Dodgers vs. Cardinals: Wild, wild West vs. mild Midwest
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ST. LOUIS - Yasiel Puig and Mark McGwire laughed like a pair of conquerors in the batting cage Thursday, the distinctive Dodger blue on their uniforms clashing with the Cardinal red seats of the empty ballpark.
Puig pointed toward the "Big Mac Land" sign in leftfield, a near replica of one that stood at the old Busch Stadium, where former Cardinal McGwire set what turned out to be tainted home run records.
"Puig said he's going to hit that sign," said McGwire, now the Dodgers' hitting coach. "So I hope it happens. I said I'll buy him a Big Mac."
Indeed, the Dodgers bring no shortage of bravado into their National League Championship Series matchup with the Cardinals, which starts Friday night. The contrast is stark.
The Cardinals reached this point with the same Midwestern stoicism that has made the franchise a perennial contender. With a roster loaded with homegrown talent, they reached their third straight NLCS partly because they steered clear of awarding a lavish contract to Albert Pujols.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, have arrived at the NLCS by making the Yankees look like uptight penny-pinchers. With Magic Johnson as the public face of a new ownership, the Dodgers' new stewards plunked down $2.15 billion, assumed control early last season, then pushed payroll to $220 million.
Their roster is filled with the likes of Puig, the Cuban phenom, and stars acquired in trades such as Hanley Ramirez. Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez came over in the same blockbuster deal with the Red Sox. Zack Greinke, who will start Game 1, signed a six-year, $143-million deal with the Dodgers over the winter.
"It's been a quick turnaround from last year to this year," Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier said.
The moves were motivated by equal parts sound baseball thinking and old-fashioned Hollywood flashiness, with the new ownership group distancing itself from the spendthrift attitude that marked the ruinous tenure of Frank McCourt.
"We never hid our multiple agendas," said Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who also owns a stake in the club.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, have handled expectations. After stumbling out of the gate, Puig helped to spur a turnaround that led to the NL West title and a controversial celebration in the outfield swimming pool at Chase Field in Phoenix.
"It's really going to come back to us playing good baseball and getting down to the basics of being ready to play, being prepared, being ready mentally to have to hear that and listen to it," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said about the weighty expectations. "Not a whole lot you can do about it other than just go out and play."
Not that the Dodgers seem to mind the pressure, which they view as part of the glitz and the glamour of once again acting like Hollywood's team.
"We haven't been bashful about this," Kasten said. "We're the Dodgers -- all caps -- we're the Dodgers. And that means being competitive year in and year out. And this is a part of that."