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Bill Plaschke

Don't Speak of Labor, It's Labor of Love

July 07, 2002|Bill Plaschke

More important than the record, more enduring than the statistics, this year's Dodgers have carved out a perception that would make Sally Field proud.

You like them. You really like them.

You like that their catcher points to the heavens in honor of his late mother every time he crosses home plate.

Has there ever been less pining for Mike Piazza?

You like that their left fielder soothes the clubhouse instead of setting it ablaze.

Anybody still miss Gary Sheffield?

You like it that their best hitter lurks around with the uncertainty of a high school sophomore.

You like it that their best pitcher struts around with the excitement of a high school hockey player.

And you love it that this year's three biggest impact additions--Dave Roberts, Cesar Izturis and that pitcher, Eric Gagne--all make $300,000 or less.

For how many consecutive summers has this town been hollering at bums who made $300,000 per pitch?

Of all the Dodger accomplishments during the season's first half, there is only one assured of enduring the rest of the season.

It has been their most difficult and important accomplishment of all.

They have made people cheer for them again.

It is a cheering not out of duty or season-ticket responsibility, but out of genuine affection for a team that is behaving like a team.

The most beloved Dodger team since Gibby and Bulldog and the Stunt Men.

The most promising mix of new Dodger faces since the appearance of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and the Penguin.

"It's the sort of thing we had at CBS and Warner Brothers, people relying on each other, people who weren't afraid of teamwork. I didn't know why we couldn't have that here."

Talking is Bob Daly. But don't tell anybody. The Dodger chairman doesn't give interviews on his team. He wants to stay in the background. He wouldn't talk to me if the interview would involve anything other than the baseball labor situation.

So when I phoned him the other day, I asked one question about labor. But I couldn't stomach anymore.

When thinking about a strike, which seems to be the only thing that could keep the Dodgers out of the playoffs, I don't question, I chant.

The players aren't that dumb ... the players aren't that dumb ... the players aren't that dumb.

So I stopped talking about labor and started talking about the Dodgers and, well, Daly slipped. I knew he would. He loves his team too much to keep quiet about it.

"I feel like I'm the father looking down on all this," he said.

The father who endured the mother of all criticism.

He hired untested Jim Tracy as the manager and was toasted.

He hired unknown Dan Evans as the general manager and was basted.

Tracy is going to his first All-Star game. Evans is hotter than Shawn Green. Daly shows up late in batting practice, stands behind the batting cage in rumpled shirt and tie, and chuckles.

"Everybody wondered why I didn't go after the big names. People thought it was because I wanted to run the team myself, but that wasn't true," he said. "I wanted people who weren't afraid to hire strong people to work with them. People who weren't afraid to rely on each other."

Where else, indeed, would you have a second-year manager who agrees to have two former major league managers--Jim Riggleman and Glenn Hoffman--on his bench?

And where else is there a rookie general manager willing to share the stage, despite one notable early miscommunication, with vice presidents named Tom Lasorda and Dave Wallace?

"We have leaders who aren't afraid to say they don't know everything," Daly said.

The ego-bloated Dodger front office and dugout of recent years were not like that. Players fought in the showers, the general manager nearly fought in the stands, and who can forget the time Davey Johnson purposely got himself thrown out of a game after he knew he was fired?

Contrast that with the situation that occurs in the dugout before every Dodger game this season. The players line up, put their hands together, and perform a schoolboy cheer like a team full of Mickey Hatchers.

"I don't think I've ever seen that before," Daly said. "But that is what I'm talking about."

I thought career minor league Roberts would be a bust in center field. But he has leaned on former Dodger Maury Wills for advice, and has become the team's first true leadoff hitter since Brett Butler.

I thought Eric Karros was disappearing at first base. But he spent the winter strengthening his back, then followed Tracy's orders to become more of a situational hitter, and the boos have stopped.

I thought Izturis was too inexperienced to be a regular shortstop. But he makes all the routine plays and, on this team, routine is perfect.

I thought there was no way Gagne could be a closer. But I had no idea he would show up this spring looking as big as Eric Lindros.

Until last week, I also thought the other shoe would drop. The Dodgers were lucky. The pitching was freaky. Reality would strike.

Then, on Monday, that shoe dropped right on Randy Johnson.

And on Friday, with bases loaded and none out, it dropped on Jim Edmonds.

And on Saturday, in the top of the ninth inning, it dropped on Jason Isringhausen.

The Dodgers start their post-All Star break schedule Thursday with an 11-game home stand.

They end the season with a six-game home stand against Colorado and San Diego.

Barring a complete collapse in a league with few other contenders, there's a legitimate possibility the town will not hear the sound of the other shoe.

Green will have to prove he is a big-game hitter. Tracy will have to show he can be a big-game manager. The return of Darren Dreifort and Kevin Brown must be handled carefully amid a clubhouse that is doing fine without them.

But the chances they could make the playoffs for the first time in six years--and even win a playoff game for the first time in 14 years--are real.

Just like those cheers.

Welcome to what was once a Dodger town, halfway through a summer in which it could become one again.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.

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