Monday, Aug. 1, 2005 | 9:27 a.m.
It was Sunday afternoon at Cashman Field, and things seemed out of place in the Las Vegas 51s' clubhouse.
Across the room from where he used to sit after games, Chin-Feng Chen organized his new locker. Henri Stanley quietly hurried to get dressed to meet family. And nobody even touched the stereo near the backdoor to the locker room.
Missing after Las Vegas' 8-7 loss to Oklahoma was the presence of the 51s' de facto leader, second baseman Joe Thurston, whom the Dodgers traded Friday to the New York Yankees for a player to be named later.
Thurston was a month short of completing his fourth season with the 51s, six years after he'd been drafted by the Dodgers out of Sacramento City College.
In his time in Las Vegas, Thurston set franchise records for games played, at-bats, hits, doubles and triples. He had the third-most runs in team history.
He left early Sunday morning to join the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, who finish a four-game series at Norfolk today. Attempts to reach Thurston on Sunday were unsuccessful and the 51s would not release contact information for their two-time MVP.
"It was a good exchange," 51s manager Jerry Royster said, adding that at the end of spring training this year, the Dodgers "didn't know if he was going to start active or if he was even going to play or be released. That turned into an all-star season with the possible chance to play next to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. And that's something he should be proud of. He proved a lot of people wrong."
It was just three summers ago that Joe Thurston was the talk of baseball.
Then a 23-year-old second baseman, Thurston had the most hits in the minors in 2002, going 196-for-587 in 136 games. His strong defensive presence helped contribute to the 51s' 4.60 ERA - remember, this is the Pacific Coast League - as the team cruised to an 85-59 record. Thurston was seemingly booked for a season in Los Angeles.
"Thurston will get every chance to win the job at second, and he won't have to do all that much to get it," Sports Illustrated wrote in its 2003 Spring Training preview.
But when March rolled around, Thurston was not on top of his game. What little he needed to do to get the starting job at second was trumped by the superior play of Alex Cora. Meanwhile, Thurston went 13-for-54 at the plate in March 2003, logging two extra-base hits and scoring seven runs in 22 games.
Royster said Thurston's fallign out of favor had more to do with Cora's defensive abilities.
"There was such an emphasis on defense that we couldn't overlook what the other guy (Cora) could do," Royster said. "Unfortunately Joe was left hanging. It's highly unusual that that would happen."
Thurston's stock plummeted after he hit .290 in 2003 while Cora excelled in the big leagues. Thurston got just 334 at-bats last season, 54 more than he did in his short-season rookie year.
In fact, Thurston's statistics plateaued after the spring of 2003. His batting average was .290 that year, .284 last season and .288 this year. His strikeouts, walks and extra-base hits were consistent relative to the decreasing number of at-bats he'd seen.
But he remained a clubhouse presence and seemed rejuvenated under Royster's leadership.
Many of Thurston's teammates said they thought the move would work out to his benefit.
Chen, who arrived from Los Angeles on Sunday, has been teammates with Thurston for six of the past seven seasons.
"Maybe it's good, maybe it's not. Hopefully he'll do good over there," Chen said. "It'll be the same but you've got to (keep) trying. Whatever you're doing every day, just keep doing it and relax."
The team's other longtime Dodger farmhand, utilityman Nick Theodorou, said a fresh start is nothing but a positive.
"It's one of those things where if you stick around an organization too long it means they like you but it doesn't mean they like you as a baseball player," Theodorou said. "Other than the fact that he was a solid player on the field, he was one of the most vocal guys on the team. He tried to keep things loose as much as he possibly could."
Theodorou also pointed out that the Yankees seem to have an affinity for 51s players. Over the past few seasons, the Yankees have traded for outfielder Bubba Crosby and pitchers Scott Proctor and Tanyon Sturtze. All three remain on the team's active roster.
Infielder Brian Myrow was sent to the Dodgers in exchange for Sturtze. He said the biggest difference between playing in Las Vegas and in Columbus is the age of the team.
"Being there with the Yankees you're dealing with a lot more veteran guys - and in veteran I don't mean seven or eight-year minor league guys," he said. "I mean guys that are four or five years in the big leagues. They've been around. I don't think it's going to be that much different for him."
Myrow speculated that Thurston may be a September call-up to back up rookie second baseman Robinson Cano.