The Diamondbacks: Slouching toward Pittsburgh

Many empty seats for Dodgers game.

Another dreary season wound down yesterday in LA for the arid lands’ baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.  On paper it was not nearly as bad as the 2004 version which lost 111 games of 162.  It just seemed as bad.  This was like one of those long extra-inning games where most of the crowd leaves after the 12th and the ones who stayed wish they’d left.  Ninety-seven losses, 27 games behind the division champ San Francisco, a record of futility only the Pirates of Pittsburgh with 105 discredits could love.

Masochist that I am, I did attend the last home series at Chase Field, also against the Dodgers.  It was a Saturday night, September 25, the next to last game of the series, and I had ridden the light rail down with a horde of ASU football fans on their way farther east to catch the game with No. 5 Oregon.  I was hoping to find a bright moment at the ballpark.  To my surprise I discovered a few, apparently so absorbed that in the unexpected I missed seeing the roof opened in the mid-game.  

One surprise, the Dbacks won, 5-2, this their 63rd victory assuring them of the ignoble milestone of less than 100 losses for the season.

Daniel Hudson, a bright spot amid the dross.

Two, I got to see for the first time live the team’s cornerstone pitcher, Daniel Hudson, who arrived in a mid-summer trade for Edwin Jackson and was every bit the whiz we were told he would be.   The same Edwin Jackson, by the way,  who provided a highlight moment on June 25, struggling via seven walks and 149 pitches to reap a no-hitter on the road at Tampa Bay.  On this night, Hudson did almost as well, allowing only one hit into the ninth inning.  And, due to minor injury, it would be his last game of the season.

Three, and I don’t know how they pulled it off, I was part of the announced crowd of 20-some thousand who cracked the 2 million mark for tickets sold.  I estimated the actual attendance, the turnstile count, at less than 15,000.  I can recall times not long ago when a Dodgers game would sellout. 

Four, I couldn’t believe the Dbacks fans were still competitive.  But they were and started chanting down a strong contingent of Dodgers voices, “Beat LA, Beat LA . . . .”

The bad thing was I paid $45 for a ticket along the left field line, 38 rows up, to watch what was little more than a minor league game.   I saw the lineup board early.  Abreu, 3b.  Hester, c.  Allen, lf.  Gillespie, rf.  All youngsters who may not even be in the majors next season.  For the mediocre Dodgers it was the same, giving some kids a cup of coffee in The Show.  But I was glad I stuck around.

Dodgers 2011 manager Don Mattingly (left) and retiring 2010 manager Joe Torre.

There was some nostalgia.  I got to see Joe Torre in his last season as Dodgers manager, maybe his last season, period, before he enters the Hall of Fame.  I had to search and look fast, though.  He left the dugout for long stretches early in the game.  Other times he sat almost hidden passing along signals I supposed to his coaches as this meaningless game sped along. 

Another of the season’s highlights was long gone.  Boy Wonder Josh Byrnes, the GM who all but wrecked the team with bad trades and depleted its once-glowing list of minor league prospects, was fired on July 1, along with the affable but uninspiring  manager, A. J. Hinch.

Prospects for next year are unknown.  An experienced GM in Kevin Towers slides in on a two-year deal and may hire the interim manager, Kirk Gibson, whose sole job this season was to put this wreck of a team through “tryouts” to see if there are any winners in town.  

Towers has a tough work ahead.  The team needs another starter, a revamp of relief pitchers, the addition of a closer, and a couple of more bats to go with some standout individual performers.  The shortstop, Stephen Drew, seems to have finally arrived and center fielder Chris Young rebounded mightily from a sorry 2009.  And two newcomers, second baseman Kelly Johnson and first baseman Adam LaRoche, played very well.  Johnson led the team in hitting with a .284 average and hit 26 home runs.  LaRoche was tops in RBI with a 100 and pounded out 25 home runs with one of the most beautiful swings you’ll ever see.   But there were disappointments as well.

2011 Manager to be, Kirk Gibson, returning from one of his too-many visits to the mound.

The young super-talent in right field, Justin Upton, missed almost 30 games with injuries and remains as he was last year, “a potential superstar.”   He has an edge to his game, and although the organization promoted s section in the right field bleachers in his honor, UpTown, there is little rapport with the fans out there.

As I left the ballpark I passed a scintillating colored poster along the lower concourse.  It was the only appearance for Mark Reynolds that evening.  He was injured and didn’t play.  But how fitting, I thought, stopping to shoot a photo.  If there is a poster-child of this Dbacks season, it is Reynolds, the power-hitting third baseman. 

2010 poster-child Mark Reynolds's only appearance.

Reynolds’s under-achieving play was THE disappointment for me, that and the colossal failures of the bullpen early in the season, before things got out of hand by the end of May.  Reynolds struck out more than 200 times again this season and his electric home run power fizzled out after mid-season.  And worse yet, his batting average sank and sank until he finished at .198, a hell very few players with 500 at-bats descend into and still stay in the big leagues.  Whether he’ll be back next year is unknown.  Strangely, it was he and Upton that signed huge contracts at the start of the season.

I do not have much faith at all in the future.  The owners, headed by Ken Kendrick, have blundered about with their hires and do not seem committed to winning, only to put a respectable team on the field.  Which they have not done now since 2008.  More and more this team looks like the Pirates, destined to go nowhere anytime soon.

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