For most players on the 2017 Dodgers, the sign-stealing scandal perpetrated by the Houston Astros jeopardized a tremendous chance for Los Angeles to win the World Series.
For Andre Ethier, it was his last chance.
After 12 MLB seasons that featured eight trips to the playoffs without a championship, the left-handed hitting outfielder with one of the sweetest swings in the game never came closer to winning the title than the final night of his career, when he suited up for Game 7 of his first and only World Series. Ethier’s 5,370th and final plate appearance for the Dodgers was a pinch-hit single to drive in the only run in their 5-1 loss to Houston, a night drowning in sorrow for Los Angeles, only to take on a more acid aspect two offseasons later.
Speaking on the phone from Arizona on Tuesday night, the man who played in more postseason games than anyone in Dodger history held steadfast against any bitterness about what might have been, staging a one-man rebellion against hypotheticals. He has pointed opinions about the Astros’ conduct in 2017, but his response focused more on learning lessons than exacting retribution — and that the Major League Baseball Players’ Association should lead the way.
“I know MLB’s hands are tied now,” Ethier said. “I think our union could do a great job of setting precedent and taking action. If MLB’s not (going to do it), why not stand up for the 400-500 other players around the league?”
“Brothers get in fights, but brothers also make up and learn from their mistakes and are held accountable by each other, and that’s how you make yourself stronger. … MLB is going to say this is an obvious detraction from the strength as a union as a whole, but I believe the players and union can show baseball that we do have solidarity thorough our union that will show integrity and hold each other accountable.”
However, Ethier didn’t suggest suspensions or fines that, based on news reports about immunity offered to the players and the grievance process that would follow, would be almost impossible to pursue at this point. Rather, Ethier wondered aloud about having the guilty players take part in constructive efforts, idealistic as they might sound, such as youth clinics centered around “integrity and the way you should play this game.”
It wouldn’t satisfy the thirst for punishment and revenge demanded by not only baseball fans but also many players, as a deterrent if nothing else, but it might help the game heal more quickly.
“There’s a certain sportsmanship that not only our sport but all sports should be played under,” said Ethier, a father of four who is devoting a good deal of his retirement time to coaching pre-teen kids. “And maybe that’s a great opportunity for baseball to get back to the youth and use these guys as a path and avenue to do that.”
Ethier recalled that Astro players came up to the Dodgers during the 2017 World Series. In a back-and-forth series that featured a 13-12 Game 5 and was all square after two, four and six games, inquiring minds in Houston wanted to know more about the Dodgers’ tactics.
“They were questioning us, kind of half joking, ‘What are you guys doing? You guys are hitting the crap out of the ball,’ ” Ethier said. “That should have been the smoke right there. Obviously, they were doing something themselves, and they probably felt we were. ”
Ethier stipulated that it’s traditional in baseball to seek out an edge. Like many teams, the Dodgers used previously recorded video to try to spot tells they could use to their advantage, but the Astros went too far by using live video and relaying signs to their hitters (by banging trash cans, no less). Ethier believes they need to acknowledge the gravity of that more directly.
“It’s an integrity and accountability issue,” Ethier said. “What was their excuse — because (they thought) everybody else was doing it? That’s the part I get into a problem with. Is that what you teach your kids? If everyone else does it, we’re gonna do it. Is that how you’re gonna live your life?”
Ethier’s remarks sought a level of nuance that to some extent was surprising, especially considering how crushing the World Series loss was, the final moment of a playing career that included a remarkable four walkoff homers in 2009 and a 30-game hitting streak in 2011.
As recently as 2015, Ethier was a key regular for the Dodgers, with a career-high 137 OPS+ in 142 games. But for his final two seasons, injuries (a fractured leg in 2016, a herniated disc in 2017) kept him from playing in a major-league game before September. That meant that each of those two years, Ethier had to battle merely to make the Dodger postseason roster.
He started two games in the 2017 National League Championship Series, including a 2-for-4 night with a home run in the Dodgers’ Game 3 victory at Wrigley Field. But having fallen behind Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor and Joc Pederson on the depth chart, Ethier came strictly off the bench in a World Series that would leave him as a free agent at the end of the season with precarious job status, win or lose.
In the late innings of the ridiculous Game 5, Ethier had a chance to play a pivotal role three different times. Entering the game as a pinch-hitter in the top of the eighth inning, with the Dodgers trailing 11-9 and runners at second at third, Ethier grounded out sharply down the line to first. But after the Dodgers rallied to tie the game at 12, Ethier hit a one-out single on an 0-2 pitch in the top of the 10th inning, only to be stranded.
Then, in the bottom of the 10th, with two out and runners on first and second, Ethier was in left field when Alex Bregman hit a sinking line drive in front of him.
“I thought right off the bat I had a play, and the ball kept dying,” Ethier said. “I felt I had a good jump, (but) the ball never got there.”
Running on contact with two out, Derek Fisher was already passing third base when Ethier fielded the ball. Fisher beat the two-hop throw home, ending a game in which the Dodgers gave Houston everything they had, only for Houston to give it right back.
“Before knowing any of this stuff that came out, the thing that bothered me was I feel that we played and did everything we could to win that series, and they kept coming, they kept coming, they kept coming, and there’s nothing we could do to stop that,” Ethier said. “I chalked it up to an unbelievable approach, great hitters, guys executing, guys locked in, really stepping up their games. We played unbelievably; those guys really played unbelievably.”
“Working back from injury that year to get to that point, the team being that close to winning, the organization being that close … and knowing that your career is possibly coming to an end for the Dodgers, in baseball maybe, (it was) just a ton of emotion,” he added. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that emotionally and physically exhausted, and all things on top of that scatter-brained.”
With the series moving back in Los Angeles, the Dodgers won Game 6, setting up the winner-take-all Game 7. The Dodgers fell behind 5-0 early, but by putting seven baserunners on base in their first three innings, kindled hope in the dugout of one final comeback.
“I believed once we got that little spark,” Ethier said, “things would kind of turn around and we’d do what we did the whole series and keep coming back, not just disappearing like we did in that game.”
As it turned out, Ethier provided the loudest whimper, driving in the Dodgers’ only run with his sixth-inning hit. At the time, he wasn’t in the mindset that it would be his last hurrah in the show.
“No, I wasn’t thinking that at all,” Ethier said. “I was aware that could be the possibility, and I was definitely playing and being in the moment as if it could be, but I truly thought that there’d be other opportunities out there.”
The World Series ended. Houston was the talk of baseball. The Dodgers tried to make sense of how close they came to their long-awaited parade, and Ethier entered the offseason planning to play somewhere in the majors in 2018. But MLB as an industry was pivoting away from veterans wanting more than a minor-league deal, especially those vets who couldn’t be counted on to be regulars.
“You’re aware — you see how free agency goes for older guys,” Ethier said. “I was 35, almost 36, coming off playing one month of a season and one month of playoffs. And playing in L.A. for 12 years, how do I go take a job on the East Coast somewhere and get away from getting playing with a marquee city, a marquee team?
“In March, it started creeping in my head, and by the middle of April, I had enough time to say, ‘It’s not going to be there.’ I don’t fault any guys. I just knew for me, I was ready to move on to the next chapter in my life and not delay it any longer.”
Ethier didn’t officially announce his retirement until the summer of 2018, but in the spring, he knew he was done.
“It’s tough for any baseball player,” he said. “You play professional baseball 16 years and one team for 12 years. … All of a sudden, not by your choice, it’s just over after one game.”
Fortunately, Ethier has taken to retirement, with all the family time and freedom that comes with it. He has not been a stranger as far as the Dodgers are concerned — he visits with the team when they come to Arizona and has even taken batting practice hitter with them. Once again, he will be stopping by Camelback Ranch on several days during Spring Training this year.
On more than a few mornings, Ethier wakes up convinced he could still hit big-league pitching. But by the afternoon, a sore muscle here or there will remind him of the physical toll it would take to play.
“Last year, I hit batting practice on the field, and I was at home by 6 o’clock having dinner,” Ethier said. “All my buddies, they would all die to be able to do that with a major-league team, let alone the Dodgers.”
“It’s definitely a tough transition, finding your footing, finding your place, but when you have solid people behind you — your family and friends — and you have solid support from the Dodgers’ front office guys and players, making you feel a part of it, that makes it so easy, I thank them so much for making me feel a part of it.”
The memories Ethier took away from the game are numerous, perhaps none greater in his mind than the opportunity to play on the same field opposite his childhood hero, Ken Griffey Jr. It happened when Ethier was 24: 12 years after Ethier first saw Griffey in person at a ballpark, 12 years before Ethier retired.
Suffice it to say, time gave Ethier more perspective on his career. So in November, when Mike Fiers spoke to The Athletic and the revelations about the Astros exploded in the press, with direct ramifications on his final season, Ethier was emotionally prepared.
Oh, and he was not shocked.
“We had been hearing these rumors for a while, (that) they do a lot of stuff over there to try to get the edge,” Ethier said. “It was like, ‘Huh, it’s finally coming out.’ And I was waiting to see what would really come out.”
But where others see black and white, Ethier sees gray, at least in terms of punishment. Before MLB issued a warning in September 2017, Houston could argue that there was little indication anyone in the sport cared about the trashcan-banging scheme they had concocted. And after that warning, the players could rationalize, however incorrectly, that no one above them was telling them to stop.
Above all, Ethier seems to be a man impervious to excuses.
Said Ethier: “Do you feel cheated? Yes. But screw that. I can still beat these guys whether they’re doing that or not. That’s the mentality I would take when I would go out there and play every day.
“Did it affect at bats? Yes. Did it affect games? Most likely. Do we know if that all added up to effect the entirety of a series. We will never know … We’ll never actually know until they actually come clean and say what the reason is.”
Ethier made it clear he believes in second chances for members of the Astros, citing Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGwire as examples — with the key caveat that they needed to earn their forgiveness.
“They laid forth what they actually did,” Ethier said. “Just saying ‘we did something, but we’re not going to come with a truthful story,’ that doesn’t help anyone learn from this situation.
“I go back to integrity and accountability. If you play this game with integrity, hold your teammates accountable the same way you hold yourself accountable. That’s the way you need to play this game. Don’t do things that you wouldn’t want the guys on the other side doing to you. That sounds dumb and cheesy, like your mom always told you, but treat others they way you’d want to be treated.”