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LOS ANGELES – One perk of wearing a resplendent red beard and hitting the biggest home run this city has witnessed in nearly three decades and turning a career destined for the back shelf into one where Justin Turner always seems to find himself front and center is that a man who calls himself Chad Cantcolor, who, it should be said, can color, will be commissioned by Adidas to turn a pair of bare white baseball cleats into a manic, color-splashed, acid-drop of fresh kicks, prêt-à-porter, if Turner had so desired.
Then, before Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, as Turner prepared to bat second for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first World Series game here since 1988, he received a small nugget of wisdom from a large source of inspiration. And it just so happened to involve his footwear.
“You’d better wear those shoes again,” Sandy Koufax said.
The shoes to which Koufax referred were a simple, humble pair of Adidas spikes worn by Turner throughout the National League Championship Series, when he shared series MVP honors and walloped the walk-off home run that conjured memories of Kirk Gibson’s fist-pumping limp around the bases in that 1988 World Series. And if there is one truism in life, aside from that which says Justin Turner is actually Tormund Giantsbane in a baseball uniform, it is: Thou shalt not disobey Sandy Koufax.
So Turner wore those plain, blue-and-white shoes, and all he managed to do was thump another postseason home run, also one that provided the winning margin, as the Dodgers outlasted the Houston Astros, 3-1, in a well-pitched, tightly played paean to old-school baseball that breezed by in 2 hours, 28 minutes. Every one of them was packed with taut, tense action, with Clayton Kershaw spinning seven innings of 11-strikeout excellence and Dallas Keuchel matching him pitch for pitch until he left an 87-mph cutter in the top of the strike zone and on the inner-third of the plate.
Most would swing through a pitch in that location. Not Turner. He rescued his career by adding lift to his swing, and instead of tomahawking through high pitches, he lifted it into the thick, sweltering night, where the temperature at first pitch sat at 103 degrees and the ball soared as though Mother Nature realized 2017 was the year of the home run and wanted the World Series to emulate the regular season.
“If it’s 10 degrees cooler,” Turner said, “that’s probably a routine fly ball to left.”
It was not 10 degrees cooler. And Turner was not swinging the bat he had in his first two plate appearances, opting for something smaller, in hopes he could turn around Keuchel after leadoff man Chris Taylor had worked a two-out walk in the bottom of the sixth inning. And, for that matter, Turner was not particularly concerned with what the 54,253 that packed Dodger Stadium would think of his eschewing his Cantcolors for his two-colors. Only one of the people in that crowd matter.
Minutes after the game, Turner walked through a procession of hugs in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. First was Farhan Zaidi, the Dodgers’ general manager, and then Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, and finally Koufax, 81 years old, tanned and fit like a man half that. He won three World Series with the Dodgers and posted a 0.95 ERA over 57 innings in his eight games. Turner leaned in to Koufax, making sure to deliver him a message.
“Wore the right shoes,” he said.
It wasn’t, both he and Turner understood, the shoes. Turner’s evolution into a great baseball player came in his 30s, a rarity for anyone and particularly a player with Turner’s pedigree. He was a seventh-round draft pick as a senior out of Cal State Fullerton, where he hit eight home runs in more than 1,000 career at-bats. He bounced from Cincinnati to Baltimore to the New York Mets, where he cracked the major leagues as a backup infielder.
“I don’t think anyone grows up dreaming to be a utility guy in the big leagues,” he said, but those roles need filling. Thing is, they don’t become this guy, who signs with the Dodgers and hits .340 as a backup at 29 years old and follows with as much power and patience at 30 and has a solid enough walk year at 31 that the Dodgers re-sign him as a free agent for $64 million and chases that with this, a season in which he hits .322/.417/.530 and walks more than he strikes out and turns into a postseason superhero at 32. The improbability of it all leaves even the best with slacken jaws.
“You can’t teach what he’s doing,” Kershaw said. “No mechanics or anything can teach the mindset and the competitiveness, the clutchness, whatever that is. It seems like every single night he’s in the right position to come up with a big hit. We’re going to ride him because I don’t know if there’s an easy way to get him out. He’s been unbelievable for us.”
Already this postseason, Turner has driven in 14 runs – twice as many as any of his teammates and adding to the 26 he has knocked in as a Dodger, tying the record held by Duke Snider for more than half a century. He is hitting .371 and slugging .714 and those numbers, big and crooked and outlandish, are more or less in line with what he has done in October throughout his entire career, which makes it all the more absurd.
“I call it heartbeat hitting,” Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward said. “When you get all amped up, there’s a way to get so amped up that you tunnel it to your advantage. And you get so amped up you can’t control it. His heartbeat, in situations, you can just see it. How he lays off pitches. That is trained. I don’t think someone’s just gifted with that. That’s an awareness that a hitter can have.”
Never, to Ward’s knowledge, have the Dodgers strapped a heart monitor across Turner’s chest to see if his heartbeat really does slow, if there’s something tangible there, or if the endorphins that signal fear in others suppress it in Turner, or if this goes beyond the physiological into some state of zen, of permanent om, where a man can stand in against a Cy Young winner and win a World Series game.
“Sandy told me – Koufax – told me today, 162 is work,” Turner said. “Once you get to the playoffs, it’s fun. And I thought that was a pretty cool way to look at it, and I agree with him 100 percent. During the regular season, it’s work. It’s a grind. Once you get onto these stages, it’s fun. And just to be in the moment and soak it in and take a step back and look around and see almost 60,000 people in Dodger Stadium on their feet going crazy, it’s pretty special.”
All of this is crazy, and all of this is special, and for Los Angeles, a place that lived through bad teams and disappointing playoff exits and Vladimir Shpunt, all of this is right. Kershaw on the mound, doing what he does. Kenley Jansen at the end, doing what he does. And Justin Turner at the plate, doing what he does, with his bat, with his mind and with those shoes that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.