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Dodgers' Andre Ethier doesn't play it safe

He has been told by Joe Torre that he is the starting right fielder, but he still doesn't feel secure.

March 29, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

PHOENIX — For the first time in his big league career, Andre Ethier knows where he stands.

He's the Dodgers' starting right fielder.

But he appears to take little comfort in that.

However much Manager Joe Torre makes the stability of his situation clear -- he went as far as to call a one-on-one meeting to remind the player of that last week -- Ethier's demeanor remains largely unchanged from last spring. That's when he, Matt Kemp and Juan Pierre were competing for two spots in the outfield.

The most obvious symptom: visible frustration any time he doesn't reach base.

The danger: one poor at-bat lingering and the downhill domino effect of his play tumbling from there.

It can also mean extra tension in the dugout.

Either, who will be 27 in April, knows the potential pitfalls but doesn't apologize for having a short fuse.

"It's tough," he says. "My personality's that way."

Torre wants Ethier to relax and prepare for the regular season the way an established player would. Anything the left-handed hitter needed to prove was handled last year, his first full season as an everyday major leaguer, when he hit .305 with 20 home runs and 77 runs batted in.

"It doesn't matter what you're doing here," Torre says he told Ethier last week around the time his spring batting average dipped under .200. ". . . I tried to get across to him that while I want him to compete, when it's over, bag it. Your average doesn't change."

There's a difference, veterans know, between caring and caring too much, and Ethier acknowledges he still hasn't found the exact demarcation point. He said he's aware of his issues and appears sincere as he talks comfortably about it, sometimes even laughing at himself.

But if he has to be one way or the other until he finds the right approach, he wonders, why not continue doing what got him this far?

"Baseball's a game where you have to let it come to you sometimes," Ethier says. "You have to be patient. But I'm a type of person who likes to go out and get it. Not necessarily force the issue, but play my game and not let other things dictate the way I play."

Had he approached the game any other way, he might not have reached this point.

Ethier has often found himself on the outside looking in, the kid who had what he wanted pulled away just when he thought he was on the verge of capturing it.

Three examples in his baseball career stand out:

Recruited to Arizona State from high school, he enrolled there only to be told there wasn't a place on the team for him. Instead, he was sent to a junior college to play his freshman year.

As the Oakland Athletics' minor league player of the year in 2005, he was snubbed for a big league call-up, then traded the next off-season.

And finally, after a first season with the Dodgers in which batted .308 with 11 home runs in 126 games and grew confident enough to expect a regular role, he was left battling for playing time the next two years.

So the manager wants him to relax? How can he relax?

"You've got to be ready for any of the calls he makes," Ethier, still wary, says of Torre. "That's the frame of mind I'm still trying to come with every day. You can't be surprised by anything. My past tells me that."

He adds, "Sometimes you find yourself pressing and not wanting to take things for granted. You want to go out and show and prove that this is your position, that you're holding it down."

Yes, Torre already told him he was the Dodgers' right fielder, but Ethier says, "You want to make it true and make it come to light."

Torre understands.

"He's always competed for a job," the manager says. "What gave him the opening-day start last year was because of the way he played in spring training."

Ethier reminds Torre of a right fielder he managed with the New York Yankees, Paul O'Neill.

Veteran utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz says Ethier reminds him of another player: himself.

"Of course, he has a lot more talent than I ever did," says Mientkiewicz, a first-year Dodger.

Mientkiewicz, Orlando Hudson and Brad Ausmus are among the veterans who have offered Ethier advice on controlling his emotions this spring.

"One thing you can't deny is his passion," Mientkiewicz says. "He's got that fire. That's what makes him special."

But fire can also burn you.

"From my experience, I would take at-bats home night after night, night after night," Mientkiewicz says. "I have seen him in the cages 24-7, but sometimes it's better to walk away from it. Beating myself up after 0 for 20 made it 0 for 24, 0 for 28."

And teammates can be drawn in.

"When I was going bad, it affected me to a point where my teammates had to know it," Mientkiewicz says. "[Ethier] is like that. He has passion, and passionate people show you how they're feeling. Good or bad, you know how he's feeling."

Mientkiewicz's advice: "When things are going bad, you look for one positive. When things are going well, you look for one negative."

Hudson says he told Ethier something even simpler.

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