Monday, July 12, 2010
Either inspired by adversity
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Turning points, by their very nature, tend to be negative experiences. Really, who ever heard of someone who has achieved success saying that the turning point for them was one day when they were walking along without a care in the world? Turning points are about adversity, about anguish, about profound disappointment. But mostly, turning points are about how you bounce back from them.
Andre Ethier didn't have the smoothest transition from college to the majors, but the All-Star outfielder is better for the challenge of success.
Along those lines, there were two seminal events in the baseball career of Andre Ethier -- who normally plays right field for the Los Angeles Dodgers but in Tuesday night's All-Star Game will play center field for the first time since his college days at Arizona State University -- and both of them were marked by utter despair.
But first, a little background.
Twenty-one years ago this fall, Penny Ethier was at her home in Phoenix, watching the 1989 World Series on television with her eldest son, when the 7-year-old made a bold pronouncement. One day, he said, he would play in a World Series.
"And he said when he did, he wanted me to sit in the dugout," Penny said. "That whole year, he just talked about playing in the majors one day. But after that year, he didn't really talk about it anymore."
It would be quite a few years before Andre would again believe that his dream of playing in the majors was attainable. He didn't believe it when he became a two-time All-Pacific-10 outfielder at ASU, one of the nation's premier baseball programs. He didn't believe it when his coach at ASU, Pat Murphy, told Ethier's parents it was going to happen one day. And to hear Ethier tell it now, he didn't even believe it when the Oakland A's drafted him in the second round after his junior year, signing him to a $580,000 bonus.
"I didn't really start believing that I could be in the major leagues until 2005 at Double-A," Ethier said. "I had such a good year that year, and that was when the realization kind of hit me that I could actually make it up here."
Penny, who once got a job as an usher at Scottsdale Stadium so her sons could go to work with her every night and be exposed to professional baseball, now says she knew all along that the major leagues were in Andre's future.
"I knew it when he was 7 years old," she said.
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Now, for the first of those turning points.
Even if Andre Ethier never thought while growing up in Phoenix that he would be a big leaguer, he did have one rather lofty baseball ambition. More than anything in the world, he wanted to play for the ASU Sun Devils, a program that had produced the likes of Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds and Bob Horner, the 1978 National League Rookie of the Year with the Atlanta Braves who had grown up down the street from the Ethiers.
By the time Ethier graduated in 2000, he had become enough of a baseball star at St. Mary's High School that Murphy was more than willing to give him a shot. Three years ago, in fact, Murphy told a reporter working on a freelance story for the Dodgers' in-house magazine, "It's amazing to me that he wasn't drafted out of high school."
Equally amazing to Ethier, though, was that after a few fall practices, Murphy decided the kid wasn't quite ready for NCAA Division I baseball. Not only that, Murphy felt Ethier would benefit more from getting regular playing time than from riding the bench, so Murphy suggested, rather strongly, that Ethier transfer to Chandler-Gilbert Junior College nearby.
It wasn't what Ethier wanted to hear.
"At the time, it was sort of a big shock," Ethier said. "I think when you're younger, you have more of a tendency to panic or overreact to things. It had been a dream of mine to go to school there, to play there and start there. To have someone take that away from you and say you're not good enough, it's a blow. But at the same time, you sit back and take a look at the situation, and you realize it's not the end of the world. I ultimately decided to just look at it as a challenge, something I had to overcome."
He overcame it by hitting .468 at Chandler-Gilbert the following spring, with 94 hits and 32 doubles, enough to get him drafted in the 37th round by the A's in 2001. It also was enough for Murphy. Pro ball could wait. Ethier had a dream to fulfill. He returned to ASU that fall. Two years later, the A's drafted him again, with the 61st overall pick.
"There were a couple of pivotal moments for me throughout my career, and that was definitely one of them," Ethier said.
When Ethier finally did arrive on ASU's campus, one of the first impressions he made was on an incoming freshman from Northern California named Dustin Pedroia.
"He had this Jheri curl thing, hair down to his shoulders," Pedroia said. "He looked like Pinky from 'Next Friday.' I was like, 'Who is this guy?' His hair would flip around in the wind. He wore it that whole fall, but I think he cut it for the baseball season."
Pedroia now says he and Ethier weren't particularly close in the beginning, simply because at ASU the infielders tended to hang with each other and so did the outfielders. But their friendship grew over time, and they now are almost inseparable -- by anything other than the baseball season, which has them playing on opposite coasts.
Pedroia is a year younger than Ethier, but he already has accomplished much of what Ethier would like to, winning a World Series title with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and an American League Most Valuable Player award in 2008. Pedroia, who was named to the AL All-Star team but won't play because of a broken bone in his left foot, told Ethier, a first-time All-Star, exactly what to expect when he got here.
The Pedroia and Ethier families live in the same neighborhood in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, and they have taken several vacations together.
Ethier's five seasons with the Dodgers have been marked by a fiery intensity that sometimes manifests itself in the form of visible frustration. On one occasion this season, as reporters gathered in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium for their daily briefing with manager Joe Torre, they could plainly see a large gash in the front of the wooden helmet rack, which Ethier had attacked with his bat after making an out the night before.
Pedroia says that always has been part of the deal with Ethier.
"He is that intense because he wants to win and he wants to do a good job," Pedroia said. "That's a good thing. I will take a guy any time who gets mad because he didn't get a hit. I don't want a guy who doesn't care. I will take that passion and that fire. Hopefully, all his teammates can feed off that."
Pedroia says he understands that side of Ethier perfectly because he is that type of player himself, that he, too, occasionally lets his temper get the best of him after making a tough out. But Pedroia also seems to confirm what those who have followed Ethier for a long time have long suspected, that Ethier almost needs a legion of nonbelievers and naysayers in order to truly thrive.
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"He wants to prove everybody wrong," Pedroia said. "If somebody says something negative about him, I think it [ticks] him off and makes him play better."
The other pivotal moment in Ethier's professional career came in 2004.
The A's promoted him that season to Modesto, their affiliate in the high Class A California League -- a rare move for a player drafted less than a year earlier. Ethier would put up decent numbers, batting .313 with a solid .383 on-base percentage. But he suffered a stress fracture in his back that ended his season after 99 games and kept him inactive for most of the following winter.
"I didn't know if I could come back from that or not," Ethier said. "I went nine months without playing in a game. To come back and go to Double-A the next year and have a good year there, that was fortunate."
During the time Ethier was dealing with his back, the Dodgers were dealing with an outfielder so temperamental that Ethier looked positively docile by comparison. While Ethier was lighting up the Texas League at Midland, hitting .319 with 30 doubles, 18 homers, 80 RBIs and a .385 OBP in 2005 -- the year he finally started believing the major leagues were in his future -- the Dodgers were getting near the end of their rope with Milton Bradley. And in a few months, after the Dodgers replaced general manager Paul DePodesta with Ned Colletti, the Bradley and Ethier stories collided in a way Ethier never foresaw when the two were traded for each other, with the Dodgers throwing in reserve outfielder Antonio Perez as well.
By May 2006, after beginning the season at Triple-A Las Vegas, Ethier was in the majors, appropriately making his debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix. He would hit .308 with a .365 OBP as a rookie, but he didn't really cement himself as an everyday starter in a crowded Dodgers outfield until 2008. Since then, Ethier's rise to the upper echelon of big league players has been a quick one, and he is being recognized for it.
Ethier finished second among NL outfielders in fan voting for this All-Star Game. Even more notably, he finished first among voting by his fellow players.
For the most part, it has been a dream first half for Ethier. After Saturday's game against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium, the team held an event for players and their families on the field, where their kids could play catch with their fathers, hit wiffle balls and generally enjoy the spoils of having a dad who plays big league ball. Ethier was joined by his wife, Maggie, his father, Byron, and his son, Dreson, who will turn 2 in a couple of months and was swinging a plastic bat bigger than he was at a ball on a tee.
Despite appearances, it isn't all nirvana for Ethier these days. He admits he is still stung by the fact that the Dodgers got so close to the World Series each of the past two years without actually getting there, and he burns for another chance. And he is only now beginning to rediscover the comfort zone he had earlier in the season, before he broke a tiny bone in his right hand at a time when he was leading the majors with a .392 average and 38 RBIs and tied for the NL lead with 11 homers.
Whether because of the broken bone, because of the cumbersome splint he wore on the finger or simply because he had lost his timing during his two-week stint on the disabled list, Ethier struggled for more than a month after his return. But in a development that has gone largely unnoticed -- probably because it hasn't included a return of the power he normally provides -- Ethier has once again sizzled in July, batting .390 with a .432 OBP.
"It's tough to get that feeling back," Ethier said. "I started talking to other players, veteran guys who have experienced this sort of thing, and they said it's always tough to get it back. It's just not that same feeling, that same confidence. But it's not just the mental part. It's also the physical side. Sometimes, the mental stuff can be there, but if the physical part isn't there, it's still going to mess up the other stuff. I wouldn't say it's messed up now, but I just came back and didn't know how to address it. Instead of trying to play the way I was before I got hurt, I think I should have just taken smaller steps.
"I think I know how to handle it now, and I think that is going to make it better in the long run. But it hasn't been fun going through it these past couple of months."
Sounds like another turning point in the making.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.