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Dodgers follow lead of relaxed, steady Adrian

Veteran first baseman provides consistent leadership, maturity in loose clubhouse @RichardJustice

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez could have passed for the happiest guy on earth last summer.

"I think everybody loved him," teammate Hanley Ramirez said.

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The Dodgers were reborn in 2013 in all sorts of ways. They won the National League West for the first time since 2009. They did it with one of the greatest runs any team has ever had, going 42-8 between June 21 and August 17. In that time, they went from last place to first, from 9 1/2 games down to 8 1/2 games up.

Those 50 games changed the Dodgers, delivering on the promise the franchise's new ownership had made a year earlier.

Additionally, something almost magical happened inside the clubhouse. Players who'd been acquired from here, there and everywhere became a strong, cohesive group.

Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti called it the best clubhouse environment with which he'd ever been associated. There was Yasiel Puig's youth and fire, Clayton Kershaw's brilliance and Ramirez proving he's still one of the best offensive players on the planet.

"If you play the game the right way and you play hard and go out there and have fun, you'll come together," Gonzalez said.

Amid it all, there was Gonzalez, the quiet, steady one, the 10-year veteran, rock solid as always. Only thing is, this Adrian Gonzalez seemed different. To say it was any kind of rebirth would be silly.

In his eight full seasons with three teams, Gonzalez has been numbingly consistent, averaging 159 games, 38 doubles, 28 home runs and 71 walks. It would be impossible to find a single bad season in any of those eight. He finished in the Top 20 in MVP Award balloting six times and made four All-Star teams.

In fact, it's that consistency, that grind-it-out-every-day attitude, that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly points to when asked about Gonzalez's leadership.

"Adrian's not a talkative, loud-type leader," Mattingly said. "He's the guy who shows up every day, does his work and goes on the field. He quietly, slowly gets his hits, drives in his runs, plays defense. I think his role was being himself, honestly."

And maybe that's one of the things that helped make the Dodgers special. A bunch of guys had big years, but Mattingly also created an environment in which players accepted and supported one another.

"I think that's the beauty of our clubhouse is that everybody's themselves," Mattingly said. "Hopefully, that just kind of continues to evolve. Some of our older guys, just being themselves is all we're asking."

What changed last season was that Gonzalez, once so reserved, allowed his emotions to show. He clowned with Puig in the dugout, mimicked Mickey Mouse ears on the bases after big hits and may have set a personal record for smiling.

Gonzalez clearly fed off those 50,000 fans at Dodger Stadium, and they absolutely loved him. That trade from the Red Sox to the Dodgers in 2012 turned out all right.

"The crowds were there when we were losing," he said, "and that made it more special to go out there and win some games for them and get in the playoffs. You know, you always hear about the crowds when they're winning, but when they're out there when we're losing, that shows a lot about what kind of fan base we have."

Gonzalez fed off Puig, too, and the winning and off the whole experience of helping one of baseball's crown jewel franchises get back to the postseason.

"I think it goes more with the group of guys we have," he said. "We have guys that are fun to be around. You know, we have fun with each other. So I think it has more to do with our clubhouse."

Yes, winning helps in team building. But experience and maturity and having guys who've been through almost everything is important, too.

"If you play the game the right way and you play hard and go out there and have fun, you'll come together," Gonzalez said. "I was having a lot of fun. When you win, everything's fun. I think any season when I've been on a winning team has been fun."

The Dodgers begin the 2014 season with high hopes. To get as far as Game 6 of the NL Championship Series as they did in '13 has set the bar in a high place for this one. Cue the magic.

"Oh yeah," Gonzalez said. "We've got a good thing."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Adrian Gonzalez