"An LA Story" by Will Horton

The Los Angeles Dodger team is showing a spark of life that should make any fan of the baseball pantheon proud. Their arrival at the New Busch Stadium should make for an exciting series coming out of the break.

If it weren't for my allegiance to the Cardinals, and for the fact that every time I see Jeff Kent I want to punch him in the mustache, I could almost fall in love with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Does that make me unfaithful?

It's the Dodger blue, the cool counterpoint to Cardinal Red. The laughably casual California fans, Jackie Robinson, Roger Kahn and their Brooklyn roots. The unmistakable magic of Kirk Gibson and the 1988 World Series. And there's just enough recent poverty to being a Dodger fan, that, as storied franchises go, rooting for the Dodgers remains uncorrupted by riches and overexposure in a way that Yankee fans can't know, and Red Sox fans have forgotten. Admit it, when you see some random dude walking in the mall with a Red Sox hat on, the first thought in your head is "what a tool." But if you saw the same guy with a Dodger cap on, you might wonder what his story is, what he's doing here.

Hey, Cardinals, I love you, baby. But I'm a man, I've got eyes.

This year's Dodger team is really something to watch, too. It's like rooting for two teams within one; the rich old men gamely trying to resist their various injuries, while the next generation of youth sprouts forth like grass through cracks in the concrete. The whole team is undergoing a radical makeover from the top down and the inside out, a purging of bad blood and bad baseball, starting with the sale of the team from Fox's Rupert Murdoch to Frank McCourt in 2004, and the turnover of general manager (twice) and field manager since then. And the team has rebounded strongly from last year's 71-91 bellyflop of a season, hitting the All-Star break a mere two games back in the competitive NL West.

A Revolving Rotation

As you may have noticed, this magazine has partnered with the good folks at the Birdhouse, part of the Scout.com network. Since I like to do a lot of research online before crawling into my hidey hole to write these features, I thought I would see what I could find on the Dodgers' corner of that network. And two factoids jumped out at me right away:

1) Nomar Garciaparra, shortstop-turnedfirst baseman, has a 21-game hit streak heading into this series. I didn't know that.

2) This year's Los Angeles team broke camp in Spring Training with twelve pitchers. Of those dozen, only four are still on the team: All-Star Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, former starter Odalis Perez and former closer Danys Baez, both of whom have been relegated to middle relief. The rest have been grounded by injuries, most notably Eric Gagne who is now out for the season, or traded away.

This second fact underscores an ongoing problem with the team, a lack of consistency in the rotation from year to year. This is unthinkable for baseball's previous generation of fans, who can remember Don Drysdale's twelve consecutive seasons of 25 or more starts, overlapping with eight years of the same from Sandy Koufax, and handing off to the fifteen-year reign of Don Sutton. Bob Welch, Burt Hooton, Fernando Valenzuela, and Orel Herscheiser all spent eight full seasons or more on the mound in Dodger blue. Of these stalwarts, all but Hooton were home-grown talents.

And for all the success the Dodgers have had in recent years in developing talent –demonstrated by their five consecutive Rookie of the Year award winners from 1992-96 – the team hasn't managed to produce any successors to that line of pitching royalty. The team cut bait early on players such as Chan Ho Park, Hideo Nomo, and Pedro Astacio, while doling out perhaps the worst contract in the history of baseball to injury-plagued Darren Dreifort. The contract in question, a five-year, $55 million dollar boat anchor on the team's payroll, saw Dreifort contribute the following: just 26 total starts, 7 wins, 11 losses in those starts, and 14 surgeries. He retired for good this past February.

This year's rotation, anchored by the aforementioned Penny and Lowe, has been bolstered by the recent acquisition of former Devil Ray lefty Mark Hendrickson, the call-up of 21- year-old prospect Chad Billingsley, and the surprising resurgence of non-roster invitee Aaron Sele, who was added to the roster in May and has produced a 2.91 ERA in eleven starts, tied for best on the team. The team's closer, with Gagne and the spellcheck-confounding Yhency Brazoban out for the year, is the surprising 36-year-old import from the Japanese League, Takashi Saito. While it's natural to look at Saito and recall how the Dodgers imported Hideo Nomo and saw him tear up the league, Nomo was a certifiable star in Japan. Saito, on the other hand, bounced between roles as a starter and a reliever, and collected only 48 total saves in 13 years with the Yokohama BayStars. Nonetheless, he has emerged as the season has progressed as manager Grady Little's favorite to get the last three outs.

A prescription for bloodletting

Last year's Dodger team made the "lowlight" reels more often than the highlights, most notably for the WWEstyled antics of hot-tempered center fielder Milton Bradley. In a way, despite his marginal offensive contributions, he was the centerpiece of the one-year Dodger experiment in baseball's New Math. This trial was bookended by the hiring and firing of GM Paul DePodesta, a bright young disciple of Billy Beane's sabremetric methods of talent evaluation. But where Beane's Oakland A's have always had strong clubhouses led by the loose personalities of players like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, and Barry Zito, DePodesta's Dodgers literally blew up like a failed experiment in high school chemistry, with the perpetually angry Bradley and phenomenal jerk Jeff Kent the two most combustible reagents.

Old-time doctors, before the benefits of magnetic resonance imaging, eighty-dollar brand name prescriptions, and mountains of insurance paperwork, had a pretty simple job. If your patient had an obvious wound, bandage the poor fellow up. But if your patient was merely sick, or infected with some sort of "bad humours," the solution was to open a vein and let out the bad blood.

New owner Frank McCourt (a real estate man, not the author of Angela's Ashes) may be a believer in this oldfashioned theory. Only a year into his ownership, and embarrassed by the immediate failure of his first hire and only the second losing season in Los Angeles since 1992, he cut to the quick.

DePodesta, only one year into his five-year contract, was removed like a gangrenous toe and replaced by the assistant GM of the Giants, the Dodgers' age-old rival. Capable-butarrogant manager Jim Tracy was axed and replaced with player-friendly Grady Little. Bradley was dealt to Oakland for an outfield prospect named Andre Ethier, who has unexpectedly produced immediate dividends for the team.

Most of DePodesta's other highprofile acquisitions – Kent, Lowe, Penny, and J.D. Drew – were kept on, and have produced fairly well under the new management, perhaps saving themselves from the scalpel. And Ned Colleti's additions to the mix, including Ethier, have mostly borne fruit, such as the surpr ising Sele and the re-emergence of Nomar (who is posting his best batting line in years after moving across the diamond to first base).

The Emergence of Youth

The Dodgers' team-within-the-team are its new core of rookies and emerging players. Elderly gentlemen such as Kenny Lofton and Jose Cruz have given way to the 24-year old Ethier and 21-year-old Matt Kemp in the outfield. Meanwhile a young catcher in his first full season, Dioner Navarro, lost his job to an even younger man in 23-year-old Russell Martin and was traded away to Tampa. All three of these kids can knock the cover off the ball, and were expected by the team to be future stars. Well, the future is now, I suppose. Here's a quick line of what they've done:

Andre Ethier (LF): called up from AAA on May 2, has played in 59 games, hitting .352/.403/.545 with 6 homers

Matt Kemp (CF): called from AA in late May, has played in 36 games, hit .293/.341/.610 in the month of June with 7 homers

Russell Martin (C): called up from AAA on May 6, has played in 54 games, hitting .289/.357/.449 with 4 homers.

Moreover, on May 1, before any of these three players hit the bigs, Los Angeles was scuffling at 12-14, in fourth place in the West. Since then, and despite the patchwork rotation and bullpen and injuries to several key runproducers, the team has gone 34-28.

All told, this Dodger team is showing a spark of life that should make any fan of the baseball pantheon proud. Their arrival should make for an exciting series coming out of the break.

 

St. Louis Game Time is the official print publication of The Birdhouse.  It can be purchased before all home games at the stadium and is also available by email subscription. For more content, visit  www.stlouisgametime.com/baseball.

 


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