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ON BASEBALL

They Need Tracy's Level Best

March 31, 2003|Ross Newhan

PHOENIX — The Dodgers open against the Arizona Diamondbacks today, and maybe this season won't be what it appears to be.

Maybe Jim Tracy is right.

Maybe he doesn't have to approach it any differently or demonstrate anything beyond what he did in his first two seasons as the Dodger manager.

After all, he said, "I feel like I worked awfully hard in those two years and obtained some credibility and then some that a lot of people never thought I'd obtain.

"There's nobody more disappointed by the fact we haven't been able to take the extra step, but there's been a lot of reasons for that and I don't think any of them are a result of what Jim Tracy has or hasn't done.

"In fact, under the circumstances, I think we've done some remarkable things, accomplished some remarkable things, and I don't think I have anything else to prove to people. I think I'm very good at what I do."

Well, OK, maybe this isn't a crossroads season for the Dodger manager, but then why do so many signposts suggest that it is?

Signposts such as:

* The fact that Tracy is signed only through 2004, meaning failure to reach the playoffs or significantly improve on two third-place finishes would leave him with the protection of only one very digestible year on his contract.

* The fact that beleaguered News Corp. is trying to sell, which raises the question of how many changes a new owner would make, particularly if the team is coming off a disappointing season in a market in which the Angels have already taken a slice of the media and attendance pie.

* The fact that Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek, two players with whom Tracy had occasional disagreements, were traded creates the perception that for the first time this is more of a 25-man roster he can call his own.

* The fact, as Tracy acknowledges, that this 2003 club will start the season healthier than his previous two, deeper in starting pitching, and -- as it opens play in a division at least perceived to be weaker than last year -- with no injury excuses for a team with a division-high payroll of about $105 million.

There it is, a roadmap to the conclusion that Tracy -- despite his own belief that he has "every right to be satisfied with what has taken place in my first two years" -- needs to prove he can take a team to the next level, as Arizona counterpart Bob Brenly has done in his first two years as a major league manager, his first two as a manager at any level, winning two division titles and a World Series.

Maybe Tracy doesn't have to win a World Series in his third year, as Mike Scioscia, the Dodger who got away, did with the Angels. But there is obvious pressure to prove he can return the Dodgers to the playoffs for the first time since 1996, that he can motivate a team through the dog days of August, that he can balance a bullpen so it's rested and ready in September, that he can cope with the dugout microscope down the stretch, that he can sustain the confidence of his players in him as he has in himself.

Make no mistake: Confidence and self-assuredness aren't an issue. Tracy has it and isn't bashful about displaying it.

Nor is he hesitant to point out that his team won 92 games last year and battled the San Francisco Giants for the wild card into late September despite the loss of four-fifths of his rotation and disappointing offensive production from his infield corners among other breakdowns on offense.

Those were legitimate factors.

As the Giants were going 21-7 in September and winning nine of their last 10 games, the Dodgers went 13-13 and won seven of their last 10, with Tracy forced to start Giovanni Carrara and Kevin Beirne on occasion.

"It's not easy to win 92 games with a healthy team, but the bottom line is it wasn't good enough and we want to be a little better than to be patted on the back and told we had a solid season," Tracy said. "I don't want to be looked on as a guy who came in with the organization in a very chaotic state, was hired to manage in a situation in which a lot of people didn't think he had even a half-season's chance, and then came up short because he wasn't able to get the team over that last hump. I don't want that label, and I feel very confident of my ability to take this team to the next level."

This team? This 2003 team with its apparently deep and healthy pitching, with Kevin Brown apparently back to give Tracy a top-of-the-rotation response to Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, Brenly's two horses, but with power outages in the middle of the infield, a question about Dave Roberts' ability to hit left-handed pitching as the everyday center fielder, the need for third baseman Adrian Beltre to finally have the year everyone keeps expecting him to have, and first baseman Fred McGriff being counted on for his usual 30 home runs and 100 runs batted in at 39?

Tracy is cautious.

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