Sunday May 8th, 2011

NEW YORK -- Part of the daily ritual for a player with a long hitting streak is the pre- and post-game interviews with the ever-swelling media. So when the Dodgers' Andre Ethier, whose 30-game hitting streak was snapped in Saturday night's 4-2 loss to the Mets, saw the approaching the pack of reporters, he cracked a smile and asked, "Fellas, why the long faces? It feels like a bad break-up."

The reporters' perceived moods were out of respect for the somber Dodgers' clubhouse -- they had lost their sixth game in seven tries while averaging just two runs per outing -- more than the sudden halt to his streak, but the funny quip was indicative of how Ethier handled himself over the past month, with humor and aplomb, always stressing the team above himself.

"Right now I'm more disappointed in what we're going through," Ethier said.

More than once while wrapping up the streak, he noted in two of his failed attempts to get a base hit, he failed to drive in a run with the bases loaded and wasn't able to advance a runner into scoring position with the game tied in the eighth inning. Then, as the media dispersed, Ethier added a final one-liner:

"Don't be strangers."

That part shouldn't be a problem, as Ethier, the Dodgers' 29-year-old right fielder, has shown again he is on the precipice of stardom, as this streak -- tied for the longest in the past five years -- has vaulted him to a higher level of national recognition, thanks to his daily batting line being reported widely.

Cue up a new "Always Epic" spot for Major League Baseball's ad campaign because Ethier, as a bright, personable All-Star in the country's second-biggest media market ought to be even more visible than he is now. He accomplished three nearly unthinkable tasks this week: he reached 30 games with his hitting streak; he helped cloud the Dodgers' losing streak; and his play steered the topic of conversation away from the shenanigans of Frank McCourt.

National stardom is the place Ethier could have reached last year if not for a broken finger suffered in mid-May. Before his D.L. stint began, Ethier led the majors in average (.392), slugging (.744), OPS (1.201) and RBIs (38) while leading the NL in home runs (11) and on-base percentage (.457). That hot start was on the heels of his first 30-homer and 100-RBI season and, while his final 2010 numbers were respectable, his momentum was lost upon his return.

Part of the appeal and national interest in a hitting streak is the record is not only considered to be an unbreakable 56 games, but also it was established by Joe DiMaggio who -- as the Yankees' centerfield-manning, World War II-serving, Hollywood bombshell-marrying Hall of Famer -- transcended the sport and became an American icon.

That's what prompted Ethier's playful text message exchange with former Arizona State teammate and good friend Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox. Pedroia, irreverently, told Ethier earlier this week, "Screw it, go after Joe D." Ethier replied with a joke about not having married a voluptuous blonde.

His wife Maggie, a brunette and former gymnast at ASU, did accompany him on this trip to spend the Dodgers' off day on Thursday in New York. That night, they went to see the Broadway show "Rock of Ages," where the only person to recognize Ethier was Mets outfielder Scott Hairston.

Earlier on Thursday, Ethier made an appearance at MLB's Fan Cave, a new promotional space centered around two men who have undertaken the task of watching every single baseball game this season. Only a handful of New Yorkers showed up for his arrival there -- though one fanatic, a college student from Staten Island, brought an old Baseball American prospect handbook in hopes Ethier would sign his entry several hundred pages deep -- but he was a good sport in filming a tongue-in-cheek video in which, presented with a poorly painted wall, a hastily cleaned window and, yes, practically naked men running down a block of Manhattan in broad daylight, he refuses to say any derivation of the word "streak."

That video, however, was just a gag. Otherwise, Ethier said, "My superstition is to be not superstitious."

Ethier said he purposefully wore different clothes and ate different food to avoid falling into a rut. During one game, he said he used four different bats and three different models. He refreshingly never took himself too seriously, even predicting the most notable part of his streak is it'd make for "nice filler" in next year's media guide or, perhaps, an on-air trivia question for Vin Scully to ask.

"In the past I might have shied away or try to be tight-lipped about it," Ethier said, "but it's something where, the more and more I get the chance to play, the more and more I can sit back and enjoy things. I think you have the tendency to just run through it and put the blinders on and maybe when it's all said and done, you don't remember much or have much to hold onto.

"I made a conscious decision not only while this was going on but before the season to sit back and enjoy whatever the season brings."

Such big-picture achievements don't seem to concern Ethier, who said he was only aware of his last long hitting streak -- a 23-gamer in college that ended only because his final season ended -- because he read it recently on a stadium JumboTron.

"I don't remember it," he said with a laugh, "but that's what they're telling me."

Ethier consistently stressed that, as a batter, his job was to try to get a hit every at bat, so it wasn't worth putting undue pressure on himself during the streak. After all, it's easier to focus on the micro task at hand of getting one hit in one at bat than it is to take the macro approach of taking down a 56-game streak. Ethier was the 54th player in history to tally a streak of at least 30 games, but only 10 have reached 36, reinforcing how high the rate of attrition is.

That's the other draw of a hitting streak: its daily repetition of an assignment. Few professions have such a neatly detailed scoresheet of successes and failures than baseball. Folks who work in office don't have their TPS Report filing stats broadcast publicly.

"I try to get a hit everyday no matter what," Ethier said. "Whether it's a streak or not, I'm still trying to get a hit every at bat and every game."

So while baseball fans learned about Ethier through his hitting streak, he gleaned some history lessons in the process. Asked if he knew who Zack Wheat was, Ethier said he first replied, "Is he in the minor leagues for us?" Instead, Wheat, whose career ended in 1927, is the Dodgers' all-time hits record-holder whom Ethier tied for the franchise's second-longest hit streak.

If Ethier, who emerges from this streak with a .367 average and a share of the major-league lead with 47 hits, is able to avoid injury -- he missed one game on Wednesday with elbow inflammation but otherwise has been healthy this year -- his profile should only continue to grow beyond Southern California, ensuring that among baseball fans everywhere that he shouldn't ever be a stranger.

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