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Notes: Team dinner a turning point

Dodgers notes: Dinner a turning point

NEW YORK -- Management's theory on what turned around the Dodgers' season has less to do with home plates and more to do with dinner plates.

The season's low point was the 13th loss in 14 games coming out of the All-Star break, a July 26 game in which center fielder Kenny Lofton lost a first-inning fly ball in the sun at Dodger Stadium and cameras caught pitcher Brad Penny and Lofton in a finger-pointing dugout spat.

"We lost that game on a Wednesday and came into the clubhouse," recalled third-base coach Rich Donnelly, "and [manager] Grady [Little] says, 'We've got a day off Monday when we fly to Cincinnati, and we're all going to dinner. All of us. Everybody. It's mandatory.'"

The Dodgers had a day off at home the day after the Penny-Lofton confrontation. They finished out the homestand by sweeping a three-game series against Washington, then flew into Cincinnati on July 31.

While the team was in the air, general manager Ned Colletti acquired Greg Maddux, a move credited in some parts as the defining moment of 2006. Others might vote for the departure of Odalis Perez days earlier. Perez alienated teammates and club officials, and nobody seemed sorry to see him leave.

Maddux had not yet joined the club when it was being bussed to the world famous Cincinnati barbeque rib emporium, Montgomery Inn, where acting traveling secretary Billy DeLury, who began working for the Dodgers in Brooklyn, had arranged reservations for 40.

Every player showed up. Little kept the mood light with a brief welcome, then it was slabs of ribs, bottles of beer and a collection of frustrated ballplayers becoming a team.

From a "two-week All-Star break" that plunged the Dodgers into last place, they did a complete and immediate turnaround, reeling off 17 wins in 18 games and finishing in a first-place tie.

Must have been pretty good ribs.

Must have been a pretty good idea.

"I think it did a lot for us," Little said of the team dinner. "I wanted everyone there and I think it told everyone exactly what I thought about somebody pointing fingers: Don't do it. Penny picked up the bill, like $5,000. And the same day, Maddux showed up, so it was a big day for us."

Derek Lowe said the dinner was a turning point.

"We were struggling, and there was the mishap with the two players, and Grady thought it would be good to get everyone together," said Lowe. "I'm a fan of team dinners. You can come closer together in ways you can't do just being on the field. I'd say it definitely helped."

Boston leftovers: Game 1 starter Lowe told reporters he believed that Little would have been dismissed by the Red Sox after the 2003 season even if they had won the World Series.

Little agreed.

"There was a difference in philosophy," Little said. "They wanted somebody to go by the numbers and stats more than I was. It was a difference of opinion."

But Little said rumors that he would arrive at the ballpark and find a lineup sent by management on his desk were untrue.

"They never told me about running the team," he said. "Nothing was said about stats until after we lost."

Colletti takes respite: Colletti was only half-kidding when he said that he's had a 48-hour respite from anxiety -- the time between Saturday's clinching and Monday's travel day. The anxiety, he said, is building up again.

"Last night's sleep was the toughest I've had in the last five days," he said.

Colletti said that John Barr and Vance Lovelace, who teamed as advance scouts of the Mets for the final two weeks of the regular season, would remain with this series for consulting purposes instead of advancing possible opponents for the next round.

"They've seen the Mets over and over and they might see something different, and we need to know what they're changing," said Colletti. "They are our experts on the Mets. A lot of teams send their advance guys on to the next series. We'll keep them here, and if there's something they see, we can adjust to it."

Nomar not tentative: Nomar Garciaparra took a swing Friday night that took his breath away, because it aggravated his already painful oblique muscle strain. He missed the final two games of the regular season, but will be in the starting lineup for Wednesday's Game 1.

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"It's not like it happens on a certain pitch or with a certain swing," he said. "There's nothing I can do to prevent it. I'll just play the game and see what happens. I just took batting practice, and it actually feels pretty good right now."

Garciaparra was asked about not being able to face former teammate Pedro Martinez, who will miss the series with his own injury.

"I'm just more concerned about his health," Garciaparra said. "He's a good friend, and I hope he's all right and will get better. I hope to have a chance to talk to him while we're here. But I haven't yet had a chance to try to reach him."

Tomko a work of art: Reliever Brett Tomko has already come up with a strong performance in the postseason. His watercolor painting is on the cover of the Dodgers' postseason media guide.

The picture features Dodger Stadium as a backdrop with rookies in the foreground that have made significant contributions in 2006 -- Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley, Russell Martin and James Loney. Tomko put last names on the backs of players, even though those won't return to Dodgers uniforms until next season.

Cheerleader: Eric Gagne's future with the Dodgers is unclear because of his free agency and injury history, but he's sure been acting like he's part of the team lately.

Admittedly in the background most of the year while recovering from two operations, Gagne was one of the most visible revelers after Saturday's clinching, and he has been in the clubhouse, front and center, even if he isn't active.

"I'm a Dodger fan," he said. "I'm proud of the guys. They've overcome a lot of adversity. Even though I didn't contribute at all, I'm a Dodger."

Gagne said he carries a little guilt about his inability to contribute.

"You always feel that way," he said. "You can't control injuries, and it's frustrating, because you know what you can do when you're healthy -- and I couldn't get healthy. They paid me $10 million to cheerlead. It might be hard to understand, but there's a lot of responsibility that comes with $10 million. It's a lot of money. You get hurt, you can't contribute, it's frustrating."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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