Count Cody Bellinger among the Los Angeles sports fans enjoying the Lonzo Ball Show this summer, but don’t think for a second he wishes it was the Cody Bellinger Show.
Bellinger, the Dodgers’ 22-year-old phenom and the overwhelming favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year award, is a microcosm for his team: a reserved, wide-eyed player with immense talent who is laser-focused on delivering the team its first championship since 1988. Born and raised in a suburb of Phoenix, Bellinger hasn’t let his newfound celebrity status in a major city sidetrack his mission.
“I’m a laid-back guy, so being all over TV … that’s cool, but at the end of the day, it’s whatever,” Bellinger said. “They can have cameras following [Lonzo] all over the place.”
Bellinger met Ball at Dodger Stadium last month when Ball threw out the first pitch shortly after the NBA draft. Despite the constant noise surrounding his fellow rookie, Bellinger called Ball a “cool, laid-back guy” and said he enjoyed meeting someone on a similar career trajectory in the same city.
Bellinger’s assessment of Ball’s personality notwithstanding, nothing about Ball’s arrival (or rather, his continued presence) in Los Angeles has been laid-back. For weeks, SportsCenter has opened each morning with a look at what Ball did the night before in games that are, no exaggeration, the preseason for the NBA preseason. On the way to Ball winning Summer League MVP, his every shoe choice, tweet, and minor bruise was a national headline, with the media attention making it seem like the meaningless July games were meant to have been played a month earlier.
About all the Dodgers and Lakers have in common these days are the city they share and the goal of bringing ticker-tape parades back to Los Angeles. While the Lakers, who won just 26 games last year, are the subject of an ongoing media frenzy stemming from the additions of team president Magic Johnson (who, coincidentally, is also involved in running the Dodgers) and their anointed rookie savior Ball, the Dodgers have quietly emerged as the best team in baseball, posting a 66-29 record thus far while opening up a 11-game lead on the second-place Rockies.
The Dodgers, led by Bellinger, have been one of the most important stories in baseball this season yet have fallen short of national hysteria. The contributing factors: the rise of Aaron Judge, the surprising struggles of the defending champion Cubs and at least partially, a national obsession with Ball, his summer league performances and his loud-mouth dad.
At the same time most of these summer league games are happening, the Dodgers are dominating opponents in meaningful regular season games. So does that mean the Dodgers are bothered by the constant attention in their own city about a guy who hasn’t yet played a professional minute?
“It’s fine,” said Dodgers all-star shortstop Corey Seager. “Lonzo is gonna be a great player. I don’t think anyone on our team really wants to soak up the glory. We’re going out there, competing and trying to bring home a championship is all anybody is really worried about. Nobody is being selfish. That’s what’s great about our clubhouse. Nobody wants to be in the spotlight, but someone ends up being in it every night.”
LA, a city long loaded with superstars like Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Wayne Gretzky, and Kobe Bryant, is in a bit of uncharted territory with these Dodgers. Despite being the best team in baseball and having six players in Miami as all-stars last week, the club doesn’t have a willing superstar, even if it does have someone who most consider the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw.
“I don’t really love all the marketing and all that stuff,” Kershaw said. “I think starting pitchers are hard, going once every five days. You have to have a really outgoing personality, so it’s hard.”
The most sensible choice for the face of the Dodgers is Bellinger, who added to his growing legend by hitting for the cycle against the Marlins last Saturday. Since making his debut April 25, the first baseman/outfielder has cemented himself as one of the game’s best, hitting .273/.356/.635 line with 26 home runs and 62 RBI in just 74 games. That start is even more impressive considering the hype-free start to Bellinger’s major-league career — he was originally thought of as a temporary outfield plug with Joc Pederson and Franklin Gutierrez injured in late April.
But Bellinger, like Kershaw, isn’t one for the spotlight. The son of a former second-round pick who spent 11 seasons in the minors only to see limited action in 183 major-league games, Bellinger is as humble as they come, speaking softly with a sheepish grin despite growing up alongside his dad in the Yankees clubhouse, starring in the 2007 Little League World Series and now, being the star player on the best team in baseball.
Bellinger, who turned 22 last week, attributes his seamless transition to major-league life to his teammates, listing Seager, Joc Pederson, and veterans Justin Turner, Adrian Gonzalez, and Andre Ethier as key influences.
“The guys in this clubhouse are unbelievable to me,” Bellinger said. “They make it really easy on me to be a young guy and let me come in and get my work done. It’s LA, but I’m just having fun with it.”
Kershaw’s calm demeanor has been a staple of his 10 seasons with the Dodgers, leading some to call him boring and others to commend him for not getting caught up in on-field scuffles like fiery Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner. Though Bellinger has only been around for less than three months, some Dodgers have noticed that he possesses some of the same quiet leadership traits.
“[Bellinger] is just very humble,” said lefty Alex Wood. “There are a lot of comparisons to Clayton, in terms of their personalities. He’s very down to earth, very humble. Just takes things a day at a time and expects a lot out of himself.”
That calm humility comes in stark contrast to the persona of the next-generation Lakers, led by their former superstar Johnson. The team’s pre-draft flirtation with Ball, whose father, LaVar, allowed his son to work out for the Lakers and only the Lakers, flowed seamlessly into a summer of dreaming of Ball forming a big three with superstars LeBron James and Paul George in free agency next year.
The Dodgers don’t have player with his own $495 shoe, a dad who screams about his son to anyone who will listen, or a reality show following his family … and that’s just the way they like it. Bellinger will never be that guy, instead likely making headlines only for his on-field play and lack of knowledge about 1990s sitcom stars.
Though Bellinger may not get the reference, his talent is real, and it’s spectacular. So spectacular, in fact, that even he, as humble as they come, can sit back and admire it.
“I don’t think in your wildest dreams you’d expect to be called up to the big leagues and have this kind of success,” he said.