His bats in a bag slung over his left shoulder, Andre Ethier walked down a barricaded walkway that links one of the six practice fields at the Dodgers spring training complex to the outdoor batting cages.
Fans leaned over the metal railings on both sides of the path and screamed: “Ethier! Ethier!”
There was a time when Ethier would have taken little notice of the chants. Not anymore.
Ethier is now 34 years old, a month from 35. He is entering his 12th season with the Dodgers. With Ethier in the final guaranteed year of a five-year, $85-million contract, this camp will likely be his last with the team.
The former All-Star outfielder won’t concede that point, but acknowledged, “I’ll say I’m not taking things for granted.”
He added, “I’m not going to not take everything in.”
More than a decade in the major leagues was required for Ethier to gain this perspective. He broke into the major leagues as a talented but hot-tempered prospect. He became an everyday player, then an All-Star, then something of an afterthought. He missed nearly all of last season because of a fractured leg. He went from being insecure to confident to back to insecure, to now discovering a sense of peace.
He’s grown up.
The observation made Ethier chuckle.
“I guess when you’re in your mid-30s with kids and you’re going to parent-teacher conferences, you kind of have to grow up,” he said.
Rather than think of how little time he might have remaining with the Dodgers, he thinks of how much time he’s had.
Ethier broke into the major leagues early in the Frank McCourt era as part of a group of highly rated prospects that included Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and James Loney.
Martin was the first to become a star. Kemp was the most talented. Ethier outlasted them and everyone else, as they departed, one by one, as free agents or as part of trades.
Did he ever imagine that?
“No,” Ethier said. “Not at all. Never would have.”
On this particular Friday, the Texas Rangers were visiting the Dodgers for a night game. Loney was part of the Rangers’ traveling party as a player on a minor league contact trying to make the opening-day roster.
“I found myself looking at free agents more this winter than I ever have before, just gauging where a possible 35- to 36-year-old can end up at the end of the year,” Ethier said. “Those options aren’t too bright. It’s just one where you don’t take for granted the opportunity where you’re on the team that is successful.”
“I like to use the entire roster,” Manager Dave Roberts said. “With Dre, with his age, with who we have on our roster, I see him predominantly against right-handed pitching. That’s really who he’s dominated his entire career. Could he earn more at-bats against lefties? Possibly. But we have guys on our roster who have shown throughout their careers that they can hit lefties.”
Ethier can’t be traded without his consent, a luxury afforded to him by his 10 years of major league service time, including the last five with the same team. Still, he made it a point to contact the Dodgers’ front office in the off-season and told them to not bother looking for a deal he might approve.
“I wasn’t sure if there was a better opportunity somewhere else, but this is where I want to be,” Ethier said. “I feel like I’m a Dodger. I really am. I’m a guy who will always be tied to this organization.”
And he’s come to realize there’s nothing he can do individually that would be as memorable as winning a World Series.
“There’s one goal here and that’s to win a World Series,” he said. “Anything we do less than that is really a failure. It doesn’t matter if you went out and you’re the MVP of the league that year, you still failed your main goal, which is to win a World Series. How many years, 60 years, 70 years, the Dodgers have been in L.A.? I’ve been a part of 11 of them and haven’t won a World Series. That’s tough to think about.”
Ethier used to be particularly sensitive to perceived slights, whether they were trade rumors or a feeling he wasn’t valued by the team. He learned to let go of that.
“You can get callused and you can get jaded to where you’re like, ‘Screw these guys, screw this place, this place is not for me,’ ” Ethier said. “But you as an individual, as a player, have control. That’s if you go out and play the way you’re capable of playing.”
And if he takes care of that, things can work themselves out. There were times when Ethier was relegated to the bench, only to regain a place in the lineup because of an injury.
Ethier’s contract includes a $17.5 million team option for 2018. The option would become guaranteed if Ethier makes 550 plate appearances this season, something that would require him to be a full-time player.
“That’s what I have in my mind,” he said. “It’s not just about what can happen if I get those at-bats. It isn’t. I want to play as much as I can and I want to help this team win as much as I can. I feel if I’m out there for that many games, that means I’m performing a certain way.”
He said he intends to play next season, whether it’s with the Dodgers or another team. He said this with a smile. He knows he is fortunate.
“I’ve put on a baseball uniform for 30 years of my life, since I was a kid, and I’m still putting on a baseball uniform for a living,” he said. “That’s pretty awesome to think about.”