DePodesta's Dodgers Are a Work in Progress
Friday, August 5, 2005
The most hated man in Los Angeles had come home this week. And that meant a trip back 15 years to a forgotten baseball game in the early 1990s when his Episcopal High baseball team played Gonzaga right in this very stadium. There were stands in left field back then and the walls didn't seem as far away. But everything else about RFK Stadium seemed very much intact.
"I warmed up in that bullpen out there in right field," Dodgers General Manager Paul DePodesta said, waving his hands across the field.
After that day the world moved fast for the wiry pitcher playing for the school so close to his Alexandria home. He went on to Harvard and then broke into Major League Baseball as a scout for the Cleveland Indians, then became an executive in Oakland with his own supporting role in a book called "Moneyball." And now here he is, at 32, with the job of a lifetime.
However, the second-largest city in America hates the very mention of his name.
"I think that's starting to turn a little bit," DePodesta said with a laugh.
He stepped into this job with a new owner in the spring of 2004 and immediately made a splash, tearing apart the roster at midseason despite the fact they were safely in first place. Then at year's end, with a division title flying above Dodger Stadium and the team's first postseason victory still dancing in everybody's eyes, he finished the dismantling project, filling the clubhouse with strange faces and unfamiliar names.
So much so that the Dodgers he dragged into RFK Stadium this week have just three players that were on the Los Angeles roster in 2003 -- shortstop Cesar Izturis and pitchers Odalis Perez and Wilson Alvarez.
And that would probably be fine with Dodgers fans if this team was a contender. But his team is lingering in the National League West race simply because the entire division has collapsed. At 12 games under .500, the Dodgers are far closer to the National League's worst team, Colorado, than its best team, St. Louis.
This has earned DePodesta a fair share of rage on talk radio and in newspaper columns around Southern California and plenty of skepticism around baseball. Perhaps, the suggestions go, the boy GM right out of the pages of "Moneyball" is not suited to run a big league baseball team.
"When I first got here in February of last year it was the first day of spring training and looking at the roster, the bulk of our team was free agent eligible in a year," DePodesta said. "The roster was going to be torn up whether we did it or not. I thought, 'Let's see if we can be proactive about it.' We said, 'Let it be over in one year.' We wanted to build a foundation and then move forward. Once we started doing that, there was no going halfway. The most perilous position to be in is halfway."
There was no halfway in the DePodesta approach. At least no one can say he is afraid to take chances. After shocking everybody by trading catcher Paul Lo Duca at the trade deadline last year, he came back in the offseason and traded right fielder Shawn Green, dumped second baseman Alex Cora and let third baseman Adrian Beltre sign with Seattle, replacing them with cheaper, and presumably superior players in Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew and Jose Valentin. Then both Drew and Valentin got hurt.
In fact, half the Dodgers' roster, it seems, has been hurt. Within weeks, the DePodesta master plan blew up as Los Angeles started fielding lineups out of Class AAA and, in the case of infielder Oscar Robles, the Mexican League. They were hurt for a long time, too. When Izturis returned from a hamstring injury July 14, it was the first time this year a Dodger had gone on the 15-day disabled list and actually returned on the day he was scheduled to come back. Somewhere, though, the Dodgers found a few pretty good players. A pleasant surprise for their general manager.
And with the team getting some of its players off the disabled list -- Milton Bradley and Valentin to name two -- DePodesta has new optimism.
The injuries have bought him some refuge from the anger. It's hard to pillage the most hated man in Los Angeles when half the team has been getting MRI exams. So this week he came home a little less scorched by the fans in L.A. He slept at his parents' home in Alexandria and came early to the park. It seemed so far from his new home.
Then DePodesta was asked if his job of a lifetime has been fun. And the most hated man in Los Angeles paused.
"It's getting there," he finally said.