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BASEBALL

Dodgers first baseman James Loney is a cool customer

He has a unique personality that provides plenty of stories for teammates to tell but is also the guy they want to see at the plate in a clutch situation.

June 16, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

Go around the Dodgers' locker room and ask someone to tell you a story about James Loney.

Eyes will brighten. A serious expression will turn into a smile.

"Every day there's something," Russell Martin says.

"He is who he is," Andre Ethier says.

"He's very left-handed," Randy Wolf says. "He's out there."

But not in a bad way.

Players and coaches are quick to say that when they laugh thinking about Loney, they do so out of affection for the 25-year-old first baseman.

They have trouble thinking of a way to describe Loney's one-in-a-clubhouse personality -- "Spacey?" Wolf offered -- but are certain that the unique wiring in his brain makes him the kind of player they want at the plate with the game on the line. They say he has the ability to forget a bad at-bat and block out thoughts of the magnitude of a particular situation.

"One at-bat, he'll look terrible and the next two he'll hit to the gaps with the bases loaded," third base coach Larry Bowa says.

Logan White, the Dodgers assistant general manager who selected Loney in the first round of the 2002 draft, said he has always known the former Texas prep star to be that way.

"I think he's the most unaffected guy I know," White says. "That's why when the bases are loaded, he's usually pretty successful. Here's a guy who doesn't let surroundings and what other people think bother him."

Loney's take: "I don't sweat the small stuff."

The more pressure-packed the situation, the better Loney seems to hit. He is batting .321 with the count full, .303 with runners in scoring position and .357 with the bases loaded. He led the Dodgers with 90 runs batted in last season, and he's leading the team this season in that category with 43 despite having only two home runs.

"He's dumb like a fox," Manager Joe Torre says. "He doesn't panic. He's not afraid. You're right; he does appear spacey at times. The thing I like about James, very rarely does the game speed up on him. He always seems to have a grasp on it."

Like when he went to the plate with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a tie game against San Francisco in April. He ended the game by drawing a walk, his second bases-loaded walk of the game.

"He's a guy that doesn't seem to be worried about being embarrassed," Torre says. "Saying that is a compliment, because I think a lot of players today want it to look good. James wants it to be good."

The player who Torre says Loney reminds him of is Bernie Williams, the center fielder he managed in New York. As was the case with Williams, Torre says he's never quite sure of what Loney will do or say.

One day early in spring training, Torre instructed his starting infielders to go to one of the fields for practice.

When drills were about to start, Torre noticed he didn't have a first baseman. Loney had gone to the wrong field.

Later in camp, Loney was scheduled to remain at the Dodgers' complex instead of getting on a two-hour bus ride for a game in Tucson. As a joke, his teammates circled his name on the roster posted in the clubhouse, indicating to him that he was supposed to travel. But while the names of the other traveling players were circled with a ballpoint pen, Loney's was circled with a thick black marker.

A still unsuspecting Loney boarded the bus. He made it off in time; his bag didn't.

That was one of the few times his teammates recall seeing him upset.

Sometimes, traces of "Loney-ness" will appear in games.

Bowa recalls how there were times last season Loney dived to knock down balls that were headed right at the second baseman.

Loney's teammates talk about how his indecisiveness on some defensive plays -- break to the ball or to the bag? -- can result in awkward movements that make them chuckle.

"We joke that there should be a James Loney cam," Martin says. "Just on him, all the time."

"Crazy legs and crazy eyes," Wolf says. "He's like a baby giraffe."

That led to Loney being nicknamed "Geoffrey" after the Toys R Us mascot.

Loney is fine with that. If what he does gets people to smile and laugh, he says, great.

"I'd rather see people smile than frown," Loney says.

He wasn't always this way.

Loney says that growing up in Texas, he was the intense, rah-rah personality on his baseball teams. He did well in school. He went his own way, often choosing to hit in his backyard batting cage with his father instead of hanging out with his friends.

He has maintained that serious side, spending countless hours working on his hitting. He became a homeowner over the winter and is thinking about taking classes at UCLA to get the college education he passed on when he signed with the Dodgers out of high school.

But to have fun in baseball, Loney says, he thought he had to change.

"I've always been the focused person," Loney says. "When I got into professional baseball, I didn't want people to take me so seriously. So I try to be goofy, joke around. I didn't want to be labeled as the guy who was so focused. I'm still doing my work. I'm just playing around sometimes."

He says he is more self-conscious than he lets on but adds, "I'm not a worrier."

For his part, Loney doesn't think he's unique.

"I see some guys who do the same things at the same time every day," he says. "That's unique."

Loney acknowledges there are times he acts goofier than he is for the sake of lightening the mood.

Torre and Bowa don't doubt that, believing that Loney sometimes does things just to get a rise out of the ultra-intense Bowa.

"He plays you for a sap," Torre says. "When we're trying to get him to move, he'll pretend he's not looking at us. Bowa will be screaming.

"Then you see the smile and he'll just walk over."

Done telling the story, Torre shakes his head and laughs.

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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