Hold blue, Dodgers bleeding green; Free-spending club takes on new persona

THE BALTIMORE SUN

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Tradition died hard at Dodgertown, where the stability of the staid Los Angeles Dodgers organization used to be reflected in the familiarity of the faces that populated training camp each spring.

Turnover was a dirty word in the glory days of one of baseball's most storied franchises. The Dodgers were slow to join in the free-agent frenzy of the 1970s and '80s and stubborn in their emphasis on player development. They clung to the ways of the past until time began to pass them by.

Not anymore. The new Dodgers are so new that you'd have to be from Baltimore to recognize a lot of the faces. New manager Davey Johnson directed the first official workout yesterday. New general manager Kevin Malone watched the proceedings from a golf cart, interrupting his reverie periodically to blast the naysayers who have criticized the organization for its lavish off-season rebuilding effort.

Malone doesn't deny that the club spared no expense to assemble an overpowering team. He doesn't apologize for it either. He just questions the motives of those who have chosen to designate the Dodgers as the prime example of everything that's wrong with the economics of baseball.

"I just think that people are jealous and envious," Malone said. "When people criticize you, it's usually because they feel inadequate in some way, so I don't take it personally. We're very fortunate and blessed to have the resources to do what we are doing.

"I've been on the other side of the fence. We had the smallest payroll in baseball in Montreal in 1994 [the strike-shortened year the Expos had the best record in either league], so it's not always the money. It's the personnel decisions."

Defending the expense

But sometimes, it is the money. The Dodgers were one of only a handful of teams that were in a position to stay in the bidding for free-agent pitcher Kevin Brown, whose record $105 million contract set the organization up for a winter of criticism -- some of it from the rival San Diego Padres.

Malone pondered that again yesterday and then fired back at the defending National League champions, whose most notable newcomer is a 37-year-old country music star.

"We had a decision to make Kevin Brown or Garth Brooks, Garth Brooks or Kevin Brown," Malone said. "We took Kevin Brown."

The Dodgers also added veteran catcher Todd Hundley, center fielder Devon White and former Orioles reliever Alan Mills to a team that already had undergone a dramatic face lift midway through the 1998 season.

"We're trying to get back to being the king of the mountain," Malone said. "It's fun when people are trying to pull at you to keep you from getting there."

Did he say fun? Is it fun when Major League Baseball vice president Sandy Alderson rips you at your own news conference for spending too much money on one player? Is it fun to be portrayed as a corporate bully, trying to buy your way to the top of the industry?

The Dodgers should be used to that by now. Even in days of yore the franchise was the subject of widespread envy -- some might call it resentment -- for its wealth and success.

"I think there always was some jealousy because they always had a great team and they had the great farm system," said Johnson, who was a member of the 1966 Orioles team that swept the Dodgers in the World Series. "I don't think it was resentment. You always wanted to be as efficient as the Dodgers. Everybody knew that they were the No. 1 organization."

That has not been the case in the 1990s. The Dodgers have been to the playoffs a couple of times, but the team was cast as a habitual underachiever during the decade before Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire bought the club from the O'Malley family last year. Johnson fancies himself as just the right guy to change that.

"The last 10 years, they have not won a playoff game. I don't think they have been at that level," Johnson said. "For me to be able to be a part of getting this team back to being a perennial playoff contender, that would be an honor and a thrill."

The talent is there. Brown joins a starting rotation that includes 15-game winner Chan Ho Park, up-and-coming Darren Dreifort, solid right-hander Ismael Valdes, left-hander Carlos Perez and surplus starter Dave Mlicki. The bullpen features closer Jeff Shaw (55 saves in '98), with Mills joining a largely right-handed middle relief corps that also includes veteran Mel Rojas, 25-year-old Antonio Osuna and left-handed setup man Greg Caderet.

"Looking at what I saw today, I'm convinced that we potentially are capable of being as good or better than any pitching staff I've had," Johnson said. "But I'm comparing them on potential. I think that we have the potential to be very good."

Malone says that Brown's value should not be confined to his individual statistics. The Dodgers broke the bank to acquire him because of his ability to lift up the whole pitching staff. Brown isn't sure what that entails, but he says he's willing to do whatever it takes to get the Dodgers to the World Series.

"That's what we're here for," Brown said.

The first thing he'll have to do is deal with the heightened expectations that come with the highest annual salary and total guarantee ever awarded to a baseball player.

"It's not something that you think about when you're playing," Brown said. "You try to be yourself. The key for me is doing what makes you successful. You have to have your own identity. I'm the same guy. I don't think the expectation level should be the driving force."

They can hit, too

The Dodgers' offensive lineup also should be improved over 1998, and a lot more settled. Last year's offensive chemistry was reformulated early in the season when the club traded away big-swinging catcher Mike Piazza. Now, the acquisition of Hundley and White figures to balance a batting order that is built around the formidable nucleus of Gary Sheffield, Raul Mondesi and Eric Karros.

The big question mark is chemistry. The Dodgers haven't had much the past few years, but Johnson has a way of getting the most out of his talent. He has never finished lower than second in any full season as a major-league manager and in 1997 became only the sixth manager in baseball history to spend every day of the regular season in first place.

He'll have some familiar faces around him. Former Orioles hitting coach Rick Down has assumed the same position with the Dodgers after falling out of favor with Orioles manager Ray Miller. Mills will likely play the same role in the Dodgers' bullpen that he filled under Johnson in Baltimore.

Both Mills and Down left town quietly, and chose yesterday to keep their feelings about their departures from Baltimore to themselves.

"It's time to turn the page," Down said. "It's no big deal. This is a great opportunity. We've got a great ballclub. We're going to be competitive. It's going to be an exciting year.

"I had a great time in Baltimore. If you could be .660 in every endeavor [the Orioles reached the playoffs in two of the last three years], that would be wonderful."

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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