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BILL PLASCHKE

There's Still a Place for Tradition

Eric Karros is the last link to a Dodger past when a player wasn't measured by the size of his contract.

February 09, 1999|BILL PLASCHKE

I walked into chilly, wind-whipped Dodger Stadium Monday, past nameless uniforms taking batting practice, through seats scheduled to be torn out, down a freshly painted stairwell, around the office of a new manager, into a clubhouse soon to be filled with more strangers . . .

And there sat Eric Karros.

As comforting as blue and white.

After spending two years saying he should be traded, I shook his hand, said something else.

It was good to see him.

"You know what's ironic?" he asked, shrugging. "I was always the one guy who didn't want to leave."

He was, and I knew it, but I never thought it was worth much.

Time was, everybody wanted to be a Dodger. Everybody embraced it, understood it, reveled in it.

Those days are gone.

Eric Karros is not.

This is a good thing.

Looking at him sweating in his uniform Monday after hitting fastballs and taking grounders, one of only three regulars attending these winter sessions, the only one living full time in Southern California, you are struck with a thought.

This is the last Dodger.

If this year's team is caught up in a championship race as everyone expects, Eric Karros is the only one who can give it context.

He can remind the players what they represent, who they are playing for, why it matters beyond the money and the fame.

He is the only one who can tell them about sitting in a tiny Arizona apartment with other Dodger prospects in 1988, watching Kirk Gibson hit the home run, feeling goose bumps on his considerable arms.

He is the only one who can tell them about the clubhouse on the final, losing day of the great 1991 race with the Atlanta Braves, with Darryl Strawberry stretched out on the training table instead of the field, with Tim Belcher screaming.

He has been part of all the great midseason runs, late-season fades, glorious springs and gaunt autumns of the last decade.

After seven years of playing for his favorite team in his favorite town, he understands the only thing that matters.

"It's funny, but Mike Piazza and I used to sit around and talk about what an incredible thing it would be to win a World Series in Los Angeles," Karros said. "Now that he's in New York, he's saying the same things about the Mets."

Karros laughed. "There would still be nothing like doing it here. You just cannot imagine."

Karros is the only remaining Dodger who can imagine.

There was a time when his numbers--he's still the only Los Angeles Dodger ever to have hit more than 30 homers with more than 100 RBIs for three consecutive seasons--were most impressive for what they could do for other teams.

The Dodgers had to trade him, because he was the only one who could bring them back a powerful left-handed-hitting outfielder.

Let Paul Konerko play first base. And if that didn't work, let Mike Piazza play first base.

And when it didn't look as if they could get equal value for him, what the heck, he was left unprotected in the 1997 expansion draft.

"I heard it all, and it was very frustrating," Karros said. "I knew it was all business, but when you're talking about a place you love, it was hard not to take it personally."

Konerko and Piazza have since been traded twice each.

Every other conceivable replacement, from Billy Ashley to Todd Zeile, has also been traded.

Karros has been left behind, not just figuratively, but literally.

"After all my close friends were sent away it was like, 'Wait a minute, I did get traded,' " he said.

At his recent wedding with Trish Maly, Karros posed for a photo with, among others, the four active players in attendance.

None were with the Dodgers.

At his recent golf tournament, which raised nearly $100,000 for St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, Karros invited all of his local baseball buddies.

None were Dodgers.

"It's not that I don't still have friends on the team, but none of them live here anymore," he said.

Once one of many, Karros has become one of a kind, and thus his worth must now be reevaluated.

First, of course, are his consistent 20-plus homers and 80-plus RBIs, even in seasons like the last one, which included arthroscopic knee surgery and constant pain.

Then there are the other things.

The Dodgers have long wanted to push Raul Mondesi as their superstar, even taking care of him financially before Piazza. But it is Karros who has never broken curfew or spent the night in jail or done anything more controversial than questioning Ismael Valdes' toughness.

Which is, of course, a legitimate question.

The Dodgers now want to push Gary Sheffield as their new star. But it is Karros who has never complained about positions or teammates or shown up wanting to change the rules about earrings.

When you think of new Dodger glamour, you think of Kevin Brown. Meanwhile, Karros will make one-third of Brown's salary this year--about $5 million--and negotiated his four-year deal in 1997 during a 10-minute phone call.

The Dodgers have always wanted Karros to emulate Steve Garvey.

But at 31, he says he's more comfortable trying to be Gil Hodges.

"You think of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, you think of Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe," he said. "Gil Hodges was not the star. But year in, year out, he put up the numbers.

"That's how I hope people will one day look at me."

And so, perhaps, they should, as much for his stability as his statistics during the most chaotic time in the franchise's Los Angeles history.

"If anybody was betting two years ago about who would be here, I would not be a guy on top of anybody's list," said the last Dodger, wiping the post-workout sweat from his face with a sigh of resignation. "But here I am."

As always, he speaks as if he is the lucky one. Only now, we should realize that perhaps we are the lucky ones.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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