They were in the process of losing 15 of their last 18 games and doing everything under the sun to blow a big lead in their division. They lost six in a row, managed to win two in a row, then lost the last seven games of the regular season by these scores: 15-4, 2-1, 11-1, 11-3, 13-2, 9-1, 7-3. They were the 2000 New York Yankees, champions of the baseball world, and when they finally clinched the American League East, after another double-digit loss, this time to the Orioles, there was some question as to whether they would even bother to celebrate.
"Tell them to open the champagne," Joe Torre, the manager, said that night. "They earned the right."
I asked the man Derek Jeter always called "Mr. Torre" about that on Monday, about what his thinking was at the time, his feel for a team that had won three World Series in four years but then had inexplicably, at least after everything we'd seen from the Yanks, played the way they did in September 2000.
"Nobody tried harder or wanted it more, but they kept getting in their own way," Torre said. "The players needed to let it out."
I told him he needed to tell that to another one of his old teams, the Dodgers.
"When you're winning every day in different ways," the great Joe Torre said, "you think it's never going to end. The old adage 'winning is a habit' reminds you that so is losing."
It is worth pointing out that the 2000 Yankees, as tough as any club Torre ever had or ever managed despite the way it played in September, ended up winning another World Series that year, beating the Mets in five games in a Subway Series. So in the end, September didn't matter. October was what mattered. Dave Roberts, who was supposed to be managing the Dodgers to 110 wins or 120 or maybe even a thousand, now hopes it will work out that way for his team.
Torre, by the way, tried everything that year when the wheels seemed to be coming off for his team, one that still had Jeter and Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte and Mo Rivera, those fancy Core Four guys. There was a night in Toronto when Torre called a team meeting, rare for him, and lit into his team, also rare. It means he was giving an earful to guys with whom he had done an awful lot of winning. The team meeting changed nothing. Torre's Yankees kept losing.
Until the calendar changed. At which point they changed back into who they had always been in October. They drank champagne after that game against the Orioles in September 2000, and they celebrated winning their division after another bad loss. A month later, at old Shea Stadium, after Game 5 of the World Series, they drank champagne again. A lot of it. It always tastes better in October, anyway.
There is no similar championship muscle memory for the 2017 Dodgers. But that doesn't change the way they played as they were running away from the D-backs and the Rockies and the whole sport, when they really were winning, as Torre says, in different ways every day; when they were pitching even when Clayton Kershaw was hurt and Cody Bellinger was hitting all those home runs and Justin Turner, the hardscrabble leader of the team, was playing himself into the All-Star Game. Rich Hill nearly pitched a perfect game. The bullpen looked perfect most of the time. And there was a magazine cover, Sports Illustrated, posing the question of whether or not they might be, well, you know, the best team ever.
They were 92-41. And now? Well, you know where they are now. They have lost 10 games in a row for the first time in 25 years. They have lost nine in a row at Dodger Stadium for the first time in 30 years. They have lost 15 of 16 and they are now just four games up on the Nationals for the best record in the NL. We have seen freefalls by great regular-season teams before. Never one quite like this.
"I'm open to suggestions," Dave Roberts said after the latest beatdown at home, this time by the Colorado Rockies, and then Roberts was talking about an upset and frustrated clubhouse.
Again: The Dodgers, as a group, have no championship history on which to rely the way Joe Torre's team did 17 years ago. But you know how they went at the Cubs in a six-game National League Championship Series last October. The Dodgers got themselves good and shut out in Game 6. But until that point, the sides looked even. And when the Dodgers began to beat the whole world this summer, it looked as if Roberts' team having that kind of taste in October had made all the difference.
Now come 15 losses in 16 games. Now Kershaw comes back from injury and it makes no difference: Even he can't get a game. They went winless on a seven-game homestand. Now they have to play the Giants in San Francisco and the Nationals in D.C. before they get a soft place to land in a four-game series against the Phillies on the road. Not that anybody or anyplace is a soft place to land when your team has turned into this kind of pillow fight.
The Dodgers will still win the NL West, for sure. They will get to have their own champagne celebration, just as Torre's Yankees did in 2000. But here is what Turner said on Sunday, to Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times:
"Just sitting back and saying 'We're 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."
And the Dodgers could go back to looking like the best team in baseball in a few weeks. Because it is not as if 92-41 is some kind of weird, fluke sampling. It is more than three-quarters of the regular season that tests you more than any in professional sports. The Dodgers were 51 games over .500. They did look as if they had a chance to be called one of the best regular-season teams of all time. They were that good. Before they became this bad.
Joe Torre is right, as usual. Losing is a habit, too. But there's still time for the Dodgers to turn things around between now and champagne. Unless they want to think about a few shots of harder stuff before that.