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KEVIN BAXTER / ON BASEBALL

Andre Ethier is Ned Colletti's best work

Young outfielder has blossomed with the Dodgers after general manager insisted he be part of a trade that sent Milton Bradley to Oakland

September 20, 2009|KEVIN BAXTER

Was it the best trade Ned Colletti ever made?

"I shouldn't be answering that," the Dodgers' general manager said.

Certainly the deal for Manny Ramirez was a pretty good one. A minor league pitcher and a bench player for a future Hall of Fame member whose salary was being paid by the other team?

Who wouldn't make that deal?

Over time, however, that may pale in comparison to the first trade Colletti made as a general manager, the one that made Andre Ethier a Dodger.

Come to think of it, it might be a better trade right now. At 27, Ethier is a decade younger than Ramirez. With a salary of $3.1 million, he's a lot cheaper. And with team highs in home runs (30) and runs batted in (99) and a baseball-best six walk-off hits, he's arguably more valuable as well.

"He has emerged," Manager Joe Torre said. "He's been so important for us."

Yet, if not for Colletti and scout Al LaMacchia, Ethier might never have become a Dodger.

When he was hired four years ago, Colletti inherited a dysfunctional team, one that had finished 20 games under .500 and imploded down the stretch when outfielder Milton Bradley began feuding with fans and teammates. So the first order of business for the new general manager was clear.

"I had to find a place for Milton where he could get a fresh start," Colletti said. "And people knew we had to do it. So we were kind of in a tough situation."

Just a few teams would even talk with the Dodgers' rookie boss, among them the Oakland Athletics, whose shrewd general manager, Billy Beane, anticipated a fleecing.

After the teams agreed to the outline of a deal at the winter meetings, the A's tried to take Ethier off the table. So Colletti, backed by LaMacchia, who had seen Ethier play, backed away.

It was Andre or no way, the Dodgers said. And Beane eventually relented.

"You know if the player's going to be a good player or not. That's what you really know," said Colletti, who was confident he knew that much about Ethier.

That Ethier would blossom into the top threat on the National League's best-hitting team? Or that he would become the best clutch hitter in baseball? Well, Colletti got kind of lucky there because Ethier has become historically good.

His 21 home runs at Dodger Stadium this season are the most by a left-handed hitter. And he's only the fourth player in the franchise's 126 years to collect at least 40 doubles and 30 home runs in the same season.

"He can hit anybody," hitting coach Don Mattingly said. "He's confident in his ability. And he works hard. His swing's there for him because he works on it every day.

"He believes in himself."

While imagining no one else does. Ethier, perhaps more than any other Dodger, plays angry, using every slight -- or perceived slight -- as motivation. Ask him about his time at Arizona State, where he was a two-time all-conference player, and he'll tell you he had to earn his spot in the lineup every year.

Ask him about his first two major league seasons, and he'll grumble about being benched against left-handers.

As a result, every game, every at-bat becomes another opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.

"He's very emotional," Mattingly said. "Sometimes he gets so mad he kind of disconnects. That's a battle he has for himself. Sometimes that anger helps him and sometimes that anger really hurts him."

When the game is on the line, though, Ethier usually winds up hurting the other team: Besides Ethier, only Washington's Roy Sievers, in 1957, and Boston's Jimmie Foxx, in 1940, have hit as many as four walk-off home runs in one year, according to ESPN.

"The game gets a lot simpler in that tight position because there's only two outcomes," he said. "Either you fail or you succeed. You can get the job done in that situation or you can't.

"The game becomes a lot more simple in that situation than if you're in the second inning and there's a lot of different outcomes or things that can happen. Working pitch counts, working guys in certain situations, trying to keep rallies going.

"Right there it's just get up there and see it and hit it. And if you do it, good. If not, come back tomorrow."

Of course a big reason for Ethier's success -- both in the clutch and in general -- is that other trade Colletti made, the one that brought Ramirez to Los Angeles last summer.

With Ramirez in the lineup Ethier is hitting .314 with 18 home runs and 68 RBIs.

Without him, he's batting nearly 80 points lower with fewer than half as many RBIs.

"He really feels Manny's presence," Torre said. "You can see him come in, whether he got a base hit or a home run, and he'll look at Manny and sort of nod to him, 'Thank you for being there.' "

Maybe he should consider making the same gesture toward Colletti.

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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