Commentary

Frustrating reality for Andre Ethier

Updated: September 6, 2011, 2:51 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

He has been quiet for more than a week now, focused on the game in front of him, closed off to everything else.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ethier
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesIt's been a frustrating season for the Dodgers, and for their right fielder.

He is gamely playing through the painful right knee that caused him to lash out at the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in the first place, and he is hitting more like he is expected to.

But to say the dust around Andre Ethier has calmly settled after his latest self-made controversy -- in which comments he made to the Los Angeles Times seemed to imply that the Dodgers were playing him against his wishes despite the knee pain -- would be as naive as thinking Ethier was mostly upset by the way the organization handled his knee injury.

Something's eating at him, deeper than it has before.

It's something we've all felt at one point in our personal or professional relationships, and it's basic to the human condition. Ethier simply needs a commitment.

But like everyone and everything associated with the Dodgers in this star-crossed season, he's living in a world of uncertainty, where future happiness and hopefulness seem further away every day.

It's making him restless and insecure. It's exacerbating his already volatile nature.

It's why his latest public blowup probably won't be his last of the season, and why his angst seems to have festered, not healed, since the beginning of the season when he vented that this could be his last season in Los Angeles, presumably because the Dodgers non-tendered Russell Martin in the offseason and might not want to pay Ethier what will likely be a $10 million to $11 million salary in 2012, his last year under club control.

After that first tantrum, I criticized his tact and timing, but not his intentions. Ethier might have gone about it in the wrong way, but the message he delivered was right on target.

Even if the Dodgers wanted to extend his contract beyond 2012 -- which general manager Ned Colletti is on record saying he does -- there is absolutely no way to know if they can given owner Frank McCourt's financial and legal issues.

It is a maddening, frustrating reality for everyone involved.

Some players have handled it better than others, focusing on things they can control rather than worrying about issues bigger and deeper than their own sphere of influence.

Ethier tried to do the same, to play through the purgatory. But it never sat well with him.

Then, like so many of the other chips he keeps firmly affixed to his shoulder, it continued to fester until it hurt him. For those who want to see him succeed, this pattern of self-destructive behavior is frustrating.

[+] EnlargeAndre Ethier
Harry How/Getty ImagesAndre Ethier's knee injury makes it tough for him to generate much power.

"With Dre, he knows what he's doing. He knows hitting, he knows his swing, he knows how to play, he's a good outfielder, he throws good," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said recently. "But, and I say this to him all the time, I think he gets in his own way and he won't allow all that talent to come out. He gets frustrated, he gets mad, something goes on and he kind of loses it. Some guys that drives, some guys it hurts. Whatever it is that fuels him, I think at times it hurts him more than it helps him."

Mattingly was speaking generally about dealing with the notoriously high-strung Ethier, not specifically to this latest controversy.

But make no mistake, this latest controversy has hurt Ethier.

In the first few days after the incident, I spoke to a handful of his teammates. Let's just say I didn't find many willing to publicly offer encouragement.

Not only had Ethier broken an unwritten code about publicly speaking ill of the manager -- in this case a popular one in Mattingly -- he'd exposed himself to criticism that the injury was a cover for his poor second-half performance.

His timing couldn't have been worse. His tact was awful. But just like his first tantrum, his message had merit.

Ethier is actually hurt. He can't put as much weight on his right (front) foot as he needs to in order to swing normally. Without being able to brace himself with his right leg, he can't generate much power.

But instead of clearly telling the Dodgers to sit him down, he waited for them to do it for him. It appeared to be classic passive-aggressive behavior. A test, in a way, to see if the Dodgers were genuinely concerned about him. If he was really their guy, if they were really committed to his future with the club, they would protect him from his own pride, right?

Was it silly? Sure. Immature? Maybe.

But you can see it from Ethier's side if you look at it through this lens.

He's 29, a two-time All-Star, and presumably one of the cornerstones of the franchise.

But instead of planting his roots firmly and forever in Los Angeles, Ethier plays year to year, having to prove himself anew each season. Then he struggles and gets hurt. His head starts spinning. His fears start barking louder.

He has to wonder if it's just the ownership situation that's holding up an extension. If there's something else that's keeping the Dodgers from committing to him. And that insecurity seeps out in fits of anger and unpredictable behavior that others chalk up to his reputation for moodiness.

It's a cycle without a great endpoint or clear solution. It's a pattern that likely will be repeated until either the franchise or Ethier makes a change.

So for guidance, and maybe a bit of wisdom, I approached veteran third baseman Casey Blake. Blake has made a nice living in baseball and is universally respected in the Dodgers clubhouse. He has also played through more injuries to bother listing. Two days after we spoke, he announced he was having season-ending surgery on his neck.

But on this point, his prescription for Ethier was clear.

"Maybe there's some animosity towards the team," Blake said. "But so much of this game is to go out every day, every day, whether you don't feel like it or not and trying to be as consistent as you can be.

"Then, if you do that on a consistent basis, other issues like the money or the team stuff or whatever, it'll all fall into place. If you respect the game, go out there and bust your butt every day and worry about the things you can control, compete every day, everything else will take care of itself."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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