LOS ANGELES -- Many years ago, when I was a young reporter just learning the specialized craft of covering big league baseball, a man I considered to be my mentor and to whom I now owe my whole career told me something I never forgot. I won't embarrass him by naming him, especially since he now works for a competitor, but he wears a big cowboy hat.
Anyway, at the time, we were covering a hopelessly mediocre Colorado Rockies team -- not a bad team, just a hopelessly mediocre one, and that is germane to the point I'm eventually going to get to here. I was complaining (as I often do) on the way out to the parking lot after a game one night about how boring that team was to watch every night and that if it was this bad covering a mediocre team, I couldn't imagine how miserable it must be to cover a truly awful one.
It was here that he set me straight, because oh, man, did he have plenty of experience covering truly awful ones.
"The really bad teams are fun," he said.
He then went on to explain that the middling teams, especially ones that are supposed to be better but wind up underachieving, tend to be devoid of personality, charisma or compelling storylines. But the worst teams, he said, are comically bad, even somewhat entertaining in their ineptitude, making it almost as much fun to be at the ballpark every night as it would be if you were covering a loaded team fighting for a playoff berth.
It dawned on me sometime during Wednesday's game, the Los Angeles Dodgers blowing a six-run lead and losing 9-8 to the Philadelphia Phillies before 41,807 at Dodger Stadium, that this was exactly what he was talking about.
I don't say this to invalidate the players' pain, nor to minimize it. I see it almost every day with this team, and while I can't in any way identify with what it feels like to be a major league ballplayer, I do empathize with them to a point. Their lofty salaries aside, there is a professional pride to what they do, and the wounds to that pride seem to worsen with each loss.
"This one hurts a little more," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said of the big lead that got away. "But they all hurt."
True enough. But simple armchair psychology would suggest that as the losses continue to mount and the calendar continues to plod toward autumn, when rest and family time and vacations await, they gradually start to hurt a little less. The loss of all hope usually is accompanied by the shedding of all burdens, leaving a team to play out the remainder of its schedule amid gallows humor, witty self-deprecation and a noticeable absence of pressure.
And, yes, fun.
There still will be plenty of ineptitude. After 116 games of it, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that is going to change in the 46 that remain. But consider this: The best team in baseball, record-wise, just left town having predictably swept a three-game series from the Dodgers, and it will be replaced, starting Friday night, by the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros.
Can you imagine anything funnier right now than a three-game series between the Astros and the Dodgers, at a time when the Dodgers' home attendance has become its own running gag? Can you imagine a more fertile breeding ground for endless wisecracks and snide remarks, especially when we have modern technology such as Twitter that actually gives us a far-reaching outlet for sharing such witty repartee with a wide audience?
Again, ballplayers take this stuff very seriously. They don't like being the butt of jokes. They still have goals, individual ones, and for all that has befallen them this season, the Dodgers (52-64) still have a Most Valuable Player candidate in Matt Kemp and a Cy Young Award candidate in Clayton Kershaw. There are individual, statistical goals to chase and contract bonuses to pursue and even a chance to possibly leapfrog the Rockies into third place in the National League West.
But if we can't laugh at these Dodgers -- and if they can't, at least to some extent, laugh at themselves -- these next seven weeks aren't going to be much fun. And this is baseball. It is supposed to be fun. An escape from the real world, one that can be far more harsh than being 11 games back in the standings.
That lesson was driven home earlier this week, after another game in another, far-off big league town. Two of my good friends and fellow baseball writers were walking to their cars late at night, much like the aforementioned cowboy and I used to do all those years ago. But on their way there, they were held up at gunpoint, right on a downtown street corner. They dutifully handed over their wallets, and thankfully, they weren't hurt.
That is real life. This is baseball. Bad baseball, yes. But that doesn't mean it can't be fun baseball. That doesn't mean the ballpark can't be a fun place to be, to hang out, to see your friends, your colleagues, your teammates, and maybe even get a little work done while you're there. For those of us who are here every day, watching this and chronicling it, it is inescapable human nature to look forward to the end, and I would guess there is a little of that on the players' part, too. But when that end finally does come Sept. 28, what are we going to do then?
We're going to look forward to the start of spring training, of course. Just like always.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.