There are times -- like when he's conducting a giant yoga instruction on the outfield of Dodger Stadium to help boost the team's female fan base, or when he's conducting a champagne-spraying exhibition in the middle of the Dodgers clubhouse after they've clinched a return to the National League Championship Series -- when everybody wants to be around
Whether a sharply hit line drive is caught or he's left staring at a third strike, Ethier's Hulk-like transformation from friendly, engaging 27-year-old star and emerging clubhouse leader into cursing, spitting 6-foot-1, 200-pound ball of fury from whom no batting helmet or water cooler is safe is remarkable. What's even more remarkable is that Ethier himself has no idea why it happens. "I'm calm off the field," he said after he had almost single-handedly led the Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the Cardinals with a .500 batting average and five extra-base hits. "But something about this game fires me up."
The challenge for the Dodgers this season, as it will be in the rest of the postseason, has been keeping those fires burning without letting them consume Ethier or the rest of the team. Fully ensconced as the team's cleanup hitter and protector of
During a nine-game stretch late in September in which the Dodgers lost seven of nine while trying to wrap up the NL West, Ethier batted just .103 with no home runs. But in the Division Series, he was in the middle of almost every rally and repeatedly delivered timely hits, such as his game-tying home run in Game 2 off Cardinals co-ace
Afterward, Dodgers general manager
During one game this year against the Rockies, Ethier battled through an 11-pitch at-bat, a battle he eventually lost. When he got back to the dugout, he was fuming. Mattingly gently told him that he'd had a great at-bat, which did nothing to douse his fury. "I didn't get a hit," he practically spat. "It's not a great at-bat."
Mattingly has learned that discussion of battles lost while the fight is still going on can only lead to a war of words with his tempestuous pupil. "You can't talk to him during a game," he said. "You don't fight personalities, and the biggest fight with him is not letting him give away at-bats because he's so upset. I'll say, so what if you got out? You won the battle, you hit the ball hard. You can't guide it. You did what you had to do."
Likewise, his teammates keep their distance during the game, but let the barbs fly the next day. "We all mess with him," first baseman
Such behavior is nothing new for Ethier, who has been, as he says, "a little rough," all his life in competitive situations. That is in contrast to his off-the-field personality, where he kept a surprisingly thoughtful and detailed blog as an amateur restaurant reviewer for MLB.com last year called "Dining With 'Dre" and has become adept enough at yoga that when the wife of Dodgers owner
Ironically, Ethier only arrived at that outfield in the first place because of another short-tempered right fielder who blew up one too many times. In 2004, the always combustible
By 2006, Bradley was helping the A's reach the ALCS for the first time in 14 years and Ethier was part of talented young group of Dodgers that was helping L.A. win the wild card. Along with homegrown stars
Mattingly went even further back into his pinstriped past for comparisons. Ethier, of course, is O'Neill, Kemp, he says, is some combination of
Loney is more like a Bernie Williams, quietly producing while his more celebrated teammates grab the spotlight. "You forget about James, but you know what?" Mattingly asked. "He just drives in 90 runs every year."
The Dodgers trio has become increasingly close, and increasingly important to the Dodgers' chances. Ethier showed a particular flair for the dramatic this season with a major league-best six walk-off hits. His favorite came against the Pirates in late September, when his two-run homer in the 13th inning gave L.A. a 5-4 win. He ran around the bases with a huge smile on his face. "I couldn't believe I had done it again," he said later.
It was the latest in a long line of stirring moments for Ethier and the Dodgers that year, and just another example of how valuable Ethier had become. When Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games in early May, Torre sent a message to Ethier, as well as Kemp and Loney, to make up for Ramirez's absence. "He called upon me and Matt and some of the young guys to grow," Ethier said. "He kept sticking us right there in the middle of the lineup to be the ones who made this team run."
Against the Cardinals, they did just that. Kemp hit a momentum-shifting home run off
In the clincher, he homered in the third, tripled in the seventh and doubled in the ninth. He fell just a single short of the cycle, a fact which teammate
Ethier said he told Blake, "I'll take the victory if we can get it tonight."
Three outs later, they had it, and Ethier was deservedly leading the way in the celebration afterward. During the series he had sprayed base hits all over the field, and now he was spraying champagne in all directions, making sure he got each of his teammates sufficiently soaked. If it was any sort of competition, Ethier could rest assured that he was winning.
An hour later, the commotion had finally died down, but not his sense of perfection. Torre had called his play in the series "remarkable", but when Ethier was asked for his own assessment, he paused, thought for a moment and said, .500 batting average be damned, "I can't give that until the last pitch is thrown. Besides," he added after his brilliant 3-for-5 night, "I still left two at-bats out there where I could have gotten stuff done and didn't."