In his salon, apart from the players' clubhouse, Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda was entertaining Danny Kaye, the actor-comedian-conductor, who is both a part owner of the Seattle Mariners and an unregenerate Dodger fan. Kaye was expressing amazement that Lasorda's team, an also-ran for most of the season, should suddenly be leading the pack in the National League West. "Danny," said Tommy, "I've always said that a baseball season is just like a horse race. It doesn't matter how you start; it's who's under the wire first."
The Dodgers are a long way from the wire, but there they were out front coming into the backstretch, if only by a head. They got there so swiftly that Kaye, not an easy man to surprise, may be forgiven his disbelief. On July 30 the Dodgers were in third place, 10½ games behind the Atlanta Braves. Some 24 hours later, after a doubleheader sweep and a single-game victory, they were 7½ back. Ten days later, they were in first place by a half game. They got there, in no small part, by beating Atlanta eight times in that stretch, not that that, in retrospect, seems like much of an achievement, because the Braves contrived to lose 11 in a row before sneaking out a one-run win over the third-place Padres last Saturday night. But what is even more amazing about this abrupt turn of events is that while the Dodgers were making their run, winning eight in a row at one point, the San Francisco Giants, of all people, were matching them stride for stride and then some, winning 10 in succession, including five over the suddenly hapless Braves.
The Dodgers and Giants had come from nowhere to transform a runaway division race into a four-way scramble. And to make matters better, they ran right into each other last week in a four-game series in Los Angeles that was reminiscent of a time in the '50s and '60s when the two were noble adversaries battling each year, it seemed, for the old gonfalon. Lately, of course, the Giants have been the Dodgers' patsies. Until they finally won on Saturday night, they had lost 24 of their last 30 games in Dodger Stadium, including four straight this season.
But this San Francisco team, led by their implacable manager, Frank Robinson, is made of sterner stuff than the pitiful Giants of recent years. And the series last week represented a return to the good old days of bad blood, beanballs, suspected foul play, brilliant defensive efforts and homers galore. In the fourth inning of the Friday night game, the Dodgers' Pedro Guerrero was hit on the back by a pitch thrown by the Giants' Rich Gale, who was irritatingly wild inside for most of his five-inning stay. Guerrero, suspecting that this and other Gale dusters were thrown with malice aforethought, railed at the pitcher on his way to first base. When Guerrero finally reached the bag, he was advised by Giant First Baseman Reggie Smith that if Gale had indeed grown careless, it was only because he suspected that the Dodgers' Ken Landreaux, leading off second base, had been stealing Giant Catcher Milt May's signs and tipping off the hitters. Gale was merely seeking to restore a semblance of honesty to Dodger batsmen with some morality lessons inside.
Guerrero was even more outraged by this intelligence. "I don't need to know anybody's signs to hit," he shouted at Smith in macho pique. To demonstrate his self-reliance, his next time up he hit a three-run homer off Gale's successor, Alan Fowlkes, icing a 6-1 Dodger win. And for good measure, the Dodger starter and winner, Bob Welch, flattened Jack Clark in the eighth with a pitch fully as sinister as the one that plinked Guerrero. Plate Umpire Ed Montague immediately issued a warning to Welch that the strike zone, not Clark, was his proper target.
The Dodgers won the opening game Thursday with a four-run eighth inning that severed a 2-2 tie. The Giants came within a literal foot of breaking that tie two innings earlier when Joe Morgan, attempting to score from third on Jeff Leonard's fly to right, was blocked at the plate by Dodger Catcher Mike Scioscia. Morgan rebounded off Scioscia and, from a short distance away, reached out for the plate with his left foot, in the manner of someone attempting to scrape gum off his shoe. Three times Morgan's foot groped for the plate, and, according to Plate Umpire Eric Gregg, he actually reached it on his third try. The trouble was, Scioscia tagged him on his second. Morgan was still fuming over this call two days later. "It changed the whole game around," he groused.
The Giants also lost a home run in the fifth inning of that game when Landreaux leaped high and reached over the fence in left center to rob Bob Brenly. Home-run larceny was committed in each of the first three games. Clark took one away from Landreaux on Friday, and Dusty Baker, timing his leap perfectly, came down with an over-the-fence sky-buster by Leonard on Saturday. No one reached homers hit Saturday by Chili Davis (on the first pitch of the game, off Dave Stewart) and by Morgan in a 4-2 Giants' win. Nor could any Dodger get back home runs by Darrell Evans and the retaliative Leonard in the Giants' 8-6 win on Sunday—certainly not Fernando Valenzuela, who was shelled for five runs and eight hits in three innings and made the earliest exit of his career.
It was vintage hardball by two of the more interesting teams in the National League. The Dodgers, we must remember, are the world champions, although they hadn't played that way until this month. Their inability to bury the opposition in a division not considered particularly strong had baffled their legion of supporters (they average more than 44,000 spectators a game at home) and their own front office, which got noticeably edgy early in the season.
"We suffered from an inability to put together a sustained effort," opines Rick Monday, the demon substitute and ace philosopher. "People were saying, 'What's wrong with the Dodgers?' when they might have asked themselves, 'What's right with the Braves?' It's always easier to analyze the negative. Fortunately, we had some positive data left in our memory banks."
Criticism from management was particularly annoying to the players. "I didn't understand how everyone could give up on us so quickly with such a long season ahead," said Baker, who's one of the few Dodgers who have played consistently well all season. "It makes you aware of what the future may hold."
Ron Cey, who through Sunday had driven in 28 runs in his last 31 games, was even more outspoken about what he considered front-office scare tactics. Constant talk early in the season of replacing veterans with youngsters from the crack Albuquerque Triple A farm club was "disrupting" and "insulting," according to Cey, 34. "All that nonsense about making a move here and a move there was upsetting to players who had proved they were winners. You got the feeling that half the club wasn't even here yet, that we couldn't take the team picture without [Greg] Brock and [Candy] Maldonado [two Triple A Albuquerque flashes]. It affected me personally, and I know it affected others. I don't care how old you are if you can still do the job. I don't know of many teams this successful who've had to face this dilemma. It's almost as if they're saying nothing is good enough. There was a lot going on here that didn't need to be going on. When they finally decided to leave us alone, we got back to playing baseball."
An improved state of mind is one thing. Physical improvement is another. The Dodgers have profited from the season-long superior pitching of Welch, whose win on Friday was his fifth straight. Until Smith homered off him in the final inning, Welch hadn't allowed an earned run in 24 innings. His 14 victories (against seven losses) are second only to the 15 (with nine losses) of Valenzuela, who has established that his rookie season was no fluke. But back in April, Welch looked more like a candidate for elbow surgery than for the Cy Young Award. The team left him behind at the conclusion of spring training for treatment of a sore right arm. He recovered and, with Valenzuela, has been a mainstay ever since, which is fortunate because Burt Hooton has been on and off the disabled list for much of the year after being struck just above the right knee by a line drive in spring training.
The Dodgers' offensive spark has been provided by Steve Sax, a confident youngster of 22 who has successfully made the jump from Double A to the majors. "I was like someone blindfolded at first," Sax says, "but things have gone well." On Friday, Sax stole his 41st base, setting a record for Dodger rookies. He doffed his cap to the crowd of 47,702, and smiled broadly, if not entirely ingenuously. "He is confident, to say the least," says Cey, "but his real test is yet to come." At week's end, Sax was leading the league in hits and was among the leaders in runs and steals. Sax grew up in Sacramento and had been a Giant fan until he signed with the Dodgers out of James Marshall High School. "I loved the Giants," he says, "but now I want to put them out of the race, get rid of them."
Guerrero, whose 23 homers and 74 RBIs are already career highs, has, with Baker (.312 average, 20 homers, 68 RBIs), taken up the slack for Steve Garvey, whose .271 average at week's end was his highest for the year. Garvey's contract is up, and the feeling is that he may be a victim of the coming youth movement. Cey's young ghosts are real for this old (33) Blue.
The Giants haven't been without turmoil of their own (see box below), but as opposed to previous San Francisco teams, this one does more playing than complaining. It's an entirely different team from the one that had its first winning season since 1978 last year, Robinson's first as manager. The starting rotation has included three 24-year-old rookies—Bill Laskey, Atlee Hammaker and Fowlkes (who was sent to the minors Sunday)—and on the field the Giants are an improbable mixture of youth and age. Tom O'Malley, 21, is a frequent starter at third and fellow rookie Davis, 22, is a regular in center, along with such gray-beards as Morgan, 38, at second and Smith, 37, at first. But these two geezers have sparked the recent drive, and at week's end were hitting .297 and .315, respectively. Smith's career seemed over after he had only 35 at bats with the Dodgers in '81 and became a free agent, but Robinson needed him to play first, and he has been more than a pleasant surprise, raising his average 53 percentage points in his last 18 games. At 162 pounds Morgan is 14 pounds lighter than he was a year ago and is playing swift and lean. "The older you get, the more people tell you that you can't do what you used to," he says. "Well, as much as you don't want to listen to that, things do seep in. People kept telling me that I should go to the opposite field more and that I needed to build up my strength by lifting weights. I did, and I got heavier. But quickness is my game, and I decided to go back to it. In spring training [Cub Coach] Billy Williams told me my bat seemed to him just as quick as ever. That gave me more confidence."
Robinson, tinkering most of the year, had finally assembled the lineup he wanted when Shortstop Johnnie LeMaster aggravated a thigh-muscle injury Saturday in Los Angeles. That necessitated moving Morgan from second to third, transferring Evans from third to short and bringing in Duane Kuiper to play second. With Smith on first, that infield averaged 35.5 years of age per man. Additional tinkering is now indicated. But with it all, even so celebrated a dissident as Clark can say, "We've stuck together as a team. Sure, some guys get frustrated when they're not playing, but when it comes time for them to pinch-hit, they come through. It's a team effort. Everybody is making a contribution. I'm real proud to be on this team."
But the Dodgers, who staved off the Giants' rush last weekend, will be hard to catch down the stretch. In there trying, of course, will be the Braves, who ended up losing three out of four to the Padres over the weekend, leaving them 1½ and 2½ games, respectively, out of first place, along with the Giants, who were four games out. But up ahead there seemed to be an awful lot of Dodger blue. When it was suggested to Robinson that his team may have "cooled the Dodgers off," he smiled almost sadly, and replied, "We beat them, but we didn't cool them off."
That may not happen until they reach the wire.