Without question, the buzz of the baseball world centered squarely Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier as the days of summer drew closer this May. Then disaster struck. On May 19, the Dodgers placed their big thumper on the disabled list with, of all things, a broken pinkie finger.
The significance of the injury cannot be overstated. After all, Ethier’s hot start at the plate this spring brought the sparkle to many a baseball fanatic’s eyes. It was supposed to be Albert Pujols, who seemingly falls just short of the finishing on top of all three main offensive categories every season, who created the triple buzz this season. Instead, it’s Ethier.
When he went to the disabled list, Ethier was on pace to put up some of the best offensive numbers in the history of the game. His .392 batting average leaves him just a few swings short of the .400 mark, and his 11 homers and 38 RBIs puts him on pace to post some of the best numbers ever in those categories and vie for the first Triple Crown season in more than 30 years.
Remarkably, Ethier did much of his damage while slugging teammate Manny Ramirez spent a few weeks on the disabled list this spring. The 28-year-old Ethier received an added boost on May 8, when the Dodgers activated Ramirez. Manager Joe Torre predicted that Ethier would see better pitches with Ramirez back in the lineup. Ethier, though, only managed to play in six more games before he injured the pinkie finger on his right hand on May 15 during batting practice. Tests revealed a small fracture in the finger, which presses against the bat handle during Ethier’s left-handled swings. The pain was sufficient enough to convince the Dodgers to rest Ethier.
Thus, fans are left to wonder a lot of things right now. Among them is whether Ethier can make it back to active duty by the end of the May. His stay on the disabled list will be at least 15 days, but Joe Torre said on May 19 that it might be three weeks or longer before Ethier’s injury is healed enough to allow him to return to the lineup.
With each passing day, the likelihood that Ethier will make good on his Triple Crown declines. The Arizona State alum, though, continued to lead the National League in batting average and RBIs as of May 21, and his 11 homers was just one off the National League-leading 12, which belonged to Arizona’s Kelly Johnson. The field, though, is sure to move past Ethier while he’s sidelined. Two other National League players are tied with Ethier at 11 homers and six more are within two home runs. Milwaukee’s Casey McGehee is one off Ethier’s league-leading 38 RBIs, and nine other National Leaguers have 30 or more.
It isn’t only the Triple Crown that Ethier is chasing. Through 33 games, he was on pace for 177 RBIs. That meant he could challenge the single-season all-time RBI mark of 191. In 1930, Hack Wilson, a center fielder, set the record. Few players today have neared Wilson’s mark. In Fact, Ramirez is the only player in more than 70 years to finish a season with more than 160 RBIs. He had 165 with the Cleveland Indians in 1999.
Certainly, Ethier’s home run pace is also noteworthy. While he’d have to start launching lots more homers to challenge Barry Bonds’ single-season home record of 73, he was nearly on pace to surpass the old standard, Roger Maris’s 61 homers.
Of course, Ethier’s batting average will continue to be a topic of discussion. His .392 mark is the highest in the majors. No player has hit .400 or higher since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. But Ethier’s injury came amid an incredible streak. On May 1, he was hitting just .329. Then he hit safely in 16 of his next 28 at bats to reach the .394 mark. When he injured the finger, Ethier had hit safely in 8 of his last 18 at bats.
When you consider the return of Ramirez, it’s easy to understand why baseball fans were starting to salivate just thinking of the ultimate scenario, which would be Ethier accomplishing all of the above. Think of it. He could be the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 and the first in the National League since Joe Medwick accomplished the feat in 1937 with a .374 batting average, 31 homers and 154 RBIs. Next, he could post the first .400 batting average in almost 70 years. Then he could throw in a new single-season RBI record.
But wait. Just who is Andre Ethier? Certainly, he’s not yet a household name. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Ethier debuted with the Dodgers just four years ago, and he showed lots of promise in his rookie season with 11 homers, 55 RBIs, 20 doubles and seven triples during a partial season. He also had a .308 batting average. Ethier produced similar numbers in 2007 and 2008. Then he broke loose in 2009 to become one of baseball’s top hitters. He had 42 doubles and 31 homers to go with 106 RBIs last season.
For all of his success, Ethier had a rough road to the big leagues. Born April 10, 1982, Andre Everett Ethier excelled on the baseball field from an early age and starred at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, Arizona. His success earned Ethier a scholarship to Arizona State, but the scholarship deal fell apart after he played for ASU in the fall of 200. Ethier was forced to play junior college baseball. He ignited his career at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in 2001. Then he declined an offer to sign with the Oakland A’s, who selected him in the 37th round of the 2001 amateur draft.
Instead of going to the pro game in 2001, Ethier earned another opportunity to play for Arizona State. He played in 48 games as a sophomore in 2002 and hit .363 with 50 RBIs. In 2003, Ethier hit .377 for the Sun Devils and had 68 RBIs in the same number of games.
Ethier’s career was certainly back on track, and the A’s drafted Ethier again in 2003. This time, he was a second-round pick. Ethier opted to skip his senior year at ASU and instead signed a pro contract in July 2003. He received a $580,000 signing bonus. Despite the big bonus check, he spent all of the next three seasons batting his way through the minor leagues. Either got his chance on May 2, 2006 after he was traded to the Dodgers for Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez. He doubled in his first game with Los Angeles and homered the next day. The Ethier bus was ready to depart, and lots of Dodgers fans jumped aboard. The Dodgers thought enough of his first four years in Los Angeles to award Ethier with a two-year, $15.25 million contract on Jan. 20. He’s earning $6 million this season, and he’ll earn $9.25 million in 2011. Ethier will be a free agent in 2013.
Today, Ethier is one of the most popular guys wearing Dodger Blue. Of Mexican and French descent, Ethier pens a food blog for MLB.com. Called Dining with Dre, he provides reviews of L.A.-area restaurants. Often, he dines with his wife, Maggie, whom he married in February 2006. Maggie was a gymnast at Arizona State University. The Ethiers have one child, a son.