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|Mike Trout and Matt Kemp are at the center of SoCal baseball.|
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BACK HOME IN Southern California, a mere 31 miles is all that separates the Angels and Dodgers. The two teams are squarely situated in the Los Angeles media market, which makes them direct competitors for fans and revenue. But by the looks of things in Arizona, there are plenty of both to go around. Despite freakishly cool climes (the North Valley recorded its first measurable snowfall in two decades), shivering, Sharpie-wielding diehards stake out two parking lots 27 miles apart at the crack of dawn, hoping to catch an up-close glimpse of the greatness afforded them by multibillion-dollar local TV deals (the Angels already have theirs, the Dodgers are banking on one). Pujols, Weaver, Trout, Hamilton ... Kemp, Kershaw, Greinke ... everyone's an All-Star. As for the ballplayers, they're just as geeked as the fans, if not more. Though Tempe Diablo Stadium (freeway drone and muni golf course vibe) and Camelback Ranch (manicured country club vibe) are outwardly opposite, both inwardly flow with the same expectant energy and intimate vernacular: The smell of leather. The crunching of cleats. The familiar handshake of old teammates who know you better than you know your own family (and a lot of wealthy new ones who don't but soon will). And above all, the honest-to-god belief, founded on honest-to-god riches, that come late October, they'll still be lacing 'em up.
|The Dodgers are on a mission to become a winning team this season.|
"We are in a far better spot than last year," says Dodgers GM Ned Colletti on Day 6 of full-squad workouts at Camelback, as he reclines in a golf cart just behind the third base line of practice field 1. "And it's not even close." As if trading for Hanley Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Brandon League last summer weren't enough, this offseason the club plunked down $183M to land Zack Greinke and South Korean southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu. They bolster a staff that's already fronted by the best young lefty in the game, 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. But perhaps the biggest spring sign that skipper Don Mattingly and his squad are all-in -- bigger than the prodigious 2013 projected payroll of $217M, or Tommy's tummy, or the smiles on new hitting coach Mark McGwire's boys -- is the presence of a certain wiry, white-haired 77-year-old who earned a grand total of $431,000 during his Hall of Fame career. Since Sandy Koufax last donned Dodger blue as a minor league instructor back in 1989, his relationship with the club for which he played all 12 of his big league seasons had been distant at best. Thanks to a new ownership group that includes another LA legend (Magic Johnson), that's changing, although Koufax is quick to downplay his role: "All I can do is give suggestions." Like when he huddled with Beckett and told the righty that putting too much weight on the toes of his back foot causes him to lean toward third, which forces him to throw back across his body and miss outside. If pearls like that are the icing, Koufax's mere presence is the cake. "Just the fact that he's here," says Kershaw, "shows you the kind of organization we're trying to become." (Hint: the kind that wins.)
|2B Luis Rodrigues is a nonroster guy who helped the Angels find their groove this season.|
Entering the home clubhouse at Tempe Diablo, you're greeted by a document titled "Major League Baseball's Weapon-Free Workplace Policy" posted on a tan rectangular corkboard. Clearly the Angels are in violation. Three-time MVP Albert Pujols, the catch of last year's free agent crop, is scarfing down a bowl of oatmeal. A few lockers away, 2010 MVP Josh Hamilton chats with a reporter, while future MVP Mike Trout (6, right) shovels a pancake into his piehole. Resident DJ Jered Weaver cues up "Regulate," by Warren G and featuring Nate Dogg, as aspiring photog C.J. Wilson snaps away. One thing apparently missing amid all the artillery? Tension. Last April the Halos choked out of the gate because of an offense that scored just 80 runs in 23 games, got zero jacks from Pujols and played like it had a stick up its collective you-know-what. A leaky bullpen that blew 22 saves (tied for third most in MLB) didn't help, yet blame fell on Pujols. "In hindsight," says skipper Mike Scioscia, "Albert took too much on his shoulders." Based on the feel in Tempe, that won't happen again. "There's a looseness that wasn't evident last season," says GM Jerry Dipoto, the man who reeled in Hamilton and new arms Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas. Even nonroster guys like 2B Luis Rodriguez and Scottsdale boy Taylor Lindsey find the groove. Helping set the tone is Hamilton, whom Dipoto calls "a real joker" and who on Day 2 of workouts launches a bomb that smashes a taillight on Pujols' Rolls. As he leaves the cage, Hamilton saunters past Dipoto with a wide grin and says, "We're gonna have a lot of fun this year."
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