Commentary

Dodgers make Torre's debut a triumphant one

Originally Published: March 31, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles 50 years ago and were greeted at the airport by thousands of adoring, welcoming fans who no doubt were already heading home from the stadium to beat the game traffic.

The Dodgers celebrated the anniversary before Monday's season opener against the rival Giants by bringing back as many of the old players as possible who could still fit inside their uniforms. They walked across the grass and took their old positions on a beautiful spring afternoon under a sky nearly as blue as their caps. There was Ron Cey at third base, Steve Garvey at first, Bill Russell at shortstop and Fernando Valenzuela on the mound. Former manager and persistent glory hound Tommy Lasorda strolled in very slowly from the bullpen to milk the applause. And, of course, there was the man who received the largest ovation of all, Sandy Koufax himself, who still looked so natural on the mound that agent and Dodgers season-ticket holder Scott Boras probably could have gotten him three $70 million offers by the third inning.

"I saw players I watched growing up, players I played against," new Dodgers manager Joe Torre said of the ceremony. "Then you think of the stature of Koufax. … Boy, you hated to come to L.A. and face him and Don Drysdale. I mean, you loved coming to L.A. because of the beautiful weather and everything, but facing them, God it was awful. He left his mark here.

[+] EnlargeJoe Torre
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJoe Torre earned victory No. 1 as Dodgers manager in L.A.'s 5-0 win over the Giants on Monday.
"You feel a little like a duck out of water there because you're not really a part of the Dodger history. I felt like that at first with the Yankees and there would be an old-timers game. It was always good seeing the guys like Catfish Hunter and Yogi [Berra], but you felt like you were just a witness to it, that you weren't a part of it. After six or seven years, that changed and you did."

After a dozen years in New York, Torre is now part of that Dodgers history, winning his first game as the Los Angeles manager with a 5-0 victory over the Giants in front of an announced crowd of 56,000 (officially a Dodger Stadium record, though there were several empty rows in the upper deck).

Starting pitcher Brad Penny held San Francisco scoreless for 6 2/3 innings (which isn't as impressive as it was when Barry Bonds still played for the Giants), Jeff Kent hit the fifth Opening Day home run of his career and the Dodgers rolled to an easy victory on a day that Torre said went just about perfectly.

The Dodgers have won exactly one postseason game since their 1988 world championship. That's a long time without a World Series in a city that expects to see winners and has plenty of entertainment alternatives, including a baseball team down the road in Anaheim that has recently overshadowed the Dodgers. Complimenting his employer, Torre said owner Frank McCourt wants to change all that.

"Their goal is to return the Dodgers legacy and the way the team is regarded," Torre said. "I remember that [regard] growing up. Jackie Robinson even refused to go when the Dodgers tried to trade him to the Giants."

Torre has some experience in returning a team to its former glory, winning four World Series and six American League pennants and reaching the postseason in each of his 12 seasons as the Yankees' manager. Asked whether it felt odd wearing the Dodgers' uniform after so many years in pinstripes, Torre said, "I got over that in spring training once I put this uniform on."

The Dodgers may not be the equal of the teams Torre had in New York, but they should contend this season. They're certainly better than the Giants, who played a miserable game. Starting pitcher Barry Zito dug his team into a 3-0 deficit in the first inning. Second baseman Ray Durham dropped a popup. Center fielder Aaron Rowand threw to the wrong base twice. Shortstop Brian Bocock was picked off first base. The offense managed only five singles. So it's not going to be the best season for the Giants in their long and often heated rivalry with the Dodgers.

"It was the only rivalry I knew growing up," Torre said. "The Dodgers and Giants. I didn't know about the Yankees and Red Sox until I got to New York. All the friends you hung out with, they rooted for one team or the other. It was a standing argument."

Torre wasn't alone in joining the Dodgers' legacy Monday. Blake DeWitt began spring training in the minor league camp yet wound up as the Dodgers' Opening Day third baseman due to a rash of injuries. Unsure whether DeWitt would make the roster, Torre told the rookie to bring a packed suitcase to the ballpark Sunday just in case the team sent him down. He also told him to bring the bag to the park again Monday morning, then told him he was on the team. DeWitt responded by singling in his first career at-bat.

"I don't think I've ever run that fast in my life," DeWitt said. "I felt like I was floating."

Will DeWitt one day find himself walking across the field for the 100th anniversary in Los Angeles as the fans cheer his name? Will Torre return the energy to the Dodgers-Giants rivalry as he did to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry? Will he lead the Dodgers back to the World Series? We'll see. But DeWitt and Torre are both part of the Dodgers' long, blue line now.

Torre said he planned to mark his first victory with a nice dinner with his family, but said there were no plans for a champagne toast. "We don't really like to do that stuff until October," he said.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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