn't hustle, so I guess that was the label I didn't know about." He looks down and starts shuffling with something in his locker, like he's trying to distract himself from going any further. After a few seconds, he looks back up and says, "The change of scenery, getting away from that, obviously did wonders."
On my return visit, I keep waiting to hear that tone: defiance mixed with a bilious grudge. But the losses are met with a strange, uneasy calm. No raised voices, no outward signs of anger, none of the cliched spread-flipping that's been the tantrum of choice for managers throughout history.
The players feel it too. Says Logan Forsythe, "At some point, someone's going to have to stand up and say, 'I'm tired of saying "It's coming, it's coming."' Someone needs to say, 'Let's go now.'"
There's a hierarchy to such things. Forsythe can say it should be said, but he isn't in a position to actually say it. Clayton Kershaw could say it, but he'd spent a large part of the summer on the disabled list, observing the team like a boss who decided to let his employees run the shop for a bit. Turner, however, can say it, and on the afternoon of the 10th straight loss, he tells the Los Angeles Times, "Just sitting back and saying 'We're still the best team in baseball' isn't the answer. Because regardless of what the record says, right now we're the worst team in baseball. What we did three months ago doesn't mean a whole lot right now."
There's this thing Rich Hill does that is totally unique to Rich Hill: He finishes his pitches with a weird, hopping reverb leg kick, like a guitarist finishing an epic solo. Except that Hill, with suction-cup bags under his eyes and an on-mound demeanor that oozes annoyance, looks more like a beleaguered sitcom dad finishing an epic air-guitar solo.
Within a clubhouse environment, where the standard of discourse rarely rises above sea level, a 37-year-old starter with Hill's quirks and personality is a walking greenhouse for nicknames. Hill has no fewer than 10,000 of them (Psycho Rich, not to mention many off-color variations of his first name), most originating in the fevered minds of Austin Barnes and Kike Hernandez.
Hill's career is scarcely believable on many fronts, mostly for how he overcame personal injury (labrum surgery, Tommy John surgery) and the unimaginable death of an infant son, Brooks, in 2014. He's played on eight big league teams, including the Red Sox twice, and one independent-league team. He once went more than 2,000 days between starts in the big leagues. He is revered by the younger Dodgers -- so, everyone but Chase Utley -- in ways that even he might not recognize.
On Friday, Aug. 11, the fourth game I witness, Hill throws six innings against the Padres, allowing two runs. Over the course of those six innings, Hill will rage at himself for giving up a home run, shake his head in disgust at his own fastball command and get his daily steps walking around in search of himself. He will look at the home-plate umpire after close pitches the way a prosecutor looks at a witness he knows is lying. Guys who get undeserved hits can find themselves nearly meeting him as he snarls his way, post-reverb, toward the first-base line.
He runs through every human emotion but joy. It's safe to say you watch him pitch and come away thinking he's working through some stuff.
Two starts later, Hill will take a perfect game into the ninth against the Pirates, lose it on a Forsythe error and take a no-hitter into the 10th inning before losing everything -- the no-hitter, the game -- when Josh Harrison hits a walk-off homer.
He will handle it with laudable grace, both on the mound and afterward. ("It falls on me, this one. One bad pitch," he'll say after the game.) Two days later, he will don a Players' Weekend jersey that ignores every one of his 10,000 clubhouse nicknames. It will say, simply: BRICE, a tribute to his 5-year-old son.
Rich Hill, man. He is the losing pitcher in the 10th straight loss, and after he puts on a crisp gray road-trip suit with his back to the room, he turns and answers questions with a level of composure that belies the pain in his words. "Tomorrow's another day," he says on his way out the door. He's had enough perspective to last awhile, thanks.
Loss after loss, he sits. Imprisoned in the bullpen, a Kafkaesque figure waiting to protect something that does not and will not exist, closer Kenley Jansen recedes from memory. His role makes him utterly dependent on the performance of others, which makes him the one Dodger left most unscathed by the team's collapse.
There are no rules relegating him to inactivity. As the season wears on, though, Roberts grows more resistant to using Jansen in high-leverage but non-save situations. He pitches just twice in the 11-game losing streak, depriving the sports world of one of its most cinematic moments.
You love the game, but the game doesn't always love you.- Kenley Jansen
It starts with Jansen jogging slowly from the bullpen to the infield dirt, accompanied by the bounce of Tupac's "California Love," and then throttles down from there. From the dirt to the mound, he really takes his time. The walk is undertaken as an act of great personal courage: slow, trudging steps, the interminable lean to pick up the ball, the heaving sigh before the first warm-up pitch. The bayonet-charge aggression we've come to expect from closers? Nonexistent. Baseball's best reliever (objectively) approaches his job like he's thinking, "I've got to prove this to you guys again?"
Anybody can look up Jansen's statistics; they're just a few keystrokes away and every bit as dominant as you'd expect. But after a week of watching him, I'm obsessed with knowing how. Just about every other Dodgers reliever throws harder, and every one of them has a bigger arsenal.
Over the course of several discussions, a theme recurs. Jansen's long arms and endless rocking-chair stride make 92 or 94 look a lot faster. "I don't think you can really understand until you stand in the box against him," says Stripling, a fellow reliever. "He cuts down so much distance, and he throws a pitch no one else throws. A normal cutter is more horizontal, but his looks like it goes sideways and upward. It's very hard to describe and very strange."
Jansen's off-mound personality is about what you'd expect from a laid-back big dude from Curacao. Over the course of my first trip, he closes out five of the Dodgers' eight wins. Each one ends with nothing more than a labored finger to the sky.
"I don't show emotion," Jansen says. "I feel like I want to protect myself. If I show weakness, I give something up."
With the Dodgers three outs away from ending their 11-game losing streak, Jansen takes the mound. At long last, there is a lead to protect, but the Giants load the bases thanks to three hits that, taken together, could barely dent a pat of butter. "You get annoyed a little bit," Jansen says afterward. He strikes out Buster Posey and Nick Hundley to end it, and when the final strike avoids Hundley's bat, Jansen slaps his chest three times and roars at the sky.
"You love the game, but the game doesn't always love you," he says. "I just know we're not going to go home and hang our heads again tonight."
It's more than three hours before game time on a mid-August Friday afternoon in the home clubhouse at Dodger Stadium when an arrhythmia-inducing sound serrates the air. I'm looking around, checking for damage, ready to dive under a doorway, wondering if we might need a generator. Somehow, nobody else seems the slightest bit shaken. "Puig's here," says a chorus of about five uninterested voices. No big deal -- Puig's whistle is hell's wake-up call.
What to make of him? In his fifth season, Puig is universally lauded as being a more team-centric ballplayer, exemplified by his acceptance of hitting eighth in the Dodgers' lineup through most of the season. But inside the cocoon, with the echo of the hell-whistle still alive in the air, it's hard to tell if he is accepted or merely tolerated.
A year ago, Puig was banished to the minors in August for 24 games, and his future as a Dodger was uncertain. As the team headed toward its fourth straight division title, Roberts met with several veterans and asked them whether they wanted Puig to be recalled. They voted yes, but when he returned from his own road to Damascus, a handful of those same veterans called their own meeting.
"We sat down and talked to Yasiel and told him we wanted him to be here, and we felt he could help us win a lot of ballgames," Turner says. "We just wanted him to want to be here and want to do things the right way. To his credit, he has. I don't think he's ever felt more a part of the team."
Puig remains a collection of amusing eccentricities. I can attest that you haven't really lived until you've watched Bad News Bears with him. The off-programming staple of MLB Network is, of course, playing in the Detroit clubhouse on this Sunday morning, and Puig is sitting at a table, minutes removed from eating a two-plate breakfast that looked like a dare. (Says a teammate, watching in admiration: "I've never seen anyone eat as much as him.") He is providing a stream of commentary, musing loudly to himself about which Dodgers remind him of which Bears -- Joc Pederson is Mike Engleberg, the fat catcher; Jansen is Amanda Whurlitzer, the clutch pitcher -- his laugh like a backfiring car. No one pays him any attention, and he doesn't seem to care.
Truth is, though, this entire story could consist only of overheated descriptions of Puig's defense, and every word would be editorially justified. Diving catches, a leap above the wall to rob J.D. Martinez of a homer, a no-hop throw home to get the Padres' Hunter Renfroe -- the sheer volume of tremendous plays has a strange effect; it makes it harder to be impressed.
In the ninth inning of a Wednesday night game against the White Sox, the last of a 4-1 homestand that would soon be viewed through sepia tones, Puig drives a game-winning two-run double to left-center to give the Dodgers their 10th walk-off win of the season. (It was an intense at-bat; at one point, he bit a ball he fouled off his foot.) The celebration includes a customary kiss for hitting coach Turner Ward, whose epic discomfort with the whole enterprise -- there are now shirts that read "Puig Kisses" -- ensures it will continue. And as Puig's on-field interview is ending, he thrusts his hands in the air and addresses the crowd directly:
"I'll see you in the World Series, guys!"
The Dodgers haven't won a World Series since 1988, and they've shriveled to an early playoff exit too often in recent years, so the fans throw their arms to the sky in response to Puig's words. They're unaware they're witnessing a felonious breach of Dodgers protocol, which demands today be dealt with and tomorrow be ignored. The more superstitious among them might point to that day -- or the Rich Hill near-no-hitter day, or the day someone wore the wrong socks or a different T-shirt or his unlucky underwear -- as the moment something shifted beneath them.
There are a million reasons. There are no reasons.
Two days after his proclamation, Puig stands at his locker in Detroit with his back to the clubhouse, shuffling hundreds like they're stress balls. So about that World Series guarantee? He stops fiddling with the bills and looks out of the corner of his eyes in a mock-threatening way. And then, in a theatrical voice that seems to travel through a foot of loose gravel, he says, "Yeah, I got a little excited.")
He draws the last two words out and puts his index finger an inch or so from his thumb to indicate how small his level of excitement really was. And then he laughs, sharp and loud, and goes back to his knot of bills. The Dodgers had won the night before, and they were about to win again. No one pays him any attention, and he doesn't seem to care.
What do you trust when everything you trusted disappears?
I was there, day after day during a stretch of unprecedented winning, as every Dodger adopted the same attitude: If I don't do it, someone else will. And I watched that mentality undergo a subtle shift: If I don't do it, nobody else will. A team of supporting actors became a team of failed leads.
After the Saturday night loss to the Rockies, the 14th loss in 15 games, Forsythe stands at his locker and says, "The way we were playing earlier in the year? That's our team." No one pressed for proof. The next day, amid a soundless pregame gloom, I ask him where he finds his confidence. "That's my opinion," he says. "Every guy in here has his opinion. Guy to guy, we have conversations. We know what we have to do, we know what we need to do, and we know what works. This slapped some guys in the mouth a little bit, and I think that can be a good thing."
Together, they try to make sense of it while trying not to think about it. Sixteen losses in 17 games can alter a team's sense of identity.
Are they that team or this team? Perhaps to avoid the answer, they suggest karmic balance, weighing the number of joyous comebacks through mid-August against the grim surrenders since. Bellinger, standing at his locker as his teammates around him sit in numb confusion and barely tethered anger, tells reporters, "Maybe it's a blessing." It is soothing, somehow, to put the responsibility on uncontrollable forces, or to turn it into a nebulous positive. He looks around to see if anyone's buying it. Nobody is.
It's jarring to watch a team that considered winning a byproduct of its existence profess a joyless pride in a minimal level of competitiveness. Twice a day, Roberts talks about signs of life as if assessing the vitals of a comatose patient. The Dodgers had the best 50-game streak in 105 years and the franchise's longest losing streak in 73. Same team, same season. On the day his team broke the losing streak, Roberts said, "A lot can change in three weeks. We've lived it."
It's what you say when everything around you ceases to make sense, and when you're trying to preserve your sanity, and when you've got no choice but to question who and what you are. It's what you say when you've seen everything, and have no earthly idea what's coming next.