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SPORTS EXTRA / BASEBALL '99

Time to Put Up or Shut Up

Dodgers: After all the talk, the firings and the signings, can they win the West and maybe a playoff game or two?

April 04, 1999|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attention has been focused on Dodger Stadium throughout the last year--though not because of anything occurring on the field.

The Dodgers stunned their competitors last season by making high-profile trades and dismissing longtime employees, quickly changing their staid image in the first season under the Fox Group.

Then they angered major league officials in the off-season by giving pitcher Kevin Brown the game's first $100-million contract, pushing salaries higher against industry mandates.

And General Manager Kevin Malone, hired in September to rebuild the baseball operation, has infuriated his counterparts with his brash comments about how the Dodgers are clearly the team to beat.

Other than that, it has been business as usual at Chavez Ravine.

Dodger officials want the team to have the spotlight again, and they believe this edition will give fans something good to talk about. The buzz around baseball is that this is the Dodgers' most talented ballclub since their 1981 World Series championship team, and many observers have picked them to finish first in the watered-down National League West.

No team in the division made a bigger off-season effort to win. The Dodgers spent $141,621,739 in signing free-agent pitchers Brown and Alan Mills, and outfielder Devon White, and retaining closer Jeff Shaw, who could have demanded a trade.

The Dodgers, without including performance bonuses and benefits, have a payroll for the 25 players on the opening-day roster of more than $83 million--second highest in baseball to that of the New York Yankees. Malone would have preferred to build through the farm system, but he inherited a minor league operation in disrepair.

It was either spend or stand pat, and Malone and his superiors aren't interested in mediocrity.

"We're in this to win, so we did the things necessary to help the Dodgers win now and in the future," the outspoken general manager said. "We wanted to put a club on the field that has a chance to win, and we feel we've accomplished that."

The Dodgers are anchored by the division's most talented starting rotation, and there are all-stars throughout the everyday lineup supported by proven reserves. Privately, the Dodgers are confident they will run away from the pack if they avoid injuries and switch-hitting catcher Todd Hundley's reconstructed throwing elbow holds up, enabling him to work behind the plate in about 120 games.

"Entering the season, this is as comfortable as I've ever felt about our team since I've been here," said first baseman Eric Karros, who, beginning his eighth season, has the longest tenure among Dodger players. "This is easily the most experienced and talented team we've had."

Of course, winning the West won't mean much if the Dodgers continue their disturbing trend in the postseason, failing to win a playoff game since 1988. Malone said the Dodgers have been built to play many more than 162 games, setting the bar high from the outset.

The rest is up to new Manager Davey Johnson, his coaching staff and the players. Johnson is confident.

"We have a chance to have some fun, and the only way I know to have fun in this game is to win," said Johnson, whose credentials as a winner are impeccable. "I like our team, and I like the fact that from the moment we got down to spring training everyone had a great work ethic.

"There was an unselfish attitude, and we accomplished what we wanted to. Now, if we just carry that through the whole year, if we can just hold that together, we should have a fun year."

In Johnson, the Dodgers have a manager capable of leading them back to the top, many players and team executives said. Johnson is the winningest active manager in the major leagues.

In 10 full seasons, Johnson has led teams to five division titles and five second-place finishes. He is skilled at handling veteran clubs and the problems that sometimes arise in clubhouses with big egos, including the one he now runs.

Johnson has already defused many potentially volatile situations. He has shown everyone he's in charge but has been flexible enough to adjust. Johnson isn't likely to be overrun or permit the chemistry problems of the past to sink his team.

His job should be made easier by a starting rotation that is considered among the game's best.

The Dodgers persuaded Brown to leave the San Diego Padres. Brown is the pitcher the Dodgers believe will elevate them among the elite.

Many veteran baseball observers believe the all-star right-hander should have won the NL Cy Young Award last season (he finished third) because of the impact he had on the Padre pitching staff. Brown began setting the tone for the Dodgers' talented, young staff during spring training.

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