Plaschke: Cody Bellinger’s Dodgers homecoming a harsh reminder of a preventable split

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 14: Former Dodger player Cody Bellinger signs autographs.

Cody Bellinger signs autographs for fans at Dodger Stadium before Friday’s game between the Chicago Cubs and Dodgers. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The cap was backward, the smile was wide, the laughter was easy.

But beneath Cody Bellinger’s good humor Friday were his haunting hands.

Throughout a breezy pregame dugout interview with reporters, he continually squeezed his palms together, gripping his thumbs, clasping his fingers, clenching so hard his knuckles briefly turned white.

Those hands that created so many wondrous Dodger memories with so many beautiful swings have returned as hands of pain, unable to hide the regret at being forced from a place where he created so much joy.’

I asked the new Chicago Cubs center fielder if he thought he would be a Dodger forever.

“I think there was definitely … yeah … at one point for sure, you know?” he said haltingly. “But life is not always planned. God works in mysterious ways. I just try to be in the moment and appreciate what comes next for me.”

What came next for him Friday during his first game here since essentially being released by the team last winter was nothing short of tearfully spectacular.

Before the game, the Dodgers honored him with a classy video tribute that ended with, “Welcome back, Cody Bellinger.” The fans proceeded to give him an extended standing ovation while he stood down the right-field line doffing his cap. Later he was so distracted while walking up for his first plate appearance, he was hit with a pitch-clock violation.

The love was deserved. He will forever have a special place in Dodgers history. The entire evening was a giant, justifiable embrace between the lovably spaced-out star and a crowd that always had his back.

But the hands don’t lie. There was more than a tinge of sadness with the first live glimpse of one of the biggest failures in Dodgers history.

There is no way a former most valuable player and rookie of the year should have to be dumped by a team in the prime of his career. Has it ever happened? How could it have happened?

This was a blunder along the lines of the breakup of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. This was so preventable. This was so unnecessary.

The fiasco is so massive the blame extends to both parties. The blunder is so deep it had been more than two years in the making.

The beginning of the end occurred the moment Bellinger engaged in that fateful forearm bash with Kiké Hernández after Bellinger hit the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS.

Bellinger suffered a serious shoulder injury that required surgery. A different body required a new swing. The Dodgers spent the next two seasons trying to create that swing. Bellinger spent the next two seasons unable to fully process and execute their changes.

In the end, the Dodgers didn’t teach well enough and Bellinger didn’t listen well enough and the breakup became inevitable.

“I think the injury had something to do with it, there’s no one answer,” Dodger manager Dave Roberts said Friday. “I think Cody’s got to take some responsibility for it. I think us as coaches have to take responsibility for it. And sometimes maybe a different voice might kind of unlock some things in him because you can’t debate the skill set or the talent.”

This winter the Dodgers would have had to pay at least $18 million to keep him, and can you blame them for saying no? The previous two years he was arguably the worst hitter in baseball, with a .165 average in 2021 and a .265 on-base percentage last season and a fall from grace so steep, he was used only as a pinch-hitter in his final game in last year’s National League Division Series.

When asked to describe Bellinger’s tumble, Roberts said, “I think ‘unique’ is mild. I don’t think it’s ever been done as far as the spectrum of going from National League MVP to the struggles that we’ve seen over the last couple of years.”

The fall hit Bellinger hard. He still can’t talk about it. He spent the spring avoiding Los Angeles reporters and then, when he finally met the mob Friday afternoon, he refused to revisit.

“I don’t want to talk about that right now … I don’t want to bring back … I don’t want to talk about that stuff right now,” he said.

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger slips as he tries to field a single by Colorado's Ryan McMahon on July 5, 2022.

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger slips as he tries to field a single by Colorado’s Ryan McMahon on July 5, 2022. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In saying nothing, Bellinger said everything.

I asked him if there was sadness in all this, and, after a pause, he also declined to go there.

“I wouldn’t say sadness, man … I’m really excited,” he said. “No sadness, maybe I get emotional, but those will be happy tears if they come.”

His happy times here were indeed many. No Dodger had bigger moments in bigger games during the club’s 10-year run of greatness.

“A lot of good memories man,” he said Friday. “A lot, a lot of good memories here.”

What’s your favorite? Is it the go-ahead home run against the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series? How about the leaping catch that saved the Dodgers in the 2020 NLDS against the Padres?

Maybe it was that home run that beat the Braves in the 2020 NLCS? Most fans’ favorite moment is surely the go-ahead single in the ninth inning of the 2021 NLDS against the San Francisco Giants.

My favorite moment is a darker one. After the Dodgers’ Game 7 loss to the Houston Astros in the 2017 World Series, it was noted that Bellinger set a World Series record with 17 strikeouts. He had been wholly embarrassed in the biggest moment of his young career.

Cody Bellinger hits a two-run home run against the Colorado Rockies on June 25, 2017.

Cody Bellinger hits a two-run home run against the Colorado Rockies on June 25, 2017. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

Yet, unlike some others in the mourning Dodger clubhouse, he didn’t run, he didn’t hide, he patiently waited in front of his locker for media members who would be demanding an explanation for his failure. Once they arrived, he patiently stood there and answered every question with dignity and grace.

I’ll never forget that moment of strength. I thought about it Friday as Bellinger sat in the Cubs’ clubhouse twisting his hands like pretzels while hiding his hurt.

“It didn’t end how anyone really expected it to end, but that’s life,” he said.

Bellinger, who signed a one-year deal with the Cubs for $17.5 million, entered the game with two homers, nine RBIs, and a .238 average. He’s doing better, sort of. He’s fixing his swing, maybe.

“You can have fun in this game and try your best, but the business side is the business side, that’s always the harsh reality of it all,” he said.

It was a night marking the return of a piece of Dodger history. It was a homecoming of harsh.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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