Justin Turner Has Completed His Rise from MLB Castoff to Heart of the Dodgers

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 9, 2017

Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner jokes with teammates as they stretch around the cage as the team takes batting practice before facing the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Skillfully having knocked out hit after hit all evening, the ginger man wearing the No. 10 Dodgers jersey with the name "Turner" lettered across the back now stood alone in the spotlight, beaming, another deafening standing ovation serving up goosebumps and memories for all in attendance.

And, even for one who wasn't.

It was just another incredible night in a summer stocked with them in Los Angeles – the latest of which was Turner leading the way with a .462 AVG, 1 HR, 5 RBI and a 1.226 OPS in a dominant NLDS sweep over Arizona, except there was one subtle twist to this one.

The ginger man dressed in the No. 10 Dodgers jersey was standing onstage at the Staples Center.

The ginger man and wearer of the original No. 10 Dodgers jersey was four miles up the Harbor Freeway and in Chavez Ravine at the time, helping his team pile up one more W.

Ed Sheeran, in the middle of a 17-month world tour and one of the world's biggest pop superstars, could not be reached for comment.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Justin Turner, now launching an October playoff drive and having emerged in 2017 as MLB's Most Unlikely Superstar, absolutely could be reached for comment.

"That was insane," Turner told B/R one recent afternoon during a lengthy conversation as the Dodgers looked to the postseason. "I knew he was in town. I knew the night before he wore a Kings jersey onstage.

"I came in after the game, and I had, like, 30 text messages. And my Twitter account was going crazy, and it's like, Ed Sheeran's wearing your jersey for the encore; he's playing 'Shape of You.' It was incredible."

It started innocently enough, all of it: this frame-worthy season, the Dodgers' successful drive to score him a spot in the All-Star Game via the Final Vote, the .322 batting average that placed him tied for second in the National League, the .415 on-base percentage (second), his emergence as the Dodgers' unofficial captain and, yes, his crossover into Sheeran's universe.

It was way back in spring training when he picked "Shape of You" as his walk-up song.

"I heard it this offseason. You try to figure out what you're going to walk up to, and I love the song," Turner says. "And obviously, I knew he was a ginger.

"I didn't know it would ever get back to him and he was going to wear my jersey in concert."

Unlikely superstar? Turner is 32 now, and the Dodgers are his fourth organization. He was drafted by Cincinnati in 2006, traded to Baltimore in 2008, claimed off waivers by the New York Mets in 2010 and flat-out released after the 2013 season.

When the Dodgers signed him, he was 29 and unsure whether he'd ever get another game in the majors.

"You've gotta tip your cap to what he did," Terry Collins, his manager in New York, tells B/R.

"The best thing about it is the path he took," Dodgers starter Alex Wood says. "Everybody has a different path. He's had his ups and downs, and it all led to him becoming one of the focal points of our team."

"When you get non-tendered or let go by a team, you take that as you're not good enough to play for that team," Turner says.

"To come here and have success [that] first season on top of the fact that I went through kind of a makeover of my swing...from that season on I felt like I was turning a corner offensively. And it's been going pretty good ever since."

After struggling to secure a full-time gig for years, Justin Turner has evolved into a power-hitting weapon for the Dodgers over the last two seasons as a regular starter, hitting 48 homers and driving in 161 runs.
After struggling to secure a full-time gig for years, Justin Turner has evolved into a power-hitting weapon for the Dodgers over the last two seasons as a regular starter, hitting 48 homers and driving in 161 runs.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Yeah, you might say it's going pretty good in the baseball world for him in the same way it's going OK in the music world for his red-headed compadre.

From backstage somewhere in the U.S. several days after the Staples Center concert, Sheeran recorded a personal greeting and texted it to Turner. In his own unique, disheveled style, wearing a plain dark shirt and rumpled slacks, Sheeran had tugged a Dodgers cap onto his shock of red hair and, camera rolling, voiced a video message:

"Hey Justin, J.T., from one ginger to another: Let's go Dodgers!"

                   

APPROPRIATELY, THE FIRST hit of Turner's major league career arrived at exactly 1:17 a.m. local time in Yankee Stadium in 2009, following rain delays totaling two hours and 34 minutes.

As things have turned out, the guy has had to patiently wait for everything else in his late-blooming career. So why not his first hit, too?

"I never thought about it that way," he says, "And, actually, I had two at-bats the day before in Boston. I struck out in my first at-bat and hit a line drive into right in my next at-bat; someone came in and slid and made a diving catch.

"I guess it all worked out the way it was supposed to work out."

That this lifelong baseball rat from Long Beach, California, who helped lead Cal State Fullerton to the 2004 College World Series title, now is starring for his hometown Dodgers is sweet enough. That his mother, father, one sister, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, "everyone" in his family lives in Southern California while he flourishes there doing the one thing he's always loved is far beyond any reasonable career path.

Justin Turner got his first taste of success on a big baseball stage when he helped Cal State Fullerton win the 2004 College World Series.
Justin Turner got his first taste of success on a big baseball stage when he helped Cal State Fullerton win the 2004 College World Series.TED KIRK/Associated Press/Associated Press

But before he found himself here, at the center of the October swirl, only miles from where this odyssey started, he had to learn what would get him here, and for that he had to leave.

His journey began more than a decade ago, when the Reds selected him in the seventh round of the draft. In three seasons with Cincinnati, Turner didn't hit his way to the big club, but he took the value of a well-structured organization that was in lockstep at every level of the farm system. The philosophies and jargon were the same, so as the players moved, their coaches at each level literally were speaking the same language. "It's something the Dodgers, I think, are trying to nail down here," Turner says.

The Rooster, former big league shortstop Rick Burleson, was among those in Cincinnati who left an impression. "He was a grinder, a competitor who instilled that fight in you," says Turner, whose consistently dirt-stained uniforms have become a nightly tribute to the Rooster and that fight.

He name-checks several other minor league instructors in Cincinnati too. Men like Freddie Benavides (infield instructor), Ronnie Ortegon (hitting instructor), Darren Bragg (hitting instructor), Ryan Jackson (hitting instructor) and Jamie Dismuke (hitting instructor). Grinders like him, baseball lifers he appreciates. From small moments, big moments come.

From Baltimore, he took the skills to play third base in the big leagues. Then, when the Orioles called him up for 12 games that September, that's mostly where he played.

The window in Baltimore closed practically before it opened. Following his brief taste of the bigs in '09, there was no room for him on the Orioles' Opening Day roster in 2010.

Turner didn't get much time with the Orioles on the major league level, but he learned to play third base, which he has manned for the Dodgers this season.
Turner didn't get much time with the Orioles on the major league level, but he learned to play third base, which he has manned for the Dodgers this season.Richard Drew/Associated Press

"He loved to play. He was patient," says Dave Trembley, Baltimore's manager at the time who now serves as Atlanta's director of player development. "We sent him out [to the minors] in spring training, told him we don't have a spot for you to go and play, and he was great. He said, 'Dave, no problem. I need to get some at-bats.'"

Patience. When the O's called him back early that season, he lasted five games, went 0-for-9 and in late May was claimed off waivers by the Mets.

From New York, he took a kinship with Marlon Byrd, a career-turning introduction to Byrd's hitting guru, Doug Latta, and a close friendship with Mets captain David Wright.

"They gave me a chance to stick around there long enough to get a chance to meet Marlon and talk about hitting," Turner says. "He was relentless. He was on me almost every day about changing my philosophy. Of course, you try to tell a guy already in the major leagues to change his style, it's not easy. It's like, I'm already in the major leagues. Why would I change?"

Byrd didn't arrive in New York until 2013, Turner's last season there.

Late that August, out of contention, the Mets traded Byrd to Pittsburgh.

But the five months he and Byrd were together changed Turner's life.

"By the end of the season, he kind of got to me a little bit," Turner says. "I made some of the adjustments he was talking about. And not only did I make them, I saw the results. I started driving the ball more."

Over 14 games that September, Turner hit .357 with two homers and a .929 OPS.

In his previous 72 games in 2013, Turner had zero homers.

"That small taste intrigued me," Turner says. "I wanted more."

Though he only spent five months with Marlon Byrd in New York, Turner took that time to heart, revamping his swing and becoming more of a power hitter.
Though he only spent five months with Marlon Byrd in New York, Turner took that time to heart, revamping his swing and becoming more of a power hitter.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Byrd invited Turner to work with Latta, who runs a hitting facility in Chatsworth, California, that offseason. Turner wasted no time: At the beginning of the next week after the season ended, he was in the cages with Latta and Byrd.

That winter, he rebuilt his entire swing, adding a leg kick, lowering his hands and emphasizing a weight shift forward during his swing to transfer more power into launching the baseball. Previously, Turner had kept his weight back and concentrated simply on being a contact hitter. Always, he's been blessed with exceptionally quick hands.

"He hit some homers when he was here, but what this guy has done is amazing," Collins, the now-former Mets manager, says. "I think the world of him. He always was a good player. Even as a backup guy, he was tremendous off the bench...and when he had that bat in his hands, he was dangerous.

"He's never been blessed with speed, but he could hit the ball to right field with anybody. He had this swing—I always told him anytime he wanted a hit, he could hit a line drive to right field."

Following his winter of work with Latta, the Dodgers signed Turner on Feb. 6, 2014, just before spring training, on the recommendation of fellow Cal State Fullerton alum and then-Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach, who lobbied then-general manager Ned Colletti on his behalf. Turner responded with a breakout year his first season in Los Angeles, hitting .340/.404/.493 with seven homers and 43 RBI. He slammed 16 homers in '15 and 27 in '16 before finishing with 21 this season.

"I remember seeing him put together a couple of really good at-bats" in the '14 season-opening series in Australia, Dodgers veteran Adrian Gonzalez says of the '14 season-opn. "He made a few plays, and it was, like, 'This guy can play a little.'

"All he needed was a chance."

"I couldn't be any happier for him," says San Diego Padres bench coach Mark McGwire, who was the Dodgers' hitting coach Turner's first two seasons in Los Angeles. "It's so funny how he got a chance to play, with Juan Uribe getting hurt. Then Uribe came back, and Justin was back on the bench, Uribe got hurt, came back again, and Justin was back on the bench."

Turner's dedication to working on his batting stroke has prompted his former Dodgers batting coach, Mark McGwire, to use Turner as an example to other players.
Turner's dedication to working on his batting stroke has prompted his former Dodgers batting coach, Mark McGwire, to use Turner as an example to other players.Alex Gallardo/Associated Press/Associated Press

"He put in hours and hours of unbelievable work," McGwire continues. "I love the way he prepares for a game. I tell these young kids on our team about it: He got on the pitching machine before every game and cranked it up to the highest speed, and all he would try to do was hit balls right back up the middle."

Turner still keeps in touch with Latta, who remains a valuable third-perspective guy beyond current Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward and assistant Tim Hyers.

"He's got an unbelievable eye for the tiniest of adjustments," Turner says.

From the outside, Turner's rebuilt swing isn't the only thing that is noticeably different.

"He's gotten a little hairier," quips Lucas Duda, his former teammate with the Mets who was traded to Tampa Bay in July, "and a little redder."

                                       

DRIVING HOME TO Los Angeles on the first Sunday of July following that afternoon's loss in San Diego, Turner and his fiance, Kourtney, were rattled.

Until then, this season had been one long, unencumbered cruise. The Dodgers were 55-28. Turner led the majors with a .388 batting average and .473 on-base percentage. He had produced the fifth-highest batting average at the All-Star break since 1969, behind only Larry Walker (.398, 1997), Tony Gwynn (.394, 1997), Andres Galarraga (.391, 1993) and Gwynn (.383, 1994).

Yet, here came the speed bump: When the All-Star teams had been announced earlier in the day, Turner had been stiffed.

"I was frustrated," Turner admits. "I was like, if I'm not an All Star now, I don't know if I ever will be."

MLB would name Turner as one of the five NL candidates for the Final Vote competition, a special ballot of theoretically the top five players in each league who just missed the All-Star cut. In a frenzy over the next four days, fans would vote one more time, and clubs would push their players with public relations campaigns.

Away from the noise of the season, Justin and Kourtney talked quietly inside the black SUV as they covered the miles back to Los Angeles.

"We just decided that, you know what, we can feel bad for ourselves and have a pity party, or we can try to go for it and get active on social media and try to get people to vote and do everything we can to try to get there," Turner says.

Over the next four days, the Dodgers' enormous traveling fan club, Pantone 294 (technically, the name for the color Dodger blue), set up shop at Dodger Stadium with some 20 computers, manning them 24 hours a day. An appreciative and humbled Turner stopped in to visit and say thanks when he could—after batting practice, after games. One night, he ordered delivery of a whole fleet of Starbucks coffees.

When the final results were announced that Thursday, not only did Turner win, but he did so with a Final Vote-record 20.8 million votes.

Yessir, it was happening again: Why wouldn't he have to wait four days longer than all of the other All-Stars to be anointed as one of them?

"I'm 32 years old. I don't know how many more opportunities I'm going to have to play in an All-Star Game. For the fanbase not only in L.A., but around the country, around world, to get behind me and support me way they did, set a record in votes, was incredible. That's an experience I'll never forget."

Now, 12 years into his professional career, Turner heads into a month that could provide the exclamation point on a baseball life that stretches back to the days he spent lying sprawled out on the floor at his grandparents' house, watching Kirk Gibson slam a homer and the Dodgers shock the Oakland A's in the 1988 World Series.

Now, he could help the Dodgers win their first title since '88.

"He's a guy who's always been a leader in his own right, but the road he's endured, to stabilize himself as a major league player and as an All-Star, to see that unfold..." manager Dave Roberts says. "I empower him a lot in our clubhouse because he believes in what I believe in. He's all about team first. Certain guys just command the respect of their teammates, and J.T.'s at the top of the list."

People listen to him, a quality that has lifted him into a sort of unofficial co-captaincy role along with well-decorated veteran Chase Utley. When All-Star closer Kenley Jansen briefly wobbled last summer, it was Turner who quietly approached him in a back room and said, Look, I know blowing a save sucks. I know you're pissed. But you are going to get 'em tomorrow; you've got to deal with it. Now go talk to the media and move on.

He knows because he's been in similar straits before. There was that night in New York in 2011, when then-Mets closer Jason Isringhausen was closing in on his 300th career save and Turner fielded a ground ball, lurched to tag the runner going to second, missed, then turned and fired to first, air-mailing the throw over Duda's head. The Mets lost, and Turner wanted to melt right into the earth. Afterward, his close friend David Wright found and counseled him.

"I felt terrible," Turner says. "I came into the locker room after the game scared to death to face the media. I was doing everything in my power to avoid it. I was in the weight room, the training room, and David came in and got me and said, 'Hey, you're going to help us win more games than you're going to lose. Let's go out and talk to the media. They're going to ask questions. Just tell the truth. Just tell them what happened, get it over with and be done with it. And show up tomorrow, and we'll win tomorrow's game.'

"That conversation probably went further than any conversation I've had with anyone on a professional level. It'll stick with me. It sticks with me to this day."

Many things have stuck with Turner over all of these years and, in turn, not only have allowed him to stick around, but to set an example that sticks with others.

So take a good look this month: Baseball's Most Unlikely Superstar, beard as ginger as October leaves, swing as crisp as playoff tension, the shape of him leading the Dodgers.

Why, maybe one day he'll even meet his new texting buddy Sheeran, author of his walk-up song, wearer of his jersey, the singer who rocked his world.

"I'm going to try to," Turner says. "I'm not sure when he'll get back to L.A., but if our schedules can meet, I'm going to try. Otherwise, [if it has to be] somewhere else in the country, maybe in the offseason I'll go and check out a show."

                     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.