The Dodgers should have been upset and confused as a result of the long Koufax-Drysdale holdout siege. After all, how can a team properly prepare itself to defend a league championship and a World Series title when the heart and backbone of the team are missing for the first five weeks of spring training? How can a team that depends almost entirely on pitching (despite Maury Wills, the Dodgers were eighth in the league in runs scored) go into a season optimistically when the pair of titans who started 51% of its games last year have had only 10 days of training with the club by Opening Day? Morale in Dodgertown should have been mighty low this spring.
But it wasn't. The Dodgers have irrepressible spirit. That spirit is a certain something that all Dodgers have a hand in but which none can put a finger on. "It's just there," says Reliever Ron Perranoski. "Things happen, but we're ready to play."
Rookie-of-the-Year Jim Lefebvre recalls a day last August. "I had made an error against the Mets, and they beat us 4-3," he says. "I was really down, just going through the motions the next day. Then I got a call from Jackie Robinson, and he told me, 'I know how you feel. Don't worry. Just forget it, and go out and play. The team needs you.' I kept saying, 'Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.' And by the time I hung up I could hardly wait to get out there and play." Lefebvre batted .321 during the September surge to the pennant and typified the Dodger attack, for in spite of his .250 season batting average he drove in the decisive run in 15 games. Living off that you-can't-beat-us attitude, the Dodgers came from behind 33 times to win and twice won games in which they had been held to one hit. They took the pennant with a .245 team batting average, a mere 78 home runs and 60 injuries. Catcher John Roseboro spent so much time in the whirlpool machine that it became known as the U.S.S. Roseboro. Wills (who stole 94 bases last year) was plagued by hemorrhages in his right leg and a broken toe on his left foot.
Looking back, Lefebvre says, "I'm not sure how we did it, but we always found a way to win no matter what the situation was." Everyone—from the 4,472,246 fans who rooted for and against them, home and away, to an outfielder who had impressed few with his ability during 12 years of trying to get out of the minors, to Manager Walt Alston—had a part in the Dodger success. Lou Johnson, the outfielder no one really wanted, did a fine job replacing Tommy Davis, who sustained a fractured right ankle on May 1. Lou was at his swashbuckling, typical-Dodger best in the seventh game of the World Series, when he told Koufax in the fourth inning of a scoreless game that he would immediately hit a home run—and then immediately hit a home run.
April 18, 1966
Alston, as difficult to describe as the spirit that he helps maintain, emerges as a man who can make a simple reminder like "keep trying" have as profound an effect as an "All we have to fear is fear itself," oration by Franklin Roosevelt. "He keeps the pressure off you," Lefebvre explains. "After we lost three in a row to the Mets in August he held a meeting. He didn't tell us anything new, but it was the way he said things. He was calm. Players who have been around for a long time told me it was the greatest clubhouse meeting they'd ever been in on." It must have been. From that day to the end of the season the Dodgers played .727 ball.
But spirit alone cannot bring another pennant. To win, the Dodgers must get more hits from Ron Fairly, from Willie Davis and Wes Parker (both of whom batted a miserable .238 last year) and from the bench. The bench is certainly stronger than last year, when Alston was saddled with three bonus rookies and got a meager .201 response from his pinch hitters. Tommy Davis will be available as a pinch hitter, at least until he shows that his leg is strong enough for him to take back his job full-time from Johnson. Davis says, seriously, "I must punish myself physically to overcome my fears, so that I can play by instinct again."
Dodger fielders cut their errors by 21% last season and improved immeasurably at throwing to the right bases and at hitting the cutoff man. But there is only one really outstanding defensive player, First Baseman Parker. If Pee Wee Oliver hits, he will take over permanently at second, with Lefebvre moving to third and ancient Jim Gilliam staying on the sidelines as a coach.
As for that pitching, beyond Koufax and Drysdale are left-hander Claude Osteen (15-15), Johnny Podres (7-6), Phil Regan (1-5 at Detroit), Joe Moeller, who spent last year in the minors, and the excellent relief pitchers, Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller. Perranoski will be able to help out from the start this spring. A year ago he was hampered by adhesions and did not pitch well until mid-June. "Using your arm day after day causes muscle damage, and scar tissue forms over the area," says Perranoski. "Until I break down these adhesions I tend to push the ball. I've already made the breakthrough this year and my arm is limber."
The Dodgers speak glowingly, too, of the young right-hander, Don Sutton, who throws a great fast ball and a great curve and struck out 239 men in the minors last year as he won 23 games. But it must be remembered that he is only 21 and has just that one year of professional experience.
This is a team of delicate balance that had to have everything work right to win by a nose on the last weekend of the season. It is impossible to calculate the residual effects of the protracted holdout on pennant chances this year, but it is hard to see how it can do anything but hurt.