Dodgers' best move is to win now

LOS ANGELES -- Long after the final out, without announcement or fanfare, a familiar face emerged from his suite, walked out to the center-field grass and took a final look around the stadium he has owned for the past eight years. The four sons he had once intended to leave the Los Angeles Dodgers to walked in front and behind him. And when the light was right, Frank McCourt and his sons stopped to pose for a picture.

They lingered a moment afterward, said a few words, then walked back toward the infield, where a group of premium season-ticket holders was socializing over fancy hors d'oeuvres, wine and beer. Their pace was neither slow nor fast. Too much has been decided already. The time for reflection or regret had passed long ago.

This might not be the last game McCourt watches at Dodger Stadium before ownership is officially transferred to the group fronted by Magic Johnson at the end of the month. But it will be his last Opening Day. And so for once he did the appropriate thing by waiting to make an appearance until most of the 56,000 fans who came to the park to watch the Dodgers' 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday had gone home.

This game, like this season and everything that comes after, is no longer about him. This franchise will not be defined by him and his failings much longer. The memories might linger awhile, especially when the ramifications of his final decisions as Dodgers owner present themselves -- like every fifth day when Hiroki Kuroda takes his turn in the New York Yankees' rotation.

But the page will officially turn soon enough. And if the new owners have learned anything from McCourt, it will be that the sooner the focus here returns to baseball and the team on the field, the faster things will be good again.

That might sound strange to say about a group fronted by a man as popular as Johnson. His smile could probably sell 10,000 season tickets on its own.

But really, that's mostly all he'll be doing this season. Repairing relationships with fans and in the community, cheering for the team, putting roots down. His sway over free agents won't come into play until the offseason. It could take years for the impact he'll make in the community to manifest itself with the field. The farm system won't be restocked in three months, let alone three years.

That Magic smile might feel comforting now, but it'll look fake in a few months if the team isn't giving him or fans much to smile about.

No, the fastest way for the franchise to move on from Frank McCourt is pretty simple: Just win.

"Magic's not going to play baseball games for us," Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. "We still have to go out and play the games. He's one of the owners of the team, but we still have to get on the field and take care of business."

That kind of pressure is probably unfair to put on a team with a payroll hovering at less than $100 million and a roster filled out by a bunch of guys just happy not to be flying commercial Southwest flights in the Pacific Coast League anymore.

But that's where this team is now. The good news is the Dodgers players have understood this for a while. It's how they got through last season and why they were able to rally to a 44-28 finish after falling 14 1/2 games out of first place in early July.

"I think we just finally decided," said Dodgers closer Javy Guerra, who picked up his third save of the young season Tuesday. "We closed the doors and had a conversation where it was like, 'No matter what, we just got to go play. That's what it comes down to. We can't control everything.'"

Where did that resolve come from?

"Just look at [manager Don] Mattingly and how he comes to the park every day," Guerra said. "He knows what it is to be a ball player and to grind it out. He's always preaching that. No matter what, you've got to get your job done."

This Dodgers team learned that lesson last year and is building on it this year. The biggest change for them isn't the new ownership group coming in, but the fact they aren't digging themselves out from an awful start like they had last year.

"Obviously, having a new ownership group is awesome, but I don't want people to forget what we did the last two months of the season," Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said.

"Everybody keeps saying that everything keeps changing around us, but at the same time, it's the same core in here. I don't want people to forget that."

Tuesday afternoon that meant riding Kershaw's left arm as far as it could take them, sitting back and marveling at the offensive force Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon is becoming and keeping themselves in position to win the game with some heroics at the end, courtesy of Andre Ethier's solo home run in the bottom of the eighth inning.

It wasn't an impressive win. No statement to the rest of the National League West was made, even as the Dodgers moved to 4-1 on the season.

It was just a win in a game that could have gone either way. The fifth game in a season with 157 more to play.

All the pageantry of Opening Day, the nostalgia of the season-long 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium, all that is just setting -- a reminder of how long this game has been played and how many men have played it.

McCourt may be an important part of the Dodgers' recent history, but his time here is short compared to everything else that has happened in this stadium over the past 50 years. It's why he took a picture on his way out. This was just a stop along the way.

It takes decades for a man to leave anything lasting to this game. Baseball has a way of carving things down to some rather simple truths.

Opening Day always feels like a beginning no matter what happened last year. You'll never forget your first one. It's always better to win. And it sounds best with Vin Scully on the call. Let's hope he's back at the ballpark soon.