© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
NEW YORK -- The more things have changed for Rafael Furcal, the more they've stayed the same.
It's October, the Major League playoffs have started, and he's still playing baseball -- just like all those years he spent in Atlanta as the starting shortstop for the perennially playoff-bound Braves.
"I'm always happy to come back to the playoffs," the Los Angeles Dodgers' $39 million shortstop said Tuesday afternoon. "It's a new team, and to come back here makes me proud. The Dodgers have treated me great. I know I made the right decision coming here. Look where we are."
After spending the previous six seasons keeping up with the Joneses -- Chipper and Andruw -- in Atlanta, Furcal went out on his own through the free-agent door last December, signing a three-year contract with the Dodgers that made him, and his family, set for life financially.
But that was the easy part. The expectations matched the money he would make, putting a huge gorilla on his back.
"It was a little tough for me," he said. "Because of the money, some people expect you to be perfect. You hear people say, 'Because of the money he makes, he should be better,' that they're paying me too much, that I'm doing a terrible job. That makes me a little disappointed. Early in the year, I didn't feel 100 percent, but I go to the field every day and do the best I can."
A slow start, initially created by knee surgery that prevented him from properly preparing for Spring Training, followed by a self-induced pressure to prove he is worth the Dodgers' investment in him, raised many eyebrows throughout the Los Angeles area.
He batted .198 (19-for-96) in April, and his defense was not a whole lot better. But as his health improved and he became more comfortable in his new surroundings, everything fell into place. He started performing the way he did during his six solid seasons with the Braves.
"This is one of the best years I have ever had," Furcal said before the Dodgers worked out at Shea Stadium on Tuesday. "I started off bad, but I finished strong. It's not how you start, it's how you finish. I'm really happy we qualified for the playoffs."
Furcal finished the regular season with a .300 batting average, hit a career high-tying 15 home runs and drove in a career-best 63 runs.
The 28-year-old speedster (37 stolen bases) was as integral to the Dodgers' success as he was to the Braves, and several people close to the team say he was the Most Valuable Player on a team that tied for the National League West title and reached the playoffs as the NL Wild Card.
Furcal's former team, meanwhile, is adjusting to a playoff-less offseason for the first time since 1990.
"Bad luck, I guess," Furcal said of the Braves' misfortune in 2006. "Things did not work out for Atlanta. What more can I say? This is a sport, a game, where you never know what is going to happen, who is going to have a good season and who is not. Nobody knew Atlanta was not going to make the playoffs this year. But I really don't think about that anymore. I have a new team now.
"Our goal is to win it all," he added. "It's everybody's goal. We want to play as hard as we can and give it all we have. It is not a secret. The team that plays the best will win. I hope that is us."
Much to his chagrin, that was never the Braves, who went 0-for-5 in the Division Series the last five years.
Maybe the sixth time will be his charm.
"I don't think, in this sport, you can put your head down, or get upset when things don't go your way," he said. "You have to keep working hard, because in this sport, you are always learning and always growing up. Every day you play this game, you learn something. I am no different than any player in that way. Everybody grows."
And Furcal has grown in stature, make no mistake about that.
Former Braves teammate and current Mets pitcher Tom Glavine remembers what Furcal was like when he joined the Braves in 2000.
"I remember a very athletic kid that was aggressive on both sides of the field," he said. "He was a little mistake-prone on the defensive side because he tried to make plays he had no business trying to make, and he was pretty much the same at the plate.
"But he has matured a lot since then, in the field and at the plate."
As current teammate and six-time All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra put it, "He is a lot of fun to watch."