BYE TO DODGER BLUES

Hello, Kirk Gibson and you other newcomers who have L.A. looking more than O.K.
July 24, 1988

Desperate Chicago cubs fans cheered a thunderstorm on Saturday, the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers having deprived them of anything else to celebrate. The new-look Dodgers had won the first three games of the five-game series but trailed 2-1 in the sixth inning of Game 4. Then a sacrifice fly by first baseman Tracy Woodson with runners on second and third enabled Los Angeles to tie the game, and the groans of the Bleacher Bums at Wrigley Field mingled with the rumble of not-so-distant thunder. Then in the top of the ninth, with the score still 2-2, lightning flashed, the swollen clouds burst and the players ran for cover.

Not long after that, the game was called, and the teams would have to replay the game in its entirety on Sunday, which meant they would have their second doubleheader in four days. "This game didn't take place in the history of the National League," said Dodger righthander and Cy Young Award-candidate Orel Hershiser, who pitched seven innings on Saturday but was rained out of a chance to improve on his sterling 13-4 record. "Only in the history of time."

Unfazed by the multiple twin bills, the Dodgers won twice on Sunday, 4-1 and 5-2, to complete their sweep of the Cubs. In light of the series' outcome—L.A. prevailed 1-0 and 6-3 in the opening doubleheader and 3-2 in Game 3—it was hard to believe that six Cubs had been in Cincinnati earlier in the week for the All-Star Game, but just one Dodger, Hershiser, had made the National League team. Clearly these two teams were headed in opposite directions. As of Sunday, Los Angeles had augmented its lead in the National League West to seven games over the second-place San Francisco Giants, while Chicago had fallen from third to fourth place in the National League East, 10½ games behind the first-place New York Mets.

The Dodgers certainly are good, but whether they are as formidable as they appeared to be in Chicago is hard to say because the Cubs were so inept. For instance, in the nightcap of the series-opening doubleheader, Chicago manager Don Zimmer visited the mound in the fifth inning to have a few words with starter Calvin Schiraldi. The problem was, Zimmer had forgotten that his pitching coach, Dick Pole, had already made a visit earlier in that inning. As a result, Schiraldi had to come out of the game. Not that yanking him was a bad idea—he'd served up gopher balls to Dodger sluggers Mike Marshall and Kirk Gibson, and trailed 4-2—it's just that when you give a pitcher the hook, it's generally a good idea to have intended to do so.

For its part, Los Angeles is the most improved club in the majors, thanks largely to executive vice-president Fred Claire, a longtime Dodger apparatchik who took over as L.A.'s player-personnel chief in April 1987 after the demise of Al Campanis. Claire rebuilt the Dodgers from top to bottom in the offseason. In a three-way deal with the Mets and Oakland Athletics, he traded ace righthander Bob Welch to the A's for relievers Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco and shortstop Alfredo Griffin. Claire also picked up four free agents: catcher Rick Dempsey, outfielder Mike Davis, 43-year-old righthander Don Sutton and Gibson. Yes, Claire works for the same Dodgers who two years ago sniffed at the idea of signing free-agent Tim Raines. Fascinating, isn't it, how a couple of seasons of declining attendance—Los Angeles tumbled all the way to 2,797,409 last year, after five straight seasons of three million plus—can help a club's brain trust rethink its philosophy.

Davis, who signed for $1.9 million for two years, has been the only bust among the new arrivals. In the press notes Dodger flaks distribute before each game, the most glowing tribute that can be mustered for Davis is: "Walked and scored a run as a pinch hitter on June 28." Davis had only one home run on the season going into Sunday's action. When he hit it last month. Dempsey feigned a heart attack in the dugout. Dempsey must have had palpitations in the second inning of Sunday's second game when Davis hit his second homer, a two-run, game-tying shot.

Gibson, on the other hand, has been everything Los Angeles had hoped he would be. Through Sunday's sweep, he was among the league leaders in five offensive categories, including batting (.301), RBIs (49) and runs (64). According to more than one Dodger, the only reason Gibson was not named to the National League All-Star team by manager Whitey Herzog is that Gibson "put the word out" that he was more interested in taking three days off than going to Cincinnati. A lefthanded hitter, Gibson says his stroke has changed since he arrived from Detroit, where he played from 1979 through '87. "At Tiger Stadium we had 440 feet to centerfield [compared with Dodger Stadium's 395 feet], so I had to hook everything or put it way over there," he says, pointing to leftfield. "Now I'm using more of the field."

At shortstop, which has been a hotbed of Dodger errors since Bill Russell stopped playing there regularly in '84, Griffin and Dave Anderson—who has been subbing for Griffin since a Dwight Gooden fastball broke a bone in Griffin's right hand on May 21—have committed only six errors between them. Last year, in contrast, Mariano Duncan had a team-high 21 in 67 games at short. Griffin and Anderson also are credited with improving the infielders around them, especially second baseman Steve Sax.

More depth is evident at third base as well, where Jeff Hamilton has filled in capably for the formidable Pedro Guerrero, who has been sidelined since June 5 with an arthritic condition and a pinched nerve in his neck. In Game 3 of the series in Chicago, Hamilton, who is superior to Guerrero in the field, tripled and scored the run that tied the game at 2-2 in the eighth. His .243 average, though on the rise, is no match for Guerrero's .316, but Hamilton has caught manager Tommy Lasorda's eye. Look for Guerrero to move to first base when he returns in the coming weeks. "We didn't have this last year," says Lasorda, referring to the newfound strength of his bench. "We had people who should have been left in Triple A to get experience."

Last season Lasorda usually left Hershiser, Welch and Fernando Valenzuela on the mound for as long as they cared to stay. "Tommy figured one of us tired was better than whoever he had in the bullpen," says Hershiser. That's no longer the case. Through Sunday the Dodger bullpen, including Orosco, Howell, Alejandro Pena, Tim Belcher and Brian Holton, led the league in saves with 30. Los Angeles relievers picked up only 32 saves during the entire '87 season.

"I cried, literally cried, when we had to give up Welch," says Lasorda. "I loved him not only as a pitcher but as a human being. But for the last two years we led the league in errors and our bullpen was last in saves, and last season we were last in hitting."

With a better bullpen and added offensive punch, L.A.'s starters can breathe more easily. "In the past, if I gave up a leadoff double or triple, I'd work my rear off to prevent that runner from scoring, knowing it might be the difference in the game," says Hershiser. "I would try to be too fine, take risks and have them blow up in my face." Hershiser is outspoken about how much the Dodgers needed to bolster their lineup with fresh talent. "It wasn't as if there was one thing missing," he says. "There was a ton missing."

"We had so many needs," says Claire in agreement. "But our overriding need was a new attitude."

Enter Gibson. During spring training, before what would have been his first exhibition game with the Dodgers, he stunned the club by exploding in anger and storming off the field after he discovered that someone—Orosco, the merry prankster—had lined the inside of his cap with eye black. Gibson had hoped to make an impression on his new teammates, but he almost ended up making an impression on Orosco's skull.

"As upset as I was—almost out of control—I chose to leave the park, go home and defuse it," says Gibson. "We dealt with it the next day, and some positive things came of it. My whole point was, if you need to play jokes to get yourself ready, fine. But don't involve me."

Has Gibson's glowering intensity rubbed off on the Dodgers? "A lot," says Sax. "He's an absolute force on the team." Gibson credits his Dodger teammates with smoothing his transition from the American League by "making my adjustment period comfortable." For someone known as the Caveman, Gibson puts a high priority on comfort.

"When you're in your comfort zone, you play better," he said before Friday's game. Moments later, responding to a minor attack of discomfort, Gibson was up in arms. Griffin, though not strong enough to be in the lineup, was pitching batting practice and having trouble getting the ball over the plate. "This is horse——!" said Gibson after taking his cuts. "Why do we take BP if we're not going to get anything out of it?" Everyone ignored him.

A few minutes later, Gibson bellowed at a portly and persistent baseball-card photographer: "Get out of here! We told you to quit bothering us!" The photographer appealed to Lasorda. "Tommy, I'll go, but what did I do wrong?" he said.

"I don't know," replied Lasorda. "But when he's like that, you just walk away from him."

"Gibby's always upset before games," says Dempsey. "That's how he gets himself psyched up." If any Dodgers object to these displays of spleen, they have kept their mouths shut, because Gibson's methods work. After having homered twice against the Cubs in Game 2 of last week's series, he doubled and scored a run in Game 3.

A source of even greater pleasure to Lasorda in that game was the performance of Valenzuela. He pitched well, allowing two earned runs in seven innings before being replaced by Pena, who got the victory. Since winning 97 games from 1981 through '86, Valenzuela, now 27, has struggled. Friday's no-decision left his record at 5-6 and his ERA at 4.10. He had more walks (64) than strikouts (50). Theories on Valenzuela's decline abound: He needs glasses; his shoulder is stiff; too many innings over the years have worn down the thread on his screwball, his best pitch; his concentration has been hurt by the protracted illness and death from cancer on June 15 of his father, Avelino.

In May the Mets knocked Valenzuela out of the box after 1⅖ innings; it was the shortest outing of his career. For every strong game he has had this year, he has had one that is shaky. Pitching coach Ron Perranoski says the source of Valenzuela's woes is mechanical: His right leg is too straight when he plants it on the ground.

"You wait. Fernando's going to make a comeback," said Sax on Friday. "Did you see how he pitched today?" Just how many wins the Dodgers think Valenzuela has left in his storied arm should become clear after this season, when he becomes eligible for free agency.

As Sax was talking, Gibson swaggered out of the training room, a bag of ice taped to his left hamstring, and surveyed the postgame buffet. "What?" he bellowed. "No ice cream?" Heads turned. There was a second of dead silence, until everyone saw that Gibson was smiling. He's just kidding, 30 minds thought at once, and the hubbub quickly resumed.

Of course, had Gibson been serious, a batboy would have been dispatched to the convenience store across the street to fetch King Kirk a pint of Heath Bar Crunch or whatever. Anything to keep him in the comfort zone, for as Gibson goes, so go the Dodgers.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGibson is as fearsome in the clubhouse as at the plate, where he ranks in five categories. PHOTOBILL SMITHWhen rain stopped Saturday's game, Griffin wasn't ready to throw in the towel. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAL.A.'s Danny Heep slid hard into second, and Shawon Dunston and the Cubs bit the dust. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAnderson has not been a mere stopgap at short. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWhat ails Valenzuela? Bad eyes? Poor mechanics? Too much work? All of the above? PHOTOBILL SMITHDavis proved that reports of his demise were exaggerated by belting a game-tying homer. PHOTOBILL SMITHAfter homering twice in Game 2, a comfortable Gibson was the center of attention.

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)