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Inside Baseball | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Finley Still Trying Out for a Part in 2005

September 19, 2004|Ross Newhan

You can follow the Dodgers' playoff bid in a scorebook. The club's real future will be determined by the accountant's ledger, and there is no way to know how those magical numbers will play out.

There is no certainty as to which way owner Frank McCourt will go with a payroll that will gain flexibility through the expiration of several contracts and the trade-deadline dumping of others.

The retention of Adrian Beltre might seem imperative, but McCourt will face stiff competition in the free-agent market at a time when Odalis Perez is also eligible for free agency, Eric Gagne might challenge all arbitration records, and McCourt will also have to spend big on a catcher and starting pitcher or two.

Then there's Steve Finley.

Is he strictly a rental player or might the Dodgers consider a longer lease as they watch him provide offensive consistency to their otherwise inconsistent playoff bid?

There is irony to that question, considering that the center fielder had expressed interest in joining the Dodgers after being forced into the market by what he still calls a "contract betrayal" by the San Diego Padres.

A four-year fixture with the Padres, who were coming off their National League title in the winter of 1998, Finley was offered a two-year deal.

"We had just gone to the World Series, I was making my home in San Diego, I had been active in the community, trying to drum up interest in the new park, they had told me I wouldn't be going anywhere and then they offered me what was the equivalent of a slap in the face," he said. "I don't dismiss the money, but I planned on playing a lot longer than two years before moving into the front office and I told them, 'If this is your way of saying you want Ruben Rivera to be your center fielder, go for it, but I don't think he'll be here very long.' "

Rivera wasn't, but then the Dodgers made a similar mistake.

Finley said he couldn't have been more surprised, as was the industry, later that winter when Kevin Malone, the Dodger general manager, rejected Finley and filled his outfield vacancy by signing the tail-spinning Devon White.

So much for White and so much for Malone.

Neither survived as Finley thrived, participating in pennant races with the Arizona Diamondbacks and earning a World Series ring in 2001 before it all fell apart this summer. Finley escaped, waiving his no-trade clause and joining the Dodgers, again dismaying the Padres, who were eager to reacquire him.

He has already won a National League player-of-the-week award with his new team and partially taken the sting out of the accompanying deadline trade that sent Guillermo Mota and Paul Lo Duca to the Florida Marlins.

Finley, 39, began the weekend with 11 homers and 38 RBIs in 42 games with the Dodgers.

"We've agreed that they'll try me on for size and I'm going to try them on for size," he said of his conversations with the Dodgers. "Right now, we're going to concentrate on baseball, and the only thing I'll say is that I'm at a point where I don't want to rebuild. You can call me a hired gun, whatever, I want to go where I have a chance to win a World Series, which is what I'm getting here and why I'm having so much fun with it.

"As for the future, we'll look at my options when the season is over. My suspicion is that these guys have bigger fish to worry about than me. They've got Beltre and Perez as free agents, and Gagne eligible for arbitration. Those are about the biggest fish any team can have."

Said agent Tommy Tanzer: "I talked to McCourt at the time of the trade and was impressed by his upbeat attitude and positive view of the future. I think he and his wife are dedicated to doing it right, but whether the finances are there or not, I don't know.

"I do know that Steve now realizes what a phenomenal place L.A. is, and what McCourt said to me was, 'If he fits in and does well, why wouldn't we want to keep him?' "

There are other issues besides money.

Manager Jim Tracy doesn't care if Finley continues to wear the uniform number that Tracy gave him at the time of the trade, but Milton Bradley, who agreed to move to left field, might demand to return to center, believing he is one of baseball's best at that signature position.

One thing is certain, Finley said.

He plans to play center field next year at 40, having begun a transformation of his long, lean body after the 1998 season through what he calls an "out of balance" training regimen that limits weight work and incorporates balance discs and medicine balls. A physiology graduate of Southern Illinois University, Finley said he felt five years younger that first spring and was hitting the ball farther with less effort.

"I now have the experience and knowledge from all the years I've played," he said, "but I still have the physical ability that I did when I was a lot younger. I'll be 40 soon, but I feel like I'm 25."

The Dodgers are reaping the benefits, but the rent controls expire soon.

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