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AFTER FIVE weeks honing pickoff plays, relay throws and bunt coverages, Dodgers first baseman James Loney and shortstop Chin-Lung Hu attended to one final piece of spring training business. Standing face-to-face on the infield last Thursday in the twilight before an exhibition game against the Angels, the 23-year-old first baseman from Texas and the 24-year-old shortstop from Taiwan choreographed the celebratory handshake they plan to employ for the next seven months, an elaborate blur of fist bumps, chest thumps and hand slaps that would make even Jose Reyes and David Wright take notice. When Loney and Hu were satisfied with their timing, the season could begin.
Theories abound as to why Joe Torre is managing this season, and more specifically why he is managing the Dodgers. The truth may lie somewhere in that secret handshake. Last summer, when Torre was still in the Yankees' dugout, he and his coaches would eye the out-of-town scoreboard between innings. Larry Bowa, the third base coach, would often pipe up, "That Dodgers team has some young guys who can really play." Torre did not think much about Bowa's remarks at the time. But he did not forget them either.
For 12 seasons in New York, Torre's job was largely one of crisis management, handling the Steinbrenners, the tabloids and the Red Sox. But there is another part of managing a baseball team, and that is the part that drew him west. "It's the fun part," Torre says. "It's watching young talent develop and grow. It's looking in the eyes of young players and sensing when they reach the point that they come to the ballpark knowing what to expect, what to do." As he spoke, the field in front of him was jammed with those very players.
Torre pointed at a few of them, shagging fly balls during batting practice. There was leftfielder Andre Ethier ("Can really hit"); rightfielder Matt Kemp ("Doesn't even know how good he is yet"); catcher Russell Martin ("A very special individual, not just his ability to play but the presence he has"). Torre stopped short of comparing Martin with Yankees captain Derek Jeter, though few others have demonstrated the same restraint.
The Yankees hired Torre in 1995, the same year that Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada had made their major league debuts. Torre rode those four cornerstones, and they rode him, to four World Series titles and 12 straight playoff appearances. When asked if the Dodgers' collection of young talent is comparable to the Yankees' crop in the mid-90s, Torre said, "I don't think there's any question."
THE DODGERS could practically fill a major league diamond with players drafted or signed in 2002 and '03: Loney at first, Tony Abreu at second, Hu at short, Andy LaRoche at third, Martin behind the dish, Ethier in left, Kemp in right and Chad Billingsley on the mound, with Jonathan Broxton in the bullpen. Four of those players—Martin, Loney, Kemp and Ethier—were in Torre's Opening Day lineup at home on Monday, when Los Angeles beat the San Francisco Giants 5--0. Billingsley, a potential 15- to 18-game winner, was scheduled to start the third game, on Wednesday. Broxton is a top setup man with a closer's stuff. Abreu and Hu are future regulars.
Torre chose the Dodgers not because he stayed up nights studying the minor league statistics of those players, but because he grew up in Brooklyn and developed a deep appreciation for the organization's rich history. The franchise's recent history, though, less been less fruitful. Torre's ability to inspire the youngest players on this year's team—and their ability to invigorate him—could determine whether Los Angeles wins its first playoff series since 1988.
Torre is 67, but no one in the Dodgers' clubhouse compares him to a grandfather. Because his World Series titles all came in the past 12 years (on the biggest stage, no less) he is still very relevant to the modern ballplayer. Most of the new Dodgers spent their formative years, in junior high and high school, watching Torre's Yankees dominate. They talk wide-eyed about the 2000 Subway Series against the Mets—"Remember when Clemens threw the bat at Piazza," Martin recalls—as if it were a seminal scene from their childhood.
The Dodgers' youth movement began when they selected Loney with their first pick in 2002. Loney was a hard-throwing lefthanded pitcher from Elkins High in Missouri City, Texas, who had 106 strikeouts in 56 innings as a senior. But when Dodgers senior vice president Tommy Lasorda announced the pick on a conference call, he referred to Loney as a first baseman. It was no accident. "I think that was the first sign we were going to do things differently," says Dan Evans, L.A.'s general manager from October 2001 until February '04.
In the second round the Dodgers picked Broxton, a starting pitcher they turned into a reliever. In the 17th round they tabbed Martin, a third baseman they saw as a catcher. The following year they spent a sixth-round pick on Kemp, who had been offered basketball scholarships by Oral Roberts and Wichita State. Then they took a 39th-round flier on LaRoche, the little brother of Adam LaRoche, now the Pittsburgh Pirates' first baseman.