Loaded with talent, but who's on first?
Strong points: The Dodgers once again have superb pitching, excellent speed, adequate power and fielding. Now they also have a home—the $18.5 million Chavez Ravine—that is more suited to their talents than the misshapen Coliseum (a 40-foot-high screen 251 feet from home plate, a vast right-field area where no one could hit a home run). Chavez, with its balanced dimensions (LF and RF 330 feet, CF 410 feet), will certainly be more comfortable for all the batters, especially left-handed pull hitters Willie Davis, Duke Snider, John Roseboro and Ron Fairly. Even left-handed Wally Moon (.328), who hits to all fields but mastered the knack of pushing home runs over the screen, is looking forward to the change. The Dodger pitchers are also happy about Chavez; they need no longer be timid about throwing changeups to right-hand bitters. The four starters—Johnny Podres (18-5, 124 SOs), Sandy Koufax (18-13, 269 SOs), Don Drysdale (13-10, 182 SOs) and Stan Williams (15-12, 205 SOs)—come equipped with vast supplies of self-assurance. Larry Sherry, Ron Perranoski and Ed Roebuck give Los Angeles strong late-inning help. Shortstop Maury Wills (35 SBs) and Outfielder Willie Davis (12 SBs), together with Outfielder Tommy Davis, Second Baseman Jim Gilliam and Catcher Roseboro, stole 71 bases last year, more than the team total of 13 other major league clubs. They will be running even more in Chavez.
Weak spots: First base is the big problem. Gone in the expansion are Gil Hodges and Norm Larker, the Dodgers' only veteran first basemen. Manager Walt Alston will probably platoon good-looking, good-hitting (.322) Ron Fairly and long-ball hitter Frank Howard at first. Fairly is certainly no Hodges and Howard isn't even a Fairly.
The big ifs: Not counting groundkeepers, 13 men were used in the Dodger infield in 1961 and 11 in the outfield. Alston will probably platoon his players a lot in 1962. But if he platoons as much as he did last season he may once again cause some of the younger players to press too hard in fear of being benched. Frank Howard, as usual, is still the most important if for the Dodgers. Winter ball has helped him cut down his strike zone, which two years ago seemed to go from his head to his feet.
Rookies and new faces: Rookie Joe Moeller is 6 feet 5 inches tall, 19 years old, and everything he throws jumps and moves. He could be a fifth starter for the Dodgers. Sharp-fielding Larry Burright (24) will be given a good look at second base, and if he hits might brush Gilliam aside. Andy Carey, the onetime Yankee, was obtained to relieve Daryl Spencer at third.
OUTLOOK: The talent is all there, hut most of it was there in 1961, too. Manager Alston knows that if he doesn't win this time around, he probably won't get another chance. His job looks safe.
A fine new fence just 330 feet away
"Oh sure," Duke Snider was saying, "I hit them as hard now as I've ever hit them. I hit them just as far as I've ever hit them, too." He smiled. "The only trouble is that I don't hit them quite as often as I used to. Sometimes when I'm taking batting practice I'll get ahold of one and watch it go and wish that there was some way to freeze it and keep it and not use it until I'm really hungry."
In the four years that Duke Snider has been a Los Angeles Dodger he has hit only 68 home runs; in the last four years that he was a Brooklyn Dodger he hit 165. He knows now what home run hunger is and he also knows that the main causes of it have been a bad knee, a bad elbow and the long right-field fence at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"The injuries certainly didn't help me," he said, "and the pitchers threw me nothing but inside stuff because they knew that even if I caught one I'd have to pound the devil out of it. I don't think I'll see as many inside pitches this year. Actually, I've got a pretty good feeling that the new ball park is going to help me a lot psychologically. When I went up to the plate in the Coliseum I'd see that short screen in left and, hell, it had to affect you. I tried to go to left a lot more than I ever did in my life. It almost seemed like you had to. I think that the momentum from the end of last year is going to help me. I hope the pitchers forget what I did in the last two months of last season." Pitchers seldom forget, however. In the last two months of 1961 the Duke was doing .362.
Jim Gilliam was sweating in a batting cage and looking forlorn, as a mechanical gadget served up pitch upon endless pitch. "Man, I don't go for this spring stuff at all. I don't take my real good swing. February and March don't count for nothin'. It might help the legs a bit when you run around the field. But what does this machine do? It throws up balls and you are supposed to hit them. But most of them are bad balls and no machine is going to make me a bad-ball hitter."
Jim Gilliam is an excellent judge of a pitch and he takes pride in his ability not to strike out.
"Jim," he was asked recently, "you led the league in fewest strikeouts last season. How many was it?"
"Thirty-four times," he said.
"Do you know about how many times you were up?"
"I think it was 439."
"Is there any one pitcher that gets you to strike out more than the others?"
"Oh, sure. Lou Burdette of the Braves."
"How many times did he strike you out?"
"You mean that he has your number so well that he struck you out 12 of those 34 times?"
"No, no. What I mean is that Burdette has struck me out 12 times in the last eight years."