Some of Andre Ethier’s fondest childhood memories are of days when Ethier would be picked up early by his father from his middle school in Phoenix. They would head to the Seattle Mariners’ spring-training complex, where he could spend hours studying every move of his favorite player, Ken Griffey Jr.
“That’s who I looked up to,” Ethier said. “That’s all I wanted to be. I always wanted to be a center fielder in the big leagues.”
Eight years into his major league career, Ethier is finally living out his dream the way he envisioned it on those afternoons at the Peoria Sports Complex. Exclusively a corner outfielder until this season, Ethier has replaced the sidelined Matt Kemp as the Dodgers’ center fielder -- and thrived.
First base coach Davey Lopes, who doubles as the team’s outfield instructor, has given Ethier the nickname “Junior,” which was how his hero was affectionately called.
“No one’s complaining about the job he’s done,” Lopes said. “We’re all pleasantly surprised. If we have to go this route the remainder of the season, we don’t feel it’s something we have to plug up because he’s done a fine job.”
So much so that some team officials think Ethier’s play in center field has been superior to that of the more athletic Kemp, who won Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2011. Manager Don Mattingly recently hinted that Ethier could remain the Dodgers’ primary center fielder even after Kemp returns from the disabled list this month.
“It’s hard to do anything with ‘Dre right now,” Mattingly said.
Ethier was moved to center field to keep his bat in the lineup. Although Ethier was slumping offensively -- he was batting .253 when he made his first start at his new position May 30 -- his track record indicated he was one of the team’s better hitters. Rookie Yasiel Puig was settling in as the team’s right fielder. Mattingly had no intention of playing Carl Crawford anywhere other than left.
Before this season, Ethier played center field in only one regular-season game. He also played it in the 2010 All-Star game, when the National League didn’t have a natural center fielder among the starters. The last time he was a regular center fielder was at Arizona State.
Early in his career, Ethier often motivated himself by remembering the times he felt slighted in life: such as when he played a year at junior college because Arizona State didn’t have a spot for him on its roster or when the Oakland Athletics traded him before ever calling him up to the majors. Lopes thinks Ethier could be using similar motivational tactics, pointing to how Ethier has told him that he was never given a chance to play center field after he was drafted.
“It’s almost like he’s proving people wrong about how they read his talent,” Lopes said.
Ethier said that isn’t the case.
“The motivation now is just to win games,” Ethier said. “We have an opportunity to do something special.”
Ethier talked about what it was like to reach the National League Championship Series in 2008 and 2009.
“This team can even get further than that,” he said.
Coaches and teammates saw a change in Ethier around the time of his position change.
“I think it might have helped him all-around,” Clayton Kershaw said.
“His whole game has perked up a little bit,” Lopes said.
Ethier started to hit. As a center fielder, he’s batting .309 in 66 games. As anything else, he’s hitting .249. Overall, he’s at .276 with 11 home runs and 50 runs batted in. And he just reached 30 doubles for the seventh consecutive season.
“Sometimes it helps to get your mind off of hitting,” Ethier said, referring to the anxiety he felt in the first week or two at his new position.
There was another event that could be responsible for Ethier’s improvement. Shortly before his move to center field, the Dodgers were in last place and visiting Milwaukee. Mattingly benched Ethier and dropped strong hints that he thought he lacked the mental fortitude he wanted in his players.
Mattingly’s comments, private and public, made Ethier reflect on what he could do to be a better player and teammate.
“I took whatever he said and tried to apply it,” he said.
That Ethier hit wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was how much ground he could cover in center field.
Kershaw said the Dodgers aren’t any worse defensively with Ethier than they were with Kemp.
“Not taking anything away from Matt, but ‘Dre’s been great out there,” Kershaw said. “He’s been unbelievable. He’s made every play. He’s made hard plays look easy. He gets great jumps on the ball. He always has the right reads. He might not be as fast as some other center fielders, but he makes up for it with his reads and his jumps. He works at it. I think he takes a lot of pride in it. He accepted the challenge.”