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It was only eight years ago that Royals fans, protesting "payroll disparity," picketed the arrival of the Yankees for a series. But it was Kansas City that awarded this winter's most stunning contract: $55 million over five years for Gil Meche, a 28-year-old righthander with a 4.65 career ERA who has never thrown 200 innings in a season.
"You're talking about [$5.2 billion] in revenue in the game now," says lefty Randy Wolf, who left the Phillies to sign with L.A. as a free agent for one year at $8 million, plus an option. "So now there's a lot of pressure on teams to show their fans the money. What the growth has done is opened up the books more."
While player development remains the backbone of sustained success, veteran acquisitions have become increasingly important. The Dodgers are playing hardball in both areas. Last season their farm system graduated such impressive players as catcher Russell Martin, now 24; outfielders Andre Ethier, 24, and Matt Kemp, 22; and pitchers Chad Billingsley, 22, and Jonathan Broxton, 22.
Still, once outfielder J.D. Drew opted out of his contract with Los Angeles (he eventually signed with the Red Sox), Colletti moved quickly to corral a slew of expensive free agents. After missing on his first target, Soriano, Colletti talked Cubs centerfielder and spray hitter Juan Pierre out of a four-year, $36 million deal with the Giants by adding a fifth year and $8 million. Colletti dropped another $18.5 million to bring back first baseman Nomar Garciaparra for two years, $47 million over three years for righthander Jason Schmidt (formerly of the Giants) and $7.5 million for one year on leftfielder Luis Gonzalez (late of the Diamondbacks). Now L.A. has four starting pitchers ( Schmidt, Wolf and righthanders Derek Lowe and Brad Penny) who have each won 16 or more games in a season--plus at least six pitchers competing for the No. 5 spot--and enough overall depth to take the pressure off its young players. "We signed veteran, championship-caliber players with integrity who can show the kids the way," Colletti says.
The Dodgers did win 88 games and the NL wild card last year, but as Colletti says, "Our pitching--the starters and relievers--wore down at the end." The hard-throwing Penny, for instance, was 10--2 at the All-Star break but threw only one relief inning in the playoffs because of a balky back. In the NL only the Nationals' starters struck out fewer batters than did L.A.'s rotation. Schmidt, 34, and Wolf, 30, provide the power arms that Colletti coveted.
"Most teams win because the starting pitchers set the tone, and that's what we hope to do," says Wolf, who won't be backed by an especially potent offense. The Dodgers' aging 3-4-5 hitters--Garciaparra, 33; second baseman Jeff Kent, 38; and Gonzalez, 39--combined for 49 homers in 2006. Last year was the first full season since 1972 that L.A. had a winning record without a player belting more than 20 dingers; the club hit a league-best .286 with runners in scoring position to offset that lack of power.
Wolf, who grew up as a Dodgers fan in the L.A. area, slipped into the storied blue batting-practice uniform for the first time last Saturday. This being the era of commercialism, however, the duds had been tweaked by baseball's marketing gurus to spark new sales, with swatches of silver on the flanks of the jersey and on the sides of the cap.
Spring training still exudes a reassuring timelessness, but never more so than at Dodgertown, now poignantly in its penultimate year. (Only Detroit, encamped at Tigertown, in Lakeland, Fla., since 1945, has a longer current tenure in one training facility.) Wolf, for instance, worked off the same mounds that Sandy Koufax did. On a back field, hard off the corner of Don Drysdale Drive and Vin Scully Way, and not far from the blue-and-white sign that still marks CAMPY'S BULLPEN, where late Hall of Famer Roy Campanella would mentor and entertain young catchers from his wheelchair in a cool spot in the shade, legendary Dodgers base stealer Maury Wills last weekend schooled young pitchers with high uniform numbers on the art of holding runners. Part of the beauty of Dodgertown is that any fan, welcome on the grounds for free, could stand closer to Wills than he was to the pitchers he was addressing. Will Glendale afford such intimacy?
Once the Dodgers leave, even if Vero Beach and Indian River County, which jointly own the complex, lure a team such as the Orioles (one rumored possibility) to train there, Dodgertown, and a little part of the game's soul, will die. This is the land where Jackie Robinson found comfort-- O'Malley chose Vero Beach partly because he considered racism less prevalent there than in most Southern towns--though not on the coldest of nights, when ballplayers, sleeping as many as eight to a room in the converted barracks without insulation, would grab towels, robes or even rugs off the floor to keep warm.
This is the land where Koufax solved his control problems. It's the land where O'Malley built two golf courses, in part so his minority players and coaches had a place to play. It's the land where Kirk Gibson stormed off the field after a playful teammate sabotaged the inside of his hat with eye black, setting the fiery tone for the 1988 world champs. It's the land where Koufax, Drysdale, Tommy Lasorda and other Dodgers greats delivered motivational speeches to prospects. Glendale may have a 42,000-square-foot clubhouse, but it won't have the voices.