Tommy Lasorda says his 1980 Dodgers remind him of the 1908 New York Giants, a team, you may recall, that utilized several rookies, including Fred (Bonehead) Merkle. Lasorda, who was born in 1927, remembers the '08 Giants because, he says, "I am the reincarnation of Frank Chance." Chance, of Tinkers to Evers to, was the player-manager of the Chicago Cubs, who beat the Giants by a game that year because Merkle forgot to touch second, which is how he got his nickname. Closer to home, Lasorda also compares his club to the Brooklyn team of 1955, the only other Dodgers to win 10 consecutive games in April. The '55 world champions are also famous for keeping Sandy Koufax on the roster and sending down their other rookie lefthander, Tommy Lasorda—a move Lasorda still questions.
So much for antiquity. The 1980 Dodgers, who closed out April by winning 10 straight with the help of six rookies, are a far cry from the Dodgers of a year ago. Los Angeles got off to such a horrendous start last season that it never saw the light of .500 after May 31, even though the Dodgers had a record second only to the Pirates' after the All-Star break. At the end of last week Lasorda's men were 14-9, two and a half games out of first in the NL West, and they had the rest of the league singing the Old Dodger Blues once more. Lasorda was again chirping a happy tune and, more significantly, has kept his weight down. When Lasorda loses, he eats, and of late his T shirt bearing the inscription NON MI DARI NIENTI A MANGIARI (flabbily translated as DO NOT FEED THE MANAGER) has had room to spare.
When the 10-game streak started, the Dodgers were 3-7 and not only threatening a repeat of 1979 but also sparking talk that they might have to fire a manager for the first time in 27 years. Then, infused with new blood from Albuquerque, the Dodgers came back, surging from behind to win five of the 10, while holding their opponents to just 17 runs. Nine of those victories were against the Giants and Padres, but who's quibbling. While the nucleus of the club is basically the same as it was in 1977 and 1978, when the Dodgers were league champions, the rookies seem just the tonic the veterans needed. When Don Sutton, who wasn't even supposed to be a Dodger, beat the Giants 6-0 recently, he gave his rookie catcher, Mike Scioscia, the ultimate compliment, a bottle of Sutton's favorite Moselle. "It was an excellent wine," says Scioscia, "considering I'm used to Mad Dog."
Similarly, the once troublesome Reggie Smith has taken new Centerfielder Rudy Law under his wing, and both of them have been thriving. Law is batting .298, covering more ground than Zack Wheat and staying up among the league leaders in runs scored and stolen bases. Smith, who worked out diligently in the off-season, has been crunching baseballs as if each one bore the face of a Los Angeles sportswriter, a breed with which he has been at odds. Smith has shortened his swing, and the results are a .360 batting average, five home runs, 18 RBIs and a string of eight games in which he drove in at least one run. "I feel like I did five or six years ago," he says.
May 11, 1980
The Dodgers took their winning streak into Philadelphia last weekend and promptly got their bell rung 9-5 and 7-3 in the first two games. But they battled back in both contests, and then on Sunday righted themselves by winning a 12-10 donnybrook.
When the Dodgers opened camp in Vero Beach, Fla. in March, the feeling was that at 23 Law was still a year away. But Coach Manny Mota, who knows something about hitting, spent long hours teaching Law how to swing down, instead of uppercutting, to take advantage of his speed. Meanwhile, Smith, as Lasorda puts it, "gave Rudy a crash course in baseball." The result was a spring batting average of .341 and the centerfield job on Opening Day in Houston, the first time a Dodger rookie had started an opener since Bill Buckner and Steve Garvey debuted in 1970. Law, who was hitting .329 going into the Phillies series, already has two game-winning RBIs and nine stolen bases. "No question about it," says Lasorda. "He's Willie Davis all over again. Willie could hit with more power, but Rudy will steal more bases."
Scioscia, 21, started the season in Albuquerque, the Dodgers' Triple A farm club, but injuries to Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson prompted his immediate call-up, and Scioscia has been playing regularly against righthanders ever since. The Dodgers won the first seven games he started behind the plate. His bat may not be major league yet, but his body is: on Friday night he proved to be an immovable object when the irresistible Pete Rose tried to slide through him. "People say I like him because he's Italian," says Lasorda. "They're wrong. I like him because I'm Italian." Around the clubhouse, Scioscia is known as Oral Roberts because of his healing effect on Yeager and Ferguson.
Another kid who didn't figure to make the club is lefthanded reliever Steve Howe. This time last year Howe was sitting in physiology class at the University of Michigan. He was the Dodgers' first pick in the June draft and then was invited to camp as a non-roster pitcher. But with Doug Rau and Terry Forster on the disabled list, the team was desperate for lefties, so Howe went west, signing a contract on Easter morning. In his last six outings, Howe has gotten three saves. "Somebody asked me if I was nervous sending in a 22-year-old with the bases loaded," says Lasorda. "Hell, when I call down to the bullpen, I don't ask how old they are. I'll say this, the kid has ice water in his veins. He reminds me of a young Tommy Lasorda."
The Dodgers' most heralded rookie, Infielder Mickey Hatcher, 25, is sitting on the bench and trying to stay calm. "I'm too hyperactive," he says. "I pace from one end of the dugout to the other, I go get coffee for the other players, I check out my pass list in the stands. Look, I don't expect to replace Ron Cey," and here Hatcher's eyes go desperate, "but I'll catch, I'll pitch, I'll do anything to get in the lineup." Lasorda, of course, loves him like a son. "There's something special about him," says Lasorda. "He's a joy to see. If you hang around him long enough, you want to start life anew. He, too, reminds me of myself." The other two rookies, Infielder-Outfielder Pedro Guerrero and Pitcher Joe Beckwith, haven't had enough playing time for Lasorda to draw the inevitable comparisons, but Guerrero is 2 for 4 and Beckwith won Sunday's game and hasn't given up a run in 4⅖ innings.
The Dodgers spent a lot of desperate money in the off-season to shore up their pitching staff, and with two straight victories after an 0-2 start, Dave Goltz is beginning to pay off on his $3 million contract, but Don Stanhouse went on the disabled list with a $2.1 million case of bursitis after giving up six runs in six innings. The current record is more a result of the efforts of Ben Wade's scouting staff, which keeps coming up with the new talent, than of front office machinations. The Dodgers had come close to breaking up that old gang of Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Cey, the oldest established permanent non-floating infield in history, but they're still producing, Cey with 15 RBIs and Garvey with a league-leading 20 runs batted in despite a .235 average. Sutton seemed a goner, for certain, after holding out and demanding to be traded to an American League contender, but nothing mutually satisfying could be arranged. Sutton may occasionally be a pain in the neck because of his contentious nature, but he is also a consummate professional, who, after 14 years, is nailing down just about every Dodger pitching record. "These young guys are providing enthusiasm and giving a kick in the seat to those of us who know we should be performing better," he says. "This could be a fun year."