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Dodgers rift is a new-old story Team finishes with divided clubhouse

Times Staff Writers

The turmoil that engulfed the Dodgers during last week’s dismal 1-6 trip had been slowly building for weeks but erupted publicly only when the team’s postseason hopes disappeared.

Although second baseman Jeff Kent was the first player to speak on the record about the Dodgers’ internal problems -- most notably a widening schism between some veterans and a group of first- and second-year players -- there was palpable tension in the clubhouse for much of the second half.

The separation developed largely along generational lines, with the 39-year-old Kent and 40-year-old outfielder Luis Gonzalez among the players on one side and outfielder Matt Kemp, who turned 23 on Sunday, 25-year-old Andre Ethier and 23-year-old first baseman James Loney on the other.

At issue wasn’t performance. Heading into the opener of the Dodgers’ final homestand of the season tonight, Kemp (.333) and Loney (.331) are the team’s leading hitters. Another second-year player, 24-year-old catcher Russell Martin, who has remained above the fray, leads the Dodgers with 85 runs batted in.

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Instead, the veterans grew frustrated with their diminished playing roles at the same time that what might have been their last, best chance at the World Series was disappearing.

In addition, they say, the young players haven’t paid them or the game proper respect. It’s an old-school notion -- that rookies should be seen and not heard.

“Some of the guys that you see around that are young are a little cocky,” said pitcher David Wells, at 44 the oldest Dodger, yet one of the few who has moved comfortably between both sides in a split clubhouse. “But you know what? They’re going to get humbled. And when they do, they’ll switch their attitude. It’s not my place and time to tell people how to act. But I pay attention.

“And if I feel the need maybe I’ll say, ‘Hey, maybe you want to try this approach.’ Because I was told that.”

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There are other veterans who share that approach, but still others who prefer to remain inside their own tight circle. And that’s caused others to choose sides.

Before a game on the last homestand, an attendant placed a trash can too close to Kemp’s locker in the Dodgers’ crowded clubhouse. But when the outfielder got up to move it, one veteran complained aloud -- but not to Kemp -- about how rookies today are different from those of the past.

Some players have also wondered why Kemp continues to commit the same baserunning gaffes while other veterans have noted -- off the record -- that few young players hang around the clubhouse before or after games to talk baseball. That’s a practice that hasn’t limited itself to young players, though, since veterans such as Shea Hillenbrand and Brad Penny are typically the first to leave the clubhouse on the road. And, home and away, Kent is habitually the last to arrive, walking silently through the clubhouse to his corner locker without speaking to anyone.

Emotions nearly boiled over in mid-August when the Dodgers struggled through a stretch in which they lost 10 times in 12 games. One veteran complained privately that management appeared so committed to its farm system it was unwillingly to trade any of its young players for a impact-type veteran who might turn things around while others, such as second-year outfielder Ethier, began to suggest teammates were pointing fingers and assigning blame for the slump.

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The team quickly rebounded to win six of its next eight games, though, and one veteran pitcher, approached about the clubhouse rift, said it had blown over.

The respite was short-lived. Moments after the Dodgers were swept in a four-game series in Colorado, Kent, still looking for his first World Series ring in his 16th major league season, sounded off.

“We’re in a bad spot right now,” he said. “Pretty soon we’re going to give up the ghost. It’s close to the end of the season. And a career for me too. I’m running out of time.

“A lot of kids in here, they don’t understand that. . . . You hate to waste an opportunity, even if it’s one and even if it’s your first time. It’s hard to get them to understand that because they haven’t been there. So there lies some frustration.”

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Contributing to the tension is that some veterans haven’t produced, which has led to more playing time for the youngsters. The Dodgers had 15 players 30 or older on their opening-day roster, but by June they had grown considerably younger with Loney and Kemp coming up from the minors to replace 34-year-old outfielder Brady Clark and 33-year-old utility player Marlon Anderson.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, is batting 51 points lower in the second half than he did in the first, a slump that has resulted in more playing time for Ethier and Kemp. That’s led to some grumbling from Gonzalez and this comment from Loney:

“Somebody comes up behind you and tries to take your job, you have two choices: You’re going to give it up, or you’re going to bust your [rear] to be the best,” said Loney, who said he wasn’t talking about anyone in particular.

Manager Grady Little added: “All I can tell you is this: If we could’ve operated the entire season with the lineup we came out of spring training with, I would’ve loved nothing better. There would have been time to work in the kids and get them playing time here and there.”

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Instead, the Dodgers’ regular second-half lineup has included four players with less than two full years of big-league experience. And the team appears committed to building around that talented sophomore class. For example, it’s unlikely Gonzalez will be asked back, and Kent , if he accepts his $9-million option and returns for 2008, probably will split playing time with 22-year-old Tony Abreu.

But before they get to next season, the Dodgers have six more games -- needing two wins to finish with a winning record.

Kent and 34-year-old Nomar Garciaparra addressed the team after its sixth consecutive loss Friday, stressing the importance of finishing the season strong. Yet even that will be something of an empty achievement for Little.

“What our record ends up being is not nearly as significant as not making it in the postseason,” he said. “That’s your objective, and if you don’t accomplish that, you’ve lost.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com


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