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 Manny Ramirez, Ethier emerged this season as the team's most consistent and reliable slugger and thus the fulcrum of their offense. He finished the regular season with career highs in home runs (31), RBIs (106), hits (162), runs (92), walks (72) and total bases (302), but his slash stats slipped from .305/.375/.510 in 2008 to .272/.361/.508. When he's hitting well, the entire lineup is transformed into an almost unstoppable force. When he isn't, both he and the Dodgers are liable to self-destruct.
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 Adam Wainwright that kept the Dodgers in the game long enough for their late-inning heroics, or his two-run homer in Game 3 that pushed L.A.'s lead to 3-0 and provided all the margin needed to finish off St. Louis.
Afterward, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said of Ethier, "He went to another level in this series."
Don Mattingly, the Dodgers hitting coach who spent his entire 14-year career as a player with the Yankees, likens Ethier to Paul O'Neill, a former Yankees teammate and another lefty with a swing of beauty, in both talent and temperament. Either during or after an at-bat, both could go off at any time. Also like O'Neill, Mattingly said, "When he gets mad, he concentrates more. I tell him, you're an East Coasty guy. The key is not letting him get so frustrated. He gets so mad and is so hard on himself. With 'Dre sometimes the wires cross and we can't get him back."
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 James Loney said. "We say, 'Make sure you save a helmet today.' "
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 Frank McCourt asked him to lead a yoga session in the outfield before a game this July to help attract more women to the game, he happily accepted. Over 100 people, mostly females, showed up to learn from this yogi, though many admitted they had been drawn by Ethier's Hollywood idol looks as much as the chance for some outdoor exercise.
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 Milton Bradley was involved in a pair of highly-publicized incidents, one of which involved throwing a bag of balls onto the field after being ejected, and another in which Bradley picked up a water bottle that had been thrown at him, walked over to the offending fan and slammed it to the ground in anger. When Colletti took over as Dodgers GM after the 2005 season, he felt he needed to make a change. In his first trade as GM, he shipped Bradley to the calmer confines of Oakland in exchange for Ethier, who had just been named Texas League Most Valuable Player and the Athletics' Minor League Player of the Year.
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 Matt Kemp and Loney, Ethier made his big league debut that season, and by the time Joe Torre took over as manager in 2008, they had become the core of the offense. Torre compared this to when he took over as Yankees manager in 1996 with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams all just starting their careers.
Mattingly went even further back into his pinstriped past for comparisons. Ethier, of course, is O'Neill, Kemp, he says, is some combination of Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, who starred with Mattingly on the Yankee teams of the mid-1980s. "Matty changes things," Mattingly said. "He's like Henderson because he can get on base, steal a base and we ask him to do so much. He's like Winfield because he can run, throw, hit for power, hit for average and has speed."
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 Chris Carpenter in Game 1 that gave the Dodgers the lead for good. Loney made the underrated defensive play of the series by instinctively cutting off a throw to the plate and throwing out St. Louis' Colby Rasmus at third base late in Game 2 to erase a potential insurance run and keep it a one-run game. And Ethier was the hitting star of the series, with a .500/.571/1.333 line.
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 Casey Blake reminded him of as they ran out for the bottom of the ninth inning. "You know, if you hadn't struck out or popped out, you would have hit for the cycle."
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."