Baseball is too complex a game to be made to look as simple as the Los Angeles Dodgers made it last week. Imagine that you are Walter Alston, in your 19th consecutive year as manager, and trying to do Willie Davis (see cover) a favor. "Willie," you say, "you're the only guy on the club who has played every inning of every game so far. We have a 10-1 lead here in the top of the eighth and you deserve a rest." Willie looks at you and says, "No, Skip. Let me get one more rip." In the bottom of the inning Davis crashes a home run that skips off the teal-colored wall in the back of the right-field Dodger Stadium bullpen on one bounce.
Consider Maury Wills, just for a moment. Maury is 39, the only man in Los Angeles except Jack Benny who will admit it. But Maury is off to an 0 for 18 start. The splotch of gray on his head seems to be widening and he hasn't touched a banjo in four days. Maury goes out to Atlanta Stadium on the afternoon before a night game and takes extra batting practice. Maury is over the hill, everyone knows that. But, somehow, you keep him in the lineup and he triples to lead off the game, scoring what proves to be the winning run a little after.
Claude Osteen, one of the best Dodger pitchers, has a sore arm for the first time in his life and the rotation gets messed up. Twice other pitchers go into games that Osteen is supposed to start and each time they work magnificently. Then Osteen comes back and pitches a magnificent game himself.
Every ball your team hits seems to crawl between the defenders. Your guys look so good they could catch line drives with a pair of tweezers. In the course of every baseball season such things are bound to happen, but at the start of a season? Never. Well, hardly ever.
At week's end, despite Houston's almost equally sensational start, the Dodgers were still half a game ahead in the National League's ballyhooed Wild West show. The last time the Dodgers were in front of anything important was Oct. 1, 1966, and they got there then because a couple of guys named Koufax and Drysdale were pitching while the rest of the Dodgers were scoring seven runs a week. Somehow they won a pennant.
In their first eight games of this delayed baseball season, one in which the pitchers were supposed to be smothering the hitters because of the two-week strike, the Dodgers pounded out 78 hits, scored 43 runs and—grab the arms of the chair here—stole one base. To locate as good a Dodger beginning, historians had to go back to Ebbets Field and 1955.
Before a batter was out in the second inning of one game the Dodgers had scored eight runs. They topped that by driving in nine runs by the time one out was recorded in the third inning the following night. If the Dodgers keep playing like that their only major problem might be to convince themselves that they can beat the Montreal Expos in the National League playoffs.
In many ways the 1972 Dodgers seem out of character. Everyone remembers them as a pitch-and-putt team fallen on evil days. Over the last two seasons the team has changed its attitude about hitting, but its image endures. Unless the young and exciting Houston Astros can continue to keep pace with the Dodgers (a not unreasonable proposition), or the San Francisco Giants find a replacement for the injured Willie McCovey, or the Cincinnati Reds start to score, the Dodgers could turn the most promising divisional race in the major leagues into a rout by the Fourth of July.
In the last two seasons the ultimate West Division winner in the National League has been the team quickest out of the chute—and the club finishing second each time was the Dodgers. Two years ago Cincinnati won its first four games, three at Dodger Stadium. In 1971 San Francisco won 12 of its first 14 before gasping over the finish line a desperate game in front of the Dodgers. Los Angeles was unable to win both pennants mainly because of an 0-5 start in 1970 and a 3-6 beginning last year.
The Dodgers set out this spring determined to avoid such initial reverses. One of their most dedicated players was Jim Lefebvre, the second baseman, who dropped 15 pounds over the off-season by taking exercises, running with the UCLA track team, lifting weights and going on a high-protein diet. Few players could match Lefebvre's spring sprint: a .548 average in exhibition games and three game-winning hits in Los Angeles' first seven victories.
"A thing that probably helped us more than some other clubs," Lefebvre says, "is that we came out of spring training swearing not to lose our edge while the confusion between the players and owners was going on. We came back to Los Angeles from Florida and split the team between East Dodgers and West Dodgers, depending on which side of the city the players lived. Every day at 10 a.m. we got together and worked to keep the edge. We knew we had to get off to a good jump. We had been told when the strike was first announced that it would be silly to lose sight of everything we had worked for and accomplished at Vero Beach."
Unsurprisingly, that message came from Walter Alston. On the night the strike ended the team reported to Dodger Stadium, lights were turned on and the club worked out. Next morning it was back at 10 a.m. When the season finally opened, Los Angeles was indeed ready and won its first game against Cincinnati, but lost the second. Then the Dodgers went to Atlanta. They marched through Georgia with their bats afire and their pitching nearly perfect. In all of 1971 Los Angeles won only four games in the saucer-shaped stadium that is considered the finest hitters' park in the National League. But the way Bill Singer, Tommy John, Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, Jim Brewer and Hoyt Wilhelm worked their way through the Braves' lineup, Atlanta Manager Luman Harris might just as well have pinch-hit Donald Davidson, the club's 4-foot traveling secretary.
In four nights Los Angeles rattled 49 hits off Atlanta pitchers for a team batting average of .322. This included Maury Wills and Frank Robinson, both of whom were obviously bothered by the layoff and only gathered five hits between them. Henry Aaron, Ralph Garr and Earl Williams, three men who are supposed to take the Braves wherever it is they might be going, hit .087, and those few Brave fans who did go out to the games—a total of 36,772 on four delightful spring evenings—seemed stunned, both by their team's failure to hit and a defense barely up to minor league standards.
"I truly believe," Wills said, "that this club has the potential to be the best Dodger team I have ever played on." Although an admitted optimist, Wills has helped win four Dodger pennants, and his is a judgment not to be taken lightly.
Assuredly, the Dodgers do not have Koufax and Drysdale today, but Singer, Osteen and Al Downing have all been 20-game winners since 1969; Sutton has won 17 twice in the last three years and John—picked up from the White Sox—has won in double figures in six of the past seven seasons.
The Dodgers are further blessed. Players and management did not exchange epithets over the strike. Unlike some owners, Walter O'Malley and his son Peter did not demand so much egg in their beer that it ended up all over their faces. And Alston, the best manager in the game, has team leaders to spare. Frank Robinson is in from Baltimore. Wills is Wills. And then there is Manny Mota, who managed championship teams in winter ball and beat Wills out of the Mexican championship during 1970-71. Mota, one of 10 active players with a lifetime average above .300 after a decade, was swinging along at .526 through the first seven games.
And where was Frank Robinson? Everywhere. Whirlpool. Batting cage. Dugout. Shaking hands. Checking Hoyt Wilhelm's draft card. Examining a rectangular Pepsi-Cola menu board hanging in the clubhouse with two sets of red numbers stuck on it. Robinson looked at the board last Friday before the home opener and knew at once that the numbers on the left told what time the Dodgers would take batting practice; the numbers on the right, San Diego. "Never saw it done on a menu board," he said. "It could mean two things. Five fifty-five on the left probably means that we hit at five of six and six fifty-five that San Diego hits at five of seven. But I'm an old menu man. It could also mean that if you get into the dining room early you can get the New York cut for $5.55. If you're a little late they throw a piece of lettuce and tomato on the plate, some s.o.b. yodels Aquarius and the price goes up a buck."
Robinson went over to his dressing cubicle and began putting on his bright white home uniform for his first appearance before a Dodger Stadium audience. He had spent half an hour getting heat treatments for a groin injury suffered when he slammed into a fence after catching a fly ball in Atlanta and he was heavily taped. Robinson put on his two pairs of sanitary socks and then pulled blue outer stockings over them. Just so all the football coaches in America might know, he pulled his pants on both legs at once, yanked them up halfway and then took a blouse down from a hanger. "No wrinkles," he said. "Bad ball clubs wear wrinkled uniforms."
Robinson began looping the laces through a new pair of spikes as Coach Danny Ozark came into the clubhouse. "What do you think, Frank?" Ozark asked. "I think we'll win," Robinson said.
"About playing, Frank," Ozark said. "Twenty-four [Alston] wants to know."
"Fort Knox," Robinson answered. "Just Fort Knox. Tell him we might not be able to spend it, but we both know it's there."
Five minutes later Alston walked past Robinson's cubicle on the way to his office. The manager never broke stride. All Alston said was, "Luck, now, fourth."
In the first inning 30,320 people roared as Robinson came to the plate, the cleanup hitter with runners at second and third and one out. He singled, driving in two runs. His second time up Robinson drove in another run—and then Fort Knox was excused from the rest of the game. Believe this about Frank: his portrait should never hang in an empty room.
No player, however, was more exciting than Willie Davis. At 32 he is one of only four major-leaguers with 450 at bats to hit over .300 in each of the last three seasons. (The others are Pete Rose, Manny Sanguillen and Tony Oliva.) Those who watch baseball only at World Series time remember him as the man who made three outfield errors in one inning against the Orioles in 1966. But those who watch the game often and examine its nuances realize that Davis can take a situation and squeeze every last ounce of excitement from it.
There have been two Willie Davises. There was a first-half Willie and a second-half Willie. A succession of bad first halves hurt him so much that not until last season did he make an All-Star team, after 11 years of trying.
Many outfielders hold that the only way Willie can be getting from first to third so quickly is by cutting across the infield. For years Davis was baseball's great impostor. "He used to go into a town, read who was going good and then try to imitate whoever it was," says Frank Robinson. "Stan Musial, Matty Alou, Pete Rose, you name it. Now he's 1,000% Willie Davis, and when he's wound up he is the toughest player on defense that I have ever seen. No, this is not the same man I played against when I was in the National League before. Not the same one I played against in the 1966 World Series, either. This is the pure Willie Davis."
According to First Baseman Wes Parker, who last Friday was presented with his fifth consecutive Gold Glove, "The difference in Willie is that he is more committed to the game, more involved." And for those who remember the three Series errors, the man standing next to Parker at the Gold Glove ceremony and getting one himself as the top center-fielder in baseball was none other than Willie Davis.
This year Willie believes he has found tranquillity. He has joined the Nichiren Shoshu, a Buddhist sect. Twice a day Davis reads from scrolls, chanting in a rich baritone. "It is the true philosophy of life," he says. "I am at peace with myself for the first time." But, praise be, warring in the Wild West.