Like many young people right now, I'm trying to figure out what to do with my summer vacation — band camp again? Or maybe Mandarin classes? Or maybe I spend the summer down at the old ballyard with the Dodgers, who are showing unusual vigor in general and uncharacteristic poise at the plate, two things that can help you win a lot of baseball games.
Mostly gone are the guys who used to swing at first pitches, then slam their bats in disgust a minute later at a called third strike — a snarling, poisonous lot. "Waste management," one observer called their removal from the roster. And overnight, the Dodgers seem to have gone from class clowns to class acts.
Case in point, Scott Van Slyke, the high-performing understudy who looks like Lincoln, and swings like him too. To watch Van Slyke hit, you'd think he's knocking out a cord of Christmas firewood … that high front step followed by a Ferris wheel swing. All that swing has accomplished so far is to lead the team in batting average — while hitting in the purgatory of the eight-hole.
An unlikely hero? Perhaps, but remember how Van Slyke pulled his brother from a hot tub when he was only 7. At his grandparents' place in Florida, Van Slyke went out to the hot tub — "I just randomly went in. …I just felt I needed to go in there," he said. There, he found his 3-year-old brother Jared at the bottom, jumped in and pulled the unconscious boy to safety.
"Luckily, my uncle was a tank commander in the Gulf War and knew CPR," Van Slyke said before Wednesday's game.
Remember also that Van Slyke is the son of Andy, a mainstay of gritty St. Louis Cardinals teams that the Dodgers are starting to resemble more and more every day. In Dodgers lore, Andy is remembered as the guy who was on deck when Tom Lasorda let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open in the 1985 National League Championship Series. Clark's three-run bomb crushed the Dodgers' World Series hopes.
"Tommy reminds me of that every time I see him," Scott said.
Andy's son is continuing the family line of work — crushing baseballs. A Dodger since high school, Scott was drafted in the 14th round in 2005, the 436th overall pick. He came up to the Dodgers three years ago this month, recording a run-scoring pinch-hit in his first at-bat.
"I don't remember any hitting lessons when I was young," he said of his dad. "That kind of came later after high school. [But] we watched enough baseball growing up to know what we were doing."
Playing outfield and first base, he hit .297 last season. Before Wednesday's game, he was hitting a team-leading .373.
To casual fans, he's probably most notable for a "Duck Dynasty" beard that reaches halfway to his navel. One reader, Marshall St. John, insists that Van Slyke is a dead ringer for Civil War Gen. James Longstreet. But as my editor notes, Van Slyke looks a little like every Civil War general we've ever seen.
Just peaking now at 28, and making a miserly (by baseball standards) half a million dollars per year, he's probably the best value on baseball's richest club, an impressive pinch-hitter (.333, with three home runs in his career).
"I'm just more relaxed now," he said of his hitting success the last two years.
So as you can tell, I've been following these Dodgers for you lately, keeping an eye on them while the team brass works feverishly to work out this little glitch with the TV coverage. I'll give them another month before I cash in my 401k and buy the ballclub outright, including those choppy parking lots.
Task No. 1: Put this civic treasure back on TV.
Task 2: Stick with players like Van Slyke and Andre Ethier.
Task 3: Repave the parking lots.
Some writers prefer a certain absurdist theater around the clubhouse — more entertaining that way. I prefer spirit-crushing wins, the kind that Van Slyke and Ethier are delivering.
Short term, you know Manager Don Mattingly is loving what his subs have done, but long term he has a clown car on his hands. Yasiel Puig, an objet d'art who is baseball's flashiest player, presents the biggest challenge. And perhaps trade bait for a sturdy starting pitcher.
Oh, I know you love the unruly Cuban, though right now he is being completely outplayed.
Look, is the chemistry better with these understudies in the outfield?
The best answer to that is the way the Dodgers are performing right now, a slugfest nearly every night.
Can you say Wally Pipp?