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A Blue Streak

Aug. 16, 2004
Aug. 16, 2004

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Aug. 16, 2004

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A Blue Streak

Coming off a red-hot July and a flurry of deadline trades, the Dodgers are the talk of L.A. again

For nearly half a century the Hollywood Stars game has been a staple of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ season, with celebrities of varying wattage hamming it up during an exhibition softball game in front of a packed house at Dodger Stadium. This year’s event, before last Saturday’s game with the Philadelphia Phillies, featured all the hallmarks of the hit-and-giggle genre as Tom Arnold entertained the crowd with a running commentary on the P.A. system and Brooke Burke jiggled across the infield in a form-fitting Dodgers jersey. James van der Beek became the hero when he tumbled over a temporary fence in short leftfield to steal a home run from Rob Lowe. Unlike in recent seasons, however, the game will not be remembered as some of the best ball played in Dodger Stadium all year.

This is an article from the Aug. 16, 2004 issue Original Layout

Nor was there a drop-off in star power when the real boys in blue took the field.

In the wake of a wild July--in which they had a major-league-best 21 wins and made a series of aggressive deals just before the July 31 trading deadline--the Dodgers have acquired the most precious commodity in L.A.: buzz. Not only are they the hottest team in the game, but they have also become the most intriguing. It is a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1988 and last year scored the fewest runs (3.5 per game) in the majors. As Anthony Kiedis, Red Hot Chili Peppers front man and Hollywood Stars centerfielder, said on Saturday night, “Those guys are the real rock stars now.”

The Dodgers started rocking the baseball world on July 30. At the time they led the National League West by 2 1⁄2 games and had the majors’ third-best record, success attributed largely to the chemistry of a band of scrappy overachievers. But in an 18-hour flurry of activity, first-year owner Frank McCourt and 31-year-old general manager Paul DePodesta turned over a fifth of the 25-man roster in four trades involving 15 players. The biggest move was a six-player deal with the Florida Marlins in which L.A. gave up popular catcher Paul Lo Duca, 32, (see box, page 50) nasty setup man Guillermo Mota, 31, and reserve outfielder Juan Encarnacion, 28, for righthander Brad Penny, 26, first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, 25, and minor league lefthander Bill Murphy, 23. The Dodgers then tried to acquire ace lefthander Randy Johnson and Gold Glove centerfielder Steve Finley from the Arizona Diamondbacks but were able to get only Finley. Another deal, with the Colorado Rockies for catcher Charles Johnson, fell through when Johnson exercised his right to veto the trade.

The failure to get Johnson and Johnson, after giving up Lo Duca and Mota, was met mostly with criticism from baseball cognoscenti, but the sudden roster turnover did nothing to slow the Dodgers’ momentum. Through Sunday they had won five of seven in August and extended their division lead to 6 1⁄2 games over the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. Turns out the tumult of the trades did not diminish the Dodgers’ cohesiveness but rather gave the players a sense of urgency. Says third baseman Adrian Beltre, “The message was loud and clear: From the owner on down everyone is committed to winning it all this year.”

What drove the deal-making was DePodesta’s sense that the team was playing over its head. The Dodgers, who were 21–11 in one-run games through July, were surviving atop the NL West on airtight defense, a deep bench and a bulletproof bullpen. They were scoring just enough runs to win with the kind of old-fashioned National League small ball that has all but shriveled up in the muscle-ball era. The 25-year-old Beltre is enjoying an MVP-caliber season--.324, 30 homers, 76 RBIs at week’s end--but before the trades no one else on the team had more than 14 home runs. What’s more, the serviceable starting rotation had as its ace a soft-tossing junkballer, 31-year-old righthander Jose Lima, who, at 10–3, has won more than eight games in a season for the first time since 1999.

“I felt the team we had was good enough to get into the playoffs, but beyond that there were serious question marks,” says DePodesta. “Now, if we do get there, we’re much better equipped to win a short series. With the addition of Brad Penny, we’re much stronger at the top of our rotation. By bringing in Steve Finley and Choi, we’ve greatly upgraded our power. In a short series one big swing of the bat can be the difference between winning and losing. So can one dominant starter.”

In addition to Finley, 39, L.A. acquired journeyman catcher Brent Mayne, 36, from the Diamondbacks on July 31 in exchange for three minor league prospects. (Outfielder Dave Roberts and pitcher Tom Martin were also dealt, to the Red Sox and Braves, respectively, for minor leaguers.)

Following the trades there was so much talk about the disruption of the Dodgers‚Äô chemistry that you would have thought they were a science club, not a baseball team. The departure of Lo Duca was likened by many to having the heart and soul cut out of the team, but privately several Dodgers said they‚Äôd miss his .311 average more than his presence. The low-key Lo Duca preferred to lead by example, and he would go through his mail before games rather than give pep talks. The leaders in the L.A. clubhouse remain egoless stars: Beltre, closer Eric Gagné and rightfielder‚Äìfirst baseman Shawn Green; sagacious 15-year veteran Robin Ventura, who has hit two game-winning pinch-hit home runs; and preseason acquisitions Lima and Milton Bradley. The latter came from Cleveland with the reputation of being a hothead but has come to exemplify the Dodgers‚Äô team-first vibe by agreeing to move from center to right and leftfield to make room for Finley.

“Chemistry comes from winning,” says second baseman Alex Cora. “We had basically the same guys the last few years, and everybody said we had no chemistry. That’s what happens when you finish in third place. [But if] you go out and perform, everything else takes care of itself.”

DePodesta was willing to experiment with the Dodgers’ elements because he felt it was critical to add more postseason experience. Penny and Finley bring World Series bling: Penny dominated the Yankees twice in last year’s Fall Classic, and Finley earned his ring in 2001. Strong debuts by those newcomers were just part of what made for an emotional 10 days.

It started with the trade of Lo Duca, who wept in the clubhouse while saying goodbye to teammates. The next night’s game, against the Padres, featured an awkward moment as reliever Darren Dreifort introduced himself to Choi on the field before taking the mound in the eighth inning, having been handed Mota’s setup role. Dreifort immediately set talk radio ablaze by blowing a 2–1 lead, the first time the Dodgers had lost this season when leading after seven innings.

L.A. rebounded the next afternoon, winning a 12inning nail-biter to take the rubber game of the three-game series. Gagné shut out San Diego in the ninth, 10th and 11th innings, his longest outing since May 2000. After Ventura smacked a pinch-hit homer to give the Dodgers a 2‚Äì1 lead in the top of the 12th, the hard-throwing but wild Dreifort got his first save since September 1997. Gagné called it ‚Äúthe biggest win of the year,‚Äù and the Dodgers returned to Chavez Ravine riding a wave of adrenaline.

On Aug. 3, in his first appearance with L.A., the 6'4", 250-pound Penny dominated the Pirates in a 3–2 victory, allowing only two infield hits in eight scoreless innings while hitting 97 mph on the radar gun. Afterward he admitted that he had felt “a little extra pressure,” to live up to his billing as L.A.’s new ace, but Penny’s dominance won over his new teammates. “His first time in blue, he let us know he’s here to take care of business,” says lefthander Odalis Perez. “To bring it like that made all of us believers.” However, in his next start, on Sunday against the Phillies, Penny (9–9, 3.02 ERA) had to leave the game in the first inning with a strained right biceps. An MRI on Monday revealed no tear, and Penny was expected to miss only one start.

Batting second, Finley also earned rave reviews. He bolstered Penny’s debut by drawing two walks, scoring a run and twice laying down sacrifice bunts. Tightness in his right hamstring limited Finley’s playing time last weekend, but Cora says, “He immediately showed us all what a pro he is--the way he prepares, the way he executes, the way he gives 100 percent on everything he does. And 23 homers is cool too.”

When Choi (15 homers) plays first base and Green (.298, five homers and 17 RBIs in 24 games since the All-Star break) shifts to the outfield, the Dodgers have seven lefties in their lineup and long-ball threats in the two through seven spots in the order. This is a potent complement to the disciplined, move-the-runners-over ethos that has been instilled by first-year hitting coach Tim Wallach. (In Saturday’s 6–3 victory over the Phillies, the Dodgers drew 11 walks.)

“We can still manufacture runs when we have to,” McCourt said last week at Dodger Stadium, from his usual seat in the first row behind home plate, “but it’s nice to have some thunder too.”

That he can brag about his new acquisitions is sweet redemption for McCourt, who since taking over the team in late January had been pilloried by the Southern California media for having done little to upgrade the roster. Adding to McCourt’s misery were the aggressive off-season moves made by Arte Moreno, the Anaheim Angels’ savvy new owner, who spent $146.3 million to strengthen an already formidable club and outmaneuvered the Dodgers for the services of marquee free-agent rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero. Moreno, who made his fortune in outdoor advertising, rubbed it in by blanketing Los Angeles with screaming red billboards emblazoned with THE A-TEAM (with the Angels’ halo over the first A). The implication was that the Dodgers were the B-team in Southern California. But McCourt prevailed at the trading deadline--adding $3 million to the payroll--while Moreno’s Angels, in a three-team fight with the Oakland A’s and the Texas Rangers in the American League West, did nothing. “They can call themselves the Ateam,” McCourt says, “but the Dodgers are L.A.’s team, and nothing is ever going to change that.”

The numbers back him up. The Hollywood Stars game was the Dodgers’ 17th sellout of the season, and at week’s end L.A. was second in the majors in home attendance (42,392 per game). “The energy here is unbelievable--on the field and in the stands,” says Penny. Los Angeles loves a winner, almost as much as it adores celebrity. Now these bold new Dodgers are both.

SI.COM

Complete baseball coverage, including Tom Verducci’s weekly mailbag and Inside Baseball column, at si.com/baseball.

“The message was loud and clear,” says BELTRE. “From the owner on down everyone is committed to winning it all this year.”
“[The Angels] can call themselves the A-team,” says MCCOURT, “but the Dodgers are L.A.’s team, and nothing is ever going to change that.”

 

COLOR PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGESSHOWTIMEBeltre, who was hitting .324 with 30 homers through Sunday, has stolen the spotlight offensively, much to the delight of McCourt (with Jack Nicholson, inset).COLOR PHOTOJON SOOHOO/WIREIMAGE.COM  [See caption above]   COLOR PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHSAFE AND SOUNDBradley arrived in L.A. on Opening Day with a reputation as a hothead, but he’s been a team-first player.COLOR PHOTOSOOHOO/WIREIMAGE.COMUPGRADE Acquired in the Florida trade, Choi gives the Dodgers a good glove at first and another lefthanded power hitter.