Magic tells team to embrace high expectations
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson showed up in the Dodgers' camp on Friday and addressed the team not as one of its owners, but from the heart, athlete to athletes, as one of the greatest competitors in sports history.
"This Dodger team, I'm feeling good how we really know each other now," Johnson said, alluding to all of the changes that came in 2012. "This city is about expectations. Come on, now, you've got to embrace that. Have fun. Play the game the way you've always played it.
"It's not about expectations, the payroll. We should want to win it. Hey, there have been expectations on them as young men way before now. They were probably the best in high school, in the college they went to. Expectations? I love it. Because it reminds me of the old Dodgers, the old Lakers. I told them, `You all had pressure. We had it too. We loved it.' I'd rather have that than no expectations."
Johnson, who won five NBA titles as ringleader of the "Showtime" Lakers in the 1980s, stopped short of calling this a World Series championship or bust season for the Dodgers.
"We get to the playoffs, it's been a successful season," Johnson said. "I want to win it all, of course. That's the way I am."
The 2012 Dodgers finished second in the National League West to the eventual World Series champion Giants, falling short of landing one of the Wild Card spots that went to the Cardinals and Braves.
Asked about the challenge of competing in the same division as the defending champs, Johnson said he relished the notion, the way he once thrived on competing against Larry Bird and the Celtics.
"That's what it's about," he said. "You've got to beat the best to be the best. I believe both teams can make each other better. That last week of the season [when San Francisco took two of three at Dodger Stadium] helped the Giants win it all. They got momentum. They had something to play for. They were hitting on all cylinders, because they had to beat us.
"We pushed them, and they made us better. With them being in our division, it's going to be a dogfight. Arizona is very good too. That's what it's about. When you're pushed, it makes you keep playing."
The Giants and Dodgers will go at it in the opening series of the season at Dodger Stadium.
Johnson's appearance had nothing to do with the loss of shortstop Hanley Ramirez for an estimated two months with surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. It was the result of a diving attempt at a ground ball made by Ramirez at third base as the Dominican Republic was shutting out Puerto Rico on Tuesday night in San Francisco to win the World Baseball Classic.
"It just happened to come behind him getting hurt," Johnson said. "It's unfortunate. It's something we've got to live through. We want to see him get back on the field as soon as possible.
"One good thing is we dealt with so many injuries last year -- and look what happened. We got a great player -- [Luis] Cruz. He really emerged."
Cruz, the third baseman, and Dee Gordon are the leading options to replace Ramirez at shortstop.
Johnson, whose primary expertise is in the sport that made him famous, is getting brought up to speed on the inner workings of baseball by the likes of Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda and fellow club executives Stan Kasten and Ned Colletti.
Asked about the status of Yasiel Puig, and where the hot-hitting 22-year-old outfielder from Cuba should start the season, Johnson deferred to his baseball guys.
"I don't get into decisions that [Mattingly, Colletti and Kasten] have to make," Johnson said. "They know this game. We trust them. When it comes to decisions like this, they know the game quite well. If [sending him to Triple-A Albuquerque] is what's best for the young man, that's what we're going to do.
"What's great about this organization is that it's one voice, one page. We're happy to have this young man. He's a talent. One thing Stan and Ned wanted to do was build up the farm system, and we're doing that."
Johnson said he began his talk by opening it up to questions. Adrian Gonzalez wondered how Magic used video to prepare for games.
"Matt [Kemp], of course said, `When are we going to play one-on-one?'" Johnson said. "I told him after we win the World Series."
One of the premier leaders in any sport, Johnson said he feels that role on the Dodgers, and any team, comes only in the natural course of things.
"All guys lead in different ways," Johnson said. "Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] led by being quiet -- his approach on the floor. Adrian is a leader. We need Matt to be a rah-rah guy, picking us up. I was probably more like Matt -- more rah-rah, but also getting in their face at the same time. We have what I call the Ellis brothers [Mark and A.J.]. The intensity they play with, they're leaders.
"It'll naturally happen. You don't come in and say, `This is the guy.' I called every guy before the season and said, `Hey, are you getting ready?' I called Mark Ellis first, the way he plays the game, who he is. I went on down the list. We know somebody will step up. We have to wait and see. It's not who Magic thinks. They have to step up."
Embrace the challenge -- and have a blast. That's the Magic Man's message to his Dodgers.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.