Column: Andre Ethier takes the high road about limited role with Dodgers
For years he was everywhere, but suddenly he’s nowhere.
He is not in the outfield. He is not on the video board. His name is not recited in chants. His face cannot be seen amid the bubbles. In all the recent Dodgers hoopla, he has been missing, a piece of the landscape gone, an old friend forgotten.
Then Andre Ethier steps out of the dugout in the ninth inning, and Dodgers fans remember.
What happens next is not so much a prolonged cheer as a giant embrace, loud and lingering, the biggest nightly roar for someone not named Kershaw or Puig, many folks even standing, everyone cherishing.
The most difficult time of his career has also become the most inspirational, and Ethier hears every one of you.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t get goose bumps,” Ethier said. “I’ll never stop giving to these fans, ever.”
Those cheers are not only appreciation for how he has played for the last nine years, but admiration for the way he will handle the next three minutes. That’s usually all that Ethier can give these days.
After spending nearly a decade in the warm cocoon of the Dodgers’ lineup card, he has become the guy left awkwardly standing alone in this year’s game of musical outfielders, the fourth guy in a party of three, relegated to the strange place known as the bench and the suffocating role known as pinch-hitting.
“It’s been my most humbling season,” he said. “But it’s one where I’ve learned the most.”
A couple of months ago, he learned that Manager Don Mattingly preferred Yasiel Puig over him in center field, Matt Kemp ahead of him in right and Carl Crawford as the left-handed hitter in left. He learned that, at age 32 and with a .247 average and only four home runs as starter, these could be his last days in a Dodgers uniform.
“I’ve definitely had some sleepless nights trying to figure things out,” Ethier said.
But he has learned to not only take it, but triumph over it. After spending much of his career famously fighting frustration with an attack on a bat rack or water cooler, he learned to keep his mouth shut, his bat warm and his priorities straight.
Unlike other Dodgers outfielders who publicly complained before the positions were finalized, Ethier has never been so openly positive and smiling and accommodating as he has helped push the Dodgers into October. He has learned when it seems your team needs you the least, maybe that’s when it needs you the most.
“Your pride wants to fight it, but you learn to check it and realize that’s not what’s best for my teammates, that’s not the best example for anyone who’s paying attention,” he said. “I could act mad, but I don’t want to affect my teammates or the fans with that kind of energy. We’re so close to our ultimate goal, I will not get in the way of that goal. I’ll do whatever it takes to bring home that trophy.”
So while his presence may have shrunk considerably, his aura has grown only larger. Ethier is big in the clubhouse for maintaining a work ethic that brings him to the ballpark so early that he has often completed a full workout as other players are arriving. Ethier is big among fans for still showing up for pregame autographs and photos, signing more balls and shaking more hands than ever.
Ethier is also large in the eyes of the manager who benched him.
“He’s been a great teammate,” Mattingly said. “He’s not happy with the situation but he’s going to be professional about it … that makes it easier for everybody.”
Oh yeah, and the dude can seriously pinch-hit, with a .290 average and .450 on-base percentage in 40 plate appearances. Everyone knows how much he loves the pressure, particularly in 2009, when he had six walk-off hits, including four walk-off home runs that tied a major league record. Ethier has played in more postseason games as a Dodger than anyone on the roster, and he may play his biggest role now that he’s on the bench.
“One of the criticisms of our playoff teams recently is that we haven’t had a late-inning power guy off the bench,” General Manager Ned Colletti said. “Well, now we’ve got a guy who can change a game.”
The biggest Dodgers postseason hit in the last 26 years came from a late-inning pinch-hitter, remember? Yeah, that was injured Kirk Gibson’s role in the ninth inning of the 1988 World Series opener.
Since then, the Dodgers have missed that late-inning postseason magic, with only one walk-off postseason hit since 1988, pinch-hitter Mark Loretta’s single to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the Game 2 of a 2009 division series. Last season, they did not have a pinch-hit in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, who had two pinch-hits that led to victories.
Ethier has thought about his chances of being that sort of postseason hero even as he has admittedly fought the anger that comes with losing your job, a torment that was eased some in daily phone calls with his father.
“I would tell him, ‘Live it, breathe it, accept it, come to the ballpark every day with smile on your face,’ ” Byron Ethier said. “Remember the magical moments. Build off the positives. Be a leader. Enjoy the ride. You’re still one in 6 million.”
At this point, Ethier will be happy just being the one in the ninth, the one with the game on the line, the one who already has a playoff prediction for those fans who have never lost faith.
“I’m going to come up with a big hit,” he said smiling, accepting, waiting for those goose bumps. “Seriously, that’s how I feel right now. I know I’ll come up with a big hit.”
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