Justin Turner made his 2021 Spring Training debut on Monday, and the third baseman predictably got a hit in his first at-bat.
Turner finished 1-for-2 in the Dodgers 10-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Monday, their second exhibition game of spring.
Several weeks ago, it appeared as if the annual Justin Turner hitting clinic that he puts on every spring might not come to fruition.
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Turner was a free agent, and several contending teams were vying for his services. So much so, that there were moments in the last month that Turner himself thought he might not be back with the Dodgers. A prospect that not only seems unnatural, but downright blasphemous for fans of the Boys in Blue.
"There were definitely some ups and downs in the process, where some things happened where I wasn’t sure I’d end up back with Dodgers,” said Turner. "“But through the whole process . . . it was pretty reassuring that the desire to have me back here was still there. But there were times when I thought, ‘Oh man, this doesn’t look good. I’m not sure this was going to happen.’”
Turner might be referring to the Dodgers big offseason splurge on reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, or rumors that the team was prioritizing signing a designated hitter in case the DH was added to the NL again this season.
“Heading into the offseason, there’s a lot of potential pathways to go, but for us, all of our A scenarios had J.T. returning,” said Dodgers' President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman. “That being said, we weren’t sure that would happen.”
Turner himself made the announcement on Valentine's Day, just three days before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report to spring training. The Dodgers did not make the deal official until February 19.
“It felt like it was an eternity,” Turner said. “It felt like it took forever.”
They say the best things come to those that wait, and if patience is a virtue, it paid off for everyone involved in this instance.
Undoubtedly, Turner is the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In his seven seasons with the franchise, he's led them to the playoffs in each and every one. His career batting average while wearing Dodger Blue is .302 with an OPS of .886. Turner was named in All-Star in 2017, and has finished in the top 15 in MVP voting three different times during his tenure in Los Angeles…and those are just his on-the-field superlatives.
Off the field, Turner is the leader of the Dodgers clubhouse, and the only Dodger to win the Roy Campanella Award three different times. The award is given to a player on the Dodgers that best exemplifies the spirit and leadership of the late Hall of Fame catcher. Additionally, Turner's charity, the Justin Turner foundation, has been giving back to the Los Angeles community for nearly a decade.
"That's huge," said 2020 World Series MVP Corey Seager about Turner returning to the Dodgers. "JT influences a lot of things in this clubhouse. The way he goes about his business, the way he mentors people, the way he talks to people in general. Excluding the baseball side, everything he does, makes this organization better."
Last October, as Julio Urias threw the final strike in game 6 of the World Series to give the Dodgers their first championship in 32 years, a heartbroken Turner had to watch it all from a small television set located inside a dreary doctor's room less than 100 feet from the field of play.
Turner was taken out of the game in the seventh inning after his test for COVID-19 he took that morning had come back positive.
"It was extremely difficult. I think I experienced just about every range of emotion you can have," Turner said of that night in Arlington, Texas. "Getting taken out of the game. Trying to figure out what was happening. Winning the World Series and being excited and thrilled to know you've finally accomplished your goal.
"But then for me, sitting back in that room and watching the guys dog pile on each other, it personally felt like the third time I've had to watch a team celebrate winning the World Series. I still haven't experienced it. It's still on the top of my list. I still have not been on the field for the last out to celebrate winning a championship. That's something I'm determined to show up and work for every day and have that experience at the end of the year."
For Turner, the ordeal was just beginning. A free agent at the end of the season, Turner did not know what his future would hold. So about 20 minutes after the final out was recorded, Turner snuck back out to the field to take pictures with his teammates and the Commissioner's Trophy. Cameras caught Turner on the field, at times without a mask, and controversy inevitably unfolded.
Turner said he did not know whether his decision to return to the field after testing positive would hinder him in free agency. MLB investigated the incident and decided not to suspend Turner, who vowed to do better, and give back to the community through his charity in the offseason.
Turner would soon be courted by many other organizations, including the Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Atlanta Braves.
"I had a lot of good conversations with other organizations," said Turner. "One of my biggest things in free agency was that I wanted to make sure I was on a competitor and I wanted to have a chance to win another World Series, if not multiple World Series. It was definitely flattering to be courted like that, but at the end of the day it all ended up like it was supposed to and I'm back in Dodger Blue like I was supposed to be.
"Los Angeles and the Dodgers hold a pretty big spot in my heart. I've spent the last seven years here making a ton of memories and really seeing my career take off and it's a place that always has been special to me."
One of the many factors that contributed to the delay in Turner's signing was the ongoing talks between Major League Baseball and the Player's Association. MLB wanted a 150-game season with a universal DH and expanded playoffs. The players wanted full salaries and preferred to negotiate on the other items after the 2021 season when the current CBA agreement is set to expire.
Ultimately, the 2021 season will look a lot like baseball did before the pandemic, albeit with a few changes for health and safety reasons. As of the start of Cactus League play on Sunday, there will not be a DH in the National League. That decision left the Dodgers with some resources that they might have otherwise allocated for a designated hitter like Marcell Ozuna or Nelson Cruz. Instead, they spent that money on Turner. However, Turner believes there still could be a DH added to the NL before Opening Day on April 1.
"We'll see what happens with the DH," he said. "A lot of things happened with the 60-game season last year right before it started. It will be interesting to see if there's actually a DH or not this year. We'll see, the season still hasn't started."
As the league and player's association iron out the final details regarding the health and safety protocols for the 2021 season, a DH in the national league could still be agreed upon. But Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts does not see it happening this year.
"I don't think that's going to change," Roberts said of the DH in the National League. "I think we're going to get through the DH this year just in the American League."
The addition of the DH in the National League could definitely help the Dodgers, who are considered to be one of the deepest teams in all of baseball. It could also give Turner more at-bats, without adding additional damage to his 36-year-old body at third base. Turner has been hampered with various leg and muscle injuries over the years, and the rest from playing in the field every day, while simultaneously keeping his bat in the lineup could be beneficial not just for this year, but the final two (or three) years of his contract.
In the interim, Turner is trying to soak in this spring training as he enters into the twilight of his playing career. He's relishing his role as the unofficial leader of the team, and enjoys learning from and sharing that role with others like veteran outfielder and former AL MVP Mookie Betts.
"It's a fun place to be, and we do have fun," said Turner of spring training this season. "But don't let that deceive you. It's still guys working hard. We still have our 'Mookie Betts' rule in place where [if you make an error], drop a ball or throw one away, you put $20 in the pot."
The "Mookie Betts rule" is something that Betts brought to the team during his first spring training with the Dodgers last February in order to hold everyone accountable, while simultaneously making the monotony of spring training more fun. Betts, who held a team meeting in his first days with his new team, called out his teammates and told them that if they want to win the World Series, the effort and responsibility begins in spring.
"When you stand up in front of the team on the first day and essentially call everyone out, says he wants to hold everyone accountable for their effort -- not just in the game, but in the workouts -- that’s like, all right, you learn what he’s about really fast,” Turner said at the time.
Turner said that the "Mookie Betts rule" had over $1400 dollars in it last year. Betts himself said that the fines are already adding up this season.
"We can to to a nice dinner," he said when asked about how much the pot is already. "We'll just put it that way."