The cozy world of the Dodgers received a jolt, albeit expectedly, with the sale of franchise to the Fox Group on March 19.
Although the new owners have said that the Dodger Way will continue, nervous employees doubt things will remain the same. But the consensus is that this season--the Dodgers' 40th in Los Angeles--is pivotal in the organization's future, because Fox officials won't be as forgiving as their former boss.
The Dodgers face high stakes on the field and in the front office, and they realize they must produce.
"Everyone knows that we didn't accomplish what we wanted to accomplish last season, and we have to play better," Manager Bill Russell said. "Every year is important, but this year is big because we should have done more last year. We just didn't get the job done, and we know what we have to do."
They are tired of being reminded about their poor start and collapse in September last season, which enabled the San Francisco Giants to finish two games ahead of the second-place Dodgers in the National League West. Their recent postseason experience--they haven't won a playoff game since 1988--also isn't among their favorite topics.
But the truth is, a repeat performance could end the Dodger careers of Russell and Executive Vice President Fred Claire.
"They have been a successful team, a very competitive team, for the past few years," said Peter Chernin, chief executive of the Fox Group. "But it's true that they haven't had many breaks in September. We think that this is a very talented team, and we're looking forward to this season."
Translation: The Fox Group won't be satisfied with anything less than success in the postseason.
As if they didn't have enough to be concerned about, the Dodgers probably will be without veteran first baseman Eric Karros for two months, while he rehabilitates from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Karros batted .266 with 31 home runs and 104 runs batted in last season, and has hit at least 30 homers with 100 RBIs each of the last three seasons.
His injury opened the door for touted rookie Paul Konerko, the minor league player of the year last season at triple-A Albuquerque. He stood out in the spring--but a hot spring does not a major leaguer make.
"Eric is a very important part of our team, and we know we're going to miss him," Russell said. "But he can't be here, and we still have to play. We like the guy we have there now, and all we can do is move on."
Even without Karros, the Dodgers are talented.
All-star catcher Mike Piazza is coming off the best season of his standout career. He batted .362 with 40 homers and 124 RBIs and continued to improve behind the plate.
"There is no question about the talent on this team, we've had the talent for years," he said. "We've been a good team, but we have the talent to do more, and it's time we start doing those things.
"Great teams find a way to win, and mediocre teams find a way to lose. It's a state of mind, and we have to get that."
Right fielder Raul Mondesi agrees. He also set personal bests last season in batting average (.310), home runs (30) and stolen bases (32). He drove in 87 runs after driving in 88 in 1995 and '96.
Mondesi, who recently signed a four-year, $36-million contract, said everything is in place for the Dodgers, but they have to take what they want.
"We have power, we have pitching, we have defense," said Mondesi, the only Dodger to hit 30 homers with 30 stolen bases.
"A lot of teams would want what we have. But everyone has to play hard and do their job. We have to do it every day."
Third baseman Todd Zeile will bat cleanup with Karros sidelined. Zeile was the Dodgers' second-hottest hitter down the stretch, and he batted .268 with 31 homers and 90 RBIs. But he now moves up two spots in the batting order and must produce enough so teams can't continually pitch around Piazza.
Second baseman Eric Young and shortstop Jose Vizcaino began their careers with the organization and have returned as accomplished veterans. The double-play tandem should be the Dodgers' best since Davey Lopes teamed with some guy named Russell.
The starting pitching staff should help them. Ramon Martinez reestablished himself as the staff ace with an outstanding spring. He appears to be fully recovered from a tear on the rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder he suffered last season.
Chan Ho Park is a rising star. He went 14-8 with a 3.38 earned-run average in his breakthrough sophomore season and was selected the No. 2 starter after pitching almost as well as Martinez. The Dodgers believe Park is their future ace and a potential Cy Young Award winner.
The Seattle Mariners were eager to acquire Ismael Valdes, but Claire wouldn't trade him for Randy Johnson. That is all one needs to know about Valdes.
Hideo Nomo had off-season surgery on his throwing elbow and hasn't been sharp. The Dodgers will watch him closely in the beginning. Darren Dreifort won the fifth spot, and the Dodgers are only slightly more giddy about Park.