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Andre Ethier is swing man in Dodgers' lineup

The 27-year-old outfielder has been honing his batting stroke since boyhood, and it paid off this year, when he had 31 homers, 106 RBIs and supplanted Manny Ramirez as team's top run producer.

October 06, 2009|Kevin Baxter

The sun had ducked behind the White Tank Mountains long ago, shrouding the baseball field at Phoenix St. Mary's High in darkness. But the former junior college infielder and his teenage son weren't about to end their workout.

So the man kept throwing baseballs through the gloaming. And his son, squinting to see each pitch, kept lining them to every corner of the field.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

And so it went, nearly every spring and summer day, for more than half a dozen years.

"I don't ever remember a time where I had to say, 'Hey let's go work on some things today.' He was always the driving force," says the man, who even taught himself to throw left-handed so his boy could learn to hit pitches from both sides. "He'd have a bat in his hand or a glove or a ball or something and want me to either play catch or pitch to him or throw balls in the air or whatever."

All those long hours? They left Byron Ethier with a sore arm. They left his son, Andre, with blistered hands but also a swing as smooth as a baby's bottom -- one that's made him perhaps the most feared clutch hitter in the National League while helping the Dodgers to their second consecutive West Division title, with Game 1 of the National League division series on Wednesday.

None of that was part of his parents' plan, mind you. From the day 4-year-old Andre first stepped on the field to play for his mother Priscilla's T-ball team, the goal was simply to have fun. All the striving and stretching, the sweating and straining? That was Andre's idea.

"From the time he was just a little 4- or 5-year-old he wanted to play at Arizona State," Byron says. "And I'll be darned if he didn't accomplish that. And then to get drafted -- just to get drafted and play professional baseball is an accomplishment in itself. Then to kind of keep moving up, to get a step in the major leagues?

"Every year it seems like he progressed a little bit."

Not that any of that should have been surprising. Although Byron's playing career never advanced past a brief fling with professional softball, both his grandfather and great grandfather played professional baseball, and his father Pete spent eight seasons in the minor leagues, playing against the likes of John Roseboro and Whitey Herzog.

"The Ethiers," Byron says, "have played a lot of baseball over the years."

But no one in the family played it as well as Andre did this year, when he batted .272, led the team with 31 homers and 106 runs batted in -- and led the majors with six walk-off hits, the most in a season in at least 35 years.

Also, his 22 home runs at Dodger Stadium are the most ever by a left-handed hitter and, with 42 doubles, he's only the fourth player in the franchise's 126-year history to collect at least 40 doubles and 30 home runs in the same season.

And the seeds for all that success were planted in those endless twilight batting-practice sessions at St. Mary's High.

"His swing's always been really good," says Dodgers batting coach Don Mattingly, who, with a lifetime average of .307, knows a thing or two about smooth swings. "From the very first time I saw him on tape, he had a good swing. His swing's there for him because he works on it every day."

And while Byron gets much of the credit for that, Andre's mother deserves her share, too. The Ethiers divorced when Andre was 3, but both parents put aside their differences to raise him and his younger brother, Adam, with mom coaching her sons' T-ball teams while dad shot the video, then switching jobs as the boys grew.

"It was a practiced discipline and after a while we just got along. And it worked for everybody," says Byron, 52. "It was a friendship that worked out real well."

Which isn't to say it's all been smooth sailing for Andre -- even during his record-breaking season this summer. No one, for example, felt the impact more than Ethier when Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy. The 27-year-old right fielder hit a mere .222 with nine homers while Ramirez was out, and .292 with Ramirez on the active roster.

"When you hit in front of Manny, it changes things for you," Mattingly says. "Last year he was having a huge month and he was hitting behind him. So he can hit no matter what."

Adds Manager Joe Torre: "Manny's got a little help now."

Actually, you can turn that phrase around. Because despite his 12 All-Star selections, the batting and RBI titles and his 546 home runs, Ramirez is no longer the main cog in the Dodgers lineup. Ethier is.

"Absolutely," Torre says.

Ethier, however, can't be bothered with such details. For as long as he can remember, baseball was about an afternoon with his dad. And though he's on a much bigger stage now, it's still all about having fun and trying to get better.

"I don't ever think about that stuff," he says of his newfound stardom. "I don't go about wanting attention for certain things. It's just going out there and enjoying playing and getting an opportunity to play every day."

Back in Arizona, a father searches for a way to describe his feelings.

"I guess pride is the right word," he finally says. "I couldn't be more proud of him."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Andre Ethier:

by the numbers

Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier finished the season with a .272 batting average and led the team -- while ranking among the National League's best -- in several offensive categories:

*--* Stat Team NL Doubles, 42 1st t-5th Home runs, 31 1st t-13th RBIs, 106 1st t-6th Total bases, 303 1st 11th Extra-base hits, 76 1st 5th *--*

-- Kevin Baxter

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