Hometown hero Justin Turner wore LA on his sleeve and wore the city in his heart

Los Angeles, California, August 22, 2022 - Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner at Dodger Stadium.

Justin Turner sits in the Dodger Stadium dugout during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on August 22. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He was never their best player. He was never their biggest star.

He never won a batting title. He never scored a golden glove. He never signed a historic contract.

It took a massively organized effort to vote him into his first All-Star Game. When his team reached the final of its only championship, he wasn’t even on the field.

Despite being in the midst of the greatest nine-year stretch in franchise history, Justin Turner was never the most famous, celebrated, or successful Dodger.

But he was the Dodger who drew baseballs for military heroes. He was the Dodger who handed out lunches to kids. He was the Dodger that smoothed the waters in the clubhouse. He was the Dodger that turned the field.

He once hit a walk-off playoff home run on the anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s blast. He once kept a title with a dive tag in baseline chalk. He would saunter forever toward home plate with a pine tar stain on his back and a playful gleam in his eye.

Then there was that red hair and shaggy beard, what a delightful sight, as colorful and wild and confused as the city he represented, perhaps the most famous hairy display in the history of Southland sports.

Turner wasn’t the best Dodger, but he was the best of the Dodgers and, my, how Los Angeles will miss him.

Earlier this week, free agent Turner agreed to a two-year contract with the Boston Red Sox worth approximately $22 million, ending the Dodgers’ most unlikely powerful community bond.

He ended up in the scrap heap here, snatched up by the New York Mets after the 2013 season, scooped up by shrewd former general manager Ned Colletti, got a million dollars and a minor league contract.

Nine years later, he had helped the Dodgers to eight division championships and three World Series appearances as he evolved from benchwarmer to legend with his accessibility, inclusiveness, and homey charm.

“A historic Dodger,” Colletti said this week.

The conclusion to that history was both expected and impeccable. The Dodgers wanted to keep him and were competitive in their one-year bid, but they were understandably unwilling to go two years for a 38-year-old who had slowed down the field. Turner wanted to end his career here, but it’s impossible to begrudge him the extra $11 million he’ll earn in Boston.

He’s gone, but will forever be remembered by a fanbase who eventually felt so close that they stopped calling him by his formal name.

To everyone, the nice and cool third baseman was just “JT”

“He was the kind of player fans never forget, not because of how he played, but because of who he was,” said Colletti.

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner wears a cap honoring legendary broadcaster Vin Scully.

Then-Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner wears a cap honoring legendary broadcaster Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 5. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

A Lakewood resident and Cal State Fullerton product, JT was a neighbor and he acted that way.

He gave away countless tickets. He posed for countless selfies. On that miraculous night in 2017, celebrating the anniversary of Gibson’s achievement, he talked about watching Gibson’s homer from his grandfather’s living room.

This was his backyard. He hugged everyone in it. He was one of the emcees of the LA Marathon after it started in Chavez Ravine. He was also the sole owner of what became one of Chavez Ravine’s most important traditions.

During every home game at Dodger Stadium, after a veteran was honored on the field, JT stopped them at the dugout, shook their hands, and handed JT an autographed baseball. He never publicized it and did it so quietly it was easy to miss, but every veteran noticed and several have said it was the best part of being honored.

“I always knew he respected being a Dodger and knew what it was like,” Colletti said. “He took it to heart and the responsibility that comes with it.”

JT believed much of that responsibility had to do with leading his younger teammates, and he did, helping countless struggling kids become effective contributors, standing up for berated rookies, calming stressed veterans, serving as a liaison between the players and manager Dave Roberts, manning his back corner box as if it were an anchor. He was Derek Jeter of the Dodgers.

“You know JT is such a cornerstone of the franchise and has meant so much to me personally in everything he does on and off the field,” Clayton Kershaw told MLB Network on Monday, later adding: “You see just him and his mannerisms and attitude every day you just go to the ballpark and think you’re gonna win the game when you see him that’s the compliment I can’t give everyone so you know we’re gonna miss him, I’m going to miss him. It will be so weird not to have him in the clubhouse.”

That leadership extended to the field, where he often turned up big in the biggest moments. At a time when other better-paid Dodgers often failed in October, he recorded an .830 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with 13 home runs and 42 RBIs in 86 postseason games.

“He was the kind of player fans never forget, not because of how he played, but because of who he was.”

Former Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti

Dodgers' Justin Turner strikes during a game against the Colorado Rockies.

Justin Turner bats for the Dodgers during a game against the Colorado Rockies on October 5 at Dodger Stadium. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

His three-run, walk-off homer in Game 2 of the 2017 National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs helped the Dodgers jump to the World Series while earning him the NLCS most valuable player award.

Perhaps just as convincing was his dive tag from Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson at the third baseline in Game 7 of the 2020 NLCS to push the Dodgers back to the World Series.

It was after that World Series clincher against the Tampa Bay Rays that JT’s Dodgers career briefly took off as he returned to the field to celebrate unmasked with his teammates despite being sidelined due to a positive COVID test earlier in the match.

He did something stupid and dangerous, but later apologized, saying he couldn’t bear to watch the trophy celebration from the trainers’ room because a championship was “the pinnacle of everything I’ve worked for in my career”.

Fans understood. Fans forgave. His subsequent two seasons here were filled with loud ovations and endless pine tar stains and many more signed baseballs.

His last interview as Dodger was typical. The team had just been stunned by the San Diego Padres in the National League Division Series in early October, and he stood in front of his locker with his cap on backwards and his beard glowing red.

Mike DiGiovanna of The Times asked him if this loss was worse than previous postseason failures.

“They’re all bad,” he said.

That was JT, speaking like a fan, speaking to the fans, wearing the emotions of Los Angeles on his sleeve, leaving an imprint as lasting as that hair, from the junkyard to the heart of a city, the Dodgers’ Dodger , the best of the best.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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