LOS ANGELES -- He stood in the center of the locker room in his socks and sandals, soaked to the bone with beer and champagne. After his last teammate was done embracing him, he turned and surveyed the room and summed up the night -- and his three-year tenure with the Dodgers -- in one word: "Wow."
An hour and a half after Juan Uribe hit a dramatic two-strike, two-run eighth-inning home run to propel the Dodgers into the National League Championship Series on Monday night, the 34-year-old third baseman was still wearing his uniform long after the rest of his teammates had changed. He simply wasn't ready to take the jersey off his back. "This is a moment I'll never forget," he said.
A year ago, Uribe was worried about being forgotten.
After helping lead the Giants to a World Series championship by hitting 24 home runs in 2010, Uribe signed a three-year, $21 million deal to be the Dodgers' third baseman. That plan hadn't worked out so well. In the first year of his contract, Uribe hit .204 with four home runs in 77 games. Last season he struggled even more, hitting .191 with two homers in 66 games. Things were so bleak that even though he was healthy, he was given only one at-bat in September. Many fans clamored for his release.
But Uribe never sulked. And on the morning of the Dodgers' final game last season, when manager Don Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti addressed the team to say their goodbyes, Mattingly singled out Uribe because of it. "He thanked him for being a professional," Colletti said. "Even though his year hadn't gone as he planned -- or we planned -- and even though September didn't provide him many opportunities, he singled him out because of who he is. I don't think there's a more beloved player or person in this room than Juan Uribe."
"He's the best teammate I've ever played with," Matt Kemp said.
"There's no one else this team would rather see hit that home run than Juan," added catcher A.J. Ellis.
That Uribe was even in a position to hit it is nothing short of an October miracle. Coming into the season, he was second on the depth chart at third base to journeyman Luis Cruz, and figured to play sparingly off the bench until the Dodgers were rid of his contract. But Uribe worked hard in the offseason, dropping 20 pounds and entering camp with the idea that even in his 13th big league season there were still things to learn, that he could still get better every day.
"I felt bad when I didn't play good," Uribe said of his first two years with the Dodgers. "Sometimes when you don't play good people don't remember you. People forget. That's just the way the game is."
And so Uribe worked with hitting coach Mark McGwire and assistant hitting coach John Valentin on, among other things, hitting the ball up the middle and not being so anxious at the plate. And he continued on with his gym rat ways.
The extra work paid off. When Cruz stumbled out of the gate and hit .127 in 45 games before being designated for assignment, Uribe took over and hit a solid .278 with 12 home runs while playing exceptional defense at the hot corner.
But he contributed to the Dodgers in even more valuable ways this season with his rare ability to befriend teammates across all cultures. If you ask any Dodgers player they'll tell you Uribe was the glue that held their clubhouse together this year, from his mentoring of rookie sensation Yasiel Puig to his joking with Kemp to his ability to bring South Korean rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu into the fold.
"He understood that I wasn't able to blend in and speak the language here so he really reached out and accepted me for who I was," Ryu said through a translator. "He's got a great sense of humor and he's just a great person to be around."
But even though Uribe is much improved at the plate this year, the ghosts of his performances past still seemed to haunt Mattingly, who asked Uribe to bunt with no out and Puig representing the tying run on second base in the eighth inning in Game 4. It's a good thing for the Dodgers he failed to get the bunt down. After working the count to two balls and two strikes, Uribe crushed a slider from Braves reliever David Carpenter into the Dodgers' bullpen that sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy and the Braves into a long offseason.
"In those situations you can either be the hero or the goat," said Brian Wilson, the game's winning pitcher, who also played with Uribe in San Francisco. "He always chooses to be the hero."
And after Monday night's heroics, Uribe probably doesn't have to worry about Los Angeles forgetting him any time soon.