Last Update: Thursday, December 05, 2013
|Dodger Power Latino Style|
|Written by Mike Terry|
|Thursday, 05 September 2013 09:22|
Veterans Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez And Rookie Sensation Yasiel Puig Are Propelling The Team Toward The Playoffs
Photo Credit Juan Ocampo/LA Dodgers
Power Surge - Adrian Gonzalez is set to deliver another big hit for the Dodgers as he has done all season. Gonzalez leads the team in home runs and RBIs.
Dodger Stadium is rockin' these days. And not only to the delicious grooves being put down this day by La Charanga Cubana, performing during the Cuban Heritage Day festivities before the scheduled game against San Diego.
After a somnambulant stretch under the former owner Frank McCourt that pushed the franchise into bankruptcy, and a very slow start that threatened to torpedo the 2013 season, the Dodgers matter again in Major League Baseball and the city of Los Angeles.
The team has a robust lead in the National League West and should make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. It has re-invigorated a fan base that is, in the words of Dodgers personnel, between 50-55 percent Latino.
Photo Credit: Juan Ocampo/LA Dodgers
Heave Ho - Actor Andy Garcia shows off his arm in throwing out the first pitch before the Dodgers’ Sept.1 game against San Diego.
And three Latino players – Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig – are among the biggest reasons the Dodgers are where they are. "Those three guys have become the heart of the lineup," said Manny Mota, who came here as a player from the Montreal Expos in 1969 and is in his 34th year as an organizational coach working with the team's Latino players.
"Overall the Latino players have played a big contribution to the team. Of course the team plays together – it takes 25 guys, maybe more to win a pennant. But that's what the team is doing. And I believe the contribution of Latino players is going to increase. I'm very pleased and very proud to see they do what they're doing. In my opinion they are doing a great job."
The 2013 Dodgers have several excellent Latino players on their roster, including Jose Uribe, Paco Rodriguez, Jose Dominguez, Carlos Marmol, Rick Nolasco, and Edinson Volquez.
But what Gonzalez, who leads the Dodgers in home runs and RBIs, Ramirez, who returned from the disabled list with a hot bat, and Puig, the rookie sensation who brought a much needed spark when called up in June, are doing could be unprecedented. It's hard to find another time in its Los Angeles history when the team had three Latino stars either in their prime – or in Puig's case, still defining it – as the teams' leading offensive forces.
The players themselves don't see it that way. "We're not a three-headed monster," said Gonzalez, who plays first base and is batting 292 with 19 home runs and 86 RBIs through Sept. 2. "We've got Andre (Ethier) and Carl Crawford; even our bench is another monster because we have guys who can fill in at any point and do an incredible job.
We are a team; you can't just look at three guys. We do have three guys who can be big in the middle of the lineup, but that isn't all it is."
Ramirez, who plays shortstop and has 15 homers and 47 RBIs to go with his .346 average was also adamant.
"It's the 25 guys who go out there every day and try to win games," he said. "We've been pulling for each other since we break out of spring training. Puig has brought a lot of energy; at the same time, we just have to continue to play." But others recognize their contribution.
"These three have changed the dynamic," Manager Don Mattingly said. "There is a buzz about what's going on here. These guys have played so well on this historic run. We've come from last place 9.5 back to 10.5 up as we speak. That's pretty much a monster jump. "These guys have played great baseball. They have fun but have also gotten down to business."
The Dodgers have always attracted fans to the park. Only seven times, since coming to Los Angeles from Brooklyn in 1958, has the team drawn less than two million at home, the last time in 1972. And only once in the past 16 seasons has the team drawn under three million fans.
That was in 2011, at the height (or the depth) of Mc- Court's ownership, when he was involved in a nasty divorce from estranged wife Jamie, along with revelations he had used profits to continue a lavish lifestyle rather than put money back into the team.
Even though the final attendance figure – 2,934,808 – seemed like business as usual, the figure had more to do with tickets sold than bodies in the seats. In actuality, the stadium was often less that half filled. That began to change last year after McCourt finally sold the team to the current ownership, the Guggenheim Baseball Management, which includes former Lakers star Magic Johnson.
You can track the team's connection with Latino fans back to the 1950s, when then owner Walter O'Malley had games broadcast on Spanish-language radio. But the L.A. Latino fan base became a fixture here in the 1980s when Fernando Valenzuela pitched for the Dodgers. Even in lean times it has been strong.
The teams' play this year has again solidified that core Latino audience. And now the bandwagon is getting so full with others that the Dodgers could potentially attract four million fans for the first time in franchise history.
Actor Andy Garcia, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the Sept. 2 game, said he's been a Dodgers fan since moving to Los Angeles in the late 1970s. He is thrilled to see the stadium full again on a nightly basis.
"If this is not 'Fernandomania,' it's getting there," Garcia said. "It's hard to say in terms of attendance, I don't know. But I think the energy Fernando brought, is probably equivalent to what's going on now, if not even more so.
"There's definitely been a change in the energy of the team and the fan base that culminated with Yasiel's arrival, and not only the play of him but the entire team. Hanley and Adrian are All-Stars; their record precedes them. But I think some times a youngster shows up and it energizes a team, and reminds players that, ultimately, it's just a bunch of kids out there playing baseball."
The First Great Latino Star
Ah yes, "Fernandomania."
Valenzuela certainly was not the first Latino to play for the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Go back to 1959, when the team added Cuban outfielder Sandy Amaros for five games. Amaros had played for them in Brooklyn, and made the immortal catch in the seventh game of the 1955 World Series to save Brooklyn's only title.
Los Angeles has seen many other outstanding Latino players wear Dodger Blue, including Zoilo Versalles, Mota, Pedro Guerrero, Raul Mondesi, Manny Ramirez, Adrian Beltre, Alfredo Griffin, Rafael Furcal, Sandy Alomar Jr., and Juan Samuel.
But none of them captured the public's fancy the way Valenzuela did.
In the 1981 strike-shortened season, Valenzuela (who actually made his debut in September 1980 at 19) went 13-7 with eight shutouts, won Game Three of the World Series when the Dodgers beat the Yankees in six games, and was awarded the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. He dazzled hitters with his signature screwball and endeared himself to fans with his cool. He currently is a color commentator on the team's Spanish-language radio broadcasts.
Another broadcaster, Rick Monday, was a Dodgers outfielder for eight of his 19 major league seasons and was here in 1981 when Valenzuela, as an emergency starter because both Jerry Reuss and Burt Hooton were ailing, threw an Opening Day shutout and kicked off what became known as "Fernandomania."
"Fernando only pitched every 4-5 days," Monday said. "But we began to see, both at home and the road, that it wasn't just a ballgame with this young left-hander from some remote village in Mexico who was pitching. What we began to see at home first was that Dodger Stadium turned into a hacienda, because it was a celebration.
And we began to see that on the road as well." Coach Davey Lopes also played on that Dodger team, and also remembered the stir Valenzuela caused among fans. "But what happened with Fernando was a lot different than any other Latino player that came here as a Dodger," Lopes said. "Fernando was the first Mexican to play for the Dodgers that was a prominent star. It's a little different.
Puig has obviously done a tremendous job and attracted a lot of attention and fanfare. But I still think nothing comes close to what Fernando did when he came on."
Hall of Fame Spanish-language radio broadcaster Jaime Jarrín agrees.
"Fernando really established the Latino fan base," Jarrín said. "But he also brought more casual L.A. fans to baseball, more than anyone else I can think of."
A Magical Turnaround Without a doubt the Dodgers' season turned on June 22. At that time the team was 30-42 overall, in last place in the National League West and trailing then first-place Arizona by 9.5 games. Mattingly's job status was daily fodder for reporters and sports talk radio.
Since that time Los Angeles (through Sept.2) had gone 52-13 to steamroll the division and, with 25 games left in the regular season, appear to be a lock for the playoffs. It has to be a combination of strong pitching, led by starters Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and closer Kenley Jansen; a defense that has steadily improved throughout the season; and solid, timely hitting.
No Dodgers have been more solid or timely than Gonzalez, Puig and Ramirez.
Gonzalez, 31, who is Mexican- American, came here last year in a mid-season trade with Boston. He's been an All-Star with Boston and San Diego, his first major league team. He's been the most consistent hitter, especially clutch situations: 25 of his RBIs have come with two out.
Gonzalez, nonetheless, deflects most of the credit to Puig and Ramirez.
"Puig and Hanley coming back filled out our lineup, and made it really tough for pitchers to just zero in on one guy in our lineup to not let him beat them," he said. "When you have a lineup 4-6 deep, it makes it incredibly tough for a pitcher to say 'This guy's not going to beat me' because over time we're going to wear them down and come out with that big inning that puts us ahead. And our pitching's so good, it can keep the lead."
Ramirez, 29, from the Dominican Republic, also came to the Dodgers last year, in a trade with the Florida Marlins. He has missed parts of the 2013 season with injuries, but, after returning to the lineup in June, eventually closed the big hole in the lineup with the loss of Kemp, and the diminished power numbers from Ethier.
Puig, 22 and Cuban (who was not interviewed for this story) is the X factor in all this. Even when he does something to make people gnash their teeth he then does something spectacular like the laser-like throw he unleashed from right field to nail a Padres runner trying to score from second base on Saturday, Aug. 31, or the game-winning home run he hit against San Diego on Sept. 1.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing is if Kemp and Crawford don't get hurt and the team wasn't floundering, Dodger fans probably don't even see Puig until September. He hadn't played much American pro baseball – a total of 63 minor league games – before being called up on June 2. In 80 games, he's hit a team-high .351 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs.
Although the Dodger turnaround wasn't immediate when Puig arrived, it didn't happen until Puig arrived.
"It's been crazy because it happened so fast," Mattingly said. "Yasiel, coming up, changed the dynamic quick. He played with such an energy and passion for the game – just a recklessness – and had huge success out the gate.
"I think that was a good dynamic for us because we seemed to be kind of stagnant in the sense that we weren't really healthy. Matt was hurt, Carl had just pulled a hammy, the outfield is down from the three guys we felt were All-Star guys to one. And Ethier was struggling. And Yasiel changed that dynamic, and Hanley came along at the same time. Yasiel got a lot of attention early but Hanley was hitting .430 right along with him. I think of how we look at it now; Hanley has 40 less at-bats, but 20 more RBIs. And Adrian's been steady, just kept us there."
Mattingly also knows of the tightrope he walks in not being so seduced by Puig's enormous talent that he lets repeated small gaffes become major team-dividing problems.
"I think it's an understanding for having a young player, and trying to put yourself in his shoes, a little bit," the manager said. "Think about it – you come to a country where you don't know the language, from a country where you don't have the freedom to express yourself and do what you want. You've now come to a country where you have the freedom to express yourself and you're making some money.
"I love the way he plays from the standpoint of the energy and passion. I don't want to break that. I want to harness that. I want to let it be, but at the same time, teach." All that's left is the Hollywood ending.
That would mean a Dodgers' return to the World Series for the first time since 1988. Again, not so fast, the players say.
"Getting to the playoffs is still the most important thing, definitely," said Ramirez, who won a World Series with the Marlins in 2007. "That's really our first step; get to the playoffs and go from there. That's why we're trying to do during the season, make it to the playoffs."
"Right now our goal is to have the best record in the National League at the end of the year so we can have home field advantage, because of the fans and the energy they bring. Our goal is to keep playing hard," Gonzalez said.
But there's also the long view. Depending how things work out, Gonzalez, Puig and Ramirez could be the foundation of the Dodgers lineup for another 4-5 years.
Which could mean the good times now being enjoyed by the Dodger faithful won't be ending anytime soon.
|Last Updated on Friday, 06 September 2013 00:47|