LOS ANGELES — All over town, all summer long, expectations expanded along with the Los Angeles Dodgers' record, growing ever larger until they delivered themselves into the aisles of the city's grocery stores and steamed into coffee shops.
Starter Rich Hill noticed it when he ducked into his neighborhood market.
Keep fighting, his fellow shoppers would tell him. Keep it going.
For low-key reliever Brandon Morrow, it was when he came and went in his apartment building.
"People would give you a fist bump when you're coming in," Morrow says. "People are pretty excited about it. And everybody at the ballpark, we interact with them more, obviously. They not only work at the ballpark, they're fans. They're there every day and, man, the excitement within the ballpark staff is awesome."
This is the year, Angelenos tell their Dodgers.
And as Clayton Kershaw and Co. prepare for liftoff in the 113th World Series beginning Tuesday night against the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium, it seems clear: If this isn't the Dodgers' year, it might never be their year.
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At 104-58, these guys finished with the best record in baseball for the first time since 1974. The 104 wins were their most since they moved from Brooklyn in 1958 and tied for the second-most in franchise history (the 1942 club finished 104-50; the franchise record is 105-49 in 1953).
"It was awesome to do this, but we're not going to sit down and say, 'Ah, we got to the World Series," utility man Enrique Hernandez, the three-homer, seven-RBI Game 5 National League Championship Series hero, says. "That's not our goal. It's never been our goal.
"The goal is to win the World Series. If we get there and don't win, the season is worth nothing."
Kershaw, whom manager Dave Roberts predictably named as his Game 1 starter, is a once-in-a-generation talent often compared with Dodgers Hall of Fame lefty Sandy Koufax.
The Dodgers shelled out big bucks to re-sign three of their own free agents last offseason in closer Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million), third baseman Justin Turner (four years, $64 million) and Hill (three years, $48 million) and maintain the game's highest payroll at $265.1 million (including money owed to those not on the active roster, like Carl Crawford and Scott Kazmir). They're loaded with young talent such as Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager and Austin Barnes.
And after years of saddling Kershaw with what proved to be a too-heavy load in October, they went all-in at the July trade deadline in acquiring Yu Darvish. It was a deft and needed move, especially after young phenom Julio Urias, projected internally and externally to be the Dodgers' next-best starter behind Kershaw by now, was felled by a season-ending shoulder injury in June.
In his third season as the club's president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman is living in a glitzy, movie star-studded different universe than he was in Tampa, where he was general manager of the Rays from 2005 to 2014. There, the expectations were that of a third-grade gym class compared to those in L.A., where Magic Johnson, Tommy Lasorda, Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson and Kobe Bryant have fed the locals championship trophies like street tacos.
Or at least they did baseball-wise, until, ahem...29 years ago.
"I don't think until you live it you can really know it," Friedman says. "You do the math, and ... it had been a long time [since the Dodgers' last World Series title, in 1988].
"But I don't think I appreciated the passion until living it every day, getting a cup of coffee and running into someone there and, at every turn, looking out every night and 50,000 people are there so consistently and with such passion."
The Dodgers' title quest has lasted so long and included so many false starts that not only have they built the most expensive and deepest roster in the game under the Guggenheim Baseball Group, but they also have constructed an All-Star roster of baseball executives. Friedman is assisted by general manager Farhan Zaidi (former assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics), Josh Byrnes (former GM of the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks), Alex Anthopoulos (former GM of the Toronto Blue Jays) and Gerry Hunsicker (former GM of the Houston Astros).
As it does on the field, all that talent comes at an enormous price. Friedman's deal is worth $35 million plus incentives over five years, ESPN's Buster Olney reported, and you can bet his high-powered executive team isn't working for minimum wage, either.
The man whom Friedman replaced and who put much of the frame of this roster in place, Ned Colletti (Dodgers GM from 2006 to '14), remained employed by the club as a senior adviser to the president for a time and now serves as a broadcaster for the club.
All of this has gotten the Dodgers five consecutive National League West titles...and yet, all that's been worth is a bunch of coffee shop hipsters consistently reminding them that it's been, like, forever since this team has actually won a World Series.
When they trounced the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, the Dodgers were playing in their fifth NLCS in the past decade. They lost to the Cubs last year, and in the flamboyant Mannywood days with slugger Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp and a young Kershaw, they lost consecutive NLCS to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 and 2009. In between were more playoff flameouts, more disappointments and more questions about whether Kershaw and his high-priced teammates could win in October.
Now Kershaw is 29, and he's got an opt-out clause in his contract that he can exercise following the 2018 season.
Granted, this team appears set up for the long haul with young stars like Seager and Bellinger, but, then again, when the New York Mets lost the 2015 World Series to the Kansas City Royals, they appeared in a good spot for the next many years with young pitching stars Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Look where that got them.
Forget the notion that the Dodgers haven't won a World Series since 1988.
They haven't even played in a World Series since then.
Every year spins differently, and through so many near misses in recent times, the Dodgers have kept spinning, trying their luck, making moves both big and small while attempting to cover the greatest distance in the game: the final few steps between near miss and World Series champions.
They let Zack Greinke walk after he opted out of his Dodgers deal, and Arizona swooped in at the last minute with a six-year, $206.5 million offer during the winter of 2015-16. Oh, they could have afforded to keep Greinke, but in the evaluation of Friedman and his team, that sixth year was a deal-breaker. And it would have been a case of deploying too many resources in one direction.
At the trade deadline last year, they acquired Hill, in the midst of a late-career breakout season, from Oakland. This year, the Darvish deal was big, but under-the-radar acquisitions for relievers Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani were key.
The comings and goings have been frequent: In a move that shocked the clubhouse last August, they traded catcher A.J. Ellis, Kershaw's best friend on the team. The reasoning was sound: Friedman and Co. felt the team needed to beef up its at-bats against left-handed pitchers, and the catcher they acquired from Philadelphia in the deal, veteran Carlos Ruiz, had better numbers than Ellis in that department.
Internally, the Dodgers continue to pull levers and push buttons, too. Unable to trade the then-disappointing Yasiel Puig at the deadline in 2016, they demoted him to Triple-A Oklahoma City (asked in Chicago last week which team he owed a debt of gratitude for not coughing up a big enough package to obtain Puig, Friedman quipped, "All 29"). This year, after obtaining veteran Curtis Granderson from the New York Mets, the corresponding move was to jettison center fielder Joc Pederson to Oklahoma City.
As Friedman explains, it's a fine line, accomplishing the task of not only collecting the right talent to win but also then making sure "everybody is reading off of the same song sheet."
"Part of being a Dodger is that if you're playing for this organization, you're expected to win," says Hernandez, acquired in Friedman's first big Dodgers deal, a trade that sent popular second baseman Dee Gordon to the Miami Marlins during the winter meetings in December 2014.
"You can't think of it as, 'Oooooh, we made the playoffs!' If you can't play [in the spotlight], they're going to find someone better."
In Friedman's final year running the Rays, the club operated with an $82.6 million payroll, ranked 27th among MLB's 30 clubs. What he has to work with now dwarfs that. But what hasn't changed is his overall team-building philosophy.
"I wondered coming over how that would work," Friedman says. "I think competition, in terms of the daily stakes each night, pursuing a free agent or chasing a trade, there's so many different avenues we're so focused on and hypercompetitive about. That's all that really matters, and the narrative doesn't really affect us very much.
"But I think the one thing that probably is my favorite thing about being with the Dodgers is having that many people who care so much about what we're doing. It fuels us. And when we're on the fence of being aggressive or not with what we're looking at, I think that contributes in a very positive way to doing everything we can."
Every night when Friedman, Roberts, Kershaw, Puig and the rest look out at the tens of thousands who pack Dodger Stadium, they can see why. This is the fifth consecutive season the Dodgers, who this year averaged 46,492 fans per game, led MLB in attendance.
"I have zero issues with high expectations," Friedman says. "In fact, I prefer them. It's much better than the alternative. It's been a long time since we've won a World Series in Los Angeles. That's what they want, and I don't blame them."
They all feel it. When backup shortstop Charlie Culberson's wife dropped him off at the stadium for a workout the other day, she went around to the team store in search of a Dodgers hair bow for the couple's five-year-old daughter. Sarah Culberson couldn't believe what she saw.
"She said the line at the team store wrapped around the stadium," Culberson said.
Yeah, you could say from the marquee stars on the team—like Kershaw and Turner—down to the man who replaced the injured Seager on the roster against the Cubs—Culberson—the Dodgers realize one thing: Just getting to this point isn't enough.
"It's an accomplishment, getting to the World Series," Culberson said. "But we're not done yet.
"[Beating the Cubs], that was the second-to-last step. We're here to win."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.