With a mere five months remaining in the baseball season, Los Angeles still has not clinched the National League West Division championship. In light of what happened last spring, when the Dodgers came out smoking to win 22 of their first 26 games and virtually sew up the title by Memorial Day—no, make that Mother's Day—this was refreshing news to the opposition.
The 1978 season should be different—vastly different—if last week's results are any indication. Still smarting from their second-place showing of a year ago, the Reds whirled into Los Angeles in a fury and hammered the Dodgers in the teams' first two meetings of the season. Then, apparently still reeling from the 19-5 pasting they had taken in Games 1 and 2, the defending champions nearly gave away a victory they seemed to have firmly in hand. Clearly the Big Red Machine was back in gear, which means that the Big Blue Wrecking Crew was back in second place.
After their skirmish in L.A., the Dodgers and Reds split to meet the challenges of the Astros and Giants, respectively, the teams considered most likely to thrust themselves into a divisional race that has long been the province of Los Angeles and Cincy. But after the Dodgers had dumped the Astros in three of four games and the Reds had beaten the Giants in two of three, it was beginning to look as if the Reds or the Dodgers would reign again come September.
The division would seem to be out of whack if any other teams were on top. In its nine-year history, Cincinnati and Los Angeles have accounted for 14 first-or second-place finishes. They have ended up 1-2 or 2-1 in each of the last five seasons. The Reds won titles in 1970, '72, '73, '75 and '76, the Dodgers in '74 and '77.
When Los Angeles won last year it was a notable upset; the Reds, twice world champions, were being compared, by themselves and others, with the greatest teams of all time. The Dodgers ended that talk in a hurry, building a 13-game lead by May 27. Thereafter Cincinnati never got closer than 6½ games, and it wound up losing by 10. "I tried everything I knew, including psychological warfare, but nothing worked," Manager Sparky Anderson says. "All I did was make a fool out of myself."
Though they were blown out of the race, the Reds were never convinced that the Dodgers were the better team. They beat Los Angeles 10 of 18 times and finished the year with a higher team batting average, a higher fielding average, more runs scored and more stolen bases. The only important department in which the Dodgers were significantly better, except for the won-lost record, of course, was pitching; L.A. led the league with a 3.22 ERA, while Cincinnati was 10th at 4.22.
"With any pitching at all we would have been in front by 10 at the All-Star break," Anderson claims. "If we finish in the top three in ERA this year, in the 3.30-3.40 range, we are a mortal lock to win the division. And I think we can, because this is the best staff we've had in my nine years as manager."
Certainly Tom Seaver is the best pitcher Anderson has ever had, although his record in '78 does not show it. Seaver was 14-3 with the Reds last season—21-6 for the year, including his two months with the Mets—but after four starts this year he was 0-1 with a 3.91 ERA. Anderson remains undismayed. "Tom will win 20," he says, "and I'll match any bet you want to make."
In fact, though Seaver's inability to win early has probably precluded the 30-victory season that rabid Cincinnatians had been predicting for him, his weak April could be viewed as a source of optimism for the Reds. If Cincy is a first-place team without a winning Seaver, what will it be when he cuts loose, as he presumably will? The obvious answer to that can only be disheartening for the Dodgers.
Offsetting Seaver's dawdling start has been the performance of Bill Bonham, a 29-year-old righthander who was a consistent loser (53-70) during his seven previous big league seasons with the Cubs. By beating the Dodgers, Bonham last week ran his record to 3-0, with a 3.24 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 25 innings. Only a sore elbow that developed late last week seems capable of preventing him from having his best season. Cozy Wrigley Field has never been noted for building pitchers' confidence. For that reason Anderson sees a similarity between Bonham and the Dodgers' Burt Hooton, another Cub loser, who became a big winner in Los Angeles.
Even before the addition of Seaver and Bonham. Anderson figured the Reds owned the division almost by divine right. "The '70s have belonged to us." he says. "Even when we lost in '74 we came back and won two years in a row. I'm not sure the Dodgers really think they won it last year, based on what happened against the Yankees in the World Series. If you lose the World Series, you've done nothing. Nobody cares who finishes second. So, actually, they've accomplished zero."
Understandably, the Dodgers are not enchanted by such talk. Ron Cey says, "Both of us are good enough to win. I accept that, but they don't. They think they own baseball." Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda says, "If Anderson has the great team he claims he has, then he should win. If we beat them, that'll just prove Sparky did a lousy job."
Lasorda and Anderson, who often refer to each other in ungentlemanly terms, have been doing a lot of sniping. The first blow in their verbal battle was struck before the start of last season at a dinner honoring Lasorda and his predecessor, Walter Alston. "This is the year Los Angeles finds out how good a manager Walter Alston was," Anderson said. He contends he did not intend this as implied criticism of Lasorda, but the Dodger manager has stewed about it ever since. Now one of them is always attempting to upset the other. Last season Lasorda kept a file of Anderson's comments as they appeared in the press, to be used at strategic moments; during the winter Anderson took notes on Lasorda's remarks whenever they were telecast.
But heated oratory is not what made last week's series important. The three games were supposed to give an early indication of just how much the Reds have improved and how good the Dodgers' chances of repeating are. As usual they were one-two in the standings, with Los Angeles on top as the confrontation began, and even the players were making the uncommon admission that this was no ordinary early-season series. "The Dodgers have always been a quick-starting team," said Pete Rose. "I'd like to get ahead of them for a change and let them try to catch us."
The Dodgers obviously thought the games were significant, too. Instead of using one man to scout the Reds, they sent two. And Lasorda altered his pitching rotation to give Tommy John, who has beaten the Reds nine of the 11 times he has gotten decisions against them, a start in the third game.
Unfortunately for L.A., John could not also work the first two. The Reds pounded out 15 hits and won the first game 8-2, and 16 hits—including home runs by Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, George Foster and Ken Griffey—to win the second 11-3. This was more than enough firepower to keep Bonham and Fred Norman (2-0) unbeaten. "I hope they enjoyed wearing their World Series rings, because last year is gone," said Morgan.
Lasorda did his best to calm his players and fans by saying, "We're 6-4 now and that's .600 ball. We can't let anybody get panicky after 10 games." But he realized something special had to be done. So before the Wednesday game he put in a call to Palm Springs and talked to the next best thing to the Great Dodger in the Sky, Frank Sinatra. "We always win when you call, but I couldn't wait any longer," Lasorda told Sinatra. "I had to call you."
Lasorda's best call was the one that put John, whose sinker gives Cincy's free swingers fits, into the rotation. Except for the Reds' two-run, four-hit outburst in the fourth inning, John stayed in control throughout the game. Entering the ninth, he had a 5-2 lead, the Dodger runs having come on a first-inning bases-empty homer by Reggie Smith and two shots by Rick Monday, who had five home runs during the week to raise his total to a major league-leading eight.
John struck out Foster to open the ninth, but then walked Bench, who was subsequently forced at second by Dan Driessen. The third out was far more elusive. First, Davey Lopes let Rick Auerbach's grounder go through his legs at second base. Then Bill Russell could not handle a hit to short by Dave Concepcion. Finally, Cey fielded a grounder by Dave Collins at third and threw wildly to first. When the Reds stopped running, the score-was 5-4, with runners at second and third and Rose at the plate.
In the Cincinnati dugout, Anderson was thinking, "With Pete up, we have it won." Across the field, Lasorda was coming out of the other dugout to tell John, "Forget what's happened. There isn't a pitcher I'd rather have right now."
John threw one more pitch, a sinker below the knees, and Rose hit a grounder that, at last, the Dodger infield converted into the final out. "I was too anxious," Rose said later. "I swung like a 16-year-old."
The Dodgers were glad he had. They know full well what an early-season hot streak can do for a team's title prospects, and a sweep by the Reds might have been too hot for L.A. to handle.