Last week as summer came to Los Angeles, Tommy Lasorda's city was its usual crowded self. It was bumper to bumper on the Santa Monica Freeway, side by side on the Malibu beaches, cheek to cheek at the Mayan club. Unless you count the thoroughly separated Kiefer and Julia, about the only people between Beverly Hills and Chavez Ravine who'd found any breathing room worth mentioning were Lasorda and his Dodgers, who by taking three of four from the Pittsburgh Pirates, opened a six-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, L.A.'s closest pursuers in the National League West. As of Sunday, the Dodgers had surged to baseball's best record, and they'd made their mark on this up-to-the-minute town by emphasizing down-to-earth virtues: tough pitching, stingy defense and good pasta.
Four pounds of pasta, to be precise, lovingly prepared by Lasorda in the Dodger clubhouse last Friday. "Before games I feed my coaches, our trainers and some of my players who aren't playing that night," says Lasorda, who treats his office in Los Angeles like the ancestral family kitchen in Abruzzi, Italy. As the linguine pot bubbled, Lasorda sat in his office, cluttered with jars of Tommy Lasorda's Pasta Sauce, with a telephone receiver in each hand and contentment in his smile. True, his lineup was without Darryl Strawberry, who was suffering from a sore left shoulder and a bruised batting average, but there was soothing medical news to compensate. Orel Hershiser, the best pitcher in baseball three years ago, had returned to the Dodgers many months ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery, and he was pitching with the accustomed spice on his fastball.
Besides, Lasorda is never happier than when old friends drop in for a visit, and last week he was doubly blessed. Duke Snider came by for a chat on Thursday, which gave both men the opportunity to reminisce about the Dodgers of the 1950s in general and Carl Erskine's marvelous curveball in particular. Now Don Rickles, the Homer of hecklers, had arrived amid a flurry of insults. Quickly Lasorda rounded up some of his players. When Strawberry walked in, Rickles fixed him with a look. "Darryl," he said to the $20 million rightfielder, "you better start playing so you can save Tommy's job."
That's a joke, all right. No manager in baseball is as secure in his work as Lasorda, who has held his job for 15 years. As it happens, Strawberry will be back next week to join a lineup already rippling at the midsection with Eddie Murray, Kal Daniels and Juan Samuel. However, as the Pirates and the rest of the league are learning, this year's L.A. story is pretty much the same old story: The Dodgers have emerged as the team to beat because of their pitching. With a rotation of Hershiser, Ramon Martinez, Bobby Ojeda, Mike Morgan and Tim Belcher, L.A. gives up runs the way J.D. Salinger gives out interviews. So good is this staff that even Lasorda, Dame Hyperbole's scion, is stuck for an adjective. "The pitching's been just...great," he says. And then, after a pause, he says it again, louder.
June 30, 1991
Well, so it has, so it has. Consider that, at week's end, not once in the month of June had a Dodger starter failed to pitch at least six full innings. During that time the starters' ERA was a combined 2.16. For the season, the entire staff had permitted 2.91 runs per game, and Belcher (2.40), Morgan (2.41) and Martinez (2.73) were all among the top 10 ERA men in the league. At 3.20, Ojeda was not far behind, and just wait until Hershiser, with a 2.45 ERA in his first five starts, really warms up.
To Lasorda—once, briefly, a Dodger lefthander himself—there isn't much to choose among the five. So when the attending throng in his office started chatting about the particular virtues of the 10-3 Martinez or the 8-5 Morgan, he responded with what is, in effect, a Dodger family parable. "I went out with my father, Sam, one day when I was 12 years old," said Lasorda. "Someone said to him, 'Sam, you've got five sons; which one of them do you like the best?' I figured he'd say me, but he held up one hand and asked in reply, 'Which finger do you like best?' "
Given that pitching is indeed a Dodger family tradition, it would be almost unseemly for Lasorda to indulge in more ornate expressions of approval when discussing it. "The Dodgers take such pride in their pitching," says reliever Jim Gott, who, along with the rest of the L.A. bullpen, has had ample time for reflection of late. "You always hear about that, but I've never seen a manager or a pitching coach take such pride in his pitching, such pride in the legacy of his pitching."
When the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, they were parting with a style as much as with a city. The Dodgers of Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Jackie Robinson played inside a cracker box of a ballpark, Ebbets Field, where they specialized more in pummeling opposing pitchers than in breeding their own. When the team moved west, and especially after spacious Dodger Stadium was carved from the gullies of Los Angeles in '62, it made sense to seed the new park with the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton.
"When I joined the club in Brooklyn, it was an offensive club," says Drysdale, a Dodger pitcher from 1956 to '69 and now a broadcaster for the team. "But since we've come out here, the Dodgers have practically coined the phrase 'winning with pitching, speed and defense.' There's a tradition of excellent pitching in Los Angeles, no question, and the Dodgers have probably put a bigger emphasis on pitching than other organizations have. If you can pitch, you can win. We've proven that."
That emphasis is especially apparent to Belcher, Gott and Morgan, who have come to the Dodgers in mid-career. Los Angeles pitchers spend spring training receiving instruction from past masters like Koufax, Drysdale and Johnny Podres. As Morgan, who grew up in Las Vegas, a town of long odds and short sentences, puts it, "It rubs off."
Says Belcher, "When I first came here, in 1987, I was plugged into a rotation featuring Fernando Valenzuela, Bob Welch and Orel Hershiser. Excellent rotations pull you in because of the way the other guys pitch; you don't want to stick out like a sore thumb. Success becomes a habit here, a routine."
Hershiser agrees. "I got to watch the Burt Hootons, the Rick Honeycutts and the Jerry Reusses," he says. "You get to see the formula lived out before you."
So did the Pirates, much to their dismay, during four days in Los Angeles last week. On Thursday night, the National League East leaders faced Martinez. At 6'4", 170 pounds, he is a 23-year-old Dominican sugarcane bearing a 95-mph fastball, which he delivers from precipitous angles. He has tormented hitters this season just as he did last year, when his 20-6 record and 2.92 ERA were good enough for second in the National League Cy Young Award voting. The Dodgers, however, didn't think that performance justified paying him the $600,000 he is said to have requested for 1991. Martinez expressed his pique by reporting late to spring training, and he finally settled for a $485,000 contract. Now, though, he sounds serene: "When the season began, I just said, 'Well, all I have to do now is concentrate on baseball.' "
That he has done. "Ramon Martinez is the type of guy I come to the ballpark to see," says Gott. "I saw him strike out 18 [last June] against the Braves, and now whenever he pitches, I have the feeling he might do it again, or pitch a no-hitter. I've never seen a player dominate games the way he does."
Martinez had his way with the Pirates, but after seven innings and 121 pitches, Lasorda brought in Kevin Gross to relieve him with the score tied 2-2. So vast are L.A.'s pitching resources that Gross, who was signed as a free agent in December for three years and $6.4 million, found himself without a starting job when Hershiser returned to the rotation in May. But Gross got the win on Thursday when L.A.'s Stan Javier, subbing in rightfield for Strawberry, hit a routine grounder that bounded over the head of Pittsburgh shortstop Jay Bell for an RBI single.
Friday was Ojeda's turn, and although Ojeda's ERA went down on this evening, so did the Dodgers, 5-1, after Alfredo Griffin's error at shortstop led to a two-run Pirate fifth. Such blunders have been rare of late for a Los Angeles defense that has cleaned up its act considerably as this season has unfolded. In their first 25 games, the Dodgers committed 33 errors and went 12-13; in the next 43 games, through Sunday, they had made only 18 errors in a 30-13 run.
The Griffin mishap tripped up Ojeda, but he has overcome worse. Ojeda nearly severed the tip of his left middle finger while misusing an electric hedge trimmer in 1988, and he seems to have a predilection for dangerous machinery. Last year, when the New York Mets removed him from the starting rotation, Ojeda took to whizzing about Long Island on a motorcycle, riding helmetless for hours through the night. This year he has a new Harley-Davidson—Dodger blue, of course—and his old crafty stuff on the mound. "Bobby O hasn't had a bad start yet," says catcher Mike Scioscia.
Morgan is called Lucky by his teammates, a name that now has to be called into question: At week's end, the Dodgers had scored a paltry 2.9 runs per game for him. Entering this season, Morgan sported a 53-94 career record, the worst of any active starter in the big leagues. But he spent the off-season tossing a medicine ball with his friend and former lightweight champ Greg Haugen, losing 20 of the 222 pounds on his body and nothing on his hard sinkers and sliders.
Morgan says that conversations with Drysdale also have eased the frustrations of games like the one on April 30, when he tossed a two-hitter against the Montreal Expos but lost 1-0. On Saturday, Morgan beat the Pirates 4-1 on only three hits while working with his usual dispatch. Time of game: 2:13. "I wasn't real sharp," he said afterward, "but I couldn't let the staff down."
Neither could Belcher on Sunday. With the help of a pair of lovely plays by third baseman Lenny Harris, Belcher, a big-boned (6'3", 223 pounds), small-town (Sparta, Ohio, pop. 250) righthander, shut out Pittsburgh on five hits through eight innings, before Tim Crews came on in the ninth to complete the 2-0 victory. The Dodgers scored their runs early. Leadoff man Brett Butler, a gnat in the Pirates' eye the entire series, beat out a bunt single in the first inning and then circled the bases on Samuel's single and Javier's groundout. In the fourth inning, Harris, who like Samuel is hovering near .330 at the plate, slapped a hit to left and scored on Belcher's single by wriggling around the tag of Pittsburgh catcher Mike LaValliere.
But this is a gracious crew of Pirates, and they floated only bouquets behind them as they sailed home to Pennsylvania. "The Dodgers have a real good staff," said Bell. "They've all got good stuff, they're all a little bit different, they're all aggressive, they throw a lot of strikes. It's a real challenge to face them."
Pittsburgh chose a sensible time to shove off. Its lead over the St. Louis Cardinals had withered to 4½ games, and all that was left for the Pirates in California was Hershiser. The very sight of Hershiser's cherubic face in the clubhouse, a place Hershiser couldn't endure last year with his right arm rendered useless, sets Lasorda to gushing. Recalling Hershiser's 1988 season—when he won 23 regular-season games, broke Drysdale's major league record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched (59) and led L.A. to its most recent world championship—Lasorda offers this Orel report: "What he did for me in 1988, I said that's not him out there, that's God. He's just a tremendous person, an outstanding young man. If he came in to date my daughter, I'd lock the door so he couldn't get out."
The process of recovering from a serious operation has made a more solemn man of Hershiser. "Before, it was a game," he says. "Now it's a job. I worked very hard at it before as maintenance; now I work to keep my health."
Thus far, Hershiser's limb has been pain-free and his pitching up to standard. A protracted ovation from the Dodger Stadium fans before his May 29 debut, against the Houston Astros, brought him close to tears. Distracted, he permitted four first-inning runs, then settled down to business. "Since that first inning, he's been dazzling," says Scioscia. "A healthy Orel Hershiser is a tremendous pitcher, and that's given us a big lift."
Strawberry's return will bring even higher expectations for the Dodgers. He injured his shoulder crashing into an outfield wall and has been on the disabled list since June 17. To that point, his .224 average, seven homers and 26 RBIs were hardly cause for joy. But the West Coast version of Strawberry has taken to favoring lavender shirts, lavender boots and a purple heart. "I love it here," he says. "There isn't any comparison to New York. We're here as a team, very supportive of each other, no controversy, no flare-ups. I've been playing hurt, so my power's been down, but I'm not concerned about my hitting. I know I can hit."
If anyone can stir up the Straw, it's Lasorda, who says, "Darryl is a young man I'm very proud of." But while holding forth as the patriarch of the Dodger family, Lasorda has privately endured tragedy in his real family. His son Tom died on June 3 at age 33, following a lengthy illness. The grief of Lasorda the father has been carefully suppressed by Lasorda the manager. "Whatever problems I might have, I cannot allow myself to bring them into this clubhouse," he says. "If my players see me dejected, that'll be the attitude of the ball club. When I walk into this clubhouse, I put on a happy face."
Sure enough, not long thereafter, Lasorda is churning about his office, waving an car of corn—his postgame vegetable of choice in these slim, fast times—and wearing a smile. "The object," he is saying in regard to his National League West rivals, "is to win when they win, and then when they lose, you win."
Baseball, you see, is a very simple game when Lasorda is your pitchman. Or when you have Lasorda's pitching.