Senior Baseball Columnist

With hot start, Dodgers on their way to regenerating buzz


Fans are ready to fall back in love with the Dodgers, especially with hits like Andre Ethier's. (AP)  
Fans are ready to fall back in love with the Dodgers, especially with hits like Andre Ethier's. (AP)  

LOS ANGELES -- Atmosphere, it's not going to change magically overnight. Especially with Magic Johnson skipping the Dodgers home opener to be in New York for this week's premier of the new play, Wicked, with Frank McCourt.

No. That's not right.

The play, which opens Wednesday on Broadway, actually is entitled Magic/Bird.

The Dodgers, which opened Dodger Stadium's 50th Anniversary season Tuesday, actually are no longer feeling entitled about much of anything.

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But you know what? With the McCourt Circus about to fold up its tents and leave town, maybe that's a good thing.

Maybe a city and a ballclub are ready to fall back in love again. Maybe winning 'em back one fan at a time isn't a bad way to go.

And whose heart is so icy it can't even be melted by a good, old-fashioned courtship? Summer lovin', happened so fast. ...

"It's always fun on opening day," said Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who helped pitch the Dodgers to a stirring 2-1 win over the Pirates in front of 56,000 fans starved for good times. "Opening day is special. I don't take it for granted one bit.

"Opening day is opening day, regardless of who the owner of the Dodgers is. The difference will be in the weekday games. Last season, they were half-full. We have to give them a reason to come out."

What we've seen from the Dodgers' 4-1 start is at least enough to pique your interest (ahem, once the final sale documents are signed and recorded, that is).

The shortstop, just 23 and no bigger than half-a-minute (as Detroit manager Jim Leyland memorably said last summer), already has become Must See Dee. Each time Dee Gordon reaches base, the opposing pitcher is forced to stop and ask himself, Clint Eastwood-style, do I feel lucky?

Well, do ya, punk? Gordon is going to break for second on either the first pitch, or the second. He's racked up four thefts in five games and again took second on the first pitch to Mark Ellis Tuesday after poking a first-inning leadoff single.

By season's end, Ellis is going to lead the world in ground balls to second base. Again, as on Saturday in San Diego, that's what he did to move Gordon over to third. A moment later, Gordon was crossing the plate on Matt Kemp's grounder to shortstop, and there was that thing called manufacturing a run again: The Dodgers led 1-0 without having gotten a ball to the outfield.

"We know we don't have a lot of room for error," manager Don Mattingly said. "We've got to play well every day, and we've got to do it throughout the whole season."

Slim margin for error? Mattingly could have referenced the seventh inning. With the Dodgers protecting that 1-0 lead, the Pirates had speedsters Alex Presley and Andrew McCutchen on first and second when Casey McGehee slugged a fly ball to Juan Rivera, who is to outfielders like elephants are to ballerinas (though a defensive upgrade from the Manny Ramirez days in left).

Rivera caught the ball, but that wasn't the problem. Problem was, he threw to third, where he had no chance at Presley, instead of to second, which would have kept McCutchen at first. So when Matt Hague followed with a sharp ground ball to shortstop, there was no inning-ending double play. Instead, Presley scored to tie the game at 1-1, and McCutchen sat still at second.

That removed Kershaw's chance at obtaining his first victory. But make no mistake: Kershaw again was brilliant enough to provide Los Angelenos another reason to flock back to Dodger Stadium.

Making his second start after last Thursday's flu-shortened, three-inning stint, Kershaw whiffed seven, and it remains amazing what the man can do -- especially when he's not dripping Pepto-Bismol everywhere or throwing up in the bathroom behind the dugout after the first inning, as he was in San Diego.

His fastball was back up to 93, 94 mph after it sat around 90, 91 last week, causing some Padres to wonder if he had some funky new change-up.

"Physically, I felt good today for the first time," Kershaw said. "Those four days took their toll. I probably wasn't 100 percent today, strength-wise. ..."

Andre Ethier, surgically repaired right knee back to spec, was -- and is. Again out of the blocks quickly with two homers and nine RBI, it was Ethier's two-out blast in the eighth against Pirates reliever Jason Grilli that snapped a 1-1 tie.

"My birthday, with Dodger Stadium's birthday at the same time ... and opening day and all the fans showing up today supporting us," Ethier, who turned 30 Tuesday, said. "There was something pretty special about that."

Fans in right field serenaded him with multiple versions of "Happy Birthday" even before the go-ahead homer as the nightmare of 2010 started to recede deeper into the history books.

"It's fun to be back here at Dodger Stadium playing in front of these fans again," Ethier said. "It was the way it felt a couple of years ago."

How much damage McCourt did to the franchise will be answered in coming months. What we know right now is that attendance shrunk nearly 18 percent last summer from 2010 because fans were so angry (and that accounting is just for tickets sold. Actual attendance, including no-shows, was even more sorry).

Last year was the first time in 16 non-strike-shortened seasons that the Dodgers failed to draw three million, and only the second time since 1989.

No, no longer is it good enough simply to tug on those crisp, white jerseys -- one of the four best home uniforms in the game (along with the Yankees, Tigers and Cardinals) -- and open the Dodger Stadium gates. And notably, McCourt, after sitting right next to the Dodgers dugout at last week's opener in San Diego, hid upstairs in a Dodger Stadium suite Tuesday.

Not everything was perfect on this day, far from it. Broadcasting legend Vin Scully, 84, was home with a bad cold, and anytime he phones in sick, it's as if someone drained the green out of the grass. It's only the second opener he's missed since 1950. The other was in 1977, when he was in Augusta, Ga., broadcasting the Masters.

But as the Beach Boys sang an absolutely lovely rendition of Surfer Girl before the game and the Dodgers started in on festivities honoring 50 years of their shrine of a stadium, things were looking up around here.

Wouldn't it be nice?


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