The conversation wasn’t meant to be about the Houston Astros. Really, it wasn’t. It just flowed that way, because forgive and forget, well, forget about that.
As the Dodgers prepare to face the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, a conversation with Alex Anthopoulos was in order. The Braves hired him out of the Dodgers’ front office three years ago, and now his team is all that stands between the Dodgers and their third World Series appearance in four years.
As a baseball executive, he appreciates how challenging it is to win a division even once, let alone eight consecutive years, as the Dodgers have done. And, as a former resident of Los Angeles, he understands that 1988 is beyond ancient history, and that Dodgers fans have raised the stakes to World Series championship or bust.
“That’s just sports, right?” Anthopoulos said. “You play to win the World Series.
“Not to dig up old wounds, but you could argue with the things that happened in 2017.”
After Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, Anthopoulos flew from Houston to Atlanta to interview for the Braves’ job. He knew the Astros had won by overcoming 4-0 and 7-4 leads against Clayton Kershaw that evening. He had no idea, of course, that the reason the Astros had swung and missed at just one of Kershaw’s 39 sliders that evening might well have been because the Astros had a cheating scheme in place.
He had not set foot again in Houston until last week, when the Braves played their division series at Minute Maid Park.
“Coming back for this series,” he said, “was a little weird.”
Baseball’s final four includes the team with the best record in each league, the Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays, and a team with a losing record. That team is the Astros, now eight wins away from Commissioner Rob Manfred handing owner Jim Crane another piece of metal.
Crane tossed his manager and general manager overboard, and ever since the Astros have brushed aside any pretense of apology. They have embraced their pirate ship.
“I think them playing the victim’s complex card is a little interesting to me,” Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, told SiriusXM on Friday. “I get that it’s been a difficult year for them, but to play the victim card, I think, has been a curious strategy.”
The final four is a tribute to Friedman, and the executive tree he planted in Tampa Bay, where he took the Rays from worst to first in two years. The Angels ought to consider shaking a general manager loose from that tree.
The American League Championship Series features the Rays, built into a contender by Friedman, and the Astros, now run by James Click, an executive hired away from the Rays. The NLCS: the Dodgers against the Braves, run by one of Friedman’s former lieutenants.
When Anthopoulos joined the Dodgers’ front office, he already had led the Toronto Blue Jays to the ALCS as their GM.
“I felt like going to L.A. was like going to grad school,” Anthopoulos said, citing the chance to learn from Friedman and Farhan Zaidi, now president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants.
“When you’re exposed to the best in the industry, you’re going to get better, right?” Anthopoulos said. “It’s like Warren Buffett and a lot of other people say: Surround yourself with people that are better than you are. Andrew and Farhan made me better.”
One lesson he learned helps explain the success of Dodgers players such as Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and Justin Turner, and the persistence of Austin Barnes, Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson, A.J. Pollock and Pedro Baez. The Dodgers have said they’ll work on finding the right spots for Kenley Jansen, and they have said he remains essential to their success, but they resolutely have avoided saying he is no longer the closer. That might be more than semantics.
“I think, because both Andrew and Farhan came from small market clubs, they were relentless in trying to make players better,” Anthopoulos said. “My attitude may have been, ‘OK, a guy is scuffling, you may need to find him a new home, make a trade.’ They came from organizations where they just couldn’t do that. You had to make do with what you had. By necessity, it made them better. They brought those characteristics there.
“That’s why you’ve seen them have so much success in player development. They will exhaust all avenues, and they will not quit on players. They will work with you and try to find a way to make you better. It’s great for players to know that and see that. That’s why you’ve seen a lot of players discarded by other organizations — and you’re seeing it with the Giants now too. They go there, and they get better. It starts at the top.”
If Los Angeles could not stop talking about 1988, Atlanta could not stop talking about 2001. That was the last year the Braves had advanced to the NLCS. Between then and now, the Braves had played in the division series eight times, losing every time.
“That’s all you heard about,” Anthopoulos said. “To knock down that narrative is definitely nice.”
The Dodgers won a franchise-record 106 games last year. They did not win the World Series.
The Braves won their division 14 consecutive times and won the World Series once. Anthopoulos has asked the Braves’ Hall of Famers, manager Bobby Cox and general manager John Schuerholz, about that.
“They tell you the 1995 Braves that won the World Series weren’t the best team they ever had,” Anthopoulos said.
Are the 2020 Dodgers Friedman’s best team? In a 60-game season, who knows? If the Dodgers win, who cares? They’ll knock down their narrative.
That leaves the Astros, and whatever narrative you like about them. Friedman and Anthopoulos have a series to worry about, and the Astros aren’t in it. But the Astros are playing the Rays, and Tampa Bay first baseman Ji-Man Choi celebrated by stomping on a trash can.
“No one has forgotten what they have done or chose to do in years past,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said Saturday. “They have to live with that.”
Forgive and forget? Not the team playing the Astros in the ALCS, and not either team that might face them in the World Series.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.