A Bus Isn’t Only Thing Mondesi Is Missing

The cannon sits across the top of his biceps, its colorful plume of smoke trailing down the most feared right arm in baseball.

“I paid $500 for that,” Raul Mondesi said of the tattoo, pausing.

“Actually, it was $400. I gave the guy another $100 for the tip.”

How typical of the Dodgers’ most exciting--and aggravating--player.

While chasing down line drives or fastballs or extra bases, he always pays more than full price.


But in the bigger picture, something about him always leaves teammates and fans confused.

Do we applaud his gracious tip?

Or wonder why he would get a silly tattoo like that in the first place?

“Sometimes, Raul still does not know good from bad,” said Ralph Avila, the Dodgers’ vice president and Latin American guru.

If he can’t figure it out during the next 39 games, the standings will make it very clear.

The Colorado Rockies or San Diego Padres will be good. The Dodgers will be bad.

Avila flew in this weekend from his Dominican Republic home for the first time this season.

The first thing he did was find Mondesi.

“He said something about wanting to meet with me,” Mondesi said, chuckling.

Well, something like that.

“I’m not happy,” Avila said. “And he’s going to hear about it.”

Mondesi is going to hear about having only 10 more runs batted in than Todd Hollandsworth in 141 more at-bats before Saturday. He is driving in runs (56) at the slowest pace of his three-year career.

Mondesi is going to hear about drawing fewer than two walks per week, about batting only .214 with two outs and runners in scoring position, about still not showing enough baseball smarts.

And he’s going to hear about the bus.

By now, all of Los Angeles knows about the bus, which departed the Dodgers’ Pittsburgh hotel for Three Rivers Stadium at 5 p.m. recently.

As with every visiting player at every level of professional baseball, Mondesi had to either take the bus . . . or beat it there.

He did neither, and was benched by new Manager Bill Russell when he arrived 15 minutes after the bus at 5:30 p.m.

It was a momentous decision for Russell, not just in startling Mondesi, but in gaining support from the rest of the team, which had watched in silence as Mondesi had repeatedly gotten away with such behavior throughout the last three years.

“Raul is still a big kid, still a little bit wild,” Avila said.

If that benching didn’t slow him down, the Dodgers hope that Avila’s meeting will.

They know they are going to get his physical tools. What they need during these last six weeks is his head.

They need him to go directly home after more games, especially his good ones.

They need him to arrive at the park the next evening rested, not after long lunches with friends like the one that caused him to miss that bus.

They need him to avoid the temptations from the bloodsuckers who prey on guys like Mondesi, a rich 25-year-old with such a big heart he sponsors an entire little league in his hometown.

“After good games, I like to go out and have fun,” he acknowledged. “After bad games, I go home.

“Everybody says, ‘Mondy, you haven’t changed.’ And I say, ‘Why change?’ They love me in the Dominican.”

There is much about his passion that is worth loving.

He batted .204 in April, but improved to .283 in May . . . then .301 in June . . . then .340 in July.

A guy who used to bat about .100 with a 0-and-1 count--a death situation to the undisciplined--had recently improved to .243 in that area.

He has the healthy confidence to predict before the season that “this is going to be the greatest year of my career” . . . and the humbleness to stay late when it was not.

“That is a player who works hard, who is not afraid to improve,” said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president, who remains Mondesi’s biggest supporter. “If you look at everything, you watch him every day, watch everything, he is a better player this year than last year.”

He sounded like it Friday night after he hit his 18th homer in an 8-2 victory against the Expos, then said, “Three weeks ago I saw my stats were never going to be good this year, so now I not think about them, I just play and have fun.”

But then he was asked about those several fans he said were heckling him in right field, the leaders in a growing contingent of restless Mondesi watchers who are substituting “Booo” for “Rauuuuul.”

“Everybody says I was late for that game when I missed the bus,” he said. “I was not late for the game. I was there a long time before the game.”

On the verge of acclamation, he misses the point so badly, he makes it look like a 0-and-2 curveball in the dirt.

Thirty-nine games left, and sometimes it seems he wouldn’t get it if he had 39 years.