Clayton Kershaw might be the second-coming of Los Angeles Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax, but a lovable holy trinity in Chavez Ravine these days centers on one of Major League Baseball's more unsung heroes: Juan Uribe.
The trio of Uribe, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig has been a signature, heartwarming segment of the Dodgers clubhouse, season and success and it was on full display Monday night.
Uribe, who has been a member of the Dodgers since signing a three-year deal in 2011, found success in Los Angeles this season because of failure last season—Luis Cruz took over Uribe's starting job at third base, but failed to secure the role.
After batting just .204 in his first season and .191 in 2012, Uribe discovered success on Monday night because of failure yet again—this time, his own. He could not get down a sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the eighth inning.
With the Dodgers down 3-2—and with the Atlanta Braves six outs from taking the NLDS back home for Game 5—Yasiel Puig led off the inning with a double. But two miserable bunt attempts later, there was not a good word on Uribe to come by. It looked as though he spoiled a chance to advance the tying run and would become the menace of Game 4.
Then came a greater failure, as Braves reliever David Carpenter was unable to bury a slider into the lower half of the strike zone.
Instead of sacrificing himself in the at-bat, Uribe uncorked an uppercut hammer on the pitch that hung around the letters. He dropped his bat as a towering go-ahead, and series-clinching, home run shot through the Los Angeles night and fell into the left-field bullpen.
While the sea of Dodger Nation jumped up and down and rattled the ballpark, Uribe electrically embraced his mentee, Puig, at home plate. Then, the duo retreated to the top of the dugout steps, where Uribe exchanged a four-limb, bumping handshake with their third brother, Hanley Ramirez.
Baseball clubhouses are undoubtedly regarded as the most fraternal of locker rooms in professional sports. The fact that players must coexist for at least 162 games, from spring training until October, breeds a certain unique dynamic for each ballclub. It seeps its way into a team's ability to cope with defeat, to pick each other up, to come from behind, to celebrate and, above all, to define itself.
In 2013, the Dodgers have come to regard Uribe as the supreme representative of their clubhouse. General manager Ned Colletti has said of the 34-year-old Dominican, "I don't think there's a more beloved player or person in this room than Juan Uribe." Matt Kemp declared, "He's the best teammate I've ever played with."
Don Mattingly told ESPN in early September of Uribe's reputation and his ability to weather the storm after losing his starting job in 2012:
The one thing about Juan: He always, always, always played quality third base...The thing that opened our eyes was how good a teammate he was last year. Luis [Cruz] was here tearing it up and the darling of L.A. last year for a period of time, and Juan was a really good teammate. He gained a lot of respect in that clubhouse.
Although respect is often transmitted through reverence for an esteemed teammate, it is just as likely to be translated through comfortable humor with a beloved player; one who feels more like family.
This comical display has been exhibited by 22-year-old sensation Puig and 29-year-old Ramirez since the summer when the brotherly relationship began to take off. Ramirez began referring to the barrel-chested, power-hitting Uribe as "King Kong," and he and Puig began customarily feeding the older third baseman bananas after home runs.
Throughout the season, Ramirez, who plays next door at shortstop, could even be caught clowning Uribe for his lack of range literally in the middle of an inning.
There is a youthful exuberance in the trio's dugout celebrations—the younger brothers-of-sorts jumping on the shoulders of the veteran Uribe as he cracks a smile. It is hard to ignore and it is part of the heart of the Dodger demeanor.
As Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles explains of the relationship and the clowning: Puig and Ramirez view Uribe as "[A] man they embrace practically as an older brother. What little brother doesn’t live for that opportunity?" But Saxon clarifies, "If it seems as if Uribe is the team clown, though, he’s quite a bit more than that. In some ways, he’s the conscience of the clubhouse..."
After Monday's victory, Ramirez properly told Sports Illustrated that Uribe's heroics were no surprise. "It's the postseason," he remarked. "That's what we expect."
So for a moment, forget Magic Johnson, Vin Scully and Don Mattingly. Forget the unimaginable 48-of-50 games the Dodgers blazed through and the often-untouchable pitching staff headlined by Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Forget them for just one moment because, for much longer, many had nearly forgotten about Uribe. He even admitted how the anxiety had begun to set in with his prolonged lack of performance.
"I felt bad when I didn't play good," Uribe told ESPN on Monday, reflecting on his unsuccessful first two seasons in Los Angeles. "Sometimes when you don't play good, people don't remember you. People forget. That's just the way the game is."
He has unquestionably improved this year with the help of hitting coach Mark McGwire and, on Monday, he definitely transformed Mattingly's game plan when he fouled off two consecutive sacrifice bunt attempts. But, Uribe has never changed himself or his character.
About a month ago, following a three-homer performance against Arizona, Uribe said, "I always wanted to be a person who has respect and shows that I care and have a good heart." He went on, “Good or bad, you still have to be the same person."
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