LOS ANGELES – For more than a decade, given gloriously deep rosters and bottomless faith in them, Joe Torre would smile amid the slumps and crises and hysteria.
The bubblegum cards wouldn't lie to him; the boys would hit, he'd say, they always do.
And they would, too. Over 12 seasons, those New York Yankees averaged about 900 runs a season.
He sat Wednesday afternoon on the home bench at Dodger Stadium, his days of blind conviction gone in the L.A. haze.
Going on four weeks, the Los Angeles Dodgers – his Los Angeles Dodgers – haven't scored very often and don't look like they're going to score very often, and the backs of their bubblegum cards are less than comforting. More often than not, they show players in decline (some steeply so) or with little or no history to hold to. These Dodgers might not score him 700 runs.
So, in game 21 of his Dodgers go-round, Torre had Andruw Jones bat second, Nomar Garciaparra bat cleanup, Russell Martin bat fifth and Matt Kemp bat seventh. Jeff Kent is 40, so he was rested. That's 20 different lineups now. Despite Torre's regular trouble-shooting, the Dodgers rank 13th in the National League in runs, in large part because they're hitting .218 with runners on base and, the way things look, aren't going to clear many fences, either.
In desperation, then, his freshly installed (and presumably temporary) No. 2 hitter is striking out more than a third of the time and has an on-base percentage of .270. His current (and temporary) No. 4 hitter is batting .158. He can rely on Rafael Furcal and, so far, Andre Ethier, but too often he must guess at the rest. He waits on Martin and hopes to God that Kent has another year left in him, that Garciaparra starts catching up to fastballs again, that Andy LaRoche hurries back if Garciaparra doesn't, that James Loney can be steady, that Kemp will grow into his considerable promise.
"Probably, this is the toughest lineup I've ever had to make up," said Torre, whose lineups included three New York Mets teams that lost at least 95 games. "You put Kent in the fourth spot, that's fine. For the most part, you can put the rest of them anywhere.
"The back of the bubblegum cards, they haven't had enough years of doing what they're capable of doing yet. It's been frustrating because every time it looks like we're a little relaxed or our ability is showing up … there comes this sense of being on your heels a little bit. These are the demons we have to fight through right now. We have to compete for nine innings."
But, mostly, he waits for Andruw Jones.
Even on an extraordinary night in which they pounded Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Dan Haren and ran him in the fifth inning of a 7-1 victory at Dodger Stadium, even when they piled up baserunners and hit with runners in scoring position, they did it all not with Jones, but around him.
Pitchers work Jones as though he were a rookie, with breaking balls down and out of the strike zone, then finish him with fastballs up and out of the strike zone. Amid one of the more impressive offensive games for the Dodgers, Jones popped up twice and struck out twice. Though his theme music urged fans to "Don't worry, be happy," he was booed during the pregame lineup reading, booed when he came to the plate, booed when he trudged back to the dugout.
The Dodgers and general manager Ned Colletti signed him for $36.2 million over two years, clearly figuring Jones had been unnerved by his walk year with the Atlanta Braves, or had fallen into terrible – but fixable – habits or simply had the fluke poor season. After finishing 2007 in the bottom half of the league in runs, they needed a bat for the middle of the order, and they were willing to bench Juan Pierre (and his big contract) for it. What they have now is a decent center fielder who is batting .223 since the middle of 2006 and stands at the center of their current offensive issues.
At some point, Torre will have to consider a loose platoon with Jones and Pierre, probably one in which Kemp plays center field on the days Jones sits. But Torre won't consider it until Jones looks something like the hitter he once was, at least mechanically. This Jones almost never hits a ball hard. This Jones appears to guess fastball on every pitch because he knows he won't catch up to it otherwise. This Jones has one hit with runners in scoring position. This Jones is here because, in a thin free-agent field, the Dodgers wouldn't part with a handful of their young players for Miguel Cabrera.
Back in his days of non-Yankees lineups, Torre would stick a struggling hitter into the leadoff spot for a time, give him a different perspective, maybe some different pitches. Here, Furcal is one of the few things the offense has going for it. So Jones batted second. And nothing changed. He still saw a lot of pitches – oddly enough, he is second in the league in pitches per plate appearance, suggesting great patience – but did nothing with any of them.
"He's taking a lot of strikes, too," Torre said. "That's the difference. A lot of times, it's overload."
So Jones measures his mechanics. He fights the flu and then allergies. He works with Don Mattingly. He works more, according to Torre. And then he swings wildly at sliders off the plate.
"He certainly knows he hasn't been doing the job," Torre said. "The sooner we can get him going, the better off we'll be."
It would be a start, anyway. And then everybody could get to work on filling up those bubblegum cards.