Wiedmer: Kasten, Honeycutt hope Dodgers can replicate Braves

Wiedmer: Kasten, Honeycutt hope Dodgers can replicate Braves

October 4th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Rick Honeycutt

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

ATLANTA -- In a little more than two hours it would be all about the competing players on the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves. About hitting and pitching and defense, which L.A. had a good deal more of than the Braves on Thursday night in winning the first game of this best-of-five National League Division Series 6-1.

But before it began, Turner Field basking in a setting sun, L.A. pitching coach Rick Honeycutt looked around the Ted and said of the Braves franchise, "They've set the standard. They'e what the Dodgers want to be."

Arguably the best baseball player to come out of the Chattanooga area, the former Lakeview High School and University of Tennessee star is now 59 and seven years into sculpting the standard for major league pitching staffs.

The Dodgers have the best cumulative earned run average in the major leagues since 2006. Now all they need is their first world championship since 1988, when Kirk Gibson launched that magical homer against the A's, then hobbled around the base paths as announcer Jack Buck shouted, "I don't believe what I just saw!"

But we digress. Nearly destroyed in the spring by the pitching losses of Chad Billingsly and Josh Beckett, a dismal 12 games under .500 on June 21, the Dodgers won 42 of their next 50 games, the second-best stretch over a 50-game span by any major league team since 1900.

"We just had so many injuries early," Honeycutt said Thursday. "And we couldn't get any offense going. I think everybody associates the offense turning around with [Yasiel] Puig, and he certainly was a big factor. But that's also about the time Hanley [Ramirez] got healthy."

Now in his ninth big-league season, Ramirez is playing in his first postseason series after batting .345 and leading the majors with a .638 slugging percentage among players with at least 300 at-bats.

But it's the pitchers -- as always for us old enough to recall Koufax, Drysdale, Valenzuela and Hershiser -- that best define the Dodgers. Thursday starter Clayton Kershaw, tonight's starter Zack Greinke and Sunday starter Hyun-Jin Ryu are merely the latest in the long blue line. How special are those three? Kershaw led the National League in ERA, Greinke was fourth, the rookie Ryu eighth.

"That was the first thing Stan and I talked about," Honeycutt said of Dodgers president and part-owner Stan Kasten, who was president of the Braves when the organization became the benchmark for organizational excellence in the 1990s. "He said, 'We've got to get great pitching.' Since Stan once had three guys named Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, he obviously knew what he was talking about."

Befitting someone who played at UT and grew up in Georgia, Honeycutt can also talk college football, especially with the Volunteers and Bulldogs facing off at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.

But even if he doesn't believe UT will win -- "I'd probably pick it Georgia 42, Tennessee 20," Honeycutt said -- his week got off to a pretty good start when he learned that Southern Cal had fired former UT coach Lane Kiffin.

"I know there have been a lot of other factors, but that guy almost destroyed the football program," he said.

If there is an exact opposite of Kiffin in major league baseball it's Kasten, who's helped build playoff teams in Atlanta, Washington and L.A., where he's now in his second year.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Kasten said of the 1990s, when the Braves reached five World Series, winning it all in 1995. "It was hard building it. But it was built to last, and it has."

He has wasted little time in planning for a similar long run of success by the Dodgers. Already on the drawing board are $100 million worth of improvements to Dodger Stadium. As for the $2.15 billion Kasten's ownership group -- including Magic Johnson -- paid for the franchise, Kasten recently told the Washington Post, "When people ask, 'Why'd you pay so much?' I say, 'Because it's worth a whole lot more than that.'"

Indeed, the Dodgers not only led the majors in attendance this season but recently completed a long-term television deal that could be worth $8 billion or more.

And, at least for now, he's downplaying all rumors that he might succeed Bud Selig as baseball commissioner.

"His job is way more important," Kasten told the Post. "But mine is a lot more fun."

Yet as much fun as both men appear to be having in L.A/, both still call Georgia home. Rick and Debbie live in Ringgold. Kasten and his wife Helen still live in Atlanta, though he admits, "I spend 95 percent of my time these days in L.A.."

Not that Kasten has a soft spot in his heart for the Braves this week.

"I couldn't care less," he said while wearing a blue and white dress shirt and a Dodger Blue linen sports coat. "My goal is for us to win three playoff series in October. I don't care who we beat."

Yet he does still wear his 1995 Braves World Series ring from time to time. Sometimes he even shows it to the Dodgers -- "just to let them know what we're playing for."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.