VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Used to be the initiation period for a young general manager lasted until he either made his first trade or the media exhausted its supply of Doogie Howser jokes.
Unfortunately, those first trades often didn't happen soon enough.
|Paul DePodesta has a long way to go to restore the Dodgers' luster.(AP)|
No, all DePodesta must do to complete the initiation process is roll up his sleeves and pull the trigger on a deal. And he can do that. He must do that. There are more marshmallows in the Los Angeles lineup than in an entire Kraft plant. And DePodesta is 31, he has a degree in economics from Harvard and....
Paul? Hello, Paul? You've been on the job for three whole weeks now ... and you still haven't acquired a hitter?!
"I can't say when it will happen," DePodesta says. "Even now, I'm aggressively looking. If it's tomorrow, if it's at the end of spring training, if it's at the July trade deadline, I don't know."
"No. 1, we're going to have to create the opportunity and be ready when it exists. No. 2, I don't have anything in my mind like, 'by opening day' or 'by this date.'"
The baseball atmosphere in Los Angeles is as negative as old-timers can remember. It's like acid rain is mixed in with the smog. News Corp., which finally sold the club to Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt in January, was to the Dodgers what an overdose of sleeping pills is to a depressed Hollywood starlet. And former GM Dan Evans was to the Dodgers what a pillow is to a coma.
Now here come the new guys, and while McCourt is off doing owner things such as accepting president Bob Graziano's resignation, the eyes of those who care about baseball in Los Angeles are staring. At DePodesta. Hard.
The Dodgers last season scored 574 runs -- not only the fewest in the game, but fewer than the Detroit Tigers, for crying out loud. And this winter, despite clearing $15 million off the books by dealing Kevin Brown to the Yankees (before DePodesta was hired), all that produced was outfielders Juan Encarnacion and Bubba Trammell.
All together now:
Truth is, the Dodgers, as currently configured, should be embarrassed to take this offense back to Los Angeles with them.
"No, no," DePodesta says. "I'm not panicked.
"Do we want to make it better? Of course. Every team is looking to do that."
But -- and here's the important point - the Dodgers are not simply every team, or even any team. Before News Corp. got ahold of them, they were one of the grand franchises in the game. People looked at Los Angeles with envy. Everyone wanted to emulate the Dodgers.
And now McCourt invites DePodesta over to the adults' table after the kid spent the past five seasons as Billy Beane's Tonto in Oakland?
Hey, why not? It's not like handing your kid the keys to a Rolls Royce.
For one thing, the Dodgers aren't what they used to be.
For another, DePodesta isn't necessarily as young as he appears.
"Paul is ready to be a general manager," Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi says.
It was Ricciardi, then working under Beane, who discovered DePodesta in 1996. DePodesta was a low-level scout with Cleveland, learning the business and keeping to himself. Hey, he was just 23, what was he supposed to do? Join in with the other, older scouts reminiscing about Stan Musial?
Anyway, Ricciardi was the only baseball man who walked over and introduced himself to DePodesta that day in Fenway Park before a Boston-Yankees game. It was the beginning of a true friendship -- and a chain reaction in which Ricciardi recommended the kid to Beane, Beane hired him, Ricciardi moved on to Toronto and DePodesta was promoted to become Beane's right-hand man at 25.
"The No. 1 thing for me is, A) he's intelligent, B) he didn't feel he had all of the answers and C) he's got a great passion for the game," Ricciardi says. "You get around young people who are eager and intelligent, they have a chance to go a long way."
Known mostly in last year's best-selling book Moneyball as "Paul's computer" -- as in, "Billy was thinking about trading Jeremy Bonderman, and Paul's computer spit out these numbers...." -- DePodesta has been the consummate behind-the-scenes guy.
In this Dodgers gig, though, he must morph into one part Mr.Goodwrench and one part Bill Gates.
"There are a lot of good people here," DePodesta says. "I've been impressed. I didn't know what to expect because I haven't worked with a lot of them in the past.
"There are some good players here, too, both at the major-league and minor-league levels. Some great arms. The pitching overall, I've been impressed with."
So far, DePodesta's style has been more therapist than Tony Soprano. He actually listens, which too many people in his role fail to do. Of the few major changes that have come to the Dodgers since the sale -- most significantly Graziano's resignation -- they all have emanated from McCourt. So far, DePodesta has been content to watch and observe.
"The way he's come in has been impressive, not only to me, but to the staff," Dodgers field manager Jim Tracy says. "He didn't come charging through the front doors like a bull. He did a lot less talking and a lot of observing before he formed opinions on certain subjects.
"It's a sign of complete self-confidence. The conversation in my office is very interesting."
It will become more interesting as the spring deepens and more hitters become available. The Dodgers' 3.16 team ERA last season was more than half-a-run better than the next closest staff in the majors, Oakland's 3.63.
With those numbers, it should have been a felony when the Dodgers didn't make the playoffs.
News Corp. and Evans didn't even treat it as a sitcom crime.
So the theme in Dodgertown this spring, in lieu of acquiring an actual threat to protect Shawn Green, essentially is that the players they do have can't hit as poorly as they did last year.
Which is kind of like saying the homely girl I'm taking to the prom has got to have a makeup drawer at home, doesn't she?
Green, whose numbers were alarmingly down in 2003 (.280, 19 homers and 85 RBI), underwent offseason shoulder surgery and says the extension on his follow-through this spring is night-and-day different than last year, when his condition was so painful that he had to cut short his swing.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre needs No-Doz for his bat in April, May and June. Center fielder Dave Roberts battled injuries last summer.
"I think (acquiring) a hitter will make us better," Tracy says. "But I don't think the excuse of not having a hitter will make a poor season. We're still going to pitch. We're going to catch the ball. I know there is progress being made with some of the current existing parts."
That might have to be enough, because it isn't as if Nomar Garciaparra, Magglio Ordonez or Paul Konerko -- all names discussed in trade talks this winter -- is on deck.
Instead, DePodesta's priorities, he says, will be substance over style. Forget the big splash with him. This is a man who will input all of the information before spitting out a conclusion.
"Probably, my priorities are off the field, to be honest with you," he says. "A combination of both. Dealing with staff, getting everybody comfortable and moving in the same direction. That's task No. 1. Once you do that, I think some of the on-field issues will take care of themselves.
"I know with the sale there has been some frustration, some uneasiness. It's important to put all of that aside so we can move forward. That process, it's probably something that is going to continue to happen during the course of the year. But I'm very satisfied with the first few weeks."
It is a management style that anybody who knows Beane and Ricciardi will tell you sure sounds familiar.
"Anytime you become a leader, getting everybody pulling on the same rope is important," Ricciardi says. "People do it in different ways.
"Some do it intellectually. Some do it through fear. That's the biggest challenge, to figure that out.
"In my estimation, he's learned from the best and he'll be fine."
Besides, if DePodesta is feeling any urgency to go out and get another banger or two, he isn't letting on.
"We only scored 574 runs last year, and at the same time we had a great foundation with our pitching," he says. "We're not going to need to be the '27 Yankees to have a nice, balanced team. There is room for a lot in the way of improvement. But you can't point to one guy in our lineup and say you can't expect him to be better in '04 than in '03.
"On the contrary. They're set up to be better."
Where Evans, the former GM, refused to deal prized young pitching prospects Edwin Jackson or Greg Miller last year, DePodesta's philosophy is different.
"Your farm system really serves two purposes," he says. "One, to create major-league players for our team. The other is to create players to trade to get major-league players.
"I'll never say never. There would be some guys here who would be very difficult to trade. On the other hand, are there untouchables? I'm sure there is a deal I'd do for any player."
"I'm not sure there are other teams who would do the deals I'd want to do," he says, chuckling. "But I'll never say never."
It has been such a whirlwind that DePodesta doesn't even have a place to live yet in Los Angeles. He and his wife have a six-week-old son, and the plan is that they will pick a place to live in early April, pack up their stuff in the Bay Area when the Dodgers play in San Francisco in mid-April, and move on down for good sometime after that.
Oh, and as for their son, well, no word yet on whether the kid can hit.
Miller's previous camping stops: Orioles in Fort Lauderdale | Expos in Viera | Braves in Kissimmee | Tigers in Lakeland | Pirates in Bradenton | Devil Rays in St. Petersburg | Blue Jays in Dunedin | Twins in Fort Myers | Red Sox in Fort Myers | Yankees in Tampa | Astros in Kissimmee | Phillies in Clearwater | Red Sox in Fort Myers