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Hollywood Beginning
LEE JENKINS
April 07, 2008
New league, new coast, New York reminders everywhere for new Dodgers manager Joe Torre, ranging from a historic exhibition against—who else?—the Red Sox to a young nucleus that recalls the early days of the Yankees' dynasty he helped build
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April 07, 2008

Hollywood Beginning

New league, new coast, New York reminders everywhere for new Dodgers manager Joe Torre, ranging from a historic exhibition against—who else?—the Red Sox to a young nucleus that recalls the early days of the Yankees' dynasty he helped build

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Evans sent this glut of talent to the place where 60 years' worth of new Dodgers have gone to grow and bond: Vero Beach, Fla. During spring training, minor leaguers lived in the Dodgertown dormitories, three or four to a room. To teach the next generation about the team's history, Evans and two of his front-office henchmen, Bill Bavasi and Terry Collins, instituted mandatory hourlong classes, twice a week, often in the Sandy Koufax and Walter Alston rooms. Guest lecturers included Maury Wills and Don Newcombe. Pop quizzes included questions such as, "Who was number 4?" If a player correctly answered Duke Snider, he won a gift certificate to Applebee's or Chili's.

"If you were ever late," Martin says, "they would make you do a whole presentation about Gil Hodges or Jackie Robinson."

During spring training, minor league games are usually held on a back field at 1 p.m., the same time as the major league games. Evans, though, frequently moved the minor league start times up by an hour, so the big league coaches could watch the first few innings. While the Dodgers had been pioneers in player development, their farm system the envy of baseball, they had become too reliant on pricey veterans who often let them down. Evans wanted the organization to get comfortable again with the kids.

Late in the 2002 season Evans flew to Vero Beach to watch a few of the prospects play a game in the Class A Gulf Coast League. He remembers seeing three or four perfectly executed 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 right way."

Scouting director Logan White wanted the youngsters promoted in bunches, to foster chemistry for the day they would arrive at Dodger Stadium, presumably together. Many of them spent 2005 at Double A Jacksonville, winning the Southern League title, and from then on they were all known as the Jacksonville Five. The nickname was misleading, because there were many more than five. The group picked up an extra 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 alongside Kemp, Loney, LaRoche and Abreu for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League.

In 2002 the Dodgers were ranked 28th in organizational talent by Baseball America. By '06 they 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 major league debuts. By the end of '07, LaRoche, Abreu and Hu had joined them. After the Dodgers left Vero Beach for the last time this spring, hitting instructor Mike Easler pondered Vero's baseball legacy. "It's these young guys. They are the last products of Dodgertown."

WHEN THE Dodgers are in the field, Torre and Bowa sit next to each other on the bench. If a player makes a mistake, Torre asks Bowa, "You want to talk to him, or should I?" Bowa usually responds, "I got it." While Torre is preternaturally calm, Bowa is his fiery alter ego, the enforcer of his boss's beliefs. Bowa is impressed by the team's young players but not yet sold on them. This spring they put him through a series of ulcer-inducing moments—Kemp sliding headfirst into third base when Loney was already standing there; Hu swinging at a 2-and-0 pitch when Los Angeles was down by four runs in the eighth 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 the basic sentiment voiced last September, when the Dodgers lost 10 of their final 13 games, and second baseman Jeff Kent said of his younger teammates, "I don'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 your emotions in it."

When Loney was asked the next day if it bothered him to be called out by a team leader, he told the Los Angeles Times, "Who said he was a leader?" Kemp then added the most relevant point of all: "If you take the younger guys away, do you have a team?"

Loney and Kemp had been taught, since their first days at Dodgertown, to stick together. The young players ate as a group, watched movies as a group and advanced as a group. But when they all convened at Dodger Stadium last summer, en masse, they looked to older players like a threatening mob. Kemp batted .342, Loney .331, Martin .293 and Ethier .284, keeping the team in contention while taking at bats away from veterans like Luis Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra.

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