Justin Turner went from a big-league castoff to a postseason rockstar. The coolest Dodger is rocking a fluffy, fiery orange beard and his very long red hair. The All-Star third baseman has gone from a journeyman to one of baseball’s most interesting players and etched his name into Dodgers lore.
Before letting his beard grow and grow, Turner grew up in Lakewood, a city about 30 minutes south of Dodger Stadium. Before reaching new heights, he was a below-average big leaguer, not a star, but decent enough to be a utilityman. No beard. No long hair. It was certainly no guarantee that he would ever become a major leaguer. He had dreams of one day playing baseball at Cal State Fullerton. That was his bigger dream than making it to the big leagues.
He was ready to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, to begin a promising career at CSUF, a university where his father’s best friend, Rick Vanderhook, was an assistant coach for one of the nation’s most recognized programs known for its history and continued success. Turner’s long journey began in his freshman year of college, when he was a Titan from 2003-06, winning a national championship in 2004. He was the Titans batboy as a kid, a lifelong Dodgers fan, and that one lucky guy who lived out his dream. His old coach at Mayfair High, Frank Ravelo, bragged constantly about him being a hard-working kid, dedicated and very coachable, even though schools hardly showed interest in recruiting a player who wasn’t a high-ceiling prospect.
The 32-year-old Long Beach native passed through three organizations before the Dodgers signed him in 2014. He was a late bloomer, in his early 30s when he reinvented himself in L.A., and apparently without a foreseeable future in the sport, he transformed his career from an undiscovered role player to a postseason hero. Beyond his transcendent talent Turner’s intense drive pushed him to take no for an answer and hone his craft to become a pure hitter. With a love for baseball, he epitomized a never-quit attitude and completely changed his swing mechanics with Doug Latta, a private hitting instructor in his native Southern California.
The free-spirited, self-willed Dodgers star is so Hollywood and had remarkably imitated a Gibson moment that came in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. That’s right it was a three-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth and it carved out his legacy as he has played a central role in the Dodgers offense. At age 3, he recalls the moment when he sat on a living room floor inside his grandmother’s house in Lakewood and watched the 1988 World Series on TV, seeing Kirk Gibson hit the most memorable home run in Dodgers history. But now he’s a breakout star of the postseason, creating indelible memories of his own.
From his father, John, Turner learned the importance of work ethic. From early childhood, he remembers his dad buying him a plastic T-ball set for a Christmas gift and teaching him how to play the game when he was about 3 years old. Once in a while, Turner watches himself in a home video sliding down a slide, grabbing the bat and hitting the ball off the tee. A machinist for a living, his old man would leave from his work in Long Beach to coach Justin’s youth team, and then return back to the office at 10 or 11 p.m. As an adolescent, he played travel ball on a team his dad coached.
Now he finds himself in the big leagues. He’s now a Dodgers legend, living in a suburban city outside Los Angeles, playing at an All-Star level in the postseason and turning into Mr. October. For Turner, the impact he’s had on the Dodgers was an opportunity to prove that he is more than just an obscure player. And nobody is more surprised by his postseason at-bats than George Horton, Turner’s former CSUF coach who now coaches at the University of Oregon.
He loved Turner like his own son in part because he was a good kid. What drove Turner was his dedication, his intellect and burning desire to be great. And, no, he wasn’t in every list of baseball’s top prospects. True, he probably didn’t have any necessarily major-league skills. True, he probably was a below-average runner, an inefficient hitter, Horton once told a newspaper. But he was very smart, upbeat and pretty engaging. This is how Horton described him.
When Turner was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the seventh round in 2006, a year after his senior season at Fullerton, baseball seemed like it wasn’t his calling. Faced with such uncertainty, in his first step toward a promising future in baseball, he was thrown into a multi-player trade to Baltimore in exchange for a backup catcher. The New York Mets picked him up off waivers when he was 25 and made him a utility player for three seasons. Playing wherever they put him, Turner was competing for an everyday job somewhere in the lineup. Although he hit .357 when he was a member of the Mets, he didn’t get much of an opportunity to showcase his power during his time spent in New York. He was more of a reserve player than an everyday starter — not much of a fixture but a fill-in infielder. All of which Turner was released after the 2013 season. When he briefly was a Met, he was a less treasured commodity, he couldn’t earn a significant number of at-bats, let alone pile on runs.
The Dodgers simply believed in him. A few days before the 2014 season began, the organization signed him to a minor league deal with a non-roster invitation to spring training. When he was 29, he made the club he grew up rooting for as a utility infielder.
After Turner took his stance, worked on his swing hours every day, he found a home at home, and has stayed home. Because he hit .340 his first year, with a regal franchise in a star-driven city, he earned a starting spot for the first time in his career.
This season, especially in October, he has emerged as the unlikely superstar, the most famous guy in Hollywood and arguably the most productive hitter in the postseason. He’s the catalyst for a team with baseball’s best record.
It wasn’t long ago that the Dodgers re-signed Turner to a four-year, $64 million deal. It was uncertain whether he would ever make it in the big leagues. He made it. For that, the Dodgers are getting their money’s worth and spent real money on him.
It’s been a crazy roller-coaster ride for Turner, and he has come a long way to get to where he is today. The Dodgers just need four victories to secure the 2017 World Series title. For a guy who made it to the majors, he couldn’t ask for anything better than this.