LOS ANGELES -- It was still more than an hour before the Los Angeles Dodgers were to take the field on Thursday night for what would become a 6-0 victory over the New York Mets before a sellout crowd of 56,000 at Dodger Stadium. That meant that by league rules, the clubhouse was supposed to still be open to the media unless there was some special circumstance that called for it to be closed.
The first clue something was up came when I walked in at precisely 5:53 p.m. and saw not a single player. The second clue came when the two Dodgers public-relations staffers who were standing in the middle of the room immediately told me it was closed for a meeting.
The third, and most significant clue, came on the way out, as I passed by the open door to the players' lounge, which was empty except for manager Don Mattingly, and if he was in a meeting, he was in one with all his imaginary friends.
It was clear at this point someone had called a players-only meeting, something Mattingly later said he couldn't remember ever happening in the four seasons during which he has been either the Dodgers' hitting coach or their manager. I didn't know where it was taking place or who had called it, but I did know I wasn't going to be able to procure any of that information until after the game, if at all, so I went upstairs to eat dinner and then watch the sizzling Clayton Kershaw try to pick up the rest of the unsizzling Dodgers and stop their third five-game losing streak of the season.
Once Kershaw had taken care of that -- he shut out the Mets for eight innings, fell one strikeout shy of what would have been double figures for the fourth consecutive start and shaved his home ERA to 1.88 while throwing a fastball so heavy Mets manager Terry Collins said one of his players likened it to trying to hit a shot put -- we all headed back downstairs and tried to find at least one player who wouldn't stonewall us when we asked about the meeting.
We found that player in Tony Gwynn Jr., one of the most media-friendly big leaguers I have ever run across. The first thing I asked him was who had called the meeting, because, frankly, one of the biggest knocks against this team is the perception that it doesn't really have what you would call an unquestioned leader.
Gwynn smiled, then paused for a few seconds.
"Well, since you guys already seem to know about it " he said. "Jamey Carroll called us in there, and we just talked. I think it was beneficial for everybody."
By the time we learned it was the low-key Carroll, who by definition is a utility man but has played far more this season than club officials had hoped he would, he was long gone, which was fine. Nobody had to tell us why there was a meeting. The Dodgers were in free fall. A few hours later, their fall had been momentarily stifled, but it remains to be seen whether they can start clawing their way back up the mountain they now have to climb.
Still, it was a start. Players-only meetings do tend, after all, to be more effective when they happen right before a team's ace takes the mound.
"There were a lot of things that were brought up," Gwynn said. "This was one [win]. We've seen that we can go out and do it for a day. Now, we have to see if we can continue to build momentum and keep going. At this point, it's pointless to look at the top of the leaderboard. We just have to keep chipping away. At this point, we're so deep [in the standings], we pretty much have to take it inning by inning and game by game.
"[The meeting] definitely wasn't rah-rah, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it was solemn. It's very easy to fall into accepting losing, especially if you look at the top of that leaderboard. You just can't let that happen."
The meeting, which Gwynn said lasted maybe seven minutes, wasn't limited to one speaker. Gwynn said he didn't think everyone talked, but he did say a lot of people did. Center fielder Matt Kemp admitted he had spoken up at one point, but he was otherwise mum on the details. In fact, the whole thing initially was so private that even Mattingly didn't know it was Carroll who had called the meeting.
"As a player, I always liked them," Mattingly said of players-only meetings. "I always liked having a chance to clear the air and just talk among the guys. It was at the point where somebody needed to say something, and I didn't really want to have another meeting, to be honest with you."
Mattingly said he has had three or four team meetings this year, none of which prevented the Dodgers (38-51) from falling into last place in the National League West, 12 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants. We won't know for a while whether this one worked any better than those did. But if nothing else, it was a clear sign from the players to Mattingly and the coaching staff, and by extension to the fans, that despite what it has looked like at times this year, these guys really do care and really do put a value on winning as many games as they can.
"Everybody feels that everybody is still fighting," Gwynn said. "This was just kind of a reminder that we're about to get to the halfway point, the All-Star break. Guys need to go into that break thinking about what we talked about.
"Today was a good start."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.