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."
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
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
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.