Blue Blazes: Led by Justin Turner, the Dodgers Might Be the Greatest Team of All-Time

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Tuesday August 22nd, 2017

Election Day was exhausting. At campaign headquarters in Los Angeles, two dozen volunteers rubbed their eyes as they collected votes right up to the deadline. Hourly dance breaks had kept them energized, as had a steady stream of celebrities stopping by to thank them. Fried chicken from Howlin’ Ray’s helped, too. Between the star-spangled bunting and blue T-shirts and posters, as the clock ticked down, their candidate entered the room: Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.

“Wow, guys,” he said.

Despite a white-hot first half, Turner had finished third in the All-Star voting due to a three-week stint on the disabled list, a glut of excellent National League third basemen and a cable dispute—now in its fourth year—that means fewer than 2.5 million Angelenos can watch the Dodgers on TV. The league had not selected him as a reserve, either. The news, which manager Dave Roberts broke gently the morning that lineups were announced, was “devastating,” Turner admits. He and his major-league-leading .388 batting average were headed to the Final Vote, a five-man fan ballot for the last man on each roster.

Back at Dodger Stadium on July 6, a dozen cameramen packed into the #VoteJT nerve center, lenses fixed on the hirsute Turner; his fiancée, Kourtney Pogue; and Moonshine, their miniature pinscher. Volunteers from fan group Pantone 294 (named for the official shade of Dodger Blue), who had voted nearly nonstop for four days, sat in the background. “One minute,” the broadcast crew announced. Turner laughed. “What’s one minute?” he said. Then, a few beats later, “This is a long minute.”

Fourteen minutes and three seconds later, MLB Network was able to project that with a record 20.8 million ballots, Turner had won. He was headed to Miami. After the team had presented him with a Marlins Park–themed cake, after the fans had finished chanting his name and after Moonshine had stopped barking, Pogue turned to her fiancé. “You wouldn’t want this any other way,” she said. “This is the story of your career.”

Turner is not the prankster; that’s super utilityman Enrique Hernández, who recently set up a hidden camera to film himself jumping out of a laundry hamper at unsuspecting teammates. Turner’s not the adult in the room; that’s silver-haired second baseman Chase Utley, who strength coach Brandon McDaniel jokes has “never made a mistake in his life.” Turner doesn’t host team dinners (that’s Adrián González) or have T-shirts made (Yasiel Puig). But the Dodgers—with an 87–35 record at week’s end that led the majors by 12 games and had them on pace for a record-tying 116 wins—are Justin Turner’s team.

In at least one case that’s almost literally true: Last December he flew to Curaçao for the wedding of fellow L.A. free agent Kenley Jansen. After three days without baseball talk, Turner made his case in the quiet hours before the ceremony. “This is the only team you’ve ever known,” he said. “This is my fourth organization, and it’s by far the best one. The money’s going to be there wherever you go, but you don’t know how it’s going to be in the clubhouse.” Their conversation affected Turner too; when his agent called during cocktail hour, Turner told him to get a deal with the Dodgers done.

Then he sidled up to Jansen on the dance floor. “Hey, man, I just want to let you know I’m coming back,” he shouted over the band. The All-Star closer’s eyes lit up. The next day he called his own agent and told him to work out the details. The bullpen anchored by Jansen—who has 84 strikeouts and just five walks in 54 1⁄3 innings—now leads the league in ERA (3.02) and K’s per nine innings (10.06).

The Dodgers also follow Turner stylistically. After a revamped swing galvanized his career three years ago, he became an uppercut evangelist. “I changed the way I think about hitting,” he says. “I talk about it all the time. ‘Get the ball in the air, get the ball in the air.’ I say it almost every day.”

He persuaded a fringe major leaguer with a career .598 OPS to spend last offseason overhauling his mechanics; Chris Taylor, now a starting outfielder, has been L.A.’s best second-half hitter, with an OPS of 1.105. Since Turner assigned rightfielder Puig five pushups for every grounder he hit in spring training, Puig has pounded the ball harder than in any season since his first. Turner cues up the curveball machine and challenges 22-year-old rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger to fly ball competitions, with the winner taking home $10 per session. “I’m down a little bit,” Bellinger admits. It’s worth the lighter wallet, though: His .800 slugging percentage on curves is second in baseball. The team as a whole has cut its ground ball rate by 8%, the biggest drop in the league.

Expectations were high for the Dodgers from the beginning, but no one could have foreseen the juggernaut they’ve become. They opened the season with, according to Baseball Prospectus, a 90.6% chance of making the playoffs. They haven’t dipped below 100% since June 26. They have allowed the fewest runs in baseball and scored the sixth most. They went on a 51–9 tear through last Friday, the best 60-game stretch in 105 years. They haven’t lost a series since the first week of June. If they don’t rest their starters in September they have a real chance to break the record of 116 wins.

In fact, they may have a chance even if they do rest their starters. Clayton Kershaw, the finest pitcher of his generation and a three-time Cy Young winner, hit the disabled list with a back strain in late July. L.A. has gone 19–4 without him. The ownership’s seemingly endless wealth has given the front office the game’s greatest margin for error; there was a point this month when the 12 players on the disabled list had a combined salary of $110 million. (Not to mention former outfielder Carl Crawford, released last June with $35 million left on his deal.)

Barring catastrophe, this will be L.A.’s fifth straight NL West title, but none of the previous winners reached the World Series. The roster includes 21 of the 25 players who fell in six games to the Cubs in last year’s NLCS, yet something feels different. A deep rotation and dominant bullpen allow them to rely less on Kershaw, and one of the game’s best defenses picks up any pitcher who falters. The offense punishes opposing hurlers whether they throw strikes or not, ranking second in the league in on-base percentage (.341) and slugging (.452).

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The players contend that it’s continuity: This is the second year for Roberts and his staff, and everyone is fully committed to their approach. “We’re more comfortable taking information,” Turner says. “A lot of guys last year were a little hesitant to get overloaded—you’re trying to play, and you’re trying to think—and I think we’ve become a smarter baseball team as well as a good baseball team.”

The organization would be almost unrecognizable to a fan who stopped watching a decade ago. Back then owner Frank McCourt, who had turned a parking lot in Boston into the second-most-valuable franchise in the game, was alleged by MLB to be using the team as a checking account. By the time he sold the Dodgers for $2.15 billion to Guggenheim Partners in 2012—having put the team into bankruptcy a year earlier—L.A. ranked 12th in payroll, below the likes of the Brewers. The Guggenheim group, led by Mark Walter and fronted by Magic Johnson, set out to prove that it took the success of the franchise seriously, throwing money at international free agents like Puig and trading for expensive players like first baseman González. As Johnson told the fans, “We want to win now.”

The Dodgers stocked their front office with six former GMs and empowered it to make the blockbuster deal of this season’s deadline, swapping prospects for Rangers ace Yu Darvish. But they’ve also hit on small moves: Hernández and slugging backup catcher Austin Barnes from the Marlins for Dee Gordon in 2014, No. 3 starter Alex Wood in a three-team deal in ’15 and Taylor from the Mariners for a righthanded swingman last year.

And then there’s Turner, whose trajectory has been the most surprising of all. He leads the majors in succeeding in difficult situations: He’s hitting .358 on pitches 95 mph and above, and .375 on 0-and-2 counts, the only player in the top 12 in both categories. He’s always had good hands and footwork at third, and his positioning helps him compensate for his middling speed. By wins above replacement, he’s the ninth-best player in the NL. The Dodgers just gave him $64 million over four years. At 32, Turner seems to be hitting his peak.

So what took so long?

****

You can get mad, Turner likes to say, or you can get to work. This was a useful attitude for a child who originally, his father says affectionately, “didn’t have any of the five tools.” However, John Turner adds, “He had the heart.” Justin learned dedication early.

At age three Justin would stand 10 feet from his grandfather and eagerly catch 50 balls in a row before he was released for dinner. John would return home from his work as a machinist in Long Beach, Calif., before dinner to coach Justin’s youth teams—then head back to the office until 10 or 11. Justin’s mother, Betsy, has worked at Boeing for 37 years, starting in human resources before working her way up to engineer.

Turner grew up 20 miles south of Chavez Ravine, but he never dreamed of becoming a Dodger. That seemed unattainable. He just wanted to play at Cal State–Fullerton, where he’d once been a batboy. He sought every advantage. He narrated televised games for his younger sister, Jillian, trying to predict a hit-and-run or a squeeze play. (“It didn’t matter who was on,” she says. “He was always right.”) He beat out the competition for Fullerton’s second base job not just on the field but also in the weight room and on the track. He studied opponents’ batting practice tendencies to give himself an extra step on defense.

When the Reds, who had drafted Turner in the seventh round in 2006, traded him to the Orioles two seasons later, he was upset. When Baltimore waived him two years after that, he was frustrated. After the Mets nontendered him in December ’13, he headed to the gym.

He had spent all season listening to teammate Marlon Byrd crow about the uppercut swing that was going to revolutionize baseball. So during a West Coast trip that August, he met with Byrd’s L.A.‑based hitting coach, Doug Latta, and began learning to get the ball in the air, taking a step forward and lowering his hands when he swung to help create loft. Turner hit .357 in September—but it came too late to save his roster spot.

He was a 29-year-old backup infielder with a .684 OPS in 318 career games and no major league offers. In 2013 he had pinch-hit as many times as he’d started. After New York announced his release, the action at The Ball Yard’s batting cages in Northridge, Calif., stopped as coaches and hitters rushed to comfort him. “Thanks, guys,” Turner said, “but what are we working on today?”

Two months later he was back in uniform for Fullerton’s alumni game when fellow former Titan—and then Dodgers bench coach—Tim Wallach chatted him up in the dugout.

“What do you have going on these days?” Wallach asked. Turner shrugged.

Wallach called Ned Colletti, then L.A.’s GM, and that February, Turner reported to Glendale, Ariz., on a minor league deal. He made the roster and hit .340 in a part-time role in 2014, and forced his way into the starting lineup the next year.

In those days he saw himself more as a good clubhouse guy than a leader. He would let young players know if he saw a flaw in their swings, and he tried to model a strong work ethic. A baseball rat who thinks a romantic date night includes an iPhone propped on the salt shaker to keep an eye on the competition, he never struggled to maintain his love for the game, and he had long had a talent for infecting a group with his energy: As a high school senior he begged for a key to the cage and hit there almost daily; coach Frank Ravelo would hear the pinging of bat on ball when he arrived at the field an hour and a half before game time. Turner never actively recruited anyone, but midway through the season half the team was in there with him.

A preseason favorite last year, the Dodgers trudged to a 21–23 start. After L.A. used 22 players to beat the Padres in extra innings in late May, Roberts strode into a relieved clubhouse and told everyone to sit down. He launched into an emotional paean to the unselfishness the team had displayed, the resilience they’d shown. He was just getting fired up to make his next point when he turned to his right, stopped mid-sentence and burst out laughing.

“Man, I can’t focus with you like that!” he told Turner, who had found his own way to cut the tension: He was calmly taking in the monologue completely nude.

Turner knew how to keep things light, but he preferred to let others make the speeches. Then, last July, the Dodgers traded backup catcher and unquestioned authority A.J. Ellis to the Phillies. “This is J.T.’s clubhouse now,” Ellis announced before he left. Turner’s first thought was, Oh, s---.

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****

As the Challenger 350 jet ferrying the Dodgers’ six All-Stars to Miami hit cruising altitude, Turner stood up and produced a bottle of Dom Pérignon. He took in Kershaw and Jansen, Wood and Bellinger and 23-year-old shortstop Corey Seager, and told them how honored he was to be in such impressive company, and how surreal the whole experience was. He was grateful and thrilled to be able to share it with them, he said.

A week that had begun so frustratingly had become one of the best of his life. In the end the support Turner received from fans and teammates moved him profoundly. Instead of getting mad, he had gotten to work. Now being an All-Star was almost an afterthought. 

While the others wonder at how the Dodgers can play .700 baseball, Turner says his biggest shock of the season has been how well he has taken to life as the unofficial captain. “I actually. . . .” he pauses, then sounds surprised as he picks up his thread, “I actually enjoy it.”

Run into an out on the bases, turning a teammate’s single into a fielder’s choice? Turner might grab you coming into the dugout and, grinning, ask, “What, you don’t want him to get a hit?” Dog it to first base on a pop up? He’ll pull you aside later and remind you that you’re better than that. When reliever Grant Dayton was optioned to Triple A in May, Turner visited Dayton’s locker.

“Hey,” Turner said. “You’re important to this team. Go work on some stuff and then come help us win the World Series.”

It might have been fun for Turner to have figured his swing out a decade earlier, to have had a career like Bellinger’s or Seager’s. But to be the leader he has become—and to help get these Dodgers where they are—he needed the failures. He can celebrate with the cleanup hitter and commiserate with the 25th man on the roster.

“I understand how hard it is,” Turner says. “You spend an hour in the cage getting loose and getting ready, and then you go up for your AB and after one pitch or two pitches it’s over and then your game’s over for that night, and it’s like, I just did all that for this? Corey and Cody are never going to understand it. That time with the Mets helped me have a better grasp of what guys are going through. I’ve been there. . . .  Probably zero kids would ever draw it up the way I did, but if I didn’t do it this way, I wouldn’t be here.”

In his Mets days, he often went out in New York with teammates. “Would you take our picture?” fans would ask, handing their phones to Turner as they posed with the stars. Now Pogue asks him to stay home while she runs errands near their Studio City home because his presence turns a trip to pick up milk into an hourlong journey. Fans are captivated by this team. Road games sound like home games. And the Dodgers’ late-innings heroics—they’ve won 17 games in their last at bat—have rewritten the most sacred rule of L.A. baseball: Fans no longer leave in the seventh to beat traffic.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Dodgers fall short—for the 29th straight year—of the ultimate prize. The Dodgers only know how historic their pace is because reporters insist on updating them on it every day. In early August someone in the dining room yelled, “How many wins is that now?” Turner laughed. “Who cares?” he replied. The man who can’t stop emphasizing the importance of the journey now thinks only of the destination.

In the meantime, he scarcely goes a day without a request for a picture—of him, not by him—or to touch his unruly beard. He has toyed with shaving, or at least trimming, his trademark red whiskers if the Dodgers win the World Series. His parents want them gone. Pogue isn’t so sure. She has wedding photos to consider, but she’s begun to believe in the beard’s Samson-like qualities. “There might be some weight to it!” she says. “It might throw off his mechanics!”

Regardless, he can’t touch it before October. The official name of the color that best matches Turner’s resplendent beard is Pantone 15-1263, also known as Autumn Glory.

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