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That chip feels comfortable on Andre Ethier's shoulder

Even after emerging as one of the National League's elite hitters in 2009, Ethier still manufactures motivation by telling himself, and others, ‘I still have to prove people wrong.'

April 06, 2010|By Dylan Hernandez

Reporting from Pittsburgh — Andre Ethier has a supernatural gift that has nothing to do with late-inning heroics.

He can hear voices no one else can hear and can read articles no one else can read.

"I still have to prove people wrong," Ethier said. "Some people say, ‘Yeah, he's pretty good,' but other people say, ‘He just had one good year.' "

Oh, come on. Are you inventing these people to motivate yourself?

"You still hear it all the time," he said.

No, you don't. Who's saying this?

"I've heard rumblings and stuff," he said.

No one's saying this.

Finally, Ethier conceded — to a point.

"I guess there are a lot more believers than there are naysayers," he said, smirking.

The widespread admiration Ethier receives these days is something new for him — and he said he still isn't sure how to respond to it.

"It's a learning process," he said.

Whether he was in college, the minor leagues or the majors, he always felt like the kid on the outside looking in, trying to prove that he deserved to be playing at that level.

He was recruited by Arizona State from high school, only to be told when enrolling that there wasn't a place for him on the team and that he should play at a junior college. Drafted by Oakland, he became the Athletics' minor league player of the year but was never called up to the majors. Ethier was traded to the Dodgers but wasn't made a full-time starter until his third season with them.

He said he motivated himself by telling himself he had to prove people wrong and never let complacency set in because of a lingering fear that everything could be taken away from him at any moment.

"Unfortunately, it's a guard I had to put up," he said. "I didn't know half the time if I was coming or going, really."

Compare that with now, particularly after a breakout 2009 season during which he hit 31 home runs, drove in 106 runs, and led the majors with six walk-off hits.

Ethier is one of the Dodgers' most popular players. He is on the cover of their media guide with Matt Kemp and will have his own bobblehead night on May 18.

His position as the Dodgers' everyday right fielder took a more official form this winter when he was signed to a $15.25-million contract that bought out two of his three remaining arbitration years. Third base coach Larry Bowa said he considers Ethier to be one of the top players in the National League.

Cautiously, he is starting to allow himself to enjoy certain aspects of being Andre Ethier.

Manager Joe Torre recalled that last year, he noticed the red-tempered Ethier often would become upset with himself during batting practice before games — and this was in spring training.

Torre said he told Ethier, "You have a job now. You're the right fielder. I'm not saying don't get upset, but don't get upset in spring training. Enjoy spring training."

He did.

Ethier said he's also learning how to enjoy the relationship he has formed with the fans of Los Angeles.

"When you let the fans in and embrace them and show them something back, it's going to be a fun way of playing, a fun time," Ethier said.

Can he envision himself being a Dodger for life?

"Definitely, it's something I can envision myself doing," he said. "But I have the biggest role in that whole situation, for that to happen — I have to keep playing well year in and year out."

If Ethier has to imagine a community of doubters to help him do that, so be it, Torre said.

Bowa sympathizes too. He said that when he was a player, he used to scan newspapers and magazines for material he could turn into emotional fuel.

But while Ethier tries to maintain the same level of intensity that made him the Dodgers' No. 3 hitter, he is trying to tone down other aspects of his personality — namely, his emotional outbursts on the field.

The reason: his 19-month-old son, Dre. Shortly after Dre was born, Ethier was told by his wife, Maggie, that he had to modify his behavior.

"He's getting old enough to watch and pay attention to what I do," Ethier said of his son. "I wish I would've been more conscious and aware of that earlier in my career. Because I know it's just not my kid, there are other kids that look to me as a role model."

He's getting there, slowly. On opening day, Ethier lined out to first base in the fifth inning with a chance to tie the score.

He didn't make any over-the-top gesture on the field, but when he returned to dugout and was told he hit the ball well, Ethier snapped back.

"It doesn't matter if I hit it right at somebody," Bowa overheard him saying.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

twitter.com/dylanohernandez

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