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SPECIAL SECTION / BASEBALL 2001

Looks Like High Noon for Malone's Dodgers

Season preview: Despite turbulent spring, unsettled lineup and Sheffield situation, general manager is as optimistic as ever.

April 01, 2001|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The general manager is on the hot seat, the manager has only a two-year contract and the Dodgers have the highest opening-day payroll in baseball.

So much for focusing on the future.

The Dodgers acknowledge they must win now after three Fox-funded flops, and General Manager Kevin Malone is excited about his revised plan based on pitching, defense and fundamentals.

Of course, he also touted his previous designs before they were scrapped, and the stakes are high for him and the Dodgers.

"The important things are now a priority," he said. "The situation is such that the expectations were so high the first year, and I had those same expectations, but I didn't realize some of the character deficiencies we had on this club, and that there wasn't a winning attitude here. The mind-set had to be readjusted, and it was a major mind-set readjustment for the whole organization.

"We've come 180 degrees as far as the quality of people we now have here. It's more reflective of what I like: hard working, dedicated, passionate people who will make the sacrifices needed to win. We have a plan and we're prepared. I like the attitude of the team [in spring training], the focus and the fact that we're playing sound, fundamental baseball. We're executing, playing better defense and moving in the right direction. I'm optimistic that we're in position to have a good year."

Many in the organization doubt Fox and Chairman Bob Daly will continue funding Malone's costly experiments if the club does not at least win its first NL West championship since 1995.

At Malone's request, Daly approved many high-priced moves that have increased the payroll to more than $110 million, and the former Warner Bros. studio boss expects the sequel to be better than last season's 86-76 production.

"We will not comment on the status of any management or front-office staff," said Derrick Hall, senior vice president, on Daly's behalf.

"We hope that the focus will remain on the team, [Manager] Jim Tracy and the positives that occurred during spring training."

Tracy must produce quickly because the former bench coach was given a two-year contract, plus two club options, instead of an industry-common three-year deal. He understands the situation.

"I knew what the expectations were going to be when I put my name on the dotted line, so that's something that doesn't concern me," said Tracy, in his first season as a major league manager. "What does concern me is that this group of guys go out and do what I know they're capable of doing, which would make this a very difficult ballclub to have to deal with."

The team might be improved defensively, the pitching staff should be one of the majors' best, the batting order has power and the bench appears to be stronger.

"I believe Rome wasn't built in a day," Malone said. "We're getting better, it just takes some patience."

But the Dodgers have major concerns too.

Left fielder Gary Sheffield recently tried to force a trade, third baseman Adrian Beltre is expected to be sidelined until mid-May after having abdominal surgery twice since January and No. 1 starter Kevin Brown could be slowed because of an Achilles' tendon injury.

Despite key injuries, the scrutiny Malone faces and other potential distractions, players are confident the product will be better.

"There are always going to be a couple of issues teams have to deal with every season, but where we are right now is a lot better than where we were at this time last year," right fielder Shawn Green said. "Hopefully, there won't be too many more this year, that would be the ideal situation, but injuries and problems happen.

"The thing I like about this team is we have so much depth, from the 25 guys [on the active roster] to 10 to 15 guys in the minor leagues. That's what you need to win."

Depth cannot help in the Sheffield matter.

The six-time all-star cast a shadow over spring training when he requested to be traded because Daly declined to extend his contract, which runs through 2004.

He rescinded his request and hired influential agent Scott Boras, but not before blasting Daly and stirring frustration from Dodgertown to Chavez Ravine.

The Dodgers forgave Sheffield, and the apologetic player said he is focused on baseball.

"I want to have the best season I can for my teammates, the organization and the fans," said Sheffield, who last season matched Duke Snider's franchise record of 43 home runs while becoming the first Dodger to hit at least .300 with 30 homers, 100 runs batted in, 100 runs and 100 walks in each of two seasons.

"There were some things I needed to say, I did that, and now we can focus on playing the game. This team has got a chance to do something special, and I think I can help with my ability. As far as everything else, I'm just letting Scott handle that stuff. I'm just going to do my job."

The Dodgers realize fans might not rush to embrace Sheffield, but they are not worried about that affecting the team.

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