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Column: Better winning through chemistry? Not these Dodgers

Dodgers center fielder Yasiel Puig is congratulated by his teammates after scoring against the Atlanta Braves on July 31. Strife in the clubhouse doesn't matter as long as the Dodgers are winning.
(Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images)

The most compelling thing about the Dodgers dugout altercation Monday night in Denver was that none of the Dodgers found it particularly compelling.

Watch the video of Matt Kemp stalking and scolding Yasiel Puig and notice the uniformed personnel around them. Nobody seems alarmed. Nobody makes a move. The Dodgers coaches facing the field don’t even turn their heads.

When Manager Don Mattingly finally steps between the two men, he does so with the sort of shrug that says, “Aw, not this again . . .”

This sort of tension around the Dodgers is not new. This is not a cuddly team. This is not a close team. The clubhouse sometimes feels like a bus station, a bunch of guys wearily sprawled out with distant stares and different itineraries.

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This is not a team that could fit into a warm Vin Scully story. This is not a team that would work in a cheery Tom Lasorda family. There’s no way this team could ever be accompanied by a Nancy Bea Hefley show tune.

“There definitely are a lot of very, very large personalities in our clubhouse, and sometimes guys are headed in different directions,” catcher A.J. Ellis acknowledged Tuesday in a phone interview.

He paused, and added, “But I tell you what, we’re all together and headed in one direction, the right direction, when the game starts.”

In the end, that’s all that matters, because the right direction is “W,” and they went there eight times in the first 10 games since their worst loss of the season against Washington, victories that put them on the precipice of the postseason and the brink of an odd truth.

While these Dodgers still have holes that could prevent them from their first World Series appearance in 26 years, that giant chasm in their clubhouse is not one of them.

“Clayton [Kershaw] said it first around here, but I’ll say it again — winning creates chemistry,” said Ellis. “Everyone on this team has turned that corner and is invested on the field and that’s all that counts. You’re winning and the bubble machine is going and everybody is happy.”

You’re winning, and it’s OK that the clubhouse is filled with imported veteran millionaires who share little more than the name on the front of the jersey.

You’re winning and it’s OK that one of the outfielders is always upset about not playing and Hanley Ramirez is forever worried over his impending free agency and Puig’s relentless energy is driving everyone crazy.

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You’re winning and it’s OK that this team’s only real leader is not the guy who leads the league in runs batted in and billboard photos — Adrian Gonzalez — but a guy who plays just once every five days. If you don’t think Kershaw deserves the MVP award for keeping this circus under one tent, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The Dodgers were winning when they shrugged at Kemp screaming at Puig for not taking third base on Gonzalez’s single. In fact, they were in the process of scoring eight runs in that sixth inning on their way to an 11-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. The Dodgers shrugged because they like someone holding Puig accountable, and they like that maybe Kemp, with 13 homers in 44 games, might be reverting to his commanding presence of three seasons ago.

“Any time somebody is passionate about making the team better, I’m all for it, have at it,” General Manager Ned Colletti said Tuesday.

Colletti once worked in the front office of a team whose two biggest stars were such enemies that they actually fought in the dugout. Those 2002 San Francisco Giants came within a couple of innings of winning the World Series, so Colletti also shrugs.

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“I was with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, and they didn’t always go out to dinner, but on the field they held each other accountable and that’s all that mattered,” Colletti said. “Not every team is going to be the same, not every team is going to be a cookie cutter-type club, but as long as they play the game the right way, I can roll with it.”

The rolling appears a bit more difficult for straight-edged Manager Mattingly. He clearly struggles to adjust to his group of distracted millionaires, most of whom, unlike him, would never agree to adopt the surname “Baseball.”

On Friday in San Francisco, when asked about the team’s makeup, Mattingly told reporters, “I don’t want to explain it. It’s different. It’s a different group.”

On Monday in Colorado, he compared the Dodgers to one of baseball’s most notoriously feuding teams, saying, “We’re like the A’s, the ’72 A’s.”

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That was one of three Oakland teams that constantly bickered, sometimes actually fought, and wound up winning three consecutive world championships.

Surely these Dodgers aren’t filled with that sort of animosity, are they? Maybe behind closed clubhouse doors it’s worse than anyone imagined. But then again, maybe it just doesn’t matter.

“It’s different than any team I’ve been around,” Mattingly concluded on Tuesday in Denver, and he would explain no further, but no explanations were necessary.

The only time this team seemed truly united last season was when the guys were jumping in that Arizona swimming pool upon clinching the division title. Yet they finished just two games from the World Series.

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Seriously, does it really matter if anyone sees them hanging out together before they dive into the champagne this year? Heck, if these Dodgers can’t stand to live and breathe blue, there’s no harm in stealing another motto from another group in town.

Fight On?


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