The year after Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey first made the playoffs in 1974, the Dodgers finished 20 games out of first place.
The year after the Dodgers lost two consecutive World Series in 1977-78, they were in last place at the All-Star break.
The disappointing 1975 and 1979 seasons came with nary a cloud over Chavez Ravine to match the jejune gloom that fans today feel over Dodger ownership in the wake of Frank and Jamie McCourt's divorce. Back in the 1970s, the leadership baton was successfully passed from Walter O'Malley to son Peter, with the widespread approval of the Dodger community – assuming that community even noticed the change, amid the stable ticket prices and cheap Double-Bagger peanuts.
Don Sutton turned 30 five days before Opening Day 1975. Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey, Steve Yeager, Bill Buckner, Andy Messersmith, and Doug Rau all were younger. The team was in its prime, but the Cincinnati Reds, whose biggest offseason acquisition was John Vuckovich (and his eight 1975 hits), fired up the Big Red Machine and annihilated rest of the National League West.
There would be a big lesson here about the dangers of standing pat – if the Reds hadn't stood pat themselves. In other words, 1975 is a bad omen for the 2010 Dodgers – unless the 2009 Dodgers are the 1974 Reds.
Before you think me completely crazy, understand that I realize Russell Martin isn't Johnny Bench, James Loney isn't Tony Perez, Casey Blake isn't Pete Rose and no combination of Blake DeWitt, Ronnie Belliard and Jamey Carroll could ever flap Joe Morgan's elbow. But the point is that the coming Dodger season could go well or poorly – and whichever way it goes, it will probably have much less to do with Divorce Court than people believe.
Relative to the rest of the current NL, the Dodgers have considerable strengths in other areas, most notably the outfield and the bullpen. They're a 95-win team that has retained about 75 percent of its talent, and the three principal losses – Randy Wolf, Orlando Hudson and Juan Pierre – figure to decline this year anyway, while a good portion of the team's core has a chance to improve and Manny Ramirez has a good chance to avoid a 50-game suspension.
And contrary to what seems to be popular opinion in Los Angeles, the other NL contenders haven't blown past the Dodgers, divorce or not. The league champion Phillies got Roy Halladay, though they gave up Cliff Lee to get him. They get to be the favorites, though not by any wide margin. No other team in the NL had an offseason that should make any Dodger fan nervous. Arizona might get a bounce-back season from Brandon Webb and added several players (at a cost), but has a 25-game gap to make up on Los Angeles. Milwaukee picked up Wolf and Doug Davis, but saw several players depart. And so on ...
The 2010 season could go either way. The Dodgers have the talent to contend for a chance to upset the American League champion in the World Series (we'll get to the team's inferiority to the Yankees and Red Sox another day). They are also, like every other team including the Phillies, vulnerable to key injuries or prolonged slumps that could send them tumbling.
The 1979 Dodgers, who seemed to have everything going for them entering the season except the departure of Tommy John, lost 31 of 41 games leading into the All-Star Game, digging themselves a hole so deep that not even a league-leading 43 victories after the break could save them. And younger fans will certainly remember what happened to the Dodgers from 2004 to 2005.
On the other hand, the Dodgers rose from a heartbreaking season's end in 1980 to a World Series title in 1981 not because of any outside acquisitions, but on the precociousness of Fernando Valenuzela and Pedro Guerrero. And though the Dodgers benefited from Kirk Gibson falling into their laps in 1988, they also had to overcome the loss of a key starting pitcher, Bob Welch.
If the Dodgers falter, it will undoubtedly be seen through the prism of the McCourts' divorce, with everyone pointing out how the Dodgers didn't get the reinforcements they needed. But not getting enough reinforcements is a historical pattern for the Dodgers. No Dodger team, in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, has ever made the postseason three years in a row. None. The 2010 Dodgers have a chance to be the first (not to mention a chance to be the first to win a World Series in 22 years). Their season will ride a thin line between ecstasy and disappointment.
There probably aren't any Dodger followers, including myself, that don't wish the team had more talent entering the 2010 season, that don't wonder if an opportunity to get over the top is being squandered. You always want your odds to be the best they can be. But they never are.