Mediocre Dodgers still have a chance to fix their season
LOS ANGELES -- Hitting savant Manny Ramirez got a quick glimpse of Dodgers teammate Andruw Jones' failing batting technique and is said by intimates to have opined that Jones' backside (not to mention his career) was obviously collapsing and that it should be an easy fix.
If only it were that easy for Manny to correct the rest of the Dodgers' flaws. Nothing, it seems, has come easily with these Dodgers, and no one has been able to fix what has been yet another mediocre season.
This summer they added one of the greatest pitchers of alltime (Greg Maddux) and one of the greatest hitters (Manny) to a team that already boasted one of the best collections of young talent in baseball, not to mention the sport's most accomplished manager in half a century. And yet, after returning from a recent road trip that saw them lose eight straight games including three to the abysmal Washington Nationals, it's taken a quick streak of four straight victories to pull them to within a game of .500.
Future Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, who has moved seamlessly from one storied from franchise to another, says lost chances killed them on that trip east. "We had a sack load of opportunities. And we could never really cash in,'' Torre said. "We kept loading the bases with none out or one out, and every time we hit the ball to third base. Which is the worst place you can hit it ... Then, once we let the opportunities get away from us, we started tensing up.''
Despite themselves, the Dodgers remain only 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. One competing baseball executive who knows the Dodgers better than anyone told me at the start of the year that there was no real reason to believe the Dodgers would do markedly better or worse than the 2007 Dodgers dogs, who finished 82-80. That prediction looks solid now, though 82-80 could still be enough to steal the woeful West.
Under Torre, the Dodgers clubhouse hasn't produced the same sort of dissension and drama as last year. But that hasn't necessarily led to improved play. Injuries haven't helped, especially the lower back issue that kept the team's best player Rafael Furcal out since early May. Yet, health isn't nearly the only concern. While one of Torre's greatest of many great attributes is his ability to smile through the pain (not sure why, but a Screen Actors Guild card was visible on his manager's desk), not everyone around him shares that trait. His great coaching lieutenant Larry Bowa, whose demeanor makes him the anti-Torre, let it spill on their recent road trip that they should be "embarrassed'' about the way they played.
Embarrassed or not, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is said to have been angry at several tough junctures this season. In many moments behind the scenes, McCourt is said to often cite disappointing free-agent deals and what he claims are just-as-disappointing revenue figures. You could see it on his face out here Monday night. Though he was sitting in his box next to the eminently entertaining Tommy Lasorda, McCourt barely cracked a smile during his team's 5-2 victory over the Padres, their neighbors to the south whom the ex-Padre Maddux beat for career victory No. 354.
McCourt is said by colleagues to be fixated on the expensive free agent deals that went awry for Jones, starting pitcher Jason Schmidt and a couple others rather than the deals that worked, such as $500,000 for closer Takashi Saito, a pittance for lights-out reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, and the July 31 acquisition of Ramirez, part of perhaps the most impressive trade-deadline haul in baseball.
McCourt is said to be especially apoplectic about Jones, who was activated the other day. But don't expect Jones to have the chance to put Ramirez's tips to use and make a run at one RBI per million (he has 14 RBIs and makes $18 million). While mentioning Jones' knee issue, Torre told the Los Angeles papers that he only plans to use those who can "help'' us. Which seemed to let Jones out.
While GM Ned Colletti is said to have absorbed the abuse of what colleagues describe as McCourt's "hair trigger'' managing style, sources indicate that McCourt has told friends he is sticking with his GM beyond this season whether or not the Dodgers overcome the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks to steal the winnable West.
While the always-involved McCourt appears to have been the driving force behind the ballyhooed, boffo trade for Manny, it was Colletti's many previous talks with Pirates GM Neal Huntington that laid the groundwork for the potentially season-saving trade that was completed only a minute before the deadline. Ramirez, whom Torre calls "one of the best hitters I've sever seen,'' is hitting .417 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in Hollywood and winning his gamble to get his $20-million option years removed.
Looking beyond the numbers, Torre says, "Manny's been great. His work ethic has been terrific. I know what went on in Boston, and I know the reason he had to go and the reason we were able to trade for him. But he's been a big lift for us. His personality has really played well in here.''
Additionally, Colletti made smart deals for the surprisingly productive Casey Blake and the amazing Maddux, of whom Torre says, "It's fun to watch him.'' Torre says the key to Maddux is that while "others try to it turn up a notch, he goes the other way.'' When it was pointed out to Maddux, who is said by friends to want to return next year for more, that he will surely now pass Roger Clemens for victories, he denied it meant he was better. "No, it doesn't. It just means I played longer.''
McCourt's sour expression and demeanor notwithstanding, the Dodgers still have a chance to make this season fun in the sun. Some club insiders suggest Jeff Kent's absence due to recent knee surgery might well serve as a clubhouse pick-me-up.
No matter, with the talent on this team, there's real reason for hope. "We've been inconsistent,'' Colletti said recently. "We need to put it together for the last (30) days. We need to grind it out.'' Injuries have depleted them. But despite all their troubles travails, perhaps there's still time for a Hollywood ending.