Sunday, July 31, 2011
Rafael Furcal will remain memorable
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Seventeen years is a long time to cover Major League Baseball. Long enough that you don't even remember a lot of the players you covered unless someone brings up their names, and some of those names are so obscure that no one ever will. There are some, though, that will always stand out in my memory, whether because of their talent, their personalities, their charisma, whatever.
Rafael Furcal is one of those guys I will never forget. For all of those reasons. And a few others, as well.
By the time Saturday night's game was over, the Los Angeles Dodgers having lost 6-4 to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 37,139 at Dodger Stadium, Furcal's locker had been cleaned out, with only two bottles of lotion and a pair of shower shoes left behind.
Rafael Furcal was arguably the most impactful player for the Dodgers during his six years in L.A.
One source whispered to me privately that Furcal had left around the fourth inning, which would seem to be an unmistakable sign he had chosen to accept a trade to the St. Louis Cardinals rather than using his "10-and-five" rights to block it, even though that trade still hadn't been officially finalized. Another source, one close to the Cardinals, said the only reason for the delay was that they have yet to actually tell the still-unidentified minor league outfielder they are sending to the Dodgers for Furcal that he has been traded.
At any rate, the deal appears to be done, even if no one will actually say it.
"There is no announcement," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said after the game.
When Mattingly then was asked whether shortstop prospect Dee Gordon would be here in time for Sunday's game -- general manager Ned Colletti had readily conceded earlier in the day he would be called up from Triple-A Albuquerque to take over for the rest of the year if Furcal were to be traded -- Mattingly just smiled.
"I don't know if he is on the way or not," he said.
Fair enough, but Gordon didn't play in Albuquerque's 2-1 loss at New Orleans, which probably means he was en route. Meanwhile, although a few Dodgers players said they didn't get the chance to say goodbye to Furcal, veteran third baseman Casey Blake did. Asked if Furcal seemed happy, excited or sad, Blake said all of the above.
"I'm sure he had quite a few emotions," Blake said. "It was probably all of those things you just mentioned. He was a fun teammate to be around. He was a great teammate. He was all about the other guys on the team, and he wanted to win. He was a good player. I'm sad to see him go, but I know it's part of the game. Hopefully, it will work out for both teams."
The deal will be announced sometime before Sunday's 1 p.m. trading deadline. Although the fact Furcal approved the deal doesn't in itself mean the deal is final -- a player with no-trade rights can approve or reject a trade to a specific team even before the details of the trade are agreed upon by the clubs -- the fact Furcal packed and left leaves no room for doubt.
And so, thus ended a six-year period in which Furcal was by far the most impactful player on the Dodgers' roster. At times impactful in a good way. At others, impactful in a bad way.
It's a strong statement, I know, especially considering the Furcal years coincided with the Manny Ramirez experiment and the evolution of young stars such as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. But throughout those years, it was always Furcal who basically determined what type of team the Dodgers were offensively.
"He had some rough spots with injuries from time to time," said Colletti, who even before the game conspicuously spoke of Furcal in the past tense. "But when he was at the top of his game and healthy, that was when the offense moved."
And that was precisely why Furcal was such an important player for the Dodgers. When he rolled, they rolled. When he struggled, they spun their wheels. When he was on the disabled list, they seemed not only punchless, but directionless.
They missed his defense too, of course, whenever he wasn't around, his six trips to the DL (four of them since the start of last season) usually resulting in some mix of utility infielders taking over at shortstop. There are few shortstops around who have Furcal's range, and his cross-body, rifle shots to first base from the grass were something to behold.
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But where the Dodgers (48-58) really missed Furcal was at the top of their lineup, where he was the closest thing to a quintessential leadoff man the Dodgers have had in while, maybe since Brett Butler in the 1990s. Lately, Mattingly hadn't even been hitting him there, opting instead to go with Tony Gwynn's speed at the top and Furcal's bat-handling ability in the 2-hole, but that didn't change the tools the switch-hitting Furcal brought to the batter's box, even if those tools seemed a little rusty this year.
Furcal leaves town hitting .197, and it was spread pretty much evenly to both sides of the plate. This year, for the most part, the Dodgers' offense has been fairly awful, which is why the team remains in fourth place in the National League West, 12½ games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants. While that can't be laid entirely at the feet of Furcal, it is yet another illustration of what an impact he has on this lineup. He is on pace for the worst offensive season of his career, a consequence of two lengthy DL stints and the fact Furcal took an extended period of time to find his stroke after each of them.
What I will always remember about him, though, is the person that he was. The leader that he was. The fact that in a room full of guys with whom I have nothing in common and little to talk about outside the formality of interviewing them as a reporter, Furcal was a guy I really enjoyed having a casual conversation with, a guy who played big league baseball with one foot planted in the real world. A guy who got it.
For those of us charged with chronicling everything that goes on around this team, moments like these generally are covered dispassionately. Players come and go, and some are more memorable than others. For every Manny Ramirez, there is a Jose Cruz Jr. For every Adrian Beltre, there is a Hee Seop Choi. For every Clayton Kershaw, there is a D.J. Houlton. And so when these things happen, we report it as thoroughly as we can and move on in search of the next big story.
This one, though, is a little different. Because Furcal will be missed. By his teammates, yes, and by just about everyone in this organization that he was such a vital part of for the last six seasons. But he also will be missed by at least one of the writers who covered him. I have always figured that when I close the laptop for the last time one day, and ride off into retirement or some other beat or some other career or whatever it ends up being, there will be a list of maybe a dozen players that I will look back on as the most memorable that I covered.
I can say with certainty he already has a secured place on that list.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.