Most of the names that altered the Dodgers’ trajectory a decade ago aren’t in the major leagues anymore.
Adrian Gonzalez hasn’t played since 2018, when a one-year deal with the Mets ended with a June release. Hanley Ramirez hasn’t been on a roster since 2019. Carl Crawford? 2016. Josh Beckett? Even longer: 2014.
But that group of players joined marquee signings — or marquee by 2012 and 2013 standards — such as pitchers Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu to completely reinvent the Dodgers’ payroll, which was projected to rise a whopping 123.9 percent over the winter from a 2012 total of $95.1 million.
Most importantly, they were on track to surpass the Yankees for the largest payroll in baseball, at least until the signing of Vernon Wells shortly before the 2013 season began.
Instead, that jump in the payroll rankings happened the next year, and the pair have ebbed and flowed — mostly within the top five spots — since. Prior to 2014, the Yankees were MLB’s payroll leader every year starting in 1999.
The two coastal juggernauts open a rare regular-season series Friday at Dodger Stadium. It’s glamorous for the Yankees and Dodgers at the top. The lofty payrolls ensure yearly relevance.
But these three games will also be a reminder that those expectations are tough to meet. The pair of teams have won just one World Series title since that pivotal 2013 season. The fancy players only create more pressing demands for said stars — Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge, to name a few — to deliver.
Life at the top isn’t always easy.
If the 2023 season ended before Clayton Kershaw threw his first pitch Friday, the Yankees and the Dodgers would, again, make the postseason. The Yankees have the second-highest payroll this year at about $277 million, according to Spotrac, and the Dodgers sit fifth at about $226 million. A lot has changed since they last met in 2019 at Yankee Stadium — when Cole, Betts and Freeman were on different rosters — but the payroll strategies, mostly, have stayed the same.
Spend, spend and keep spending.
But for a pair of teams that, on paper, should’ve met in the World Series every year since 2013 given their financial clout, perhaps the three-game set between these clubs (and their two combined World Series titles since 2000) should also serve as a cautionary sign, a warning that massive digits next to dollar signs aren’t everything in baseball.
The Yankees haven’t returned to the Fall Classic since winning the club’s 27th title in 2009. The Dodgers made it in 2017 and 2018, where they lost to the controversial Astros and the not-so-controversial, 108-win Red Sox, respectively. They won it during a COVID-shortened 2020 season.
And this year, Yankees fans were fed up with general manager Brian Cashman, who pleaded to “not give up on us” despite a rocky start. Their rotation and portions of their lineup (Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson are set to return this weekend from extended absences) have undergone constant shuffling due to injuries — and they’re still 10 games above .500 at 34-24.
The Dodgers have also dealt with a plethora of pitching setbacks — Walker Buehler (Tommy John recovery), Dustin May (strained forearm) and Julip Urias (strained left hamstring) — and keep using a version of Noah Syndergaard that’s a shell of the phenom he was with the Mets. They have a National League-best 34-23 record, though.
There’s also more competition at the top of the payroll standings than there was back in 2013. Gone are the days when A-Rod made more than everyone on the Houston Astros combined, though the A’s, at around $59 million, might get passed by Shohei Ohtani and his endorsements.
The Mets now have the most expensive payroll in baseball, courtesy of owner Steve Cohen. The Padres and the Phillies have both moved ahead of the Dodgers, too, though they’ve struggled to match their preseason expectations.
So if the Yankees and Dodgers are judged on a different scale due to their payrolls, resetting the curve across MLB, then the Padres, Phillies and Mets will approach that same juncture soon. They might have already arrived after last offseason’s spending sprees.
The exclusive club of luxurious spending has started to expand past its primary two members. They’re all plenty good enough to win the World Series. They’re all good enough where anything short reflects a colossal failure, too.
Just ask the Yankees and Dodgers.
Today’s back page
⚾ Max Scherzer silences Phillies as Mets complete sweep
🏈 COSTELLO: Aaron Rodgers isn’t practicing — but he’s still stealing the show
🏒 BROOKS: Patrick Roy is exactly what the Rangers need
The legacy of these NBA Finals
Even though the Heat pulled within 10 points early in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets’ victory Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was convincing.
Nikola Jokic only had 10 points (on three shots) at halftime, and Denver still led by 17. The two-time MVP could facilitate and watch as Jamal Murray emerged as the primary scoring option.
The 104-93 victory made it seem as if the Heat will have a difficult time winning four games, though “Playoff Jimmy” will help them earn at least a win.
But regardless of which team emerges as the fifth different NBA champion in five years, these finals don’t feature an established dynasty, a franchise that necessarily would be the favorite to repeat next year.
That won’t be the case as long as LeBron James returns and key pieces of the Warriors core remain intact, or as long as the Celtics have Jayson Tatum and the Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Nuggets, if they win, certainly could make a case for that mantle with Jokic and Murray, but one title won’t accomplish that.
It’s entirely possible that the lasting legacy of the 2023 NBA champion won’t be determined until next season.
If the Nuggets win the first title in franchise history, they have the star — Jokic — and the nucleus in place to make it happen again. If the Heat win, especially with an aging Jimmy Butler, they could start fading toward a category of oddball, one-off champions.
But, to be clear: Yes, the Heat made the Finals as a No. 8 seed while missing star guard Tyler Herro. Yes, an Erik Spoelstra-led team can’t be eliminated before it actually gets the chance to make the playoffs and manufacture another deep run.
Still, neither franchise enters 2023-24, at this stage, as established as the Warriors immediately following their titles in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Or the Heat following their titles in 2012 and 2013. Free agency — or a James retirement — could change that perception, but the Western Conference remains difficult. The Eastern Conference still runs through Boston or Milwaukee.
A one-off title could join a category with teams such as the 2018-2019 Raptors, who won a title with Kawhi Leonard. Four years later, Nick Nurse was fired.
They could join a team such as the 2003-04 Pistons, who upset the Lakers in five games and used sharp defense under head coach Larry Brown. They won the Eastern Conference again the next season, but that was it.
Or the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, who managed to knock off the Heat’s Big 3 of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the franchise’s first title. They didn’t win another playoff series until 2021-22.
The Nuggets are the dominant team for this year’s NBA Finals, and Thursday night’s game confirmed that.
But their true legacy — the true reputation and underlying memory of this era in the franchise’s (and NBA) history — might not be determined until next season ends.
That’s when the labels will start to get attached.
More than just the superstars
The Liberty’s superteam has started the 2023 season exactly like everyone thought they would.
After dropping their opener, they cruised past the Indiana Fever and rolled the Connecticut Sun before notching an eight-point road victory against the Seattle Storm on Tuesday.
And the superstars have carried the offensive production going into Friday night’s game against the Chicago Sky (6 p.m., ION).
Breanna Stewart ranks second in the WNBA in scoring at 25.8 points per game. Courtney Vandersloot leads the WNBA in assists per game at 8.8. Sabrina Ionescu has averaged the most made 3-pointers per game (3.8), too.
But the Liberty’s bench also has emerged as a key piece throughout the 3-1 start. Kayla Thornton and Stefanie Dolson combining for a plus-34 across the past two victories — with Thornton plus-19 in their victory over the Sun.
They’re both former starters, both WNBA veterans with at least eight seasons of experience, and at this stage of their careers, they’ve taken on reserve roles as the flashy superstars have dominated the headlines.
“It’s a luxury,” head coach Sandy Brondello said Saturday, prior to the game against Connecticut. “Experience really helps. [Dolson’s] been playing for such a long time. She was a key part of their team last year as a starter. Now she’s a key part of our team coming off the bench, and she’s willing to take whatever role that we give her.”
Dolson, the No. 6 overall pick by the Mystics in the 2014 WNBA draft, signed with the Liberty in 2022 and proceeded to start all 36 games — averaging 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Brondello called Dolson “one of the smartest players out there,” and Ionescu added Dolson has helped analyze from the bench and report, “Hey, this is open” after entering games.
“It’s kind of a tool that we’ve been using that’s gonna help us all season long,” Ionescu said.
Thornton, a brilliant, switchable defender who spent the previous six seasons in Dallas, was part of the three-team trade that also brought Jonquel Jones to the Liberty.
And the Liberty could also get the exciting Marine Johannes into the rotation Friday following her return from club-team commitments in France. Johannes, who shot 43.7 percent on 3-pointers in 2022, likely will emerge again as the first guard off the bench for the Liberty.
“I’m really proud of her because I’m sure it’s been a difficult situation,” Brondello said of Johannes and her belated arrival from overseas, “but I think she was still able to maintain a very high level of play, even through, obviously, a stressful time. But we’re happy to have her here, and we’ll embrace her.”
The unbeatable college dynasty
It’s not even close to being a stretch to call Oklahoma’s softball team the most dominant dynasty in college sports.
In fact, the Sooners probably reached that point well before entering the 2023 NCAA tournament with a chance to win their third consecutive national championship.
They won four of the past six titles — and five of the past nine — and went 524-65 between 2013-22.
This season, Oklahoma has compiled a 57-1 record through Thursday’s 2-0 victory against Stanford in the Women’s College World Series — their record-setting 49th consecutive win, eclipsing a mark previously held by Arizona (47).
Both of their runs in Thursday’s victory came in the fifth inning, when Jayda Coleman’s single bounced under the glove of Stanford left fielder Ellee Eck.
The Sooners lineup, which entered with a combined .372 average and 112 home runs (12 more than Virginia Tech, and 31 more than the program with the third-most homers) managed just six hits, but they ensured that a 4-3 loss to Baylor on Feb. 19 remained their only defeat of the season.
“What just happened is extremely valuable,” Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso told reporters following the loss to the Bears. “What’s valuable is the response, the rebound and the extra work that is going to be put in to make us better.”
They haven’t lost since. And they’re on the verge of becoming the first college softball program to win three consecutive titles since UCLA strung together championships in 1988, 1989 and 1990.
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