A DEMOTION : Dodger Outfielder Ken Landreaux Has Been Playing Less, and Enjoying It Less
A large blue suitcase is tucked under Ken Landreaux’s locker in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse, an overt prop that illustrates Landreaux’s dissatisfaction with his reduced role this season.
Landreaux, the Dodgers’ deposed center fielder, likes to joke that the suitcase is packed, just in case he is traded or released. “That way, I’m outta here as soon as they give me the news,” said Landreaux, more amused than angry.
The season has not been good for Landreaux. Not only have the Dodgers severely cut his playing time, they also have not set him free to pursue a job elsewhere.
Landreaux said his agent, Tom Reich, has met with Fred Claire, the Dodger vice president, several times recently. But Landreaux said Claire did not say where, if anywhere, Landreaux fits into the Dodgers’ plans for the rest of this season and beyond.
“Fred just kept saying nice things, nice things about me,” said Landreaux, who is hitting .235 in 115 at-bats. “But no answers. I don’t know how to handle this type of situation. I just come to the ballpark, wait and see.
“That’s not the position I should be in. They should do something if they don’t plan on using me. I’m not bitter, and I’ll do my job, but they’ve made it tough on me. I’ve tried to do the best I can, but they put me in this situation.”
The situation, by all accounts, is this:
Long ago, the Dodgers lost faith in Landreaux, a five-year starter in center field, and this year they did something about it. They opened the season with rookie Mike Ramsey in center, then traded for John Shelby, the current occupant.
Because Landreaux is in the final season of a contract paying him $737,500, he is not a tradeable player. But the Dodgers are hesitant to release him, partly because they already are paying several high-priced older players for not playing.
So Landreaux remains in limbo and unhappy.
Most of the season, Landreaux has watched the Dodgers’ struggle from the bench. But circumstances lately have thrust him into the lineup, and he has responded.
Filling in for Shelby in center field one game last week, Landreaux homered and threw out a runner at home plate. Filling in for ailing Mike Marshall in right field earlier this week, Landreaux went 1 for 3 and made a difficult running catch in the outfield. Playing in right again Wednesday night, he doubled in one of his four at-bats.
Still, Landreaux has appeared in only 75 of the Dodgers’ 101 games, mostly as either a pinch-hitter or a defensive replacement.
Recently, Landreaux and Manager Tom Lasorda apparently came to an understanding. Lasorda told Landreaux that his Dodger role for the rest of the season is as a pinch-hitter and occasional outfield replacement, and Landreaux accepted under mild protest.
Landreaux is 6 for 29 as the Dodgers’ most frequently used pinch-hitter. He has had two of those pinch-hits in the last week.
“Lasorda said this is what he wants me to do,” Landreaux said. “I said that it’s not my type of baseball. I play best--I hit best--when I’m playing every day.
“I’ve never been a good pinch-hitter, and they’ve put me in this spot. So, when I look bad, it’s all by myself. Everybody points the finger at me. I’ll do whatever Lasorda wants, but it’s not what I want.”
Lasorda said he is aware of Landreaux’s aversion to the role but added that he is convinced it is best for the team and for Landreaux.
“Once he knows his role, he’s got to face the fact that he’s not going to be an everyday player anymore,” Lasorda said. “Those kind of guys are just as important as starters. Listen, the General (Landreaux’s nickname) has been with me a long time, and he knows that I respect him as a player. This is just what we need him to do now.”
Told that Landreaux has objected to his reduced role, Lasorda said:
“There have been a lot of times when he hasn’t been happy, when a lot of guys haven’t been happy. As a manager, I can’t please everybody. If (Landreaux) can’t adapt to that role, then maybe he should go somewhere else.”
Landreaux, 32, has mixed emotions about possibly leaving the Dodgers. Though unhappy about losing his starting spot, he says he likes playing for the Dodgers. He grew up in Los Angeles and said he really doesn’t want to move on.
He may not have a choice, though. Landreaux will become a free agent at the end of the season and it is widely believed that the Dodgers will not re-sign him. In fact, there had been considerable speculation after Danny Heep was signed that the Dodgers would swallow the rest of Landreaux’s contract and release him.
“I can keep it going here (in Los Angeles),” Landreaux said. “It all boils down to what management wants to do. I don’t know. They have said nothing. If I have to move, I will. Because I know I can play somewhere.”
Even this season, there have been glimpses of the ability that made Landreaux a productive hitter in nine previous major league seasons.
Landreaux has hit safely in 8 of his last 10 games. In mid-May, when the left-handed hitting Landreaux platooned with Mickey Hatcher in right field while Marshall was injured, Landreaux had a six-game hitting streak.
Yet, there also have been glimpses of the Landreaux that caused the Dodgers to search for another center fielder and fans and media critics to clamor for the club to sign Tim Raines last winter.
Earlier in the month in St. Louis, Landreaux was a late-inning defensive replacement for Pedro Guerrero in left field and dropped a routine fly ball that led to a Cardinal run and an eventual Dodger loss. And, until recently, Landreaux’s efforts as a pinch-hitter have been abysmal.
Landreaux said he had an inkling as early as spring training that it would be a frustrating season. The Dodgers gave highly touted Jose Gonzalez and Ramsey, a nonroster player, long looks at replacing Landreaux in center field. Al Campanis, then the Dodgers’ vice president, told writers: “Center field is our only weakness, and we’re going to do something about it. We may have to make a trade.”
The Dodgers made Ramsey, who had only double-A experience, their starter in center for the first month and a half. When Ramsey slumped, they demoted him and traded reliever Tom Niedenfuer to the Baltimore Orioles for Shelby, who came in and played every inning in center until getting a recent night off.
“Everybody always pointed the finger at center field,” Landreaux said. “They blamed me for losing (in 1986). Management said that. I read what they said. So, they got the fans to think I’m the problem.
“I knew Ramsey was going to (start the season in center). You could tell that in spring training, but I knew he wouldn’t last. . . . We lost when I was in center field, and we’re losing now with me not in center field. Guys can have all the talent they want, but can they do the job out there I did for five years?”
Although Landreaux says he is unhappy, he also says he wants what is best for the Dodgers. The point, he says, is that he could help the Dodgers more by making more than just cameo appearances.
“It’s their team, and I’ll do whatever they want and not cause trouble,” Landreaux said. “I go out there to win.”
Lasorda said he can live with Landreaux’s unhappiness if his former center fielder still puts winning above personal goals.
“I want (Landreaux) to start getting comfortable in this role,” Lasorda said. “He’s an important part of this team, if we’re going to come back (in the second half). As long as he’s been here, he’s always done what I’ve asked him to do.”
Even if that includes being just a spectator on the bench.