Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig has been a revelation since joining the Los Angeles Dodgers, helping the team reverse fortunes to become a pennant contender. (Harry How / Getty Images)
Los Angeles — The term ziggy doesn’t mean much out here. It’s Detroit-speak, and it’s a word coined years ago by Joe Schmidt when he thought one of his fellow NFL coaches would be fired.
Joe would laugh about it. “So-and-so’s gonna get the ziggy, heh, heh, heh!”
Schmidt, sitting in the Lions’ old offices on Michigan Avenue, was clairvoyant. So and so got it.
And though the word ziggy did not go viral, it got well spread among sports people. Dick Vitale, himself a ziggy victim with the Pistons, picked the term up for ESPN.
More and more as managers like Alan Trammell and Charlie Manuel and Terry Francona, and even Sparky Anderson, got fired, the ziggy became a vital term in our jock language.
But not Don Mattingly when the harpoon artists were out for his head.
Somehow, perhaps catching a flash of miracle in a bottle, Donnie Mattingly escaped the ziggy this incomprehensible baseball season. He slipped away like Houdini all wrapped up in chains.
The LA media, affixed to pro basketball and the frequency of abrupt dismissals, were pounding for Mattingly’s noggin just about every day in May and June. He was a goner — agreed upon by the print, radio and TV media.
The Dodgers were a team out of control. They were in a free fall. They were in chaotic retreat — a team with a massive payroll, a team laden with fine pitching and star hitters.
Stuck in last place in the National League West — behind the despised Arizona Diamondbacks.
Refute and dispute
The Dodgers front office would issue a series of denials. Stan Kasten, president of the franchise, said t’aint so. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the popular face of the Guggenheim Baseball ownership group, said it wouldn’t happen.
Mattingly’s team, favored to win the division, was hanging 9½ games behind the first-place Diamondbacks, on June 21. The D-Backs are as unloved at Dodger Stadium as their manager is Kirk Gibson remains revered in the Dodgers’ heritage history.
But Donnie Mattingly, who had been around baseball long enough with the Yankees, understood the dangers and the inevitabilities of managing in the majors. He might never had heard the term ziggy, but he knew the consequences.
And then without expectations, the Dodgers embarked on an historic streak. From 30-42, they won 42 of their next 50 games. And they continued to winning on the road. They returned home to LA’s Dodger Stadium this weekend safely in the lead of the division — 10½ games ahead of the D-Backs on Saturday — a reversal of 20 games, bound for the playoffs.
And to hear and read about it now in Southern California, the Dodgers are headed for the World Series. The Dodgers haven’t been in the World Series since the year of Gibson’s historic pinch-hit home run in 1988.
And in a celebrity-filled town with serious delusions of entitlement, it has been an extremely painful quarter-century.
But no pain could have been felt deeper than Don Mattingly experienced just about two months ago.
Before ballgames, Mattingly sits in the third-base dugout at Dodger Stadium, adorned in white-framed sunglasses, and chats with the sports journalists — his erstwhile critics.
He is pleasant, soft-spoken — and obviously got a bum rap.
It was a couple of weeks ago, in St. Louis, Aug. 7, he confessed to the angst that he had felt, the dread that he would be losing his job. Actually, he had been so informed in May. By Kasten, the club president.
Pulling no punches
“Stan was really honest,” Mattingly told gathered journalists from the LA Times, CBS Sportsline and ESPN.com. “He didn’t want to do anything but he said, ‘Donnie, at some point I got to do something.’
“. . . this was rearing its ugly head . . .
“I understand that’s the way it is. If the team doesn’t play well, the manager usually gets it, and when the team is going good the guys are playing great.”
For sure the Dodgers are playing great.
With the odd exception nowadays, I fill up on my baseball via television. And analysts have been flitting hither and yon, trying to determine what fixed the Dodgers — stumblebums to a ballclub with serious World Series potential.
They already had the dominant pitching of Clayton Kershaw, best in the National League, the itinerant Zack Greinke and South Korean rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu. They had the steady-hitting Adrian Gonzalez, slow and seemingly disinterested in running out ground balls. They had Andre Ethier, a serviceable outfielder who was one flash victim of Mattingly’s temper during the early doldrums.
They also had severe injuries.
Matt Kemp, their magnificent near-MVP outfielder, was hurt three times — and is still out.
And Hanley Ramirez, the shortstop, was on the disabled list a couple of times.
In June, Ramirez returned and has been the catalyst on the ballclub since the start of the surge. To me, Ramirez is the best pure hitter in the National League.
Plus there was one more addition:
The Dodgers brought Yasiel Puig up from the minors. They had signed him for $42 million after he had escaped from Cuba. Why Puig was not on the Dodgers out of spring training remains a front-office mystery.
But historically, the Dodgers have been a franchise of front-office mysteries, Years ago they had a young Roberto Clemente and allowed him to be drafted away by Pittsburgh. They had a raw Pedro Martinez and traded him to the Montreal Expos.
On the positive side, with new ownership willing to pay beyond value. The club has made some slick deals. Ramirez for one. The waiver trade one year ago this weekend when general manager Ned Colletti out-slickered the Red Sox for Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto along with injured Josh Beckett.
The LA Times went wild that weekend last August by predicting the deal would put in the Dodgers in the 2012 World Series. Lousy prediction — among many made here in SoCal.
Indeed, the Dodgers went boom when Puig arrived on June 3. In reality — boom!
He is untamed. He has been heavily publicized and strongly criticized. He has a habit of overthrowing the cutoff men, banging into teammates in the outfield, charging into walls and opposing catchers, reckless baserunning and irking umpires with an evil eye.
He also has the habit of hitting the game-winning home run, the key double and of cutting down base runners from right field.
He is a showboat for sure.
Puig is baseball lightning — despite his media critics and the enemies acquired so quickly among rival ballplayers.
And when Major League Baseball needs a player to neutralize all the stuff about Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, there is Yasiel Puig to provide the excitement and fun.
The Dodgers — busts last year and this May and June — are playing for October.