Bring On The Coconut Snatchers

May 30, 1983
May 30, 1983

Table of Contents
May 30, 1983

The Crousers
Solo Sailing

Bring On The Coconut Snatchers

That's just one of the many ways the Dodgers have always been able to change players, but not their place in the standings

In a sense, Sandy Koufax still pitches for the Dodgers. Dave Stewart is black, righthanded and a reliever, but when he throws a curveball over for a strike, he's using a curve Koufax gave him. The fastball is all his own.

This is an article from the May 30, 1983 issue Original Layout

Duke Snider is a first baseman this time around. He's named Greg Brock, and he's off to a much better start than he had the last time. It took two years for the Duke to break into the Dodger lineup. As of Sunday, Brock was leading the team in RBIs as a rookie.

Branch Rickey lives. Actually, he died in 1965, but about 40 years ago he took a liking to a so-so Greek shortstop, and to this day Al Campanis carries out The Mahatma's wishes. Of course, Rickey can't take credit for trading pitcher Bruce Ellingsen to the Indians for Pedro Guerrero, the rightfielder-turned-third baseman who wields L.A.'s biggest bat.

The Dodgers are back. Actually, they never went very far, finishing one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League West last year. But in the off-season, Los Angeles bade goodby to the anchors of its infield, First Baseman Steve Garvey and Third Baseman Ron Cey, and there was some thought that the Dodgers were bidding goodby to their pennant chances. The doubts seemed justified when, in spring training, L.A. went 11-17, looking wretched in the process.

Yet at the end of last week there the Dodgers sat, on top of their division with a record of 26-11, the best in the majors. Los Angeles was off to its fastest start since 1977, when it was 28-8 after 36 games and went on to the World Series. Hot Dodger starts are usually accompanied by pennants.

Funny thing, though. The Dodgers haven't been hitting (.248 through Sunday) or fielding (41 errors) particularly well, three-fourths of their starting pitching has been disappointing—the thinner Fernando Valenzuela had a fatter ERA of 3.88—and injuries have robbed them of catching and bench strength. Fortunately for Los Angeles—and Beau Bridges, who was last week's celebrity clubhouse guest—the Dodger bullpen has been nothing short of astounding. And the two new guys manning first and third have carried the offense: Brock had nine homers and 29 RBIs, and Guerrero was batting .309 with 10 home runs, eight of which had either tied the score or put L.A. ahead.

The Dodgers have also been lucky. But then, luck is the residue of coconut snatching, cross-checking, hard work, soft sell and all of the other things Dodgers have been doing for more than 40 years. In a way, the first-place standing is a tribute to The Dodgers' Way To Play Baseball, which is both a philosophy and a book written by Campanis in 1954.

Campanis is no stranger to philosophy. He was born in 1916 on the Greek isle of Kos, which was where Hippocrates was born some years before. When he was six he came to New York City with his mother. He went to NYU, where he starred in baseball and football, and in 1940 he signed with the Dodgers to play infield for Macon in the Sally League. He got into seven games with Brooklyn in 1943 and batted a tidy .100.

In the postwar spring of 1946 the Dodgers reassembled their coaches and players in Sanford, Fla. Rickey, the general manager, would hold meetings, and before one such session, he asked his listeners if any of them could remember the first thing that he'd said the day before. Campanis rather sheepishly raised his hand. Rickey said "Yes?" Campanis replied, "Luck is the residue of design." Rickey said, "Correct. I'd like to see you after this meeting." Campanis recalls that a little later, "He said he would keep me in mind for something special, although he didn't know what exactly."

The something special turned out to be breaking Jackie Robinson in as the second baseman at Montreal. Campanis was the shortstop, but because he knew both positions, he schooled Robinson in the intricacies of second. Campanis soon became Rickey's protégé. After his playing career ended in 1947, he was a minor league manager and then a scout. Among his more famous discoveries were Koufax, Roberto Clemente and Tommy Davis.

As the Dodgers' scouting director from 1957 to '68, Campanis conceived of and developed the advance scouting of opponents. When he became the Dodgers' vice president in '68, his first transaction was to sell his son, Jim, to the Kansas City Royals. The Dodgers never let sentiment interfere with business.

Campanis, who has 24 tapes of Rickey lectures that he still listens to, is something of a puzzle; baseball people haven't figured out yet if he's brilliant or merely eccentric. Joe Klein, the general manager of the Rangers, having failed after much trying to consummate a deal with Campanis during the 1982 winter meetings, muttered, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." The Chief, as Campanis is commonly called, speaks four languages—Spanish and Italian besides the obvious two—and quotes Shakespeare.

He's still very much the teacher and freely passes out advice to hitters, infielders and even pitchers. Last Wednesday in Montreal, for example, Centerfielder Kenny Landreaux asked him for some advice before the game. "He told me that I was trying to pull the ball," said Landreaux, "and that when I'm hitting well, I usually hit the ball up the middle. He told me to watch the ball from the pitcher's hand and to wait on it." That night Landreaux had three hits, one to center, one to right-center and one to left-center.

During Campanis' vice-presidency, the Dodgers have finished first four times and second seven times. He has made some bad trades—for instance, giving Cleveland Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe for Outfielder Jorge Orta—but then he'd already stolen Guerrero from the Tribe. "I learned a lot from Branch Rickey, but I also learned from Walter O'Malley," says Campanis. "He told me, 'Al, you've got to be bold.' In trades, that has proved very helpful. As Shakespeare said in Measure for Measure: 'Our doubts are traitors,/And make us lose the good we oft might win,/By fearing to attempt.' Ballplayers put it another way. They say, 'If you sleep on the floor, you won't fall out of bed.' "

Perhaps the best move Campanis ever made was signing a losing 18-year-old Mexican League pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela. Then he ordered that Valenzuela be taught the screwball.

"In an organization as large as the Dodgers it is important to appraise carefully the potential of each player so that he may be advanced as rapidly as his talents and capacity will permit."
—From Walter O'Malley's foreword to THE DODGERS' WAY TO PLAY BASEBALL

The L.A. scouting system is a marvel. Year in and year out the Dodgers choose low in the baseball draft, and year in and year out they produce prospects. They have had the last four National League Rookies of the Year, and Guerrero was not one of them. They have produced six Pacific Coast League batting champions in 10 years, including the 1982 titlist, Tack Wilson, whom they traded to the Twins for a Double A shortstop. This season, at least 14 former Dodger farmhands are in somebody's starting lineup, and another four pitchers are in somebody's rotation.

L.A. does it with good, old-fashioned hard work, scouring the U.S. and Latin America. It employs six full-time cross-checkers to make sure the original scout's report on a player is accurate. The Dodgers do make mistakes, but they almost always make up for them. For every Ron Kittle—now a hot White Sox rookie—they release, they discover a Greg Brock. They picked him out of the University of Wyoming in the 13th round of the 1979 draft. Stewart was a catcher with a good arm when the Dodgers picked him in the 16th round in 75. Tom Niedenfuer, another reliever, was a free agent, and Pitcher Alejandro Pena, the hardest thrower on the staff, came out of the Dodgers' rich program in the Dominican Republic. Relying on the farm system has helped Los Angeles keep its payroll down. In 1980 it was sixth-highest in the majors; it was 16th last year and will be lower this year.

Says Bill Schweppe, L.A.'s vice-president for minor league operations, "I'm not sure if continuity breeds success, or if success breeds continuity, but we have a lot of momentum built up in our minor league system. We've also been a little lucky." Sure. The names people will be seeing in future Dodger lineups are Dave Anderson, shortstop; Gilberto Reyes, catcher; Cecil Espy, outfielder; Ed Amelung, outfielder; Jose Gonzales, outfielder; Sid Fernandez, pitcher; Larry White, pitcher.

Brock, of course, has already arrived. Besides leading Los Angeles in RBIs, he was first in the National League in walks. For one so young, he has an excellent vision of the strike zone, which is good because teams have begun to pitch him very carefully. Last week, in a 15-inning loss to the Expos, he tied a league record by drawing five walks. The next night, playing despite an upset stomach, he drove in six runs on two homers, one of them a grand slam, in the Dodgers' 13-3 victory.

After the game, Brock politely but wearily answered questions about his early success, about replacing Garvey, about what pitches did he hit. Brock is a very cool customer—calm, professional. He's somewhat shy with reporters, which his friend, Anderson, has turned into a joke. "I handle all of Greg's questions," says Anderson, who's waiting for Shortstop Bill Russell, the last remaining link in the old Dodger infield, to play out his string. "I'm his press agent. Greg was born a poor, black child...."

Actually, Brock grew up middle class and white in Stayton, Ore., where he played for his coach-father in high school. He attended Wyoming because it was the only school that offered him a scholarship. His celebrity still hasn't caught up with his ability. "Somebody called me today and said he knew my father," Brock said the other day. "The man told me he thought my father was one of the greatest players he'd ever seen, and that he loved watching him steal bases for the St. Louis Cardinals. I said he must have known my father real well."

How good is Brock? Scouting Director Ben Wade says potentially he is better than—dare we say it?—the Duke. In spring training, Manager Tom Lasorda asked Ted Williams to look at Brock in the batting cage. "Greg didn't even hit the ball very good," says Lasorda. "Williams watched him and said he had good balance, quick hands and tremendous hip action. Then he said something that made me quiver all over. He said, 'He reminds me a bit of myself.' "

"In the Dodger organization, we nickname the changing of a player's position 'coconut snatching.' You move players from one position to another to fill your needs."

"Coconut snatching" was a phrase of Rickey's, and it requires explanation. "Mr. Rickey got it from the islands, or Hawaii, or some tropical place," says Campanis. "He noticed that one native would climb to the top of the coconut tree and hold on with his legs and snatch the coconuts, throwing them to a native below. When the coconut snatcher's legs got tired, he would climb down and the coconut catcher would climb up to become the coconut snatcher. They were filling the position by need."

In recent years, the Dodgers have taken centerfielders Russell and Davey Lopes and made them a shortstop and second baseman, respectively. They converted Garvey from third to first. This year they decided to make a permanent third baseman out of Guerrero because they had an up-and-coming rightfielder in Mike Marshall.

The returns are not yet in on this grand experiment. Guerrero looked awful defensively in spring training, making 10 errors. But he has begun to settle down at third, and although he has seven miscues, one of which cost L.A. the 15-inning game with the Expos last week, he's making some plays that Cey probably would not have made.

Although Marshall's batting average was a respectable .262 through Sunday, he wasn't swinging the bat well, and Lasorda elected to sit him down to relax him last week. In John R. Tunis' The Kid from Tomkinsville, Manager Dave Leonard sat Roy Tucker down for the same reason, and Tucker responded by helping the fictional Dodgers win the pennant. When Marshall came back against the Mets on Sunday he hit a two-run homer off Tom Seaver in a 5-0 victory. Stay tuned.

"Pitching is an art."
—The first sentence of THE DODGERS' WAY TO PLAY BASEBALL

If pitching is an art, then the Los Angeles bullpen is now at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Through 37 games last Sunday, the relievers had a collective ERA of 1.66 in 103‚Öì innings. Their record was 11-2 with 14 saves, which is half of what they had in 1982, when they were last in that category in the league. The bullpen provides the most obvious statistical difference between the boys of '82 and '83. After 37 games last year, Los Angeles was 18-19, and the relievers had five saves and an ERA of 4.84.

They call themselves Canned Heat, after the rock group that was big in the mid-'70s. "You open the can, let the heat out and close the can back up," says Steve Howe. Expo Outfielder Warren Cromartie has another name for them, though. As the L.A. pitchers walked out to the bullpen in Montreal's Olympic Stadium one day last week, Cromartie called out, "There they go. The Untouchables." Cromartie then began to hum the theme from the old television show.

In 22‚Öì innings Howe had yet to give up a single earned run. He attributes his untouchability to two things: 1) a weight-training program that helped add several miles per hour to his fastball and 2) coming clean about the cocaine dependence that he had last year. "I'm much more relaxed, and I'm having fun," he says. "I still have the same societal pressures, as they say, but they don't bother me anymore. Admitting my problem helped a whole ton."

In spring training the Dodgers wanted desperately to discover a righthanded short man to complement the lefthanded Howe. First they tried Niedenfuer, then Joe Beckwith, but both were found wanting. Stewart, in the meantime, was horrendous. His ERA in spring training was higher than 12, and he was getting shelled in B games.

Los Angeles has a fine pitching coach in Ron Perranoski, but one of its roving minor league instructors is one Sandy Koufax. The Dodgers asked Koufax, who is an excellent pitching mechanic, to work with Stewart after spring training. "Sandy got me to relax on my curveball and fixed my grip on my sinker," says Stewart. "He really helped to straighten me out." Through Sunday Stewart hadn't given up a run in his last 10 outings, totaling 17‚Öî innings.

To think that in recent years the Dodgers have tried to. trade Stewart, Pena, Howe and Beckwith. As luck would have it, all of the deals fell through. And luck, as we know, is the residue of the Dodgers.

PHOTOEven though Garvey's gone, first base for the Dodgers remains as solid as a Brock.PHOTOThe Mahatma would love the way that L.A. switched Guerrero from rightfield to third.PHOTOCampanis had the screwball idea that young Valenzuela could make it in the majors.PHOTOMarshall appears to be the right man for rightfield.PHOTOHowe and Stewart lead the Canned Heat.