Of all the incredible, amazing, unbelievable things that have happened with this Dodgers team in 2013, you know what might be the most remarkable? How popular Juan Uribe suddenly has become.
That popularity reached a crescendo tonight, of course, the veteran third baseman slamming three home runs for the first time in his career to lift the Dodgers to an 8-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks that was far more desperately needed than the National League West standings could have possibly suggested.
But it has been building for a while now. And it has been building from basically nothing. Worse than nothing, in fact. Because for most of his first two years in Los Angeles, Uribe’s popularity was at sub-zero. In the negatives.
It started from the moment Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti signed him to a three-year, $21 million contract, right after Uribe had played a key role in helping the San Francisco Giants win a World Series. He was an ex-Giant. Colletti seemed to have a habit of signing ex-Giants, to the point that it became a running joke with some segments of the Dodgers’ fan base. So start there and then go down — which was about the only way Uribe went during his first two seasons with the Dodgers, batting a combined .199 with a total of six home runs — twice the number he hit TONIGHT — and not nearly enough of any other category.
Oh, he played a mean third base, but that wasn’t going to be enough to win the hearts of a fan base that didn’t want to embrace him even before he gave them a reason not to. Ultimately, it wasn’t even enough to keep him in the everyday lineup, not when Luis Cruz, who came to spring training last year as a non-roster afterthought, wound up playing his way into the job that used to be Uribe’s.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly talked about that after tonight’s game — not so much about the fact Cruz had supplanted Uribe, but more the way Uribe had reacted to it. He not only had accepted the harsh reality, but he also had helped Cruz, mentored him, contributed to making him the player he became for a Dodgers team that didn’t reach the playoffs but still finished strong enough to win a respectable 86 games.
Fast forward to this spring, when Cruz suddenly came crashing back to earth. And there was Uribe, ready to step in and reclaim his old birthright. And once he did, he not only started putting up much more acceptable (if still-unspectacular) numbers offensively, he also began to win hearts and minds. Dodgers fans seem much more accepting of him now. More than that, they largely have come to embrace him. The old yard practically shook tonight when he popped out of the dugout following his third home run and tipped his cap.
Now there is the little notion that Uribe’s increased production could be at least somewhat the product of added motivation he might be drawing from the fact he is in his “walk” year — that’s baseball shop talk for a potential free agent in the final year of his contract. Indeed, Uribe’s best season, when he posted career highs in home runs (24) and RBI (85), was his LAST walk year of 2010.
But you know what? None of that should really concern you at this point. Uribe may or may not be with the Dodgers next season. Right now, the Dodgers have a chance to do something really special in the next few weeks, something they haven’t done in more than a generation. And if that’s going to happen, Uribe is one of the key guys. A guy they need to produce. A guy who IS producing. So for now, just sit back and enjoy what this guy is bringing to the table, and let next year take care of itself when the time comes.
Besides, as someone who is around this team every day, I can tell you that Uribe is one of the more likeable and enjoyable players I have been around in my career, a guy who loves to play the game, a guy with an infectious smile who goes around calling everybody — and I mean EVERYBODY — “Papi.”
It may have taken Uribe a long time to feel the love in Los Angeles. But if you were to ask him, I think he would tell you the love he is feeling now is enough to offset all the negatives of the past two years.