Ethier’s streak bright spot for Dodgers

On Friday at Dodger Stadium, the 70-year-old who used to own the longest April hitting streak in major-league history approached the 29-year-old who just seized it from him.

“To let you know,” Joe Torre told Andre Ethier, “the guy who broke my streak was Nolan Ryan.”

Torre’s mark of 22 games survived 40 years. Ethier broke it last week.

“When I had 19, someone told me you had the record,” Ethier replied. “So I said, ‘I’m definitely going to break it.’”

Torre laughed. A few hours later, Ethier nudged the new record to 25 games in the Dodgers’ 3-2 victory over the Padres. He made it 26 on Saturday, when he flipped a single to left in the fourth inning against San Diego starter Tim Stauffer.

The new April record ended there. But the streak is still going – 27 games and counting.

The Dodger Stadium crowds are becoming more and more aware, the applause growing fuller as the bassline from “Tres Delinquentes” brings him out to the plate. Sunday’s gathering waited until the seventh inning before bursting with its two biggest bravos – one when first baseman Brad Hawpe dove but couldn’t handle Ethier’s ground ball, another after official scorer Don Hartack ruled it a base hit.

Ethier? He wasn’t stressing – even if he has admitted to thinking about the streak “a little bit.”

“If they put a hit, they put a hit; if they put an error, whatever,” Ethier said after the Dodgers were shut out by the Padres, 7-0. “I’m not going to throw my hands up or anything like that. I’m just trying to figure out a way to get the job done, get on base, get things going.”

Ethier has done much more than that, in every game for the past month. He’s batting .378 for the season. Now he’s approaching the longest hitting streak in Los Angeles Dodgers history: 31 games, set by Willie Davis in 1969.

Already, Ethier has one of the 13 longest hitting streaks in the majors since 2000, according to STATS LLC.

It’s been a nice story for the Dodgers. But nothing seems simple for this franchise anymore.

These days, the off-the-field news at Chavez Ravine is rarely pleasant and impossible to overlook. Attendance is down. San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow remains in a coma after a brutal assault in a Dodger Stadium parking lot following the season opener. And the ownership melodrama grows more surreal by the day. Friday’s installment included Frank McCourt defending his credibility in media interviews on the same day that Tom Schieffer, the baseball-appointed financial monitor, enjoyed a pregame Dodger Dog from the box seats.

In fact, Major League Baseball’s involvement with the club’s day-to-day operations explained why the Torre-Ethier conversation took place at all. Torre wasn’t at the ballpark as a spectator or the Dodgers’ manager – his title as recently as last October. Torre is now MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations. He was there to assist in the facilitation of what Schieffer described as a “cordial” meeting with McCourt.

And in the midst of it all, there is Ethier.

At a moment of organizational turmoil and fan disillusionment, there is nothing more All-American than a hitting streak – particularly when authored by a steady, artful left-handed swing.

“When he gets locked in, he’s a dangerous hitter,” said center fielder Matt Kemp, whose presence in the cleanup spot – not to mention his .373 batting average – has aided Ethier’s streak. “Right now, you’re not getting too much past him.”

Asked to guess how much longer the streak may continue, Padres manager Bud Black smiled and surmised, “Twenty-six more games.” Then he added: “Honestly, that’s a tough one to gauge. There’s no doubt, he’s a very good hitter to start with. He’s an All-Star. Right now, he’s seeing the ball well. He’s taking good, aggressive swings. If I was to suspect him to get a hit (Monday), I would say yes. After that, he’ll probably get a hit again, just based on what I saw – his swings, his takes, how he looks at the plate.”

The Chicago Cubs come to town on Monday, and the pitching matchups look favorable for Ethier. Yes, the Cubs will start a left-hander in Game 1 – but that left-hander, James Russell, is a converted reliever with an 8.31 ERA. Then Ethier opposes two right-handers whom he hits well: Ryan Dempster (.368 in 19 at-bats) and Carlos Zambrano (.438 in 16 at-bats).

Ethier is not a threat to Joe DiMaggio quite yet – although Vin Scully reminded his listeners on Friday that The Yankee Clipper’s major-league record 56-game streak began 70 years ago this month.

“It’s fun,” Ethier said. “It is what it is. … There’s one reason to talk about this streak, and that’s because of breaking it. And we’re not even halfway there.”

However long it lasts, Dodgers fans seem to be appreciating the streak for what it is – a feat that is impressive on its own, and even more meaningful given the organizational crisis at hand.

When asked Friday if his streak could become a happy diversion for Dodgers fans, Ethier replied, “I guess. But the most important part is winning games. If we win games, they’ll rally (around it). It’s a shame that the last couple years, in LA, the fans have had to deal with the distractions regarding this team. We know if we play our game and win, that’ll take care of everything and get some respect and pride back to the fans of this organization.”

Not coincidentally, Ethier’s streak has come during a season in which he has developed a greater sense of appreciation for his career. Last year, a more serious-minded Ethier might have resisted any conversation about this sort of individual achievement. Now, his focus is sharper. He’s quicker to smile, too.

Any pressure to continue the streak?

No, he said.

“I’m enjoying every moment of it,” he added. “In the past, sometimes I’ve had a tendency to grind things out – even when I’m going good – and put more pressure and urgency on myself. When things are going good, (I was) not taking a step back and enjoying it. I’m definitely doing that right now, reminding myself to enjoy it. You never know how long these last.”

As recently as last year, Ethier saw how fleeting such success can be. He was a viable Triple Crown candidate through the first quarter of the season. Then he fractured his right pinky finger during batting practice on May 15. His season wasn’t the same after that. “I wish,” he said Friday, “I would have enjoyed (the start) a little more.”

Lesson learned. No longer does Ethier need to psych himself up by recalling instances in his career when he was underestimated – such as when his coach at Arizona State suggested that he needed to play junior-college baseball in order to become a Division I regular, or when the Oakland A’s traded him to the Dodgers in 2005. Now, he’s allowing himself to just play.

For years, coaches, teammates and even Ethier’s father told him to appreciate how lucky he was. Finally, he figured it was time to listen to their collective advice: “Step back, look around and enjoy it.”

Ethier lapsed into his old habits shortly before Opening Day, when he mused publicly that this could be his final season with the Dodgers. He made apparent reference to the franchise’s ability (or lack thereof) to spend money to retain star talent. His comments created a low-level dustup with team management, but the controversy faded just as the hitting streak began.

Funny how that works, huh?

“I can tell you this,” said Ethier’s agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Sports. “It only motivated Dre to go out and focus on the task at hand and lead this team by example.”

By all accounts, he has done that. Before a recent game, Ethier spent part of his afternoon in Duarte, Calif., at the Celebration of Life Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion. The event celebrates the survival of bone marrow transplant patients.

“It’s heavy on your heart,” Ethier said. “But as soon as you get there, you can tell how much they appreciate it. It puts meaning into your life and your day, knowing that your 0-for-4 isn’t as bad as what they’re going through.”

The perspective is in his voice, and the joy is in his play. And at this rate, it’s anyone’s guess when that next 0-for-4 might come for Andre Ethier.