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Loney free, easy

New first baseman prefers to play it cool

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 29, 2012
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LOS ANGELES — It’s hard to explain James Loney’s personality, it seems. He is low-key, rarely bothered by much and takes things as they come. He absolutely qualifies as easy-going. He doesn’t question much. So when it comes to explanations, those who know him tend to tell stories.

Like the time years ago when Loney hopped on a spring training bus he wasn’t scheduled to be on. Still, his name was circled on the travel list, so he gathered his equipment and got on the bus.

Except his name was circled in dark marker, unlike any of the other traveling Dodgers. A few teammates had played a joke on him, wondering if he would follow through without questioning or raising a fuss.

He didn’t raise a fuss. He got on the bus. And then, when told he didn’t have to be there, simply got back off.

“He has an attitude of, ‘I’m going to go a certain way, nothing’s going to rush me, nothing’s going to hurry me, nothing’s going to mess me up in my thing,’ ” said former Dodgers teammate Andre Ethier. “It’s just when I get there I’m going to do it, and when I do it, I’m going to do it the way I want.”

Added Ethier, “If we had seen our names, we would have been yelling at a coach, like what the heck is going on? He just said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ You can take some of the stuff that he does and learn from his easiness.”

(Though even his father, Marion Loney, said he’d “love to see more fire in him.”)

“I try not to take it too serious all the time,” Loney said. “I think that’s just who I am. I keep it simple. You come to the field, you work toward what you want to do, how good you want to be, and let the rest take care of itself.

“I play pretty calm, nice and easy and relaxed. That’s just the way I feel like I can get the best out of my ability.”

Ethier cited Loney’s tendency to show up about 10 minutes before stretching, something rather unusual in the world of hyper-routine oriented baseball players. But for Loney, it wasn’t a problem. Nothing ever really seemed to be.

As Dodgers equipment manager Mitch Poole put it, “I don’t want to say he doesn’t have common sense, but he doesn’t have common sense.”

Loney is, Poole said, totally different than any player he has dealt with in his 28 years in the Dodgers clubhouse.

All of that being said, there is a genuine fondness for Loney in the Dodgers organization. He was drafted and developed by Los Angeles, one of the few hitters taken by the franchise in the first round in recent years, chosen with the 19th pick of the 2002 draft.

He was in the majors four years later, playing partial seasons in 2006 and 2007 — hitting nine home runs in September of 2007 — but never playing up to the potential the Dodgers had seen in him.

Perhaps the expectations were too high, spurred by that powerful September. Because that’s not, and has never been, who Loney is. He’s a line-drive hitter, a part of a team, not quite good enough to be the focus.

“Because of what he did that month they expected him to hit 25 or 30 home runs,” said Larry Bowa, the former Dodgers third base coach. “To me he’s not a home run hitter, he’s a line-drive hitter that uses the whole field.

“If he’s on a team that doesn’t have a lot of power, then that position shows up because you want power at the corners and, obviously, James isn’t that type of hitter. I don’t think James is the kind of guy that can be your 4 hitter, drive in 120. I think he’s a complementary player, and he’s a very good one.”

The question now is where he will be that complementary player? Loney will become a free agent at the end of this season, and it’s far from assured the Red Sox will keep him on.

“I explained to him, this is a good opportunity for him because the Dodgers, they weren’t giving him a chance to really play this whole year,” Marion Loney said. “I told him that’s a great opportunity to prove yourself. You go to Boston, you get to play every day. So he’s got the opportunity to resurrect his career.”

Asked if he thinks his son believes he has something to prove, Marion Loney said, “I hope so. I know he has something to prove.”

Loney, for his part, said, “I think I always feel like that, no matter when or where I’m playing. You always feel like you want to be better and do what you can.”

Loney’s career numbers are solid, if unspectacular. He has hit .284 with a .763 OPS for his career, numbers that have declined as he has gotten older. He only managed to salvage his 2011 season with a red-hot final month, in which he batted .358 with three homers and 18 RBIs, his OPS at 1.003, while playing excellent defense at first.

He hit .254 with the Dodgers this season, with four home runs and 33 RBIs.

“He’s always been a guy that has worked,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “He did everything he could to try to get better and better. I felt like he was always giving us everything that he had.”

But, he told Loney, maybe Boston would provide him with “a new beginning.” General manager Ned Colletti said Loney could get “a little bit of a fresh start there.”

It seems clear that something needed to change with Loney, to allow him to make good on the promise that he had shown, and that hadn’t quite come together in LA.

“It’s a tough conversation because he’s just a great kid,” Mattingly said. “That’s the one thing with James you never forget. He’s a great kid, he’s worked really hard. He does everything you ask. If he was your kid, you’d be really proud of him.”

Or, as Dodgers legend Maury Wills said, “You won’t find a finer young man than James Loney.”

But that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t make heads shake. There are more stories.

Bowa recalled taking Loney into the tunnel after the first baseman had — yet again — tried a diving play in front of well-placed second baseman, a play that made it harder to get the out.

Bowa had reminded him over and over to watch for the second baseman, but that didn’t quite get through his head.

“I said, ‘James, how many times have I told you to take a look at where the second baseman is?’ ” said Bowa, who still called Loney “a manager’s delight.” “If I told you once, I told you 100 times. How many more times do I have to do this?

“He said, ‘I guess 101.’ Nothing you can say at that. You’re angry at the player, but he kept everything in perspective.”

Still, they don’t know why he was never that productive in Los Angeles. They know he cared, even though nothing ever seemed to ruffle him. They know he tried.

“But he never really reached his potential,” Wills said. “He’s got a lot of baseball in him that didn’t come out.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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