Color Dodgers a shade of orange

Baseball: The troubled Orioles might take some twisted comfort in the situation in Los Angeles, where the home team, with an even bigger bankroll, is flopping.

August 31, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The grass is not greener on the other side of the baseball world. The Los Angeles Dodgers -- like another big-revenue team we all know and still are trying hard to love -- have fallen on such hard times that even the super-confident Davey Johnson can only shake his head.

"Obviously," he said, "we're not put together as good as we should be."

Talk about a parallel universe. The Dodgers and Orioles have similar records and similar problems. They both entered the season with high hopes for the playoffs and huge payrolls that haven't paid off. They each fell apart when the pitching fell shy of expectations and the offense couldn't pile up runs high enough to obscure all of the other shortcomings.

Fans in either city can be forgiven for feeling that they have been saddled with the most disappointing team in baseball, but the Dodgers appear destined to be baseball's underachiever of the year.

Consider:

They entered last off-season with a mandate to spend whatever was necessary to build the team into a World Series contender. They spent $105 million on one player (Kevin Brown) and shopped liberally in the free-agent market to build a team that again was favored to win the National League West.

Johnson arrived in town with the best won-lost record of any active manager and the distinction of never having finished lower than second in any full season managing in the majors.

New general manager Kevin Malone -- another Orioles transplant -- arrived at the winter meetings last year and jauntily told reporters: "There's a new sheriff in town." He didn't shy away from the club's inflated expectations in spring training, jokingly predicting that Brown and New York Yankees ace Roger Clemens would match up in the first game of the World Series.

So, what are the fledgling Arizona Diamondbacks doing with a comfy, 8 1/2-game division lead as the season heads into its final month?

And, for that matter, what are the Dodgers doing nine games behind the second-place Giants, who didn't do much of anything over the off-season?

"I think we've got talent," said Malone, "but certain guys haven't performed up to their capabilities. We believe it's just a one-year thing."

Disappointed Dodgers fans can only hope he's right, but the club has gone 11 years since winning a game in the postseason. This was the year that everything was supposed to fall into place. Instead, everything fell apart.

"This has definitely been a frustrating season," said veteran first baseman Eric Karros. "It's as frustrating a year as we've had since 1992. But you can't get tired of it. It hasn't been a winning season, but it hasn't been boring, I'll tell you that."

Not at all. The spring opened with Malone's ill-fated prediction, and Johnson soon was embroiled in his first controversy. High-priced outfielder Gary Sheffield took offense to Johnson's prohibition on facial hair and told reporters that he would consider retirement if he didn't have so many $10 million years left on his guaranteed contract.

It was a silly thing, but it turned out to be a harbinger of trouble. The club got off to a quick start in April, but soon began a slow descent toward the bottom of the division standings. The Dodgers have spent the past few weeks in a tight battle for third place with the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies, but are only two games out of the division cellar.

"There were a lot of high expectations put on this club in spring training, with all the money being spent," said closer Jeff Shaw. "Everyone says if you spend the money, you should win. Well, it doesn't happen that way all the time."

Malone, who became the leading proponent of big-market economics when he signed Brown to that record deal last December, is quick to agree.

"Money does not guarantee success," he said. "It should position you for success, but it's still a game played by human beings. On paper, it may look good and then it doesn't blend together. There is more to winning than dollars."

What a big payroll does guarantee is a heightened level of expectation, and, left unfulfilled, heightened expectations can only lead to heightened individual frustration. Just ask struggling outfielder Raul Mondesi, who has been at odds with management and recently exploded with an expletive-laced tirade against Johnson, Malone and the Dodgers organization.

Mondesi eventually apologized for the outburst, but his disenchantment with the new Dodgers regime and his desire to be traded remain an issue. The front office moved quickly to quiet the controversy -- hoping to preserve Mondesi's reputation and trade value -- but the incident again called the Dodgers' clubhouse chemistry into question.

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