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03/02/11 9:00 PM EST

Thames gets 'defensive' about reputation

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- How do you get labeled a bad defensive player and, more important to Marcus Thames, how do you change it?

"I'm not Ichiro [Suzuki], I'm not Torii Hunter," the Dodgers' new left fielder concedes, but he insists he's not as bad as the reviews, either.

"I know there's a label, but I don't agree with it," said Thames, who signed with the Dodgers for $1 million to share left field with Jay Gibbons and Tony Gwynn.

"In the American League, I've been a designated hitter most of the time. Somebody takes a day off and I get out there, haven't played in a while, get a bad break on a ball and 'Marcus isn't a good defensive player. Marcus is a DH.' They talk like I must have clubbed feet.

"If you write a story once a year, you won't be real good with it. Play defense once a week, and you won't look sharp. That's how I look at it."

But Thames (pronounced Timms) isn't letting it go at that. He's working to earn a new label.

"I busted my butt in the offseason to prove people wrong and show I can be a good defensive player," he said. "Make the plays you're supposed to make. I'll be fine. In the past, I kind of blame myself. During the season I don't play defense and I put the majority of my time into hitting. I'm short-changing myself."

Thames said he spent the offseason back home in Mississippi working on his fielding at Mississippi State.

"I know one thing -- they didn't bring me here to DH," he said. "I've got to play defense or I won't be around."

Extra work has continued in the early weeks of Spring Training. Until he came up with a sore heel this week because of new spikes, Thames was working with the organization's Minor League outfield coordinator, Rodney McCray.

"Right now, I don't think that reputation is deserved," McCray said of Thames. "What I see is a guy who takes pride and wants to get better. He's mentally stable, a tough guy who wants to prove people wrong. He's a big man and he has heavy feet. Speed is not his game. But we are working on his footwork and getting better breaks and better positioning. He can catch the ball. His throwing arm is adequate. He can play farther back and play to the dimensions of Dodger Stadium."

The 34-year-old Thames -- 6-foot-4, 205 pounds -- played only one year of high school baseball while focusing on football. He was recruited by Mississippi State and Ole Miss as a safety and receiver, but when a buddy asked to push him in a sprint for a Yankees scout, the scout liked Thames more than the buddy. When Thames was drafted in 1996, "it was no more football."

Thames and that "label" spent six Minor League seasons until the Yankees called him up and he homered in his first Major League at-bat off Randy Johnson. Then he was shipped to Texas for Ruben Sierra, but the Rangers released him after a season. He signed with Detroit, where he had seasons of 26 and 25 homers (and once homered in five straight games) before returning to the Yankees last season, posting career-highs in average (.288) and on-base percentage (.350).

The part of Thames' reputation that doesn't get enough attention is the stand-up person. Marcus was 5 when his mother was paralyzed in an auto accident, and she's been bedridden ever since. He was in the National Guard as a teen. He's a positive clubhouse influence and that's no surprise, considering his baseball role models.

"When I was younger, I watched Derek Jeter, the way he carried himself as a person," said Thames. "You sit and watch and you never hear anything bad about him. Rondell White is another guy, he's like a big brother to me -- a humble guy who played the game the right way.

"That's the way I grew up at home, had to grow up a little bit sooner. When some kids were playing video games, I was getting the groceries. I still played sports. I listened to the coach, made sure I did the right stuff. That cheered up my mom. She couldn't get up and do it. Some people don't know what it's like to have to do stuff like that."

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