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Band of others

Dodgers were put together by Colletti on the fly, but now they're soaring into the postseason

October 04, 2006|BILL PLASCHKE

New York — It was more than just a slider, it was a snapshot of a season.

On the mound was Takashi Saito, a washed-up Japanese League pitcher who had been signed off a videotape.

Behind the plate was Russell Martin, a catcher who was supposed to be in the minor leagues, where he was supposed to be playing third base.

Saito threw a filthy slider. Martin set an ideal target. Together they watched the San Francisco Giants' Lance Niekro flail at Strike 3 to end the game that put their team in the playoffs.

Then, apparently, they had no idea what to do.

Saito offered his usual tiny celebratory jab before realizing, Wait a minute, this is pretty big. Maybe I should jump?

Martin climbed to his feet and began jogging to the mound before thinking, Whoa, the playoffs. Maybe I should be sprinting?

When they finally fell into each other's arms, two mismatched swatches joined together in a timeless celebration of blue, it seemed completely by accident.

Meet your 2006 playoff Dodgers.

Yeah, they're that oddly connected, jerry-rigged baseball team rolling out onto the Shea Stadium field today to play the New York Mets. Playing out of position, out of country, out of season, out of options.

Playing out of their minds.

"We come from a lot of different places," said Jeff Kent, one of the only players who makes sense. "But I think we share an understanding."

If this team wins the World Series, forget Disneyland, it should go to Legoland.

A second baseman who plays third base, attached to a shortstop who plays first base, attached to an infielder who plays in the outfield, attached to a pile of strange-looking relievers.

Other Dodgers playoff teams have been stocked with carefully cultivated prospects or costly free-agent signings.

It was as if General Manager Ned Colletti, hired in the middle of baseball's winter night, dressed this one in the dark.

Their most valuable player was signed during furious negotiations conducted on a restaurant pay phone next to the bathroom.

Their most influential starting pitcher was, in the middle of summer, one of baseball's worst starting pitchers.

Their best hitter down the stretch was a guy who had already made his plans to return home for the winter -- from the Washington Nationals.

Their Game 2 starter began the season as a minor league reliever. Their top setup reliever was until last season a starter.

Their best single-game offensive performance was produced by a reserve. Three of their best pitchers signed minor league contracts. Their most consistent youngster once cut a postgame interview short because he had no car, and no place to live, and a veteran was waiting to take him home.

Yes, the 1988 "Stuntman" squad was famous for its eccentricities. But it was bonded by an MVP and a Cy Young winner and a Hall of Fame manager and, c'mon, Orel Hershiser had that mound celebration bit down.

"I know we did things a little different," Colletti said. "But we didn't have a choice."

Hired Nov. 16, Colletti was handed the baton late, so he knew he would look red-faced and, perhaps, even a bit foolish as he sprinted toward spring.

He had to lean on advisors he had barely met. He had to trust scouts he didn't know.

But, in the end, he dug up instincts that he has had forever.

And slowly, with a growing sweetness that has stuck this crazy team to the hearts of its fans, this gap year became a great year.

"I knew that, in this town, if you rebuild, you have between 72 hours and a week," Colletti said. "I knew we had to be competitive. And I knew I had to get creative."

It Started With a Shortstop

You want creative? Two weeks after he had been hired, Colletti charged after a shortstop who had all but agreed to sign with the Chicago Cubs, a shortstop with two DUI convictions, a shortstop who had to be persuaded to join a Dodgers team that already had an All-Star shortstop.

Throwing around numbers on a restaurant pay phone so a competing agent at his table wouldn't hear, Colletti finally won over Rafael Furcal by giving him a -- what? -- shorter contract than other teams.

"I sold him on the fact that he was 28 and would have another chance to make some big money if he didn't like it here," said Colletti, who signed him for three years and $39 million.

Was Furcal worth it? Don't look at his standout second-half numbers. Don't look at the energy he creates with his first-inning hits.

Look, instead, at his locker after he arrives in the clubhouse. He's standing there, but you can't see him. He is almost always surrounded by the team's numerous Spanish-speaking players, all seeking his advice, approval or friendship.

Yes, he's Adrian Beltre, only bolder.

"That's part of my job, to help some of the young guys here, and I take it very seriously," Furcal said.

To further gauge Furcal's impact, just look at who followed him here.

"Everything we did began with Furcal," Colletti said. "His signing showed people we were serious about winning."

It Continued With Another Shortstop

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