With its six-month, 162-game schedule, a major league baseball season is not supposed to be a 100-yard dash. It is a marathon, an endurance test demanding strong will, a steady pace and reserve strength for a finishing kick. At least, that is the theory. But from the very start of this season the Los Angeles Dodgers have been going flat out, crushing the opposition and setting new standards for early excellence. They have won with force, and they have won with finesse. They have been awesome at home and on the road, in the warmth of the afternoon and in the chill of the night, against hard-throwing righthanders and against curve-balling lefthanders. They won their opener, have kept on winning and give every indication they plan to win some more.
The Dodgers actually began to take off in March, hanging up a 17-7 exhibition record, the best in baseball. They continued winning on Opening Day, beating San Francisco 5-1. By April 30 their lead in the National League West was 7½ games, the largest ever for the first month of the season. And at one point last week the cushion had grown to a downy-soft 10½ games, mainly because of an astonishing 22-4 start that ranked with the best getaways in baseball history. Only the 1946 Boston Red Sox, who were 21-3, and the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, who were 22-2 (see box, page 28), were in the same class.
Almost as remarkable as the Dodgers' successes are the obliging failures of their Western Division rivals. Not only was Los Angeles the only one of the six Western clubs with a winning record at the end of last week, but world champion Cincinnati, though locked in a battle for second place, was also five games under .500, three games out of the cellar and in danger of finding its Big Red Machine flooded by a tidal wave of Dodger Blue Blood.
Rallied by the exhortations of new Manager Tom ("I told you so") Lasorda, Los Angeles has been playing near-perfect baseball. Last year, when they finished 10 games behind Cincinnati in Walter Alston's 23rd and final season, the Dodgers were pussycats at the plate. Now they lead the league in hitting (.296), scoring (six runs a game) and home runs (35). They have struck early, crossing home plate by the fourth inning in all but two of their games, and they have struck late, coming from behind to win nine times. They have been well served by their other talents, too. Los Angeles has twice as many double plays (28) and stolen bases (20) as its opponents, and after a slow start the Dodger pitching staff ranks third in the league with a 3.26 ERA.
Individually, there seem to be two or three Dodgers behind every statistical bush. The best numbers belong to Ron Cey, who at week's end was leading the majors in home runs with 11 and runs batted in with 37 and was batting .357. The third baseman's 29 RBIs in April were a major league record, surpassing the 27 by Willie Stargell in 1971 and Reggie Jackson in 1974. As Larry Bowa of Philadelphia advised Cey before last Friday's game at Dodger Stadium, "You've already had a great season. Why don't you quit?"
None of the Dodgers are likely to quit while they are this far ahead. They are enjoying themselves too much. Reggie Smith, a dissident in Boston and St. Louis, is full of bonhomie and is even playing right field with a sore Achilles' tendon. Centerfielder Rick Monday can sometimes be seen parading around the dressing room wearing Lasorda's uniform shirt with a pillow stuffed beneath it. Monday, who came from the Cubs in the Dodgers' only major off-season trade, is leading the team with five game-winning hits. He can wear the manager's pants if he wants to.
There have been about as many reasons advanced for Los Angeles' success as there are players on the roster. Don Sutton, one of the Dodgers' four unbeaten pitchers, espouses the "octopus" theory. "If one tentacle doesn't get you, another one will," he explains. Cey emphasizes the acquisition of Monday and the improved physical condition of Smith and Leftfielder Dusty Baker, both of whom underwent off-season surgery. Baker has already surpassed his '76 home run output of four, and Smith is one of four regulars batting over .300. Other Dodgers, notably Catcher Steve Yeager and Pitcher Burt Hooton, cite the psychological influence of Lasorda. "The minute Tommy was named manager, we were revitalized," says Hooton. "When he told us how much confidence he had in us, it lifted us. Walt never said things like that." Adds Yeager, "With Tommy motivating us, we're not afraid to go out on the field against anyone."
Lasorda insists the daily lineup card explains everything. "They're winning because they're outstanding," he says. "I'm not surprised by our success at all." Lasorda does admit he may have expedited matters some by working his eight regulars—Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Smith, Cey, Steve Garvey, Monday, Baker and Yeager—as a unit all through spring training. Before the preseason schedule began, Lasorda kept them on their own private practice field, where they got plenty of extra batting practice and could train, he says, like heavyweights preparing for a championship fight. He started the eight in the first intrasquad game and again in the exhibition opener. All spring he played them together and rested them together; they became a single body with eight equal parts. When it was suggested last week that the Mets might want to break the unit up by trading slugger Dave Kingman for Baker, Lasorda replied, "If I have any say, the answer will be no. And I do have the say."
He also has the other Cey, who is known as Penguin because of his short-legged, solid build and waddling, splayfooted walk. "I look at him and I can't call him Ron," says Lasorda. "He's got to be the Penguin." The Penguin followed his torrid April with a cool one-for-25 start in May. Then he broke the slump last week with a dramatic grand slam off Tom Seaver, who had walked Smith intentionally to fill the bases for Cey. The slam was the fourth of the Penguin's career, his second of the season and the first homer he ever hit off Seaver. He followed it with a one-run shot, two singles and four RBIs the next two evenings against the Phillies.
Cey has always been a consistent, if surprising, source of power. In his four seasons as a regular he has averaged 20 home runs and 90 RBIs a year, made the All-Star team three times and set a single-season fielding record for Los Angeles third basemen. This season he has had a 17-game hitting streak; he also drove in 12 runs in one three-game stretch. This dazzling display could not have come at a better time; before the season began the Dodgers told Cey he could renegotiate his contract. That bit of kindness will cost them plenty.
Cey decided he wanted to be a major league baseball player when he was an 8-year-old in Tacoma, Wash. "If I'd known the circumstances I'd have to overcome, I probably wouldn't have felt so strongly about it," he says. "I'm not from a good baseball area, and I don't have the size or speed of a lot of players. But baseball is all I ever wanted to do, and I was fortunate to make it, even though a lot of people said I never would. Going to college at Washington State was just a means to an end. I was there mainly to play baseball. I didn't get as much out of it academically as I could have, but I'm not sorry about it."
Although he batted over .300 during his five minor league seasons, Cey says he felt like a "bit actor waiting to get my big chance." He certainly made the most of his opportunity when it came. He took over third in 1973, becoming the 43rd man to occupy the position since the Dodgers moved West in 1958. Now he ranks with the best third basemen in baseball, alongside such more renowned players as Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Bill Madlock, Graig Nettles and George Brett. And by making himself a better fielder the past several seasons, he can safely be mentioned in the same breath with that slickest of Brooklyn Dodger third basemen, Billy Cox.
"I think there are more outstanding players at third than at any other position," Cey says. "A lot of them can hit better than me, or throw, run and field better, but I think I take care of my responsibilities for my ball club as well as any of them."
Cey's main job with the Dodgers is driving in runs, a task made easier, he feels, by his position in Lasorda's batting order. One of the manager's first moves this spring was to put Cey in the fourth spot and drop Garvey to fifth. Garvey has a higher career average but he lacks Cey's power. "The batting order is very important," says Cey. "Last year my RBIs fell off from 101 to 80 because we didn't have another power hitter to protect me. The other teams could pitch around me. That can't happen on this club, because I'm surrounded by too many good hitters. Last year I felt I wasn't given the opportunity to do my job. This season I'm the end result of everybody else's success."
But Cey considers himself more than just a power hitter. His sharp eye has earned him an average of 80 walks a year, and he insists that he is a .300 hitter, even if his lifetime average reads .267. "I don't go by the stats, I go by the performance," he argues. "To hit .300, a batter needs a lot of leg hits and cheap hits, and I don't get either. I do hit the ball hard with consistency, and I think that makes me a .300 hitter whether the stats say so or not. I know that may sound ridiculous, but that's the way I look at it."
Oddly, the lone career .300 hitter among the regulars, Garvey, had until last week the lowest average in the starting lineup. But even at .278 and batting behind Cey, he is one of the league leaders in RBIs (24) and runs scored (22). Part of Garvey's difficulty is the adjustment he is making to meet Lasorda's demand for more home runs. Garvey's homer output slipped from 21 to 18 to 13 the last three seasons, but he already has six this year. "I guess I've gone to the plate trying to hit one half a dozen times so far," he says, "and I've succeeded twice. I'm still trying to learn to hit for average and for home runs at the same time. It's going to take a while."
At the other extreme is Yeager, who has a .239 career average but last week was leading the team and standing fourth in the league at .373. Yeager will not stay there, but by heeding Coach Jim Gilliam's advice to cut down on his swing and go to right field occasionally, he should not repeat last year's .214. "If I bat .260, I might win the Comeback of the Year Award," Yeager says.
Baker could be a candidate, too. When he came to the Dodgers from Atlanta last year, he had a .278 career average, 77 homers in his four seasons and a bad knee. After arriving in L.A. he missed 50 games and batted only .242. He is hitting .274 so far in '77, and last week he hit home runs in consecutive games. "Nobody seemed to believe I was really hurt last year," he says. "They believed I was as bad as I was playing. I'm not."
The fact is, a lot of people are wondering if the Dodgers are as good as they're playing. Among the doubters are the Reds, though they have lost twice to Los Angeles. "They ain't going to play no .750 ball, or .700 or .680 or .650," says Manager Sparky Anderson. "If we play .650 ball, we'll win." Pitcher Jack Billingham agrees. "We will win our 95 games," he says. "If the Dodgers win 105 they'll beat us. But they aren't that good."
When these quotes were clipped from the newspaper and posted in the Dodger dressing room by mischievous PR Man Steve Brener, a few players saw Cincy red. "Yeah, I'm bothered when they say things like that," said Smith. "It's like they're trying to talk their way to the pennant. They're showing no respect for us, and I feel we've earned it. I just want them to respect us and not try to scare us. You still have to do it on the field, and they haven't."
The reason the Reds haven't is the slumber in their lumber. In direct contrast to the Dodgers' high averages, Cincinnati is hitting only .266. Cesar Geronimo is struggling at .209, Dan Driessen's .247 mark isn't making anybody forget Tony Perez, and MVP Joe Morgan is trudging along at .268. Except for one 23-run extravaganza against Atlanta, the Reds are producing less than four runs a game. That's not nearly enough, because their pitchers have a staff ERA of 4.42.
Nevertheless, nobody in Cincinnati seems very worried. History, the Reds feel, is in their favor. "The Dodgers' lead doesn't bother us," says Anderson. "They come back to us every year in July. Don't ask me why, but they always come back." Morgan adds, "Chasing the Dodgers is the most fun I've had in baseball."
Indeed, the Dodgers have built more leads than they have kept in recent years, and the Reds have often been the beneficiaries of the Los Angeles swoons. In 1969 the Dodgers were in first place as late as July 18; they finished the season fourth, well behind Atlanta. In 1972 the Dodgers were leading on June 8 and ended up third. In 1973 they led from June 17 to Sept. 2, holding an 8½-game lead at one point, and finished second. They won in 1974, staying in first place from April 14 on, but in 1975 and '76 they again blew early leads to finish second, 20 and 10 games behind Cincinnati. Obviously, goes the Reds' thinking, a rousing Dodger start only means there is more time left for them to blow everything and get caught in the end.
Cey is probably right in suspecting that Anderson's reference to years past is psychological warfare. "But to say we've given them the pennant every year is the most hypocritical thing I've heard," he says. "We always said they won because they were the best in baseball."
It's gamesmanship, Penguin, just gamesmanship. Smith and Cey could both learn from Lasorda, who is more adept at verbal sparring. For instance, when the Dodgers beat the Reds 3-1 last month in Cincinnati, Anderson said, "They won't win many games by getting just five hits." To which Lasorda replied, "And we won't lose many when we allow only one run." Last week Lasorda elaborated, "Sparky's got a right to his opinion. They're like rear ends—everybody has one. But I can't get involved with what he says or how his club is doing." With that Lasorda paused, reached for a postgame slice of salami, and asked devilishly, "Who's on top?"
And the Dodgers will stay there if they continue playing as they did last week in five straight victories over the Mets and Phillies. Los Angeles produced its best pitching of the year, four straight complete games compared to the same number for the rest of the season. On Monday Doug Rau did need ninth-inning help from knuckleballing Reliever Charlie Hough before beating Jerry Koosman 3-1. The string of complete games began the next night, when Hooton allowed only four hits and equaled the league high this year with 11 strikeouts in a 4-1 victory. Tommy John followed with another four-hitter in a 3-1 duel with Jon Matlack, and on Thursday the Dodgers beat Tom Seaver 7-2. All seven runs came in the fifth inning, equaling the total number Seaver had allowed in five previous starts.
New York left town gladly, and Philadelphia entered cautiously. It turned out that everything the Phillies had heard about the Dodgers was true. Sutton turned in the fourth straight complete game as the Dodger bats exploded again for a 9-3 victory. In the first inning Los Angeles scored twice on consecutive home runs by Smith and Cey. Then, in the second, L.A. found another way to attack. After Baker led off with a hustling double to left, Catcher John Oates, subbing for Yeager, sacrificed him to third. From there Sutton squeezed him home. Three hits and two walks brought in four more runs, two of them on Cey's bases-loaded single. The deluge concluded with two more runs in the fifth.
The streak ended on Saturday when the Dodgers uncharacteristically let a 4-0 lead slip away in a 7-4, 13-inning loss.
It is inevitable that the Dodger hitting will cool. And when it does, good pitching could solve a lot of problems. Rick Rhoden will not always get an average of eight runs a start, but that is what the offense has been providing him. The most consistent pitchers have been Sutton, 4-0 with a 1.53 ERA and 18 victories in his last 21 decisions, and Hough, who has three wins, seven saves and 15 appearances. Shades of Mike Marshall in 1974.
"We've reached the point now where we think we can win every time we play," says Lopes, another Dodger league-leader with 14 steals. "It's like we're in a poker game, and every time the other guys get four kings, we lay down four aces."
Lasorda, who is thick with the showbiz swells, received a postcard recently from Don Rickles. "You're winning so far," Rickles wrote. "But if things get lousy, remember we never met." The way the Dodgers have been playing, Rickles may turn out to be Lasorda's friend all the way to October.