Blake helps Dodgers resolve tensions
Infielder recognized problem between young players, vets
LOS ANGELES -- Remember the 2007 clubhouse rift between Dodgers young and old that was laid at the feet of Jeff Kent?
Casey Blake turned out to be healer of the wounds.
Especially in the case of Matt Kemp, clearly the one young Dodger who two years ago most embodied the entitled attitude of talented kids that took over the Dodgers world.
"Casey helped bring Matt into the fold," said veteran Mark Loretta, hero of the Game 2 comeback win over the Cardinals in the Division Series.
Blake might forever be remembered for The Walk that prolonged the ninth-inning rally that stole the game and helped send the Dodgers into the National League Championship Series against the Phillies. Game 1 will begin at 5:07 p.m. PT on Thursday.
But Blake might have had an even greater impact on the Dodgers' season off the field.
"A lot of people don't realize Casey's the one who brought us together," Kemp said. "He made me feel comfortable from the first day, and it's kind of crazy because we're two different people from different states and different backgrounds. Totally different. But he's like a big brother to me. When something is not going right, he'll let me know. He doesn't come at you rude. He talks to you like a man."
Kemp continued: "When I first got here, some of the older guys treated us like little kids, like we don't know what we're doing or why we we're here, like, what are you talking about? Casey makes you comfortable. He listens; he comes at you in the right way. He offers information. He doesn't tell you. It's just respect, really. I learn from my parents, they taught me that you don't disrespect anybody, but you don't let anybody disrespect you. He's just cool. He's an older guy, but it's a kid's game, and he lets the kid come out of him."
Of course, the kids of Kemp's generation aren't as young as they were when the simmering clubhouse tension boiled over. Blake came along when the kids were ready to listen.
"All of the young players from 2006, 2007 have matured as players and as people, and that's part of the solution," general manager Ned Colletti said. "They see things clearer than two or three years ago. You have to be at the right place and time to understand what you're learning."
Two years ago, they weren't. It wasn't only the culture clash that irritated veterans, although the clash was real. It was also Kemp's careless and repeated base-running gaffes, and fly balls lost in the sun when he wasn't wearing sunglasses.
Kent, who retired after last season, wasn't the only veteran who ultimately would lose playing time to this gang, as the club also forced aside aging stars like Nomar Garciaparra and Luis Gonzalez to make room for the young nucleus.
But Kent was the only veteran willing to make public his concerns about club direction and player approach. His reward was a brand of malcontent.
He also was right in a lot of ways, if not in the way he handled the problem. The young players weren't yet ready for the responsibility, but there they were in the lineup anyway. The veterans were not only losing playing time, but they were also losing games and the chance to play for one last ring while sand slipped through the hourglass. It became us vs. them.
Two years later, Blake's non-confrontational style has worked with Kemp.
The rift contributed to the departure of manager Grady Little, as well as the hiring of Joe Torre, while the transition of the Dodgers from old to young continued.
Blake arrived in July 2008, shortly before Manny Ramirez, whose ridiculous performance carried the Dodgers into the playoffs and helped paper over chemistry problems still lingering in the clubhouse.
So, when Blake showed up for Spring Training in 2009, signed to a new three-year contract, he thought the days of the unspoken tension between young and old should end.
"Part of the reason we acquired Casey was because of who he is," Colletti said. "Did we know he would help solve this? Not specifically. But he's a pro, a quiet leader. And more than that."
Blake didn't call a meeting, didn't make headlines. He just made friends and tore down barriers.
It could be something as diversionary as organizing a pool for a major golf tournament or a fantasy football league that brings everyone in the room together.
"When I got here, it was an uneasy group," Blake said. "Yeah, you could feel it, you could sense it. By being around the guys and getting to know them, it's just the way you go about your business. You don't treat anybody different. You realize you're a team, and you have to be pulling for one another.
"And when I got here, I'd heard that some of the older guys on the team were upset with the direction the game was going, with younger guys coming in and just being different, not being old-school the way it used to be. I was pretty disgusted by that. To me, as long as the guy has respect for the game and for his teammates, that's what matters."
Blake just starting talking to teammates, young and old, no matter what country they were from or what language they spoke.
And one player in particular he got close to was Kemp.
"I feel anybody should do their part to help the team, to help others be their best," Blake said. "It was nothing I thought about, like this is something to do. It just happened. For a team to be successful, it doesn't take everybody liking everybody, but they need to respect everybody. If you have both, that's great. But respect comes first. I just tried to show guys that it's about caring for your teammates and how they do. And that can't be forced. The guys have to want to be that way."
Maybe Kemp would have blossomed this year even if Blake hadn't been a teammate, but maybe the timing isn't coincidental either. And maybe someday it will be Kemp, closer to the end of his career than the beginning, who will make the rounds of the clubhouse.
"The team last year, a lot of people didn't care what other guys did," said Mark Sweeney, then a player, now a coach. "There was some individualism. Casey preaches unity in his own way. He saw what the deal was when he came in. Coming back, he realized something needed to be done. He can be a sounding board, along with guys like Mark Loretta and Brad Ausmus. You know, the young guys, assuming they stay here awhile, one day it's going to be up to them. So what better way to become a leader than to see one in action?"
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.