Monday, December 28, 2009
Updated: January 2, 9:33 PM ET
The best in blue
By Tony Jackson
ESPN Los Angeles
As decades go, it has been mostly a good one for the Dodgers, at least in comparison to the preceding one. When Frank McCourt took ownership of the once-proud franchise in 2004, a point at which the Dodgers had gone seven seasons without reaching the playoffs and 16 years without winning so much as a postseason game, one of his stated goals was to restore the Dodgers' "brand." For the most part, that seems to have been accomplished.
The Dodgers have reached the playoffs four times in the past six seasons, and they have advanced to the National League Championship Series in each of the past two.
But one other aspect of this fast-closing decade sets it apart for the Dodgers. Since 2000, baseball has become a team sport at Chavez Ravine, perhaps more than at any other time since the club moved to Los Angeles more than a half century ago. The Dodgers' resurgence has taken place without a single player who could have been described as the face of the franchise.
And that makes choosing a list of 10 "Dodgers of the Decade" a daunting task.
It also leaves that list open to debate.
There wasn't a dominating pitcher on the level of Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale. There wasn't an All-American poster boy along the lines of Steve Garvey or Orel Hershiser. There were no cultural icons with the staying power of Fernando Valenzuela, no teen idols the likes of Mike Piazza, no unforgettable moments on the game's biggest stage such as the one once provided by Kirk Gibson.
And although one of the four managers the Dodgers had during the decade is headed to the Hall of Fame and has achieved a level of celebrity that transcends baseball, even Joe Torre doesn't boast the star quality or showmanship of Tommy Lasorda.
In short, it was a decade without a superstar.
What it did have was fallen heroes. As you peruse this list, you will notice that there are players, including the top two, who have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.
It also includes at least one player, Jeff Kent, who will be better remembered for his surliness than his Hall of Fame career, most of which took place before he came to the Dodgers as a free agent in December 2004.
It includes only one player, Paul Lo Duca, who didn't appear in the postseason for the Dodgers, but that was only because he was traded in the midst of the club's 2004 division title run, a run in which he played a big role. We'll never know whether his presence might have helped the club avoid a quick first-round exit that October.
But this list doesn't include a single player who didn't play at least some part in the restoring of that brand that McCourt talked about. And that's why the list doesn't include, say, pitcher Kevin Brown, who had four productive seasons in his five years with the Dodgers, five years in which they never reached the playoffs. Or outfielder Gary Sheffield, who had a spectacular 3½-year run with the Dodgers, putting up eye-popping offensive numbers that ultimately netted nothing for the team. Or pitcher Hideo Nomo, who won a total of 32 games for the Dodgers in 2002 and 2003 but was fairly awful in 2004, the first year this current run of success began for the club.
It also doesn't include a handful of guys who might deserve to be there.
Of the current crop of young, rising stars, only Andre Ethier was chosen, primarily because of the staggering number of clutch hits he has delivered the past two years. But a compelling argument could have been made for first baseman James Loney, whose grand slam against the Chicago Cubs jump-started the Dodgers' first playoff series win in 20 years in 2008. Or center fielder Matt Kemp, who matured into one of the league's most feared hitters in 2009 and has the potential to join the Dodgers' pantheon of all-time greats. Or pitcher Chad Billingsley, whose second-half struggles in 2009 did little to diminish his 40 wins over the past three seasons.
So, for better or worse, here is that list. Let the debate begin.
10. Andre Ethier
He had a flair for the dramatic that was unmatched in recent Dodgers history, leading the majors with six walk-off hits in 2009 and a total of nine walk-off hits in 2008 and 2009 combined, with five of those hits home runs. Ethier arguably became the first of the Dodgers' stable of promising young players to truly blossom, slamming 42 doubles and 31 homers in 2009 while driving in 106 runs.
9. Paul Lo Duca
His popularity with the fans is a big reason he made the list, but he also was a highly productive offensive player. From the time Lo Duca became the team's primary catcher at the start of 2001 until he was shipped to Florida at the 2004 trade deadline, he hit .288 with 55 homers and 286 RBIs and made two All-Star teams.
8. Takashi Saito
Hardly a sexy Japanese import on a scale with Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Matsui or even teammate Hiroki Kuroda, Saito originally signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers and was prepared to begin the 2006 season in Triple-A. But he was called up on minor league Opening Day to take Eric Gagne's roster spot and quickly developed into a rock-solid closer, saving 81 games in the next three seasons.
7. Adrian Beltre
His critics point to the fact that it took too many years for him to finally reach his potential in 2004, when he led the NL with 48 homers and drove in 121 runs, then promptly left as a free agent. But Beltre hit 92 homers with 276 RBIs in a three-year period beginning in 2002, and the franchise renaissance of 2004 wouldn't have happened without him.
6. Jeff Kent
He will be remembered primarily for his sour demeanor and for feuding with reporters, teammates and even beloved broadcaster Vin Scully. But the former Most Valuable Player and future Hall of Famer was the Dodgers' best offensive player for the bulk of his four seasons with the club and made his final All-Star Game appearance in a Dodgers uniform in 2005.
5. Derek Lowe
A reliable presence who never missed a start in four seasons with the Dodgers and was the undisputed ace of the staff for much of that time. He won 54 games and undoubtedly would have won more if he hadn't frequently suffered from a lack of run support.
4. Shawn Green
He slammed 91 homers in a two-year span, including four of them in a single game at Milwaukee on May 23, 2002. In five seasons with the Dodgers, the left-handed-hitting Green averaged 37 doubles, 32 homers and 102 RBIs.
3. Joe Torre
Torre was already a Hall of Fame manager when he arrived, having led the New York Yankees to four World Series titles and 14 consecutive playoff appearances. He not only brought a calming influence to a Dodgers clubhouse that had been famously fractured before his arrival in 2008 but also persuaded a young team to buy into a cerebral, patient hitting approach that turned a formerly punchless lineup into a potent offensive force.
2. Manny Ramirez
Ramirez makes the list almost entirely on the strength of the impact he had after his trade-deadline arrival in 2008. He instantly energized a team that was foundering and eventually resulted in the Dodgers' reaching the National League Championship Series for the first time in 20 years. Ramirez remained a fan favorite even after his 50-game drug suspension early in 2009, but his production dropped off dramatically after his return.
1. Eric Gagne
He converted all 55 of his save opportunities in 2003, making him an easy choice as that year's National League Cy Young Award winner, and made good on 84 consecutive save chances from 2002 to '04. Injuries shortened his Dodgers career, though, and his appearance years later on the Mitchell report might have diminished what he accomplished in his heyday with the club. Still, Gagne was a Dodgers phenomenon like no other. The whole production of his ninth-inning entry from the bullpen -- "Welcome to the Jungle" blared over the Dodger Stadium sound system while "Game Over" flashed on the scoreboards -- was compelling enough that Dodgers fans, who for years had been notorious for leaving early to beat the traffic, actually stuck around until the end just to see it.
Tony Jackson is a writer for ESPN Los Angeles