Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier is congratulated after scoring a run… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Phoenix — Something changed when Manny Ramirez was hit with a drug-related suspension two years ago.
His dreadlocks eventually returned to the Dodgers' clubhouse, but his spirit never did. For the most part, he stayed sequestered in front of his corner locker, using Spanish-speaking teammates as a barricade. The Dodgers lost their leader. By last August, Ramirez was no longer on the team.
But when position players reported to the Dodgers' spring-training complex Monday, one player stepped forward and said he wanted to be the kind of uplifting presence Ramirez used to be.
That player was Andre Ethier.
"Sure, why not?" Ethier said.
Ethier might be an All-Star and the best hitter on the team, but this is new ground for him. By his admission, he isn't vocal. However, becoming a leader is something he has come to view as a necessity to turn around the Dodgers, who finished fourth in the National League West last season.
"I think that's what we've been lacking here to be successful," Ethier said. "We've always had the personnel and players to be successful. We lacked the sturdy head figures. You look at all the best teams, that's what they have."
Ethier said he understands that he has to make fundamental changes to the way he thinks, that he has to abandon his trademark chip-on-the-shoulder mentality and stop seeing himself as an underdog. He has to be more confident.
Now, the player who used to put himself down as a means of motivating himself is acknowledging that, yes, he does think he can play.
While qualifying his statement by saying he has to continue to work to get results, Ethier proclaimed, "I believe in my head I'm a really good player, I'm a great player."
The numbers are on his side. He was leading the NL in all three triple crown categories when he broke his pinkie in mid-May. He finished the season batting .292 with 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in in 139 games.
He hit 31 homers and drove in 106 runs the previous year.
But Ethier said that his numbers weren't what made him change how he perceives himself. He said that he has learned to see beyond himself, that he realized how others feed off his demeanor. Lacking confidence would be a disservice to the team.
"You overlook yourself as a presence on the team," he said. "I have to come to grips with that and accept that."
The subject of leadership was brought to Ethier's attention over the off-season by Manager Don Mattingly.
Mattingly recalled Ethier's initial reaction: "I don't know how to do it."
Mattingly made it a point to tell him about the soft-spoken Derek Jeter, who leads the New York Yankees by example.
"I told him that the reason the Yankees have been where they've been, it was all because of Jeet," Mattingly said. "Obviously, he's had great players around him. This is the toughest guy I've ever been around. And all he does is go out and play every day. When your best player — and I'm not going to name Andre that — plays the hardest, that's leadership. That's all Andre has to do: Go play."
But Ethier said he thinks there are also some small gestures he can make that could go a long way.
"I think that if you learn from anyone, you learn from Manny, the way he was," he said. "He was so complimentary of other players, anything they did from fielding a ground ball to hitting a ball in the cage. He was so quick to compliment and make it about you than make it about him. That's the biggest thing about creating team unity, making guys comfortable around each other."
He said his conversations with college teammate and close friend Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox have assured him that he won't have to bear the entire load.
"I don't think any team that's a good team has one guy," Ethier said. "You look around those leagues and see the teams that are really successful; they have two, three, four guys that are big figures."
Casey Blake can help, Ethier said. So can Matt Kemp.
Over the last five seasons, Ethier has gone from being a prospect trying to break into the lineup to an everyday player to an All-Star. He said becoming a leader is the next step in his evolution.
"For me to make myself a better baseball player, have a better career and be where I want to be, it's not the playing side that's going to dictate that," he said. "It's the way I handle the ups and downs of adversity, of course, but also being able to communicate, burden some of the responsibility."