Andre Ethier is no longer slamming his bat and helmet to the ground when he strikes out, and the reasons for that go beyond the .509 he has batted over his last 14 games.
"I think sometimes that care and that angst of wanting to be that certain person will just get in the way," Ethier said. "Sometimes you have to let that go."
Reaching this point has taken considerable time and marked a significant change in thinking for the 26-year-old right fielder, who said he used to motivate himself by continually thinking about the times he felt slighted over his career.
He says he still remembers his disappointments and that he knows the starting job in the Dodgers' outfield that he had to win over the course of the season could be taken from him at any moment, but that he doesn't let it affect what he does on the field.
Or, as third base coach Larry Bowa is fond of saying, "He's becoming a professional."
Ethier said he learned long ago that nothing in baseball would be handed to him. Last winter was another example of that, as Ethier thought he would go into spring training as one of the Dodgers' three starting outfielders alongside Matt Kemp and Juan Pierre.
But the Dodgers signed Andruw Jones to a two-year, $36.2-million contract, leaving him, Kemp and Pierre in a battle over the two other outfield positions.
Kemp was widely regarded as the player on the Dodgers with the highest ceiling. Pierre, like Jones, had a big contract.
"You're kind of the odd man out in that situation," Ethier said.
But he'd faced similar obstacles in the past.
A Phoenix native, he signed with Arizona State out of high school, only to be told upon enrolling that there wouldn't be any playing time available for him. At the urging of Coach Pat Murphy, Ethier transferred to a nearby community college for the baseball season.
Ethier, 18 at the time, was crushed.
"You run into old friends and you tell them you're at some community college somewhere," Ethier said. "It's tough not only on your confidence but also your ego. It was a tough pill to swallow."
Ethier played well enough at Chandler-Gilbert Community College to earn a place on the Arizona State team the next year. He became a two-time all-conference player and a second-round draft pick of the Oakland Athletics.
But the next level of baseball brought a new round of frustrations.
He was the A's minor league player of the year in 2005 but didn't get called up to the majors.
"I felt kind of dissed on that front," he said.
That winter, he was traded to the Dodgers for Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez.
"It was disappointing because I thought I had put myself in a good situation with the A's to at least go into spring training and compete for a job," he said.
Though he hit .308 in 126 games with the Dodgers as a rookie in 2006, Ethier had to share playing time the next season as part of a four-man rotation in the outfield. The names in the outfield changed this year, but the situation didn't, and though Ethier was the opening-day left fielder, he was in and out of the lineup for a significant part of the season.
"Last year a lot and this year in the first half of the season, I was just trying to hold on and trying to find a way to fit in," he said. "It weighs on you."
Manager Joe Torre noticed that there were times Ethier's intensity worked against him.
"He used to get frustrated when he got behind early in the count and he stopped being selective," Torre said. "It used to manifest itself."
Oftentimes it manifested itself with outs that led to Ethier's slamming his bat or hurling a helmet. Torre said there were times when a poor performance at the plate affected the other facets of Ethier's game.
Ethier said he realized his mentality could be counterproductive, and by the All-Star break Torre and the coaches were noticing a change in his approach.
Of the playing time issue, Ethier said, "I just don't care anymore. . . . It's a fine line, but I think if you play with more care, sometimes it can hinder you. You have to be free to go out there and take chances, take risks on the basepaths to defense to hitting."
He gradually started to earn a greater share of playing time in the crowded outfield, leaving Pierre and Jones on the bench. Remaining a regular in the lineup even after the Dodgers acquired Manny Ramirez on the day of the non-waiver trade deadline, Ethier has raised his average to .301 with a team-high 20 home runs.
Ethier said it was Ramirez who helped him make his real mental breakthrough, teaching him how to care enough without caring too much.
"You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," Ramirez said he told Ethier, explaining why he should lighten up.
Tuesday night, with the Dodgers losing to the San Diego Padres, Ethier made Ramirez laugh in the dugout by wearing Ramirez-like dreadlocks that Delwyn Young had made out of black tape. Ethier drove in four runs and scored another in the final two innings to lead the Dodgers to a come-from-behind victory.
Ramirez has also reminded Ethier that on days he doesn't hit, he can help the team win in other ways.
"He's running the bases, he's playing defense," pitcher Greg Maddux said. "He's fun to watch."
"To me," Torre said, "he's a complete player."
And, it appears, a more relaxed one.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
He's No. 2
A look at Andre Ethier's numbers by month. Ethier was moved to the No. 2 spot ahead of Manny Ramirez in the Dodgers' lineup on Aug. 28:
*--* MONTH AB HR RBI BA OB% SLG% March/April 89 2 13 315 400 461 May 89 2 7 292 330 416 June 77 3 12 195 253 390 July 96 4 14 281 346 490 August 96 7 13 292 346 615 September 32 2 12 625 707 1.125 TOTALS 479 20 71 301 367 522 *--*