To get back to the World Series, the Dodgers have focused on clubhouse chemistry

To get back to the World Series, the Dodgers have focused on clubhouse chemistry

(Robert Carter / For The Times)

The ballpark felt like a prison.

For several hours after the sixth game of the National League Championship Series last October, fans swarmed the streets surrounding Wrigley Field, spilling beer and screaming themselves hoarse to commemorate the Chicago Cubs’ reaching the World Series. The scene rendered transportation out of the stadium impossible: Waveland Avenue, Sheffield Avenue, Clark Street and Addison Street all teemed with drunken, boisterous humanity.

That left the Dodgers cooped up inside the antediluvian visitor’s clubhouse. As they waited for the crowd to disperse, with Saturday night stretching into Sunday morning, the players, coaches and executives eulogized the end of the season. Gloom did not pervade the room. The group did not lament how close they had come to snapping the organization’s championship drought.

They spoke of how eager they were to come back.

That interlude, the last moment between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, planted the seeds of roster reconstruction that led the Dodgers into this season. Those emotions stuck with Andrew Friedman, the club’s president of baseball operations, as he charted a course for the winter.

“There was obvious disappointment,” Friedman said. “But there was so much determination in everyone’s eyes, in the condolences, in the hugs that usually follow your season ending. I’ve been accustomed to it being a certain way. And this was much more focused, with so many guys talking about how they can’t wait for next year.”

Friedman recalled that when he took over after the 2014 season, “one of our most over-arching goals was to change the culture and create a culture where players who were here wanted to stay and where players from other organizations wanted to stay.”

The events of this past off-season fulfilled part of that vision. Excited about the team’s future, invigorated by the leadership of Manager Dave Roberts, encouraged by the camaraderie of the group, the band got back together.

The Dodgers led the industry by doling out nearly $200 million in free agency. The overwhelming majority went to their own players, with $192 million spread between closer Kelley Jansen, third baseman Justin Turner and pitcher Rich Hill. Jansen, second baseman Chase Utley and reliever Sergio Romo all turned down more lucrative offers from other teams.

“It’s probably the thing I’m most proud about in my short, short tenure, for players to say ‘I love playing for you,’ or ‘I want to play for the Dodgers,’” Roberts said. “This winter was evidence.”

The team returned 21 members of its 25-man playoff roster against the Cubs. After spending the first two seasons sifting through the roster’s personalities, the front office settled upon what it believes is the correct mix for constructive clubhouse chemistry.

Clayton Kershaw celebrates with teamates at the end of the game in Game 5 of the NLDS in Washington D.C. in October 2016. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When put to players, the phrase “clubhouse chemistry” draws eye-rolls. “Exciting stuff,” Turner shrugged. “Yeah, we all hate each other in here.”

But for years, the Dodgers clubhouse appeared cleaved by division. And the current regime pays attention to culture at every level of the organization. It affects which players they pursue and how the players treat one another. The key, players and team officials said, is simple but challenging: Find guys who care. Or, in the sport’s saltier parlance, guys who “give a . . . .”

“We want guys who want to be here,” Roberts said. “Talent withstanding, if they’re not the right player for us, if they don’t fit, then we don’t want them here.”

Clayton Kershaw offered a window to the issues that once affected the team when explaining his affection for this current group.

“Everybody is going to have their own individual personalities,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner said. “And some people are going to have ulterior motives other than just playing the game and winning. But when the majority wants to win a game more than anything else, I think that’s the definition of clubhouse chemistry.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The unity occurs at a time of intense polarization across the country, with the nation still divided after the 2016 election. During meetings earlier this spring, team officials counseled players about the merits of speaking out against or in defense of President Trump. Friedman indicated that while the Dodgers “never want to muzzle anybody,” the players needed to “respect the differences that exist among us.”

“It’s interesting, because people who follow the Dodgers are looking for some type of drama in our clubhouse,” Roberts said. “But everyone in there is focused on winning a championship. So to bring your political views to cause a distraction, I don’t think it’s a concern for these guys.”

Added Turner, “Guys have their beliefs. But it’s almost like a comical debate, that guys get laughs out of, rather than guys getting upset. It’s just a comfortable place.”

Turner spent part of the spring conducting an epistemological study based on the scientific musings of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. Brandon Morrow, a veteran reliever who signed a minor league contract, was filling in a crossword puzzle one day when Turner approached. Turner was conducting a poll: Was the Earth round or was it flat? Morrow looked at Turner like the question was bonkers.

“You’d be surprised at some of the answers,” Turner said.

“Spherical,” Morrow said, then went back to his puzzle.

Turner posed the question to first baseman Ike Davis.

“If it was flat,” Davis reasoned, “people could fall off.”

“I don’t know man,” Turner said. “I’ve definitely seen people fall off the face of the Earth.”

As Turner canvassed the room asking about the planet’s shape, a speaker system located in the locker of outfielder Scott Van Slyke provided the soundtrack. Turner often handles the music in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse, but Van Slyke inherited the position of Camelback Ranch DJ after the team traded infielder Dee Gordon. “It’s a lot of pressure,” Van Slyke said.

For years, seasoned baseball men considered music a divisive force, as fans of country music or Latin music or rap or metal chafed when their preference wasn’t played. Van Slyke seeks to create a more congenial environment. He prefers a restrained version of electronic dance music, mostly because “lyrics are so stupid these days,” but he uses Spotify, which curates playlists to set the mood. The soundtrack veers from Drake to Sam Hunt to System Of A Down, generally played at a respectful volume.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Roberts sought to create a sense of common purpose after the team hired him to manage the club in 2016. He outlined unity as his No. 1 goal at his first spring training. He described the process as “a very rapid progression, to the players’ credit.” He saw the team bond during an injury epidemic that led to a major league record for players on the disabled list.

Roberts does not set many rules and he rarely calls meetings. He did not gather the players after Kershaw injured his back last summer; he figured it would be demeaning to point out to them the importance of the moment. During the team’s one notable meeting, he let about a dozen players into his office to hash out issues after a tough loss in San Francisco. The caucus held up the team bus for about 45 minutes, and then the participants disseminated the message to the rest of the roster.

“It’s hard to quantify how that translates to winning the games,” Utley said. “But when you know the guy in front of you and the guy behind you are pulling for you, it gives you a little more confidence. And at the end of the day, confidence is a big part of success at this level.”

Roberts identified communication as crucial to his message. Before the team recalled mercurial outfielder Yasiel Puig from the minors last September, Roberts discussed the impending maneuver with veteran leaders such as Turner, Utley and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. He wanted the group to understand the decision, and Puig created little controversy down the stretch.

The Dodgers also adjust their culture to accept individual quirks. Midway through last season, the team called up rookie outfielder Andrew Toles. Cut by Tampa Bay in 2015 after clashes with coaches, Toles had been open about his struggles with anxiety. The organization wanted him to feel welcome.

When Toles hit his first home run, teammates rushed to hug him in the dugout, rather than engaging in the ritual of ignoring a rookie after the milestone.

“I just believe that the culture is one piece, and it’s an umbrella, an overview of how you want things to be done,” Roberts said. “But within that, it’s so individualized. Each player should be coached, managed differently in regard to their personality. That allows guys to show their individuality underneath the team concept.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The continuity within the group allows the players to feel comfortable with each other. Kershaw runs a ping-pong tournament each spring. He treats the contest with reverence, which offers an opportunity for Gonzalez to torment him. After years of heckling him during matches, Gonzalez pivoted this spring. A couple weeks before departing to play for Mexico for the World Baseball Classic, he hired a company to replace the ping-pong table with a pool table.

The ruse did not surprise Kershaw. And it was not difficult to discern the culprit. Gonzalez delighted in his role.

“Kaz,” Gonzalez said to pitcher Scott Kazmir as Kershaw walked nearby, “what happened to the ping-pong table?”

“I don’t know,” Kazmir grinned.

“When do you leave again?” Kershaw asked Gonzalez.

The ping-pong table returned to the room later in the day, and the pool table was moved across the room. The two tables coexisted in an encouraging example of bilateral diplomacy, a small symbol of clubhouse unity.

“This is the best environment I’ve ever been around, from top to bottom,” Roberts said. “By far.”

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