One member of theinfield is an outfielder turned third baseman turned first baseman. Another,the shortstop, was a part-time outfielder only 16 months ago. The catcher beganthis season with fewer than 50 games of big-league experience under his chestprotector, and the second baseman is a 27-year-old rookie who blows bubbles.The third baseman is young and raw, too, playing a position where so manybefore him have come and gone. Quickly. At various times during the season theyhave been collectively called The Babes of Summer or The Little Blue Bicycle,and their inexperience defies normal baseball criteria for judging a contender.There are games in which they hustle so hard they seem intent on getting theminimum out of the maximum, but after each pratfall these young Los AngelesDodgers get up again, apparently stronger and wiser. And believing more firmlythat they can withstand the oncoming crunch of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine towin the National League West.
In the spring LosAngeles figured to be a faceless team, something the O'Malley family had pickedup at a garage sale on Route A1A in Vero Beach. Now who has the best record inthe big leagues? The Dodgers. Who leads the majors in hitting and pitching? TheDodgers. Huge crowds pour into Chavez Ravine; 1.6 million have already beenthere this season to see what new miracle Walter Alston has wrought in his 20thyear as the Dodger manager. Age apparently cannot wither Walter's ability topull them out of the hat.
Among those whohave found it hard to swallow the miracles are the Pittsburgh Pirates, St.Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, who in 37 attempts against the Dodgers havewon only eight times. How do you believe a pitching staff that has held theopposition to a .223 batting average? Or a team that lacks home-run power, yet17 times this year has won games with home runs? "Others might notbelieve," says the Dodger captain, Willie Davis, "but this team does.It listens, it learns and it believes."
In the ballotingfor this year's All-Star team only one Los Angeles player finished among thetop five at any position, but when the All-Star squad trotted out onto thefield a few weeks ago in Kansas City there were more Dodgers—six—than at anytime since 1962. Obviously the Reds' Sparky Anderson, manager of the All-Stars,believed. His faith has been reinforced over the last two weeks while theDodgers were in a hitting slump. Their pitchers took up the slack by allowingonly 1.4 earned runs per game. Anderson knows that pitching normally decidespennant races, and it was Los Angeles pitchers who were holding off his red-hotReds last week. As far back as fourth place, nine games out on July 1,Cincinnati has since won 31 of 41 to move within 1½ of L.A. and set the stagefor another wild finish in the West. If the Dodgers can hold off the Reds, theneverybody will be believers.
Los Angeles hasnot won a championship in six seasons, the club's longest drought since 1940,and expectations for this year were more guarded than at any time since theclub moved west. Due to the inordinate number of errors in 1972 (162 showed upin the box scores and countless other mental ones went unrecorded), the Dodgershad been regarded locally as some kind of civic disgrace. Because of that theirtotal of 85 victories during a strike-shortened season went largely overlooked.Only the National League's division champions, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, wonmore.
One of theproblems involved that old bugaboo, third base. Since arriving in Los Angelesthe Dodgers had used 44 different men at third. "If Dodger third basemenever voted in a bloc, they could win an election," wrote Los Angeles TimesColumnist Jim Murray. To add to the difficulties, Maury Wills and six-timeGolden Glove First Baseman Wes Parker had retired and Second Baseman JimLefebvre had gone off to play in Japan. In the opening week of play, thedourest of forecasts for the Dodgers seemed correct. The defense was again asleaky as a submarine equipped with screen doors and Los Angeles flopped off toits worst start ever (1-6). The team played only five errorless games in itsfirst 25.
The Dodgerswere—still are—bucking one of baseball's sternest precepts, which holds thatonly one young player per year can be fed into a lineup without the teamsuffering dire consequences. These Dodgers are not breaking in one young playerbut five. Catcher Joe Ferguson, First Baseman Steve Garvey, Second Baseman DaveLopes (rhymes with ropes), Third Baseman Ron Cey and Shortstop Bill Russell hadplayed a combined total of fewer than 200 games at their positions when thisseason started. In addition, the youngsters would be working with a pitchingstaff on which three of the five starters—Claude Osteen, Tommy John and AlDowning—and the two top relievers—Jim Brewer and Pete Richert—are low-ballpitchers whose success depends on batters grounding into infield outs.
The mostexperienced of the youngsters is Shortstop Bill Russell, and he is hardly ahousehold word even on Sepulveda Boulevard. Of the 195 big-league games theDodger youngsters played at their present positions Russell accounted for 121.When one plays shortstop for the Dodgers one is immediately placed in thecompany of eagles; the line of succession has gone almost directly from LeoDurocher in the late 1930s to Pee Wee Reese to Maury Wills. Russell took overin April 1972 at the age of 23 when Wills' on-base ratio slumped. Unlike hispredecessors, Russell went to work without a single game of professionalexperience at the position. "I guess I stuck my neck out further withRussell than I normally do," says Alston. "We didn't have what Iconsidered a front-line shortstop in our organization and I thought Bill wasthe best equipped to learn the position. He had been a superior defensiveoutfielder and I saw he had speed, agility, range and a strong arm, which tendto help make a good shortstop. I'm proud of the way he has come along and I cansee him filling the position for the next ten years." For this season atleast Alston has no other choice than to have Russell fill it. Shortstop is theone position where the Dodgers have no backup player. There will be greatpressure on Russell not only to continue playing well but also to stay healthydown the stretch.
Bill is still inthe learning process, at least in the field; at bat he is outhitting everyshortstop in the majors (.278). Even his errors (22) are in line with those ofSan Francisco's Chris Speier (24) or Chicago's Don Kessinger (20), a veteran ofover 1,200 big-league games. Russell has also knocked in 44 runs, exactly halfof them coming with two outs.
Russell is notshort of advice based on experience. He and Pitcher Claude Osteen (see cover)drive together to the park, and every day he talks endlessly with second-stringCatcher Chris Cannizzaro, who has seen 11 major league seasons and service withhalf the teams in the National League. "It's been a struggle at times,"Russell admits. "By nature I am a shy person and shortstops are notnormally shy. Walt Alston stuck with me when times were hard and I had begun towonder if I would ever be able to do the job. Then, all of a sudden in earlyMay, I started to feel comfortable in the position. The hardest thing for me todo was catch the ball, and while that might sound silly it's true. I wasactually afraid of the ball and now I'm not."
Osteen is a grandold warrior who is having another typically fine season. He has started 16winning games and his record of 13-5 is the second best of any lefthander inthe majors. Osteen appeared in this year's All-Star Game as the second pitcherfor the National League, and the first batter he faced was 21-year-old BuddyBell of the Cleveland Indians. "It was an odd feeling," said Osteen."Back when I was with the Cincinnati Reds Gus Bell used to bring his sonaround and we kidded him about becoming a big-league player. He must have beennine, about the same age my son David is now. When I looked in at Bell Ithought to myself, 'Have you been playing baseball for a living this long?'Buddy tripled off me with no one out, and while I am not in the business ofgiving up triples, I was happy for him. I was also happy that I left him onthird base."
At 34, Osteen isnot one of those pitchers who can throw a baseball through a car wash withoutit getting wet. He relies on his knowledge of the hitters and the ability topitch to spots. Three times during a recent 11-day period Osteen producedtypical examples of his craftsmanship. In front of a Monday crowd of 50,000 atDodger Stadium he threw a four-hitter and beat the Giants. A couple of dayslater he was struck with a virus and could not eat for 72 hours. Somehow hefinally forced some bacon and eggs into his system and worked eight stronginnings at Candlestick Park. Last Thursday night he threw a shutout against theMets. In the three games Osteen pitched 26 innings. He struck out only 10 menbut he also walked only two and gave up just 13 hits. Fifty of his outs came onground balls.
When Osteen, Johnor Downing—the low-ball pitchers—are working, Russell can be seen advisingThird Baseman Cey and Second Baseman Lopes, gesturing them into position orcalling over to them with his glove raised to one side of his mouth. "Thereare a lot of things about this job most people seldom think about," hesays. "When the pitcher is behind the hitter 2-0 or 3-1, will the battertry to pull the next pitch? How much can I cheat into the hole when there is aman on?"
The education ofthe young Dodgers is doubly interesting since all but one of them began asoutfielders. They played together on winning teams in the minors and at onetime or another 13 of the 25 men on the club were exposed to the teaching ofTom Lasorda, currently a Dodger coach. Lasorda produced five pennants and asecond-place finish in seven years of managing in the minors. His dedication tohis task so inspired Walter O'Malley that the chairman of the board bought hima headstone that says TOM LASORDA, A DODGER. Lasorda maintains that space willbe left on the headstone for a schedule, "Just in case somebody is walkingthrough the cemetery and doesn't know if the Dodgers are home or on theroad."
Young players, ofcourse, make mistakes, and recently the Dodgers have made all sorts of them. InHouston two of them ended up on third base one night and three of them werethrown out at either home or third in the first two innings the next night."Things like that can drive you crazy," says Alston, "but I'drather have them doing things aggressively than playing safety-firstball."
Lopes is the newleadoff man and an excellent second baseman who can steal bases (30 so far thisseason) and hit (.278) but must learn to walk and bunt more before he can bementioned in the same breath with Wills. Cey is indeed a good third baseman andSteve Garvey, the 5'10" first baseman, is among the top batters (.316). Thefour men in Alston's platoon outfield—Davis, Manny Mota, Willie Crawford andBill Buckner—all have good averages.
Through a goodpart of this season the Dodgers' big trade, in which Frank Robinson, BillGrabarkewitz, Bobby Valentine and Pitchers Bill Singer and Mike Strahler weresent to the Angels for Ken McMullen and Andy Messersmith, had been criticized.Lately that has subsided. Messersmith has pitched brilliantly since theAll-Star break and his 42-13 second-half record during his seasons withCalifornia is a positive omen. The addition of Messersmith to a staff thatalready boasted Don Sutton (14-7 and a 2.26 ERA) and the three low-ballersmakes the Dodgers' strong suit—pitching—even stronger, but the advancement ofthe youngsters in the infield is the aspect of this team that has the baseballworld abuzz. Whether the Little Blue Bicycle may ultimately be run over by theBig Red Machine is a matter of debate. The Dodger kids believe they can win. Itis just that kind of faith that put them where they are now.