In the grand scheme of a major-league career, Mark Loretta's one-season stint with his hometown Dodgers probably will be remembered only as the final stop on a 15-year odyssey in which he wore the uniforms of six different clubs.
To the Dodgers, and their fans, that one season in Los Angeles will be remembered as something much more than that.
It would turn out to be the last of Loretta's 1,718 career hits (playoffs included), but it electrified Dodger Stadium in a way that few others had in recent memory (think Kirk Gibson, or maybe Steve Finley).
With two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning of Game 2 of last October's National League division series against St. Louis, Loretta drove a pitch from a tiring Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin back up the middle, over second base and into center field, bringing home Casey Blake to cap one of the more memorable postseason comebacks in franchise history.
It would prove the pivotal moment in a three-game sweep of the Cardinals that propelled the Dodgers to the NL Championship Series for the second year in a row. The Dodgers had trailed by a run with two outs and none on earlier in the inning, and the door for the rally was opened when Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday dropped an easy fly ball by James Loney that should have ended the game.
Loretta, 38, announced his retirement on Monday and will now join the San Diego Padres as a special assistant to general manager Jed Hoyer.
Loretta's walkoff hit against the Cardinals was hardly his only contribution to the Dodgers. Although he hit just .232 overall last season, he was the club's primary pinch hitter, and his 14 pinch hits were tied with Juan Pierre for the most on the team and for fifth in the major leagues. He even pitched to two batters in a lopsided loss at St. Louis on July 28, hitting a batter before getting Ryan Ludwick to fly to left.
Mostly, though, Loretta provided quiet, veteran leadership on a young club that appeared to be blossoming into something special. Always gracious with the media and always a consummate professional, Loretta now lowers the curtain on a career in which he batted .295, posted a .360 on-base percentage and was named to two All-Star teams, one in each league.
"I had watched Mark Loretta play on the other side for a long time, and I had always admired him,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "I knew whenever he came up in a tough situation, it wasn't going to be easy for whatever team I was with to get through that. To be able to see him up close and personal for the first time, to see the everyday professionalism with which he approached his trade, he was everything we expected.''
Loretta's playing time gradually diminished over the past couple of seasons, and his 204 at-bats with the Dodgers last year were his fewest since 1996, his second year in the majors. But he was signed to a one-year, $1.25 million contract to fill a specific role, and for the most part, he filled it capably.
"He was somebody who never complained about playing time,'' Colletti said. "He understood his role, and he understood his value to the organization and to the team.''
Having grown up not far from Dodger Stadium in La Canada and attended St. Francis High, Loretta told a small gathering of reporters on a conference call on Dec. 10, 2008, the day he officially signed with the Dodgers, that he was thrilled to be coming home.
"I am fortunate and blessed,'' Loretta said at the time, "not only to have an opportunity or to get a contract, but to get a contract with the first club I would have picked.''
In a way, Loretta is going home again now. He presently lives with his family in Rancho Santa Fe, just outside San Diego, and the best season of his career came with the Padres in 2004. That year, he posted career highs in almost every offensive category, hitting .335 with 16 home runs and 76 RBI and finishing ninth in NL most valuable player voting.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.