LOS ANGELES -- At a little past noon Sunday, an hour or so before the Los Angeles Dodgers took the field and had their five-game winning streak snapped in a 7-6 loss to the Colorado Rockies before 38,503 at Dodger Stadium, a handful of reporters gathered at the locker of Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier to discuss his latest carefully crafted and possibly calculated media firestorm.
By this time, Ethier already had been summoned into a closed-door meeting with manager Don Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti in Mattingly's office, whereupon the message was conveyed to him that his words to Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers seemed to suggest he was being ordered to play through a knee injury.
By this time, Ethier, on orders from Mattingly and Colletti, also had met with team physician Dr. Neal ElAttrache, and although Ethier didn't give team officials permission to discuss his medical condition publicly, Ethier himself told us there was no real change, that he was still free to play through the injury if he chose and that he, and not Mattingly, had been the one who had chosen to play through it all season.
It was here that I asked Ethier a fairly direct question, based on a working theory I had of what was behind his comments to Simers.
"Do you want to play for the Dodgers in 2012?" I asked.
His answer was about what I thought it would be.
"You don't want to just put this season behind you [yet]," Ethier said. "But obviously, one of the things we have to look forward to is finding out how we make ourselves better for next year. That is my biggest concern. How do I get myself healthy for 2012 so I can come back here and make myself the best I can be for that season?"
And then, later in the conversation, he added this:
"I just hope they bring me back. You look around, and obviously this is a great situation. It's still a great organization, no matter what is going on, on or off the field. Obviously, a lot of things need to be changed ... for the future, not only for the players, but for the team and the fans."
Just for kicks, I followed up on that last one by asking Ethier whether he was calling for an ownership change. As expected, he didn't go there, reminding us that the Frank McCourt era had its share of success before McCourt and his wife went to divorce court.
But was Ethier suggesting the Dodgers might be better off without him? Or, more to the point, was he suggesting he would be better off without them?
Hence, my aforementioned working theory.
Harken back, if you will, to March 29. To refresh your memory, the Dodgers were playing their penultimate spring-training game in Anaheim that night, and before the game, they announced they had just signed right-hander Chad Billingsley to a three-year, $35 million contract extension. That same day, Ethier -- whose agent had discussed with Colletti an extension for his client before those talks broke off -- announced this:
"My salary is increasing each year. I would say the likeliness of me being here beyond this year, it's not just my decision. ... I have been kind of lucky to be in one spot in baseball for as long as I have been, for six years now. That is a long time to be in one city playing for one team. There is no inclination now other than to go out and play this year and see what we've got.
"If I don't play well, we have seen them non-tender guys here. If you do play well, sometimes they don't offer those guys arbitration because their salaries are too high."
The obvious message Ethier was trying to get across that day was that he wasn't feeling that the Dodgers were committed to him. Fast forward to this weekend, to another Ethier firestorm that on its face was completely unrelated to that first one, and it now sounds as though Ethier might not be all that committed to them, either.
As it stands, Ethier won't be eligible for free agency until after 2012. But is he trying to force his way out of town a year early? That's my theory. I don't have enough insight to know for a fact that it's true, or that it isn't. That's why they call it a theory. But I have to say, when you take the statements Ethier made in March, and to Simers this weekend, and put them together, it sure smells that way.
Could it be that Ethier is trying to become such a distraction that the Dodgers, rather than going through the expensive process of arbitration this winter -- he already is making $9.25 million this season and would get a significant raise -- will simply non-tender him, making him a free agent a year early?
One thing is clear: if it's a distraction Ethier is trying to become, he is at least succeeding there. Mattingly made that fairly obvious before Sunday's game, when he said he was "blindsided" by Ethier's remarks. He made it clear again during the game when, with the bases loaded, nobody out, the pitcher's spot due up and the Dodgers trailing 7-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning, he sent Eugenio Velez -- that would be the 0-for-28 Eugenio Velez -- to pinch hit and kept Ethier on the bench.
Although Ethier was on deck to hit for Rod Barajas when the game ended, Mattingly made it clear again immediately after the game, when asked by a reporter whether Ethier will be back in the lineup Monday night against the San Diego Padres.
"We're kind of in a little bit of a box, really," Mattingly said. "If he says his knee hurts and we put him out there and he blows a hammy or hurts something else, now we're kind of in a box as far as having trouble using him. So we're going to talk and go from there."
It was a cryptic comment from an exasperated manager, but it hinted that Ethier's playing time could be sporadic the rest of the way, especially with the Dodgers (62-70), who are in fourth place in the National League West and 12 games behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, far out of contention.
If Ethier is trying to outsmart the system, well, the one he is outsmarting might be himself. Let's say he does force the Dodgers' hand, and they do cut him loose, and he does become a free agent. In that case, how much of a market will there be for a guy who is coming off a down year? A guy who probably is going to be coming off arthroscopic knee surgery? A guy who so often lets his emotions get the better of his game? A guy who certainly isn't helping his reputation with all these public outbursts, especially at a time when, according to various sources, scouts from other teams are starting to pick up on his moodiness and the fact he can be high maintenance?
Better yet, what if the Dodgers simply trade him? In that case, there is just as much chance he ends up in Kansas City or Pittsburgh as the promised land of New York or Boston, which his close friend and former Arizona State University teammate Dustin Pedroia reportedly has told him is a great place to play big league baseball.
In the end, if you're the Dodgers, your best bet might be to hold onto Ethier for at least one more year, even if it costs you in the neighborhood of $11 million to do so. Other factors, such as the bankruptcy and McCourt's shaky finances, could force them to let Ethier go. But if the Dodgers can keep him, assuming his tendency to pop off in the media doesn't become a debilitating distraction, they probably can count on him to put up at least decent numbers in 2012 because it is his "walk" year, with certain free agency to come at the end.
That is a decision that doesn't have to be made for a few more months. But it is hard not to get the impression Ethier has already made up his mind which way he would vote, if he actually had a say in the matter.
Listening to Mattingly, it was hard not to get the impression that if the poll had been taken Sunday, he might have voted the same way.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.