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Los Angeles Dodgers TOWER OF BABEL

March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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Los Angeles Dodgers TOWER OF BABEL

TANNED, FOCUSED AND LOADED/NL WEST

This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

This season marks the beginning of the end. The O'Malley family
has owned the Dodgers for 48 years, but soon one of the National
League's legendary franchises will be merely another rib in a
corporate umbrella. The players are pleased. They think Rupert
Murdoch's News Corp. will mean more money for salaries, and
what's more important than that? For the club itself, this
season is one long final exam to see if the parochial school
values the O'Malleys hold dear--that neatness counts, that
punctuality does too, that hard work will get you closer to
God--are still meaningful as the century closes.

But the value that is popularly supposed to be at the core of
the O'Malley family has been absent from the Dodgers for years:
family unity itself. Of course, Bill Russell, the manager, will
tell you that togetherness is overrated, that on the mighty L.A.
teams of the 1970s, for which he played, there were guys who
couldn't stand each other. No doubt true--but at least there was
passion.

Last year the Dodgers were talent-rich (catcher Mike Piazza,
rightfielder Raul Mondesi, first baseman Eric Karros,
righthander Ramon Martinez, third baseman Todd Zeile) but
emotionally disengaged. They finished second in a division they
should have manhandled. In June, Piazza told the Los Angeles
Times that the team's problems were cultural and social, that
the team wasn't a melting pot but a mosaic, with big gaps
between the tiles. He was trying to rattle the team out of its
lethargy. Instead, the catcher was called insensitive, not only
by some fans, but also by some teammates. It's an awful thing to
be misunderstood.

Nothing's changed, at least on paper. The team pretty much stood
still over the winter. Los Angeles once again has the most
international roster in baseball, including a starting rotation
with five pitchers whose native language is not English:
Martinez is Dominican, Hideo Nomo is Japanese, Chan Ho Park is
Korean, and Ismael Valdes and Dennis Reyes are Mexican. What's
more, three of the every-day eight are from overseas: Mondesi
and shortstop Jose Vizcaino are Dominican, and centerfielder
Roger Cedeno is Venezuelan. When asked about Team United
Nations, the players shrug and mumble--if the guy can play, who
cares where he's from?

That's what they say. Who knows what they think. The most
important question about the 1998 Dodgers is also the simplest:
Is winning games the players' highest priority? "There are a lot
of young veterans on this team, players at the peaks of their
careers," says Russell. "They've shown they can put up numbers,
they've proven to themselves they can make a lot of money. What
they still have to prove is that they can win a ring."

Maybe the most significant problem in the Los Angeles clubhouse
is, by team custom, lack of a tap. The Elias Sports Bureau has
not yet made a study in this area, but the teams with the best
chemistry are generally among those 15 or so clubs that have a
keg flowing in the trainer's room after games. The ritual is an
ancient one, common to many societies, in which grown men,
unencumbered by the distraction of family, encircle a large
metal cylinder, imbibing its contents while nursing wounds and
commiserating about the opposition. This is known in the
literature as male bonding.

Lack of unity on the Dodgers isn't only a function of
birthplace. Some players live so far from the ballpark that when
games are over, guys split, and split fast. In most American
metropolises, your income dictates precisely where you live.
Greater Los Angeles defies demographers. In Los Angeles, your
residence reveals not so much your economic class but your
lifestyle. Piazza lives in Manhattan Beach, among the hard
bodies. Park lives in Glendale, where the newsstands carry
Korean papers. Zeile lives in Westlake Village--suburban, gated,
conservative. On the Dodgers, there are players who live 50
miles from one another.

Last year, on an off day during a road trip, 20 members of the
Padres got together for golf. Hearing about this act of
companionship, one Dodger said, "We couldn't get a foursome
together." But last year is another lifetime in baseball. At
spring training, several young Caribbean players were trying to
keep a count in Korean. Or was it Japanese? They weren't quite
sure. They knew it wasn't Spanish.

--M.B.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA YOUNG AND RESTLESS The Dodgers' pitching and power galore notwithstanding, speedy Eric Young should fire L.A.'s engine.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Todd Hollandsworth]