The door to the tiny, neatly kept clubhouse at the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla. will be slammed shut late this week, and Manager Walt Alston will stand in the middle of the room, smile and look around as he has on the opening day of spring training for the last 14 years. Orlando Cepeda's cousin will be in that room with Alston. So will other things and people who have never been there before: hula hoops and Exer-Genies, as well as a high school athlete from Texas who lettered in five sports and a youngster who seems to specialize in getting himself hit by pitches. For the first time former Twins, Cubs and even a Giant will be present, and when Alston is finally through examining both the personnel and paraphernalia surrounding him it will be amazing if that phlegmatic man does not gulp twice.
Two weeks ago, at a special public workout at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Alston and a crowd of 10,000 hot-dog-eating, Pepsi-swilling partisans saw for the first time many of the elements of a 1968 team that Owner Walter O'Malley hopes will be built back into a National League contender with sealing wax or string or maybe even some extra work. Generally not known to the casual baseball fan is the fact that since the end of January the Dodgers, sometimes as many as 20 of them at a time, have been working out at Dodger Stadium three times a week as part of the most extensive rehabilitation project any club has ever launched. Once, of course, there was a rule forbidding such training before March 1, but it no longer stands. And even though some of their opponents felt that the Dodgers skated over the outer edges of propriety by starting so early, Operation Bounce Back, designed to rescue Los Angeles from the swiftest overall decline in baseball history, continued.
By tumbling from first place to eighth, the Dodgers equaled a major league record established by Connie Mack in 1915, when he felt compelled to break up his Philadelphia Athletics. Although last year's Dodgers still had the third-highest home attendance in baseball (1,664,000 compared to the St. Louis Cardinals' 2,200,000), they fell off by nearly one million at the gate from the previous season. That amounts to a $5 million dip, and O'Malley has never been known to look lightly upon a decline of five million anything.
Normally such a quick descent in baseball is followed by a long, fallow row of seasons, but when the team is the Dodgers baseball people know better. The Dodgers have a truly won reputation for being not only the most resilient club in the game, but also the shrewdest at capitalizing on its trends and nuances. By tightening a small screw here, adding a blowout patch there and, occasionally, trading, they rose from seventh in 1958 to first in 1959, from sixth in 1964 to first in 1965. Trading, training and tightening since last October, they have been more aggressive than in either of those years. They will be this spring's most closely watched team.
For those people who like their heroes anti, it is unfortunate that a thrilling four-team American League pennant race and the graceful runaway by the Cardinals in the National detracted from the spectacular negative accomplishments of the '67 Dodgers, because they were probably closer to pop art than any team since the 1962 New York Mets. "During other years," Alston said recently, "we used to give out bonuses to players who hit .300 or batted in 100 runs. There were times last season when I felt we should have given large bonuses to anyone who hit a sacrifice fly or got a base on balls. We finished eighth on a full team effort. These fellows were so nice last year they didn't want to hurt each other's pride, so they all had bad years together."
Los Angeles opened last season in Cincinnati with Bob Miller replacing Sandy Koufax in the pitching rotation, and after four Reds had been to the plate in the first inning there were two balls in the right-field bleachers. Gene Michael and Bob Bailey, the two men picked up from Pittsburgh for Maury Wills, started the season as if they were swinging bats in eight feet of water. From time to time five men played shortstop, but unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—they could not all play at the same time. On top of that, a game was rained out in L.A.—the first time that had happened in nine years—and a third baseman made three errors in one inning.
Then things went bad. In one game the pitching blew a five-run lead, with two out in the bottom of the ninth; in another it gave up 20 runs. By June the Dodgers were in eighth place, where they sat for the season. On closing day they were 28½ games out of first place, only the second Dodger team to finish eighth in 63 years.
"There might have been a built-in excuse last year," says General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, "in that the players were in a state of shock without Koufax and Wills. But, let's face it, we were lousy. We tried so many experiments that we became the Thomas Edisons of baseball. We will have no excuses to fall back on this time, and our Alamo cry to the players is, 'We finished eighth with you, and we can finish eighth without you.' But I think we will fool a lot of people this year. Remember, we have one big thing going for us, that same weapon—Walter Alston."
Gags about the Dodgers are now the rage in Los Angeles, and some people mischievously note that the California Angels down in Anaheim drew only 300,000 fewer people last year than the Dodgers and that soon a new National League franchise will be moving into San Diego. Anyone who thought that the Los Angeles collapse would be quietly forgotten was pulled up sharply when Milton Berle recently cracked some devastating jokes before 1,100 people at the annual baseball writers' dinner in the Hollywood Palladium. "Welcome baseball fans, baseball players...and Dodgers," Berle began. "The Dodgers are like Kleenex—soft, straight and they pop up one at a time.... Seriously, folks, I predict that the Dodgers will win the pennant. But don't go by me. I also predicted that Elizabeth Taylor would become a nun."
Within the next six weeks Alston and his Dodgers have a well-charted course for what must be done on the diamonds, in batting cages and the sliding pits of Vero. For the first time Los Angeles will work out twice a day until the team breaks camp, and this will enable the pitchers to work nine innings sooner than they have in the past. "We will have the infielders run more than ever before." Alston said recently, "to try and cut down on muscle pulls. There has been some suggestion that we try to run a mile in under six minutes on opening day in Vero, but I think we might skip that for awhile."
In order to get the players to play the "Dodger way" a list of 150 questions has been compiled, the team will go to school at night twice a week and those who do not know the right answers will get a little extra instruction. (Sample true-false question: "With a pitcher working against you who has a reputation for being wild, it is advisable to try to play hit-and-run." Answer: false.)
Trainer Bill Buhler, the man who developed the "ice treatments" that have prolonged and helped the careers of Dodger pitchers, has individual hula hoops for the players, to improve coordination and agility, and seven Exer-Genies (pull-and-weight devices used by the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, as well as the Gemini Astronauts), to develop the leg muscles and further avoid injuries.
Within the last two years the Dodgers have lost either through retirement or trade some of their most popular players—Koufax, Wills, Lou Johnson and Ron Perranoski. But they have added three men this year, and each represents a milestone. In Shortstop Zoilo Versalles and Pitcher Jim (Mudcat) Grant, both acquired from the Minnesota Twins, the Dodgers have their first Latin regular since moving to Los Angeles as well as the first Negro pitcher since Don Newcombe. When they traded for Catcher Tom Haller last week it marked the first deal to be made between the Giants and Dodgers since Jackie Robinson was traded—but refused to report—to the Giants 12 years ago.
Jimmy Lefebvre, who was so good in 1965 and 1966 and so bad in 1967, best summed up the situation the other day after working out at Dodger Stadium. "I've lost 15 pounds since the end of last year," he said, "because Alston told me to do it. We've got a lot of work to do this spring in Vero to get back our pride, because people are testing it now. We must find again what Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella built up during all those years and the thing we had just two years ago—that feeling of wanting to be a Dodger more than anything else in the world and the feeling of win! win! win!"
Vero Beach could turn into a minor Devil's Island during the next six weeks, but when the Dodgers say they are going to work along different lines and have made as many changes as they have, baseball watches.