Heaven Forfend we should dwell on the negative. Let us, instead, seek out, as Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Bob Ojeda implores us to do, "the positives in the rubble of this season." By all means, Bob. You've got a real good point there. Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Don't mess with Mr. In Between. Certainly. Absolutely. Right! But first...let's take some perverse amusement in poking through that rubble.
Lord, what a baseball season this has been in Los Angeles. Barring an even more ignominious el foldo by their once perennial antagonists, the San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers will surely finish in last place for the first time anywhere, league or division, since 1905. And the collapse from a year ago, when the Dodgers nearly won the National League West, finishing a game behind the Atlanta Braves, has been—again quoting Ojeda—"collective," involving every Dodger from the suits in the executive suites upstairs to the multimillionaire working stiffs on the field below, including even those who have spent the majority of their playing time in hospital beds. The Dodgers lead the major leagues in errors (169 through Sunday) and in a statistic for which the technocrats have not yet found a category—bonehead plays. Even when they win, as they did for at least part of a recent stretch, they look awful. Consider their three-game series with the Padres in San Diego, Sept. 14-16.
The Dodgers win the first game 5-4, their 17th one-run victory against 36 one-run defeats, but suffer their 161st and 162nd errors of the season, each of which leads to a run; play a routine fly ball into a double; have two runners thrown out at third base, one on a pickoff play, the other foolishly attempting to advance on an error; turn a sacrifice bunt attempt into a force at second base; miss a cutoff man and commit a balk. "This has been going on all year," says the hardly elated winning manager, Tom Lasorda.
They win the second game 6-3, despite a dropped fly ball in rightfield by rookie Billy Ashley that leads to a run; a throw by leftfielder Mitch Webster to second base after the runner, Gary Sheffield, has already passed that bag on his way to third; and the ejection of Lasorda during an altercation with plate umpire Larry Poncino after Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser hits Sheffield with a pitch for the second straight plate appearance. "What're you gonna do?" the scarcely contrite manager queries from his clubhouse cubicle.
The Dodgers drop the final game of the series 3-1, as San Diego pitcher Andy Benes shuts them out for eight innings and closer Randy Myers squelches an insufficient rally in the ninth. Remarkably, the Padres fail to score in a sixth inning that features two walks from Dodger knuckleballer Tom Candiotti and two passed balls by catcher Mike Scioscia. Ashley plays errorless ball in right but strikes out four times, bringing his strikeout ratio for 15 games to once every 2.56 times at bat, a K average of .391. "The kid can hit," says an optimistic Lasorda, "but he was overmatched tonight."
Well, as the manager says, it has been like that all season. The Dodgers have had seven three-error games, three four-error games and two five-error games. On Aug. 13 they had six errors against the Cincinnati Reds, but that was mere preparation for a seven-error magnum opus against the Giants in Los Angeles on Sept. 11. Three of those seven—two on the same play—were made by the 23-year-old shortstop, Jose Offerman, who has 40 for the season but only a slim chance to become the first 50-error in-fielder since Roy Smalley committed 51 for the Chicago Cubs 42 years ago. Watching Offerman and company perform opèra bouffe this year has convinced Lasorda that "I've been wrong about this game all these years. I thought the easiest thing about it was catching the damn ball."
In fact, there hasn't been a Dodger team quite like this one since Uncle Wilbert Robinson's Daffiness Boys of six decades ago were fielding fly balls off their skulls and sliding three at a time into third base.
"What's the score?"
"The Dodgers are behind 4-3, but they've got three runners on base."
All of this inadvertent buffoonery has greatly dismayed the Dodgers' veteran players, some of whom have played on championship teams. "In my wildest dreams, I could not have seen us falling off a cliff like this," says Scioscia, a World Series catcher four years ago, a cellar dweller—and a .218 hitter—today. "What a fragile balance there is between being a contender and a loser. This feels like a punch in the stomach. It's hard even to be diplomatic about how we've played on defense. The fact is, we stink."
"I've had nothing in my past to prepare me for something like this," says Ojeda, an 18-game winner for the world champion New York Mets of 1986, a six-game winner for this season's sorry Dodgers.
And then there's centerfielder Brett Butler, who is having a fine season (.314 batting average, 41 stolen bases, 83 runs scored) amid the chaos. "You forget," he says, "I played four years in Cleveland."
Even the Dodger media guide has an error in it, listing the lefthanded Webster as throwing right. And, for what it's worth, the team psychiatrist, Herndon P. Harding, is the great-great-nephew of one of America's more disreputable losers, President Warren G. Harding.
O.K., that's about enough of that. The situation is far from hopeless. As a matter of fact, the Dodgers insist they are using this odoriferous season to build for a rosy future. Lasorda himself says he'll stick around for at least one more year of that future, despite recurrent rumors of his imminent departure. But building for the future isn't exactly what the team had in mind before all the trouble began. "I thought at the start we had a championship-caliber club," says Scioscia. So did a lot of other people. This was, after all, a veteran team, one that had added over the winter the slugging speedster Eric Davis to an outfield that already had Darryl Strawberry in right and Butler in center.
Davis and Strawberry had grown up together on the playgrounds of Los Angeles, and all the while that the one, Strawberry, was playing in New York and the other, Davis, was performing in Cincinnati, they shared a dream of someday being teammates back in their hometown. The dream became a supposedly blessed reality last November, when the Dodgers traded for Davis. "It was fun playing with him growing up," said a gleeful Strawberry after the trade. "But imagine what it's going to be like on this level."
Imagining is about all anyone has been able to do, because all told, the two of them have played at one and the same time in 31 games this shell-shocked season. Davis had a neck injury when he reported to spring training in Vero Beach. He suffered strained ligaments in his left shoulder in May making a diving catch, and then banged up his left wrist in August. Strawberry's chronically bad back pained him from the beginning of the season. He played only 43 games this season, Davis 76. Strawberry drove in 25 runs, Davis 32. Each hit five home runs. They were reunited again last week, though—at the Centinela Hospital Medical Center, where on Sept. 15 Strawberry had surgery to correct his herniated disk and two days later Davis went under the knife for repairs to both his wrist and left shoulder. Both are finished for the season.
So much for the number 3 and number 4 hitters in the batting order.
The Dodgers themselves unloaded two other veterans of note in midseason when they traded gimpy outfielder Kal Daniels to the Cubs for a minor league pitcher and released second baseman Juan Samuel, who later signed with the Kansas City Royals. And before the season started, the Dodgers lost free-agent first baseman Eddie Murray to the Mets.
All of these various maladies and machinations have led to the biggest youth movement in Los Angeles since the discovery of Shirley Temple. Recognizing the obvious, that by late July the team was hopelessly out of the race, Dodger executive vice-president Fred Claire concluded, "It is time to turn the page and get a head start on what we're faced with in the future." So in rapid succession, the Dodgers summoned from Triple A and Double A farm clubs the eager but inexperienced likes of outfielders Ashley, Henry Rodriguez and Tom Goodwin, infielders Eric Young and Rafael Bournigal, and pitchers Pedro Astacio and Pedro Martinez. They joined youngsters Offerman, catcher Carlos Hernandez, 25, and first baseman Eric Karros, 24. Hernandez was hitting .262 in 68 games as a Scioscia backup, and Karros, the odds-on favorite for National League rookie of the year, had 19 homers and 80 RBIs.
Karros, a 6'4" former UCLA All-America, exudes an appealing mixture of poise and humility. He knows he owes his big break to Murray's departure and a spring-training injury to Todd Benzinger, who figured to be Murray's first base replacement. "If Murray stays," says Karros, "I'm in Albuquerque. But I've tried to make the most of my chances. This season is no indication of what will happen. Next year we'll have a contending team."
Not everyone agrees, for as Dodger broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale says, "We can't fool ourselves into wishful thinking. It's just possible we've painted ourselves into a box canyon. I'm afraid what we're seeing out there now is pretty much all there is. It used to be that you felt sorry for the Dodger kids because there was no room for them on the big team. Now...."
It is nearly five hours before game time at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium, but Lasorda University is already in session. The 65-year-old manager himself, balding and bowlegged, but, as the television commercials remind us endlessly, svelte, is on the mound pitching batting practice to rookies Rodriguez, Goodwin, Ashley, Young, Bournigal and catcher Mike Piazza.
"You'll have to earn it today, because the old skipper's really got it," Lasorda bellows from the mound, sweat from the midafternoon sun darkening his Dodger-blue T-shirt. "I've lived for years on DP Lane, address 6-4-3."
Rodriguez, a broad-shouldered youth, tops an infield grounder. "Don't feel bad, son," the skipper shouts in mock consolation. "I threw that same fastball past Stan Musial. Sportsman's Park, 1955."
The darkly good-looking Piazza steps in. Lasorda has a special affection for him, having grown up in Norristown, Pa., with the kid's father, Vincent. Mike is Lasorda's godson. The young catcher slams a ball to shortstop.
"Don't feel bad, kid. Joe Adcock did the same thing against me—Reese to Robinson to Gil Hodges. County Stadium, 1954."
All this, mind you, from a lefthanded pitcher with a lifetime major league record of 0-4.
Piazza hits the godfather's next pitch into the leftfield seats. "That must have been what Joe Adcock did in his next at bat," yells Ashley, who steps into the cage next. He is 6'7", immensely powerful. He hit 24 home runs in 101 games this season at Double A San Antonio and two more in 25 games at Triple A Albuquerque. But he fouls off the manager's first pitch.
"Foul ball," Lasorda hollers. "Don't feel bad, my boy. Wally Post did the same thing with that curveball. Crosley Field, 1954." He looks up into the bright blue San Diego sky. "Oh, please, Lord, let this young man wait on the next curveball. Let him know that the pitch must come to him." He spins off another breaking ball. Ashley drives it into the second deck, the distant red seats.
"Oh, thank you," Lasorda says, gazing upward again. Then, slamming his glove on the mound: "These guys are killing me. Peanut hitters who couldn't hit water falling out of a boat are absolutely killing me." He stalks off, mopping his drenched brow with a blue towel, and plops down in the shade of the Dodger dugout. From there, he beams at his young charges. "It's a funny thing," he says, "but I don't want to see this season end." His laughter rebounds off the scats of the empty ballpark. "Now, isn't that amazing?"
It certainly is.