DODGER BLUE IS TURNING GRAY

July 01, 1979

As the Yankees changed managers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Yanks' playmates in the last two World Series, went right on self-destructing with the same old people. Take a recent game at Dodger Stadium with the Chicago Cubs, an all-too-typical outing. Dodger Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe walked eight men and allowed two runs without giving up a hit in one inning and one run without yielding a hit in another. Dusty Baker threw to the wrong base and also made an error in the outfield. Bill Russell bobbled a ground ball, and Davey Lopes threw wildly past first. With the score tied at 4-4 in the seventh and Cubbies on first and second, L.A. Manager Tom Lasorda summoned Ken Brett from the bullpen. The handsome, affable but hapless Brett, who had been released by two other teams this season, gave up three consecutive singles. Chicago won it 7-4.

By the end of last week Los Angeles was in fourth place in the National League West with a 32-41 record, trailing Houston by 12 games. The Dodgers were playing like, well, bums. Gordon Verrell of the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram, a longtime Dodger observer, was asked to name the most embarrassing L.A. mistake of the season. "Taking the field," he said.

The last time the Dodgers started this poorly was in 1967, also following two consecutive pennants. That year they finished eighth in a 10-team league. Nothing, it seems, spoils a Los Angeles team like success. Yet last week as they boarded their 720-B luxury jet for four games in Atlanta, the players seemed exuberant. The Atlanta series offered them a chance to start moving—the Dodgers may be bad, but the Braves are worse. The players were scattered through the plane's five compartments, eating hot chicken, gobbling cookies and fruit, playing cards and talking. Several of the Dodgers' chic, expensively dressed wives were along. The baseball talk was lighthearted. "Who are you trying to impress?" starting Pitcher Don Sutton asked Reliever Terry Forster, a big, generous fellow who was carrying a couple of lunch trays to the back of the plane. "This is my extra job," said Forster, who has thrown only 9‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings in eight appearances. "I ain't pitching."

But in Atlanta the mood darkened. In the opener Sutton blew a 6-1 lead, Forster walked three batters, and Lerrin LaGrow forced in a run by walking another. The Dodgers hung on to win 6-4 when Brett and rookie Dave Patterson retired a man apiece with the bases loaded in the ninth. "A typical Dodger game," said First Baseman Steve Garvey with a quizzical smile—except, he failed to add, for the result.

The Dodger press corps crowded around Patterson's locker. A slight 22-year-old redhead who had been called up from Albuquerque two weeks earlier, Patterson was amazed at the attention he was getting for throwing two pitches. "I enjoy relieving," he said thoughtfully. "When you win at home, you get great applause. And when you win on the road, there's nothing but silence. That's nice, too."

The next night there was noise aplenty—a fireworks display, to be exact—when the Braves won 3-2. Dodger Pitcher Bob Welch set up Atlanta's three-run fourth by throwing away a double-play ball, and his teammates wasted eight hits, leaving nine men on base. Afterward, Lasorda was asked if he was pleased with the pitching of Welch, who had worked a complete game and allowed just five hits. "He didn't pitch very well to second base," Lasorda growled.

Needless to say, the season hasn't been a lot of laughs for Lasorda. "I've never had this kind of year," he had said earlier in the week, staring glumly into a glass of vodka in his office. "I ask myself if God wants me to lose, if He wants to see how I react to adversity. I go to sleep feeling bad and I wake up feeling the same way."

On Saturday he felt no better. Starting a nationally televised game, Jerry Reuss walked five men and gave up two hits in two-thirds of an inning. Charlie Hough contributed a couple of strong innings but had to retire because of pain from root-canal work. Then Patterson was raked—relieving can be no fun, too—and Brett balked home a run. The Dodgers lost 7-3. Lasorda locked the clubhouse door for the first time this season. When it was opened 20 minutes later, he was still shaken. "I just wanted the players to sit and think," he said. Someone asked him to elaborate. "I told you the first time," Lasorda snapped, his voice rising.

Having created a faithful following through careful public relations and self-congratulatory image-making, the Dodgers have grown defensive and divided under recent criticism. "How many games were the Yankees behind last year?" Al Campanis, the vice-president for player personnel, said. He has seen a few poor starts in his 40 years in the Dodger system.

But there is an important difference between the 1978 Yankees and 1979 Dodgers. The Yankees were chasing a single team, one that was bound to stop playing .700 ball; the Dodgers are trailing three teams, Houston, Cincinnati and San Francisco, the latter two of which have not been playing up to their potential. "A week after the All-Star break the teams in our division start playing each other," reflected Pitcher Burt Hooton, an effective (7-4) starter who is called Happy because he never smiles. "If two play two, all four can't lose. At some point we have to start winning every day while the rest play at .500."

"The league has too much balance," Sutton said in Atlanta, putting down a book called 3,000 Insults. "You don't win 15 straight anymore. You have to two-out-of-three them to death." That won't be easy in July, when the Dodgers, who are 11-24 on the road, play only eight home games.

For the club to be even respectable, the pitching must improve dramatically. The Dodgers have led the league in earned run average six of the past seven years, but this season the staff is in ninth place with a 4.18 ERA and has only one shutout. With 17-game winner Tommy John now a Yankee, and no other stopper in sight, the Dodgers have been swept in four different series. A few weeks ago Doug Rau, who won 15 games in 1978, was lost for the season after shoulder surgery. Another starter, Andy Messersmith, is on the 21-day disabled list. The bullpen is a shambles. Nine pitchers have toiled in relief, and the present five have just three saves. The Dodgers are second in the league in scoring, yet trail their opponents by eight runs, largely because of the bullpen's deficiencies.

The key to the bullpen—and probably the Dodger season—is Forster, the American League's Fireman of the Year with the 1974 White Sox. At 6'3", 210 pounds, the round-faced pitcher was frequently mistaken for Goose Gossage when they were teammates in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Last year Forster pitched a lot like Gossage, too, getting 22 saves despite intense pain in his elbow. "The nerve in the groove of my elbow was pinching me," he says. "It looked like a simple operation and I'd be back in six weeks. But when they operated they found bone chips and tendon damage. They said I'd be lucky to pitch this year."

After working gamely on a Nautilus machine, Forster resumed pitching May 25. He has won one game, saved one and has a 2.00 ERA, but he has to rest several days after each appearance. Forster feels pain when he throws, especially when he releases a slider, normally his out-pitch against righthanded hitters. Nonetheless, he believes he can regain his 1978 form. He must.

If there is any bright spot in the grim Dodger picture, it is home attendance. Crowds have been pouring into Dodger Stadium, an average of 38,596 a game. At that rate home attendance will pass three million for the second year in a row. As their heroes bumble away game after game, the fans nevertheless cheer on. A rare dissenter is Johnny Carson, who offered his Tonight Show audience this puzzle: given the answer "Send in the Clowns," what is the question? Solution: "What are they playing at Dodger Stadium instead of the national anthem?"

Tommy Lasorda isn't laughing.

PHOTOLasorda says the Big Dodger may be testing him. PHOTOThe Dodger season in miniature: the ball beats the runner but goes past First Baseman Garvey.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)