AFTER FIVE weekshoning pickoff plays, relay throws and bunt coverages, Dodgers first basemanJames Loney and shortstop Chin-Lung Hu attended to one final piece of springtraining business. Standing face-to-face on the infield last Thursday in thetwilight before an exhibition game against the Angels, the 23-year-old firstbaseman from Texas and the 24-year-old shortstop from Taiwan choreographed thecelebratory handshake they plan to employ for the next seven months, anelaborate blur of fist bumps, chest thumps and hand slaps that would make evenJose Reyes and David Wright take notice. When Loney and Hu were satisfied withtheir timing, the season could begin.
This is an article from the April 7, 2008 issue
Theories aboundas to why Joe Torre is managing this season, and more specifically why he ismanaging the Dodgers. The truth may lie somewhere in that secret handshake.Last summer, when Torre was still in the Yankees' dugout, he and his coacheswould eye the out-of-town scoreboard between innings. Larry Bowa, the thirdbase coach, would often pipe up, "That Dodgers team has some young guys whocan really play." Torre did not think much about Bowa's remarks at thetime. But he did not forget them either.
For 12 seasons inNew York, Torre's job was largely one of crisis management, handling theSteinbrenners, the tabloids and the Red Sox. But there is another part ofmanaging a baseball team, and that is the part that drew him west. "It'sthe fun part," Torre says. "It's watching young talent develop andgrow. It's looking in the eyes of young players and sensing when they reach thepoint that they come to the ballpark knowing what to expect, what to do."As he spoke, the field in front of him was jammed with those very players.
Torre pointed ata few of them, shagging fly balls during batting practice. There wasleftfielder Andre Ethier ("Can really hit"); rightfielder Matt Kemp("Doesn't even know how good he is yet"); catcher Russell Martin("A very special individual, not just his ability to play but the presencehe has"). Torre stopped short of comparing Martin with Yankees captainDerek Jeter, though few others have demonstrated the same restraint.
The Yankees hiredTorre in 1995, the same year that Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte andJorge Posada had made their major league debuts. Torre rode those fourcornerstones, and they rode him, to four World Series titles and 12 straightplayoff appearances. When asked if the Dodgers' collection of young talent iscomparable to the Yankees' crop in the mid-90s, Torre said, "I don't thinkthere's any question."
THE DODGERS couldpractically fill a major league diamond with players drafted or signed in 2002and '03: Loney at first, Tony Abreu at second, Hu at short, Andy LaRoche atthird, Martin behind the dish, Ethier in left, Kemp in right and ChadBillingsley on the mound, with Jonathan Broxton in the bullpen. Four of thoseplayers—Martin, Loney, Kemp and Ethier—were in Torre's Opening Day lineup athome on Monday, when Los Angeles beat the San Francisco Giants 5--0.Billingsley, a potential 15- to 18-game winner, was scheduled to start thethird game, on Wednesday. Broxton is a top setup man with a closer's stuff.Abreu and Hu are future regulars.
Torre chose theDodgers not because he stayed up nights studying the minor league statistics ofthose players, but because he grew up in Brooklyn and developed a deepappreciation for the organization's rich history. The franchise's recenthistory, though, less been less fruitful. Torre's ability to inspire theyoungest players on this year's team—and their ability to invigorate him—coulddetermine whether Los Angeles wins its first playoff series since 1988.
Torre is 67, butno one in the Dodgers' clubhouse compares him to a grandfather. Because hisWorld Series titles all came in the past 12 years (on the biggest stage, noless) he is still very relevant to the modern ballplayer. Most of the newDodgers spent their formative years, in junior high and high school, watchingTorre's Yankees dominate. They talk wide-eyed about the 2000 Subway Seriesagainst the Mets—"Remember when Clemens threw the bat at Piazza,"Martin recalls—as if it were a seminal scene from their childhood.
The Dodgers'youth movement began when they selected Loney with their first pick in 2002.Loney was a hard-throwing lefthanded pitcher from Elkins High in Missouri City,Texas, who had 106 strikeouts in 56 innings as a senior. But when Dodgerssenior vice president Tommy Lasorda announced the pick on a conference call, hereferred to Loney as a first baseman. It was no accident. "I think that wasthe first sign we were going to do things differently," says Dan Evans,L.A.'s general manager from October 2001 until February '04.
In the secondround the Dodgers picked Broxton, a starting pitcher they turned into areliever. In the 17th round they tabbed Martin, a third baseman they saw as acatcher. The following year they spent a sixth-round pick on Kemp, who had beenoffered basketball scholarships by Oral Roberts and Wichita State. Then theytook a 39th-round flier on LaRoche, the little brother of Adam LaRoche, now thePittsburgh Pirates' first baseman.
Evans sent thisglut of talent to the place where 60 years' worth of new Dodgers have gone togrow and bond: Vero Beach, Fla. During spring training, minor leaguers lived inthe Dodgertown dormitories, three or four to a room. To teach the nextgeneration about the team's history, Evans and two of his front-officehenchmen, Bill Bavasi and Terry Collins, instituted mandatory hourlong classes,twice a week, often in the Sandy Koufax and Walter Alston rooms. Guestlecturers included Maury Wills and Don Newcombe. Pop quizzes included questionssuch as, "Who was number 4?" If a player correctly answered DukeSnider, he won a gift certificate to Applebee's or Chili's.
"If you wereever late," Martin says, "they would make you do a whole presentationabout Gil Hodges or Jackie Robinson."
During springtraining, minor league games are usually held on a back field at 1 p.m., thesame time as the major league games. Evans, though, frequently moved the minorleague start times up by an hour, so the big league coaches could watch thefirst few innings. While the Dodgers had been pioneers in player development,their farm system the envy of baseball, they had become too reliant on priceyveterans who often let them down. Evans wanted the organization to getcomfortable again with the kids.
Late in the 2002season Evans flew to Vero Beach to watch a few of the prospects play a game inthe Class A Gulf Coast League. He remembers seeing three or four perfectlyexecuted bunts, two or three precise relays. Afterward he told the coaches,"I can't thank you enough for teaching these young guys to play the rightway."
Scouting directorLogan White wanted the youngsters promoted in bunches, to foster chemistry forthe day they would arrive at Dodger Stadium, presumably together. Many of themspent 2005 at Double A Jacksonville, winning the Southern League title, andfrom then on they were all known as the Jacksonville Five. The nickname wasmisleading, because there were many more than five. The group picked up anextra member in December '05 when Ethier was acquired from Oakland in a trade.The Dodgers had noticed him a few months earlier when he'd played alongsideKemp, Loney, LaRoche and Abreu for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona FallLeague.
In 2002 theDodgers were ranked 28th in organizational talent by Baseball America. By '06they were first. By mid-June of that season, Ethier, Martin, Kemp, Loney,Broxton and Billingsley, none of them older than 24, had all made their majorleague debuts. By the end of '07, LaRoche, Abreu and Hu had joined them. Afterthe Dodgers left Vero Beach for the last time this spring, hitting instructorMike Easler pondered Vero's baseball legacy. "It's these young guys. Theyare the last products of Dodgertown."
WHEN THE Dodgersare in the field, Torre and Bowa sit next to each other on the bench. If aplayer makes a mistake, Torre asks Bowa, "You want to talk to him, orshould I?" Bowa usually responds, "I got it." While Torre ispreternaturally calm, Bowa is his fiery alter ego, the enforcer of his boss'sbeliefs. Bowa is impressed by the team's young players but not yet sold onthem. This spring they put him through a series of ulcer-inducing moments—Kempsliding headfirst into third base when Loney was already standing there; Huswinging at a 2-and-0 pitch when Los Angeles was down by four runs in theeighth inning. On at least one occasion Bowa was heard shouting in the coaches'room at Vero Beach, "These young guys have got to learn!"
That was thebasic sentiment voiced last September, when the Dodgers lost 10 of their final13 games, and second baseman Jeff Kent said of his younger teammates, "Idon't know why they don't get it." Asked exactly what they did not get,Kent said, "Professionalism. How to manufacture a run. How to keep youremotions in it."
When Loney wasasked the next day if it bothered him to be called out by a team leader, hetold the Los Angeles Times, "Who said he was a leader?" Kemp then addedthe most relevant point of all: "If you take the younger guys away, do youhave a team?"
Loney and Kemphad been taught, since their first days at Dodgertown, to stick together. Theyoung players ate as a group, watched movies as a group and advanced as agroup. But when they all convened at Dodger Stadium last summer, en masse, theylooked to older players like a threatening mob. Kemp batted .342, Loney .331,Martin .293 and Ethier .284, keeping the team in contention while taking atbats away from veterans like Luis Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra.
Only a fewmanagers could bridge the generational divide in such a clubhouse, and GradyLittle was apparently not one of them. When Torre declined a one-year extensionwith the Yankees in October, the Dodgers pounced. Little resigned. "Joe hasseen almost everything and handled almost everything," says L.A. generalmanager Ned Colletti. "That's what makes him so special—he has succeededwith veteran players, and a lot of people forget, he has also succeeded withyoung players."
In 1996 Torremanaged, among others, Wade Boggs, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Tim Rainesand Cecil Fielder, all veterans on the downside of their careers. He persuadedthem to accept limited roles and defer to new stars. Now, Colletti has leftTorre with Garciaparra and Juan Pierre. Torre will have to figure out how touse those spare parts, and if he cannot use them, how to keep them fromdisturbing the peace.
If history is anyindication, he will apply the famous Torre touch, blending young with old.During a meeting in spring training, he told the players, "You don't haveto be best friends. You don't have to go to dinner together. You don't evenhave to like each other. But when you're on the field, you have to unite."It was a variation of a speech he would give to any team, before any season.With the Dodgers, though, it took on greater significance. "He does wellwith young players because he makes them accountable," Kent says. "Ifyou challenge young players, if you set expectations for them, they willrespond. If you just allow them to move along, you will get noresponse."
Two days beforethe opener, the Dodgers played an exhibition game against the Red Sox at theLos Angeles Memorial Coliseum before an announced crowd of 115,300, the largestever to see a baseball game. Wherever Torre goes, the Big Top follows, and, itappears, the Red Sox too. The leftfield fence at the Coliseum was only 201 feetfrom home plate—24 feet shorter than the fence at Lamade Stadium, home of theLittle League World Series. Ethier was the Dodgers' starting leftfielder, buthe lined up in center, and Andruw Jones was the centerfielder, but he lined upbehind second base.
The Dodgers hadlast played at the Coliseum in 1961, and in September of that year, Torre camethrough town as a rookie catcher with the Milwaukee Braves. In the seriesfinale Don Drysdale started for the Dodgers. Koufax closed. In the 11th inningTorre hit a go-ahead single off Koufax to score Eddie Mathews. But in thebottom of the 11th, Snider came back with a bases-loaded, two-run single to winthe game. "I got a hit off Sandy Koufax," Torre says. "That's whatI remember about the Coliseum."
Being with theseDodgers can bring out the chest-thumping rookie in anyone.