For veteran Lilly, 'hunger is still there' to win
In first spring with Dodgers since '98, lefty driven by competition
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- You can learn a lot while carpooling to work.
Jay Gibbons, for example, learned something about teammate Ted Lilly last summer as they made the hour commute to Dodger Stadium for each home game.
"He's a scary driver," said Gibbons. "I close my eyes. I learned he's impatient in L.A. traffic. Fortunately, he's a little more in control on the mound. What else have I learned about Ted? He thinks he can hit, which he can't. I learned he's inquisitive, extremely friendly and he really wants to win. He talks about the Dodgers and what we can do this season and how disappointed he was last season."
When the season opens, the 35-year-old Lilly will be the Dodgers starter with the most Major League experience at 10 years, 102 days (three days less than Vicente Padilla, who will be on the disabled list after surgery).
2010 Spring Training - Los Angeles Dodgers
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Lilly was reacquired by the Dodgers last summer from the Cubs in the trade that also brought Ryan Theriot for Blake DeWitt and two Minor League pitchers. Lilly went 7-4 with a 3.52 ERA after the trade and re-signed with the Dodgers after the season for three years and $33 million, forgoing free agency while setting the market for similar veteran free-agent pitchers. He's had double figures in victories for eight consecutive seasons.
This is Lilly's first Major League Spring Training with the Dodgers since 1998. The Dodgers are on their fifth field manager and seventh general manager since then, but he remembers vividly his first Spring Training at Dodgertown.
"I was with the Dodgers in '97 big league camp," said Lilly. "Pitched in a game, it was the thrill of my life. I remember the outing like it was yesterday. In Kissimmee, played the Astros, Biggio and Bagwell and Bell, 1-2-3. Broke Bagwell's bat. I was 21, just an extra pitcher. Bill Russell was manager. Dave Wallace was the pitching coach."
Lilly was on the verge of making it to Los Angeles back then, but was dealt to Montreal in the Carlos Perez deal and his big league odyssey began. Six stops, 113 wins, $83 million in career earnings, two All-Star teams. And now, back with the team that drafted him in the 23rd round out of Fresno City Junior College.
"Amazing how it happens," he said. "I never thought it would happen. The longer I play the more I appreciate it and want to extend my career. I knew it would be difficult. I had doubts when I was young, got my butt kicked a lot, sent down to Triple-A and you see guys get released and you realize how tough it is to stick around."
Lilly, having appeared in three postseasons, said he's still driven by the competition and the desire to win it all.
"I've never felt comfortable," he said. "Whenever I start to, I'm gone in about 2 1/3 innings. There's a certain edge I feel I need to have. It's a hunger you have when you've first started, you want it so bad you're willing to do anything to get there. The hunger is still there and I'll do everything I can to stay here."
Lilly said he doesn't worry about justifying the contract. It's not his first. The Cubs gave him a four-year, $40 million deal, and he responded in the first year, 2007, with one of his best -- 15-8, 3.83, 207 innings.
"I understand the expectations," he said of playing with a new contract. "At the same time, the one thing I can control is my effort. I always feel like the club not only expects effort but my best performance. We expect that as teammates. There are going to be periods when players give everything they have as a pitcher and you don't get guys out. It's part of the game. Those are the periods you grind through, even if you have to improvise.
"You have to answer to yourself. I would never be OK with putting it in cruise control. I've failed under pressure in my career and in my life. I will always continue to look forward to the opportunity to be in that situation when there is pressure. It could be here, on the golf course, wherever it may be. Everyone has something they are passionate about. I love those situations. But I hate to fail. I had to learn to deal with it, deal with failure."
Lilly credits former Cubs teammate Ryan Dempster for being his biggest professional influence.
"A unique, very special human being," said Lilly. "As a player, definitely as a person. Best example I know of living in the moment, life to its fullest. I learned a lot from watching him appreciate everything he has at the end of the day."
And taking that baton, Lilly has become an influence on a young left-hander.
"He always wants to talk baseball," said Clayton Kershaw. "With him and [Randy] Wolf, I've had two left-handed starters to work with. Teddy is more about preaching the mind-set and the mentality, go 100 percent after the hitter. He asks a lot of questions. He wants to know what you're thinking. He's really easy to talk to."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.