The first inning is still two hours away, but the most exciting 15 minutes of every Los Angeles Dodgers game day has arrived: the home run contest between third baseman Adrian Beltre and rightfielder Shawn Green during batting practice. They are perfect foils. The lefthanded Green, who owns the team season record for homers, with 49 in 2001, is 6'4" and lanky, all angles and leverage. The righthanded Beltre, who in this break-through season was only four homers shy of Green's record at week's end, is a 5'11", 220-pound physical specimen who produces terrifying bat speed. Beltre steps to the plate first, and after he hits a towering home run to dead center, Green announces to the small crowd assembled around the batting cage, "Game on, ladies and gentlemen."
"It's always on," Beltre snorts. "Don't think today is going to be a special day for you."
First-year hitting coach Tim Wallach leans against the cage, barking out the score. Wallach, who clubbed 260 homers in a 17-year major league career, invented the rules of this home run derby to encourage his sluggers to hit with power to the opposite field. Each hitter gets three turns in the cage and an equal number of swings per round. Any homer going the other way or to centerfield counts as one point. At Dodger Stadium--where on this night the boys in blue will take on the Arizona Diamondbacks--pulled homers are worth a point only if they reach the blue seats, which begin more than halfway up the bleachers, some 400 feet from home plate. An opposite-field homer that reaches the blue seats is worth an additional point, while a ball that lands anywhere on the roofing beyond the bleachers (500 feet away) is good for four points.
After Green rips two homers to left center, taking a 2-1 lead, Wallach says, "Belly, you're going to have to work for it because Green's feeling a little sexy today." Beltre promptly launches three bombs to rightfield on successive swings. "That's not even fair," Green mutters. Leaving the cage ahead 4-2, Beltre says nothing but gives Green a huge smile and a wicked cackle.
As Green returns to the plate, Dodgers equipment manager Mitch (Bones) Poole pleads, "Elevate, Greeny. Please." Only pride is at stake for the two hitters, but Poole and Wallach have a standing $20 bet in which Poole always gets Green.
Green leads 6-5 heading into the final round. He turns on a pitch and smokes a line drive off the rightfield foul pole. By now Dodgers senior vice president Tommy Lasorda has joined the crowd behind home plate, and he gushes, "That's how [Mike] Piazza used to hit 'em." But the homer doesn't count in this duel, and an intense Green offers only a two-word retort: "F--- Piazza."
Beltre steps in for his final turn, and with one swing left he's still down a point. Earlier in the season he trailed by three on his final trip but won with an epic blast onto the roof in left center. (In games only Piazza, Mark McGwire and Willie Stargell have gone that deep.) There are no such heroics this time, however. Beltre fouls off the last pitch and immediately crumples in half, laughing wholeheartedly and absorbing a chorus of good-natured disparagement.
Someone consoles Wallach on the $20 he lost, but he says with a shrug, "That's O.K. Belly's been taking care of me lately."
The payoff is not limited to BP. At week's end Beltre led the majors in home runs, with 45, and was third in the National League with a .340 batting average and fifth in the league with 106 RBIs. He has been the difference-maker for the Dodgers, who led the NL West by five games after taking two of three from the Cardinals last weekend. In 2003 L.A. was last in the majors in runs; with Beltre carrying the load this season the Dodgers are a respectable ninth in the NL, complementing the league's best defense, strong pitching and a deep bench. At 25 Beltre has emerged as an MVP front-runner. (The Dodger Stadium crowd chants MVP! during every at bat.) With Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds splitting the St. Louis Cardinals vote, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy, among many others, sees a two-horse race between Beltre and Barry Bonds, whose San Francisco Giants ended the week in second place in the West but one game ahead in the wild-card race.
"You look at Bonds's on-base percentage [.614], his slugging percentage [.831]--the numbers are overwhelming, as they always are," says Tracy. "But you have to take it a step further. Adrian has done as much for his team as Bonds has--if not more--and we're in first place."