“I reported to the minor league side,” Turner said. “It was early. We weren’t even supposed to report yet. I was probably over there for three or four days before someone was like, ‘Why don’t you just bring your stuff over here?’ ”
Turner said this recently in the Dodgers’ major league clubhouse at the facility, at his corner locker by the exit, prime real estate reserved for a respected veteran. A half-decade earlier Turner was a 29-year-old utility infielder looking for a job. The New York Mets, fresh off a 74-win season, nontendered him. His place in baseball was hazy.
All Turner has done since is establish himself as a fan favorite and premier hitter in his five seasons as the Dodgers’ third baseman, into his mid-30s, when teams these days assume players’ best years are behind them. He is an anomaly.
But a championship still eludes him after two oh-so-close October runs and that torments the lifelong Dodgers fan. He was approaching his fourth birthday when the club last won a World Series, in 1988. He’s a member of a shrinking population that was alive when the Dodgers reached the summit.
Turner has done his part to end the three-decade-long skid. He has batted .305 in regular-season games since joining the Dodgers, tied with Buster Posey for sixth in the majors over the five campaigns, and .313 in 49 playoff games. His .889 on-base-plus-slugging percentage is tied for 15th with Miguel Cabrera. He has accumulated a 21.9 WAR, according to FanGraphs, good enough to slot between Bryce Harper and Posey for 18th. He was rewarded with a four-year, $64-million deal after the 2016 season that expires after next season.
“I think it’s a terrible generalization that baseball’s using that once you hit 30, you’re a declining player,” Turner said. “Are there some declining players, some guys that don’t play good? Sure. But I think there’s a lot of guys that are still very productive playing in their 30s and still very productive for their teams, helping teams win. I think it’s a bad generalization.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts realized Turner’s production was for real during the 2015 playoffs. Roberts was still employed by the San Diego Padres. He had seen Turner post big offensive numbers firsthand in the National League West. But he became convinced that October when he watched the Dodgers and the Mets in an NL Division Series. He saw the way Turner stitched together at-bats. The way he used the whole field. He made the Mets’ heralded pitching staff work.
“A light bulb went off that this guy could potentially be a superstar,” Roberts said.
A month later, Roberts was hired as Dodgers manager. For the last three seasons, and going on four, he has witnessed Turner’s excellence firsthand. The at-bats he refuses to give away, not even in spring training. The smart work he invests in his body and the accountability he professes. The clubhouse presence he maintains and the constant work in his community with his wife Kourtney, most of it away from the public eye.
“That’s hard because he stretches himself very thin,” Roberts said. “And I really don’t know how he manages it, to be quite honest.”
Turner hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Last season, he returned from a wrist fracture suffered in a Cactus League game in late March to bat .312 with 14 home runs, 31 doubles and a .924 OPS in 103 games.
“He’s one of the most special hitters I’ve ever been around, in terms of his ability, his awareness, his open-mindedness and his ability to adapt and make changes,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “I think, at his core, he’s always had really good bat-to-ball skills, which is a good foundational jumping-off point. But his ability to maximize everything that he has on a nightly basis is something extremely unique.”
Friedman was the Tampa Bay Rays general manager when the Mets cut Turner loose in December 2013. He said the Rays expressed interest in Turner that offseason. A year later, after Turner used a revamped swing and approach to bat .340, Friedman took over the Dodgers’ front office. He said he joked that Turner shunned him. Turner recalled a different series of events.
“That’s not true at all,” Turner said. “He actually made a trade for Logan Forsythe and I stopped hearing from the Rays.”
The Dodgers eventually signed Turner to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training after Tim Wallach, who was on the team’s coaching staff at the time, saw him at a Cal State Fullerton alumni game. It will go down as one of the biggest coups in recent baseball history. All he needs is that elusive championship.
“After we win this thing,” Roberts said, “he’s going to be revered forever.”