Ethier's All-Star path littered with roadblocks
Dodgers star has overcome injury issues throughout career
LOS ANGELES -- The reality was, he wasn't going to keep it up, broken finger or not.
When All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier fractured his right little finger on May 15, he led the National League with a .392 average, 11 home runs and 38 RBIs. At 28 years old, he was not only on pace for a 50-plus home run season -- 19 more than his career high -- he was on pace for the Triple Crown.
"He wasn't going to stay that way for the seven months, I know that," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He'd have been the first guy."
"April was a real special month for him," general manager Ned Colletti said. "If people can sustain that for six months, it's legendary."
Legendary or not, any ballplayer can get hurt, sometimes even in the best stretch of his career.
Ethier wasn't the same when he came back, not right away. He was wearing a special splint based on a design used by the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, and he was sore. Ethier admits as much. Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly and trainer Stan Conte saw it, too.
"That extra little power [was missing], even though the swing looks the same, everything looks the same," Conte said. "Is there an unconscious change or just a millisecond of hesitation, even if it looks the same?"
"I was saying that right when I came back," Ethier said. "There's going to be something in there any time you have injuries -- especially one where it's in your hands, and you rely on those to hit."
Even though he struggled, Ethier's numbers remained strong enough for fans to vote him into a starting spot in the 2010 All-Star Game. He started to pick it up in mid-June, and the soreness has been gone for the last week or two. Entering Friday, Ethier had 14 home runs, 50 RBIs and a .317 average -- the third highest in the National League. On Tuesday in Anaheim, he will make his first career appearance in the Midsummer Classic.
"You have to be lucky to stay healthy, that's the lucky part of this game," Torre said. "To be able to come back, I think he put a little pressure on himself early on probably because of what he was hitting when he went on the DL."
Pressure or not, a fractured finger wasn't the test of nerves Ethier had six years ago.
He was just a 22-year-old in the A's system in 2004, playing in his first full season of pro ball. Through 99 games with Class A Modesto, he was hitting .313 with seven home runs and 53 RBIs; strong numbers for the second-round draft pick. But Ethier didn't get a chance to add to them. A stress fracture in his back ended his season.
"The lowest point," Ethier said. "Probably the biggest turning point for me. You could point to stuff in college when I transferred, but it was after my '04 season when I got hurt. Any time you deal with your back in a rotational sport, it's something where you have no idea how you're going to bounce back and come back. I didn't play an official game from, I think, July 31 'til, I think, the second or third week of Minor League Spring Training."
Retirement didn't cross Ethier's mind. But whether he would ever be able to shake the injury, whether he would ever be fully healthy again, that worried him.
"There was no doubt I was trying to come back, but you never know how you're going to react," Ethier said. "You feel good, but you never know how long you're going to be able to keep feeling good. Was it a fluke, or was it something that was going to be chronic? That time gave me a gut check, made me commit more and made me that much more passionate for playing and playing every day -- and not take for granted coming to the ballfield,, and knowing how fortunate you are to be able to play this game and play healthy."
Ethier came back, did even better at Double-A in 2005, and that offseason was traded to the Dodgers, who were ready to part ways with outfielder Milton Bradley. Acquiring Ethier was one of the first moves Colletti made as Dodgers GM.
"Andre's gotten better and better," Colletti said. "And we knew he was a good hitter. Little by little he continued to get better and better, and his work ethic is strong."
What led to Ethier's breakout 2009 and the first half of this season were a series of small steps and a steady approach. Knowing he's in the lineup every day has helped after he fought for playing time at the start of his career. But even during April and May this season, his streak didn't affect his demeanor. Success didn't come quickly enough to delude him.
"He's a great worker because he concentrates. [When] he comes in [here] he knows exactly what he wants to do," Mattingly said. "He's precise with his work."
"I wish it could've came easier and sooner, but sometimes you have to go through it and learn a lot by yourself and learn a lot about other players on other teams," Ethier said. "It's funny how the older you get, the more you start remembering and putting things into action into what you're doing. The speed of the game has slowed down."
In individual moments, though, Ethier has an uncommon intensity. That's been a benefit on the field. He has a Major League-leading 11 walk-off hits since 2008, including two this season. On May 6, his walk-off grand slam at Dodger Stadium beat the Brewers, 7-3.
"Apparently that drives him," teammate and locker neighbor Casey Blake said of Ethier's occasionally acute demeanor. "Some things drive different guys different ways. It's maybe sometimes what drives him, getting upset or getting angry. But he's certainly not like that off the field."
At times, though, it's been a detriment. On June 12, Ethier lined out against the Angels at Dodger Stadium. He returned to the dugout and splintered his cubicle in the bat rack six inches down the front. The bat left a semicircle indentation.
Torre compares Ethier to Paul O'Neill, his former right fielder with the Yankees. O'Neill was a Torre favorite, and a perfectionist.
"That was right on for me," Torre said. "He's got that same sort of gritty passion about hitting, hitting, hitting ... [O'Neill] never gave an at-bat away, that's the only difference. Of course, Dre is getting much better at not let getting the frustration get in the way."
With son, Dreson, nearing his second birthday, Ethier says he wants to be more conscious of his actions, for not only his son, but others' children.
"It's not just your kid you influence, it's other people's kids," Ethier said Thursday, a day before the Dodgers gave away an action figure in his likeness. "Kids that are fans of you and cheer you on, you influence, too. Sometimes I wish I would've [been more conscious of my influence] a little earlier in my career. But I guess it's never too late to make those right changes."
For his first All-Star Game, Ethier shares some of the same hopes as the thousands of kids who will attend the FanFest. With the help of Dodgers clubhouse manager Mitch Poole, Ethier will bring two dozen baseballs to be signed by the All-Stars he encounters, past and present.
"You always dream, you always wanted to be on your all-star team when you were in Little League, your all-state team," Ethier said. "Whatever league had an all-star team, you were trying to make it and be a part of it. I remember since I was young, to even through college to even through the Minor Leagues and now, all summer waiting for that Home Run Derby and All-Star game to come along and being in awe -- sitting there with your buddies and watching the game."
The first All-Star Game Ethier remembers watching was in 1990, when Barry Bonds, Darryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr. and Tony Gwynn were names that lined loaded outfields.
Now, it's his name in the spotlight. And he has a small hope when his name is called as the lineups are introduced.
"It's pretty much playing at home, as close to having a home All-Star Game as you can get without begin here at Dodger Stadium," Ethier said. "Hopefully, some of those Angels fans will give me a warm welcome at least for being an L.A. ballplayer here."
Evan Drellich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.