After much trial and many errors, L.A. may have found a shortstop in slick Cesar Izturis
Finding a new shortstop is as much a ritual of the Dodgers' camp as spotting Sandy Koufax in the shadows behind the practice bullpen. Los Angeles has had a different player at short on Opening Day in six of the past seven years. With less than three weeks before the 2002 lid-lifter, the Dodgers were eagerly anticipating a seventh: Cesar Izturis, a 22-year-old Venezuelan acquired along with righthanded reliever Paul Quantrill from the Blue Jays in December for righthanders Luke Prokopec and Chad Ricketts, a minor leaguer. Last week manager Jim Tracy hinted strongly that Izturis, who played 46 games with Toronto last year and has been dazzling with his glove this spring, will take over the starting job from incumbent Alex Cora. "I know it's only March," Tracy said, "but I haven't seen anything yet to tell me he can't play up here."
Replacing the shaky Cora, who committed 20 errors and batted .217 last year, would not be a difficult decision for the Dodgers, but the 5'9", 175-pound Izturis is making it especially easy. Los Angeles knew it was getting a defensive whiz: Izturis started 34 games at second base and six at shortstop for the Blue Jays and made just three errors. After the trade a Toronto front-office executive compared him to the Indians' perennial Gold Glove shortstop, Omar Vizquel.
Though questions remain as to whether the switch-hitting Izturis can handle major league pitching and the grind of a full season, he impressed Tracy by batting .440 in his first eight spring games. Furthermore, Izturis's track record as a contact hitter—he struck out a mere 37 times in 476 major and minor league at bats in 2001—is appealing to L.A., which had the National League's fifth-lowest on-base percentage (.323) last year. Izturis's maturity has also been striking. "He's very humble, and he realizes his place among all the veterans on this team," Tracy says, "but at the same time he's a very confident young man."
Boston's New Skipper
Little Has a Big Head Start
At 11:33 a.m. on Monday, in the Red Sox' spring training clubhouse in Fort Myers, Fla., team president Larry Lucchino introduced to his players their fourth manager in seven months. Many already knew Grady Little from his tenure as Boston's bench coach from 1997 through '99. Then something happened that neither Lucchino nor Little had anticipated: The room erupted with shouts and applause. Little, momentarily speechless, later called it "touching."
The reaction confirmed why Lucchino and his fellow new owners, John Henry and Tom Werner, turned to Little, a likable, twinkle-eyed, 52-year-old former cotton farmer. They wanted a fresh start after the players had undermined lineup-juggling manager Jimy Williams and first-time skipper Joe Kerrigan with mutinous behavior last year.
In September, for example, outfielder Manny Ramirez boarded the team bus that included the coaching staff; he previously had made a habit of riding the second, players-only bus. Ramirez blasted music out of a boom box as he walked past Kerrigan, seated in the front row. According to one passenger, when Kerrigan asked Ramirez to turn down the volume, Ramirez snapped back, "F—- you." The music played on.
Little forged a relationship with Ramirez in Cleveland, where he was bench coach for the past two years, the first of them while Ramirez was still an Indian. "I have a lot of fun with Manny," he says.
Kerrigan was fired on March 5 and replaced on an interim basis by coach Mike Cubbage. The dismissal came five months after the end of a 17-26 tenure, during which he failed to stabilize the club. Ace righthander Pedro Martinez, for instance, reportedly threw down his jersey and walked out of a September workout. On Monday, just as the applause for Little ebbed, Martinez danced a special jig that sent the whole room into laughter. "It was [the front office's] job to introduce him," Martinez said. "To welcome him here, that was up to me."