Remember Mr. Potato Head, the man of many funny faces from your childhood? Don't laugh now, but Mr. Potato Head has something to do with the Los Angeles Dodgers' repossession of first place in the National League West. It sounds silly, but from Aug. 11, when they started awarding the Mr. Potato Head doll to the hero of every victory, through Sunday the Dodgers had a record of 18-7 and moved from 6½ games behind the Atlanta Braves to 2½ games in front of them. Put a smile on Mr. Potato Head.
Of course, Mr. Potato Head hasn't done it alone. There are other, more substantive reasons why, in a repeat performance of last year's pennant race, L.A. has erased a large Braves lead. The Dodger defense, which by July 17 had committed 108 errors, has settled down—only 39 errors since then—especially in the infield, where Third Baseman Pedro Guerrero and Second Baseman Steve Sax are no longer turning every ground ball into an adventure. Give Mr. Potato Head a good arm.
On Aug. 19 Los Angeles acquired lefthander Rick Honeycutt from the Texas Rangers, making the best pitching staff in baseball even better. An extra arm for Mr. Potato Head. The batting is improved, too: Outfielder Mike Marshall has recovered from an early-season beaning, First Baseman Greg Brock broke out of a prolonged slump with four taters in nine games two weeks ago, and at week's end Guerrero had hit .452 in his last 11 games, with two homers, five doubles, one triple and 10 RBIs. In addition, the catching corps, beset by injuries all season, has been rescued from self-destruction by young Jack Fimple.
This hasn't been an easy year for the Dodgers or their manager, Tommy Lasorda. "I lost both catchers [Mike Scioscia with a torn rotator cuff and Steve Yeager with a broken wrist] and had to go with two kids who'd never caught a day in the majors," says Lasorda. "In the same week I had to tell each member of my double-play combination [Shortstop Bill Russell and Sax] that his father had died. I lost my lefthanded relief pitcher [Steve Howe] for over a month to drug rehabilitation. One of my lefthanders [Jerry Reuss] didn't win for two months, and in one of those months the other lefthander [Fernando Valenzuela] didn't win either. My leftfielder [Dusty Baker] is having an off year, and my second baseman has a hard time throwing to first base. Now what are the odds of all that happening in the same season?"
On Aug. 10 the Dodgers lost to Cincinnati 9-2 and were 6½ games back, and after the game Lasorda chewed them up and spat them out. Says Outfielder Rick Monday, "Back in 1977 we were 8½ games ahead in August, and Tommy called a meeting. Well, Boog Powell, who was with us, kept count with one of those ball-strike counters, and he had Tommy at 160 expletives in 20 minutes, which was the world indoor record. After that loss in Cincinnati, Tommy spoke for about 10 minutes and nearly broke the record." At the end of his tirade Lasorda told the Dodgers he wanted them in uniform at 11 a.m. the next day before their night game with the Reds.
Lasorda's speech was followed by a players-only session in which some veterans, notably Pitcher Pat Zachry, Baker, Monday and Russell spoke up. Marshall specifically asked Russell to say a few words, and The Dean, as his teammates call him, who rarely speaks at meetings, hit home with his talk. He suggested to Marshall and Brock that they stop trying so hard and that, rather than worrying about themselves, they play for the team.
It rained the next morning, but that gave Lasorda another opportunity to exercise his lungs, although he was much gentler. "I asked them if it wasn't too much to gain one game a week for seven weeks," he says. At the end of Lasorda's talk, Monday brought out Mr. Potato Head for the first time. "It got a big laugh," says Russell, "and it was the right way to end the meeting. All the tension was gone."
The Potato Head saga boils down to this: The award is in honor of Paul Padilla, the bald assistant trainer who bears a striking resemblance to Mr. P. The trophy had been suggested to Monday by Pitcher Joe Beckwith, who was eating breakfast one morning when his 2-year-old daughter, Merrill, brought a Mr. Potato Head doll to the table. Beckwith went out and bought one of his own, then painted Padilla's hairline on it.
So now, after every victory, Padilla presents Mr. Potato Head to the game's most valuable player, and the entire clubhouse breaks into the Mr. Potato Head song, which is sung to the tune of Hooray for Hollywood. However, the lyrics aren't meant for children ages two to six. Take Mr. Potato Head's ears off.
Through Sunday, 13 different Dodgers had won him, Outfielder Ken Landreaux and Pitcher Bob Welch leading the pack with three potatoes each. After the presentation ceremony, Padilla puts the MVP's number on Mr. Potato Head's back. After every loss he takes the smile off Mr. Potato Head and lowers his arms, which after the next win are raised in triumph. "I'm not going to say we're winning because of him," says Padilla, "but I think the players do see it as a kind of motivation."
"It's much bigger than the Academy Awards," says Marshall. "I got mine for a home run—or else I might have been Potato Headless."
On Friday in Montreal, Baker, 34, spotted Mr. Potato Head standing—or sitting, it's hard to tell with Tater T√™te—in a corner of the trainer's room. The Dodgers had just lost two in a row, so Baker decided to give Mr. Potato Head a pep talk. He picked him up and said, "Who stuck you in the corner? I want you out there tonight doing your job, not sitting around. We've got to get you going again." Baker took Mr. Potato Head out into the clubhouse and placed him on the ice chest next to the locker of Jerry Reuss, that night's starting pitcher. Reuss then pitched a five-hitter as the Dodgers beat the Expos 4-1 to increase their lead to 2½ games.
Baker explained his outlandish behavior thusly: "We may be grown men, but this is a children's game." And the Dodgers are, after all, the original Boys of Summer.
After the victory Welch said, "It was Jerry Reuss who won for us tonight, not Mr. Potato Head. But then, you never know."
Welch did his part Saturday night, taking a shutout into the seventh as the Dodgers won 4-0. The veterans who vote for MPH had a tough time choosing from among Welch; Tom Niedenfuer, who earned his 10th save; Landreaux, who drove in two runs; and Rafael Landestoy, who hit an insurance homer in the ninth. The winner was Welch, who was serenaded with the Mr. Potato Head song while he was attached to the muscle stimulator in the trainer's room.
"The spirit of this team is like day and night from what it was three weeks ago," says Beckwith. That dumb little plastic potato has become the Dodgers' late-season rallying point.
On Aug. 11, the night after the big meeting, the Dodgers beat the Reds 4-3, and Niedenfuer won the game and the first Mr. Potato Head. The Dodgers had beaten the worst team in the division by one run and still trailed the Braves by 6½ games, but the mood aboard the charter flight to Atlanta that night was so loose that one might have thought the Dodgers had won the pennant. Says Baker, "Timing is everything. In hitting, pitching, fielding—and in calling meetings. The timing was right. That's the day we became a team."
There were some other significant developments the next week. The Braves lost Third Baseman Bob Horner with a broken wrist, and that suddenly made them seem vincible. Few Dodgers will admit that Horner's injury made a difference in their thinking, but it has to have helped. Lasorda, when asked if he would be in first place if Horner were healthy, said, "If a bullfrog had wings, he wouldn't bump his ass on a log every time he jumped."
Then the Dodgers traded Pitcher Dave Stewart to the Rangers for Honeycutt, whom they promptly signed to a five-year, $3.75 million contract. The effect of these events was threefold. First, though Stewart was one of L.A.'s most popular players, the trade convinced the Dodgers that the front office was trying to win the pennant as much as they were. Second, the move lit a fire under Reuss, who was looking for the same sort of contract that Honeycutt got but had lost seven straight games, dating to May 31, in part because of a sore elbow. Since the trade, Reuss has completed and won all three of his starts and allowed only four earned runs in 28 innings. Third, they got Honeycutt.
At 14-8 with a 2.42 ERA, Honeycutt had been a strong candidate for the American League Cy Young Award. "I'd much rather be on a pennant contender than try to win an individual award." he says. In his first two starts Honeycutt beat the Phillies twice, pitching 16 innings and giving up just one run and only four fly balls. He's the second coming of Tommy John, only younger and with a slightly better curveball. On Thursday in Montreal he got the Expos to hit into eight groundouts in four innings, but the defense succumbed, committing a three-run error after Honeycutt was chased, making him an 8-3 loser.
The Dodgers are still having problems in the field. One of the runs off Honeycutt was scored because of mental and physical errors by all four infielders. Although Sax hasn't made a throwing error to first base since Aug. 5, he still tends to freeze before he throws. And Baker, ordinarily an excellent fielder, made errors in consecutive games in Montreal. The defense is better than what it was, though, and Russell has been the steadying influence.
A much maligned shortstop, Russell is having a good year at the plate, hitting .263, and an even better one in the field. At 34 he realizes he has only a few seasons left, so he's tutoring his successor, Dave Anderson. He has such class that, he says, he would be happy to play for the Dodgers in a reserve role when the time comes. A tip of Mr. Potato Head's cap to Bill Russell.
Los Angeles has plenty of offense. As of Sunday it led the league in home runs with 127, and six of its regulars have at least 13. The big gun has been Guerrero, who had 26 homers, 87 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and a .294 average. Sax had 44 stolen bases, although he had been thrown out 26 times.
Fimple, bless his name, has been a big help, alternating with the now-recovered Yeager behind the plate. Fimple was a throw-in in the trade that sent Rick Sutcliffe to Cleveland two years ago, so he eases the pain of that swap. "He has an idea," says Reuss, "I really like pitching to him."
The mouth on Mr. Potato Head belongs, of course, to Lasorda, who is having an excellent year, rhetorically speaking. After a tough loss to Atlanta a month ago, Lasorda gave a speech to rival Lincoln's second inaugural. According to Lasorda, "I told them of the great entertainer, Al Jolson, who, when he had the audience captivated, in the palm of his hand, said, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet.' " Before the start of a series against the Phillies two weeks ago, Lasorda, concerned that some of his players had gone to Atlantic City the night before, delivered a variation on the theme of "You can't stop and smell the roses." For all his bluster, Lasorda has done a good job of managing this season. The Dodgers have had more than their share of travail, more even than the Braves.
Lasorda was in all his glory on the Dodgers' eastern swing the last two weeks. In Philadelphia, his hometown, restaurateurs were literally running out of their establishments to get him to try their cheesesteaks. In New York on the night of Aug. 28, he and Dodger Publicity Director Steve Brener asked a policeman where they could buy a newspaper; after being escorted around the city in a squad car, they ended up helping a police sergeant celebrate his promotion in the holding cells in the subway station beneath Times Square.
Many visitors made their way to Lasorda's office at Shea Stadium last week. One day, WBA lightweight champion Ray Mancini stopped by. "Boom Boom!" shouted Lasorda. "Tommy!" shouted Mancini, who then introduced his stable of sparring partners and hugged Lasorda. Next a distinguished-looking man arrived. "Laz!" Lasorda shouted. "Tommy!" shouted Laz Barrera, the noted horse trainer. They hugged. Luckily, Barrera didn't bring his stable.
Lasorda saved his best performance for Thursday night in Montreal. After the 8-3 loss he was invited to appear on Jeff Rimer's Sports Talk, a combined audience and telephone participation radio show broadcast from Salon 76, the dining club in Olympic Stadium. Lasorda is immensely popular in Montreal, where he pitched for nine years, and by the end of the show he had the Expo fans on their feet. "If you tell people you're with the Padres," he said, "they ask where's your robe. [Pause.] If you tell them you're an Indian, they ask what tribe. [Pause.] But when you tell them you're a Dodger, they know that you're in the major leagues." The ovation was astounding, even though Lasorda promised to beat the Expos the next night.
Lasorda, too, has become fond of Mr. Potato Head. "I love that kind of thing. The guys are smiling now, laughing. It's been good for the team."
Friday night, after the Dodgers had chased Steve Rogers and beaten the Expos 4-1, the players gathered around for the award ceremony. The winner was Reuss, for his five-hitter.
"I will perish this award forever," Reuss said, cradling Mr. Potato Head.
"This spud's for you," Padilla said.