The Los Angeles Dodgers left the visitors' clubhouse at Riverfront Stadium on Sunday in the same fashion in which they had arrived last Friday: in first place, yes, and with all sorts of garish women's earrings dangling from their left lobes. Rookie rightfielder Raul Mondesi, for example, happily complemented his olive designer suit with a gold-fringed number accentuated by a green faux gemstone. The Dodgers do have one player who's really into drag, though centerfielder Brett Butler did not attempt to drop one of his masterly bunts all weekend.
While winning two of three games from the Cincinnati Reds, the Dodgers allowed themselves some fun at the expense of the Reds and their laughable owner, Marge Schott. On May 18, in a speech to the Ohio County Treasurers Association, Schott had said, "Only fruits wear earrings." She later added, "I was raised to believe that men wearing earrings are fruity." That prompted the Dodgers to report for Friday's pregame stretching routine wearing $150 worth of accessories Butler had sprung for.
Then, with great glee, the Dodgers proceeded to ruin Cincinnati's weekend celebration of fruits and veggies. Pregame ceremonies last Friday and on Sunday saluted, respectively, the Waynesville Sauerkraut Festival and the Troy Strawberry Festival. In between, on Saturday night, Red manager Davey Johnson had a lemon of a game. He filled out his official lineup card in the wrong order, which caused his team to be snagged by L.A. for batting out of turn.
No wonder the Dodgers left town bejeweled. They look good. A 6-4 win last Saturday and a 10-3 laugher on Sunday gave them a 3½-game lead in the National League West—a margin that matched the Atlanta Braves' lead in the East as the biggest in baseball. Los Angeles rose to such heights with a 12-3 run that easily might have been a 15-game winning streak. Its bullpen was responsible for all three losses in that stretch, and all came in the ninth inning.
"We're really having some fun," pitcher Ramon Martinez said last week. "Everyone is together and very happy. It's a lot different than last year. The way we're playing, I think we have a good chance of going all the way to the finals."
Of course, the last round of baseball's new NBA-style postseason tournament is still known as the World Series. That the Dodgers might reasonably be thinking of participating in it, whatever its name, is one of the surprises of the early season. After all, Los Angeles lost 180 games over the past two seasons—the most for the Dodgers in a two-year span since 1912—while scoring the fewest runs in the league in '92 and the third fewest in '93. Then, on the eve of this season's opener, L.A. lost its cleanup hitter when Darryl Strawberry checked into a substance-abuse rehab center.
It turns out the Dodgers have been better off without Strawberry and the constant uncertainties about his troublesome back and behavior. By week's end Los Angeles was not just hitting (.285) and scoring runs (5.5 a game) at a league-leading pace, but it also was doing so at rates that would set records for the franchise since its move to L.A. in 1958. No wonder the Dodgers have shown no interest in bringing back Strawberry, who is now home in Southern California out of shape, out of sight and out of mind. That was never more evident than in the recent response of Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda to a caller on a cable-TV show who referred to Strawberry as a dog.
"You're wrong," Lasorda said. "Darryl Strawberry is not a dog. A dog is loyal and runs hard after balls."
L.A. fans are evidently delighted to carry on without him too. When Henry Rodriguez took Strawberry's spot in leftfield on Opening Day in Dodger Stadium, the crowd saluted him with a rousing ovation and chants of "Hen-ry! Hen-ry!" No matter that Rodriguez was a .220 hitter over parts of two seasons in the majors. What mattered most was this: He was not Strawberry.
Rodriguez, 26, has kept the fans cheering with a .352 average through Sunday, the best mark among baseball's best-hitting outfield. That designation was supposed to belong to the Dodgers' Opening Day outfield of last year, not this year's. At the outset of the 1993 season Butler was flanked by Strawberry and Eric Davis, boyhood buddies whose L.A. homecoming turned out to be a bust. (Davis was traded to the Detroit Tigers last August.) Now Butler is ably surrounded by the Dominican duo of Mondesi and Rodriguez. No set of outfielders has cranked out more hits. At week's end Butler, Mondesi and Rodriguez had combined to hit .345, with all three of them listed among the top nine hitters in the league. In the blowout on Sunday they pounded out two singles, three doubles, a triple, a home run and five RBIs.
Butler is going gray and turns 37 next month. Yet he is one of those rare players, like Paul Molitor of the Toronto Blue Jays, who is getting better late in his career. Through 1989, a season during which he turned 32, Butler was a .281 career hitter. But over the five years since then he has batted .305 while committing only eight errors and missing just 14 of his team's 691 games.
With four hits on Sunday, which raised his average to .350, he had reached base 92 times in 44 games this season, including at least once in all but three of those games. That has meant plenty of RBI opportunities for catcher Mike Piazza, who surged from a 3-for-35 start to the league lead in hits, and third baseman Tim Wallach, who has staged a stunning recovery (.287, 11 home runs, 35 RBIs) after three straight years of hitting no better than .225. And Butler is as adept as ever at dropping bunts, drawing walks and stealing bases—the sort of pestering skills that prompted San Francisco Giant manager Dusty Baker to remark, "He's the mosquito in the night. You can hear him, but you can't slap him."
For the first time, though, Butler has embarked on an in-season conditioning program to strengthen his game. He works on a climbing machine three days a week, lifts weights after each of those days and takes off on Sundays. "I know that as soon as my legs go, I'm done playing baseball," he says. "So it's all maintenance work I'm doing now. But I've also noticed I've had more explosiveness in my legs."
Butler, who has more bunt hits in his career (257) than two-base hits (242), has also reshaped his approach to hitting with the help of Dodger batting instructor Reggie Smith. He has learned to be more aggressive in selected fastball counts. Last Saturday, batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, Butler whacked a full-count fastball from Jeff Brantley for a single that put Los Angeles ahead to stay. The next day he started the Dodgers' rout by driving a first-pitch fastball from Tim Pugh for a triple. In the fifth inning he turned on a full-count fastball from Pugh for his third home run, as many as he hit in any of the previous four seasons.
"One thing I'm doing this year is, I'm trying to enjoy the game more—playing with fans, playing with the umpires, things like that—because I don't have too many more years left," Butler says. "This team makes it even more enjoyable. The last two years were so terrible. Last year there was some divisiveness here, and two years ago we just kicked the ball around. It was hard to enjoy it. This year, from spring training on, this team has been focused."
Mondesi, 23, is bidding to become the third straight Dodger and seventh in 16 years to be voted the league's Rookie of the Year. He might also draw some support in the Gold Glove balloting, given that his 10 assists lead all outfielders and, according to Butler, he is "the best fielder I have ever played with."
In the meantime, Mondesi says, "I'm thinking more about the All-Star Game now." Why not? On Sunday he raised his average to .335 while extending his hitting streak to 14 games. It hardly matters that Mondesi didn't bother to draw a walk in any of those games. He had accepted just three unintentional walks in his 170 plate appearances through Sunday, including none since May 8. He is a fiercely aggressive line-drive hitter who is overcoming a lifelong urge to pull the ball. Dodger coach Manny Mota regularly conducts hitting sessions with the righthanded Mondesi in which Mondesi is not permitted to hit the ball to the left side of second base. Mondesi, however, is not yet about to dispute the Caribbean baseball axiom that you can't get off an island by walking. "If you don't swing, you can't get a hit," Mondesi says. "I'm just a rookie, and I'm trying as hard as I can. After five or six years maybe I'll take some pitches."
Butler, Mondesi and Rodriguez were held to two hits last Friday in a 3-2 Cincinnati win. Just after that game began, Schott issued an apology for her remark that offended gays. "What I was trying to say," she said in a statement, "was that I am quite proud that our players have traditionally been clean-shaven and earring-free while wearing a Cincinnati Red uniform." A ninth-inning single by Jerome Walton made a winner of reliever Johnny Ruffin, after which both players put their earrings back in and went home.
The Dodgers swept the next two games behind the continued stellar pitching of Martinez and Pedro Astacio. "They've been the big difference in the team this month," Lasorda says. From May 1 through Sunday, the two starters were 5-1 with a 2.32 ERA. On Saturday, Martinez allowed one earned run in seven innings. Before permitting a run in the eighth on Sunday, Astacio threw seven shutout innings. That's not unusual for a guy whose first name, last name and nearly every seventh start end in O. In only 51 major league games, Astacio had seven shutouts—more than the Braves' Steve Avery or the Reds' Jose Rijo had in their careers.
Los Angeles's rise from two troubled seasons is related directly to the development of its Dominican Dodgers. Three of its starting eight (Mondesi, Rodriguez and shortstop Jose Offerman) and two fifths of its rotation (Astacio and Martinez) were born 40 months apart in the country of 7.4 million people and signed by L.A. at the precise rate of one per year beginning in 1984 with Martinez. Now they are all between 23 and 26 years old and best friends, sharing a big league life and, on many nights on the road, room-service dinners.
"Out on the streets, you know, can be dangerous," Rodriguez says. So after road games the players decide to meet in one of their hotel rooms. Venezuelans Carlos Hernandez, a catcher, and Omar Daal, a relief pitcher, also are invited. It is the Latin Quarter of the Dodgers. Dinner is ordered. Usually it is steak, rice and a few cervezas. The bill is typically more than $200 and is typically picked up by Martinez, whose $2.7 million salary is the highest among them. "Sometimes we don't let him pay because he's always doing it," says Rodriguez. "He is very nice. I like that guy. Ramon is our leader. He's the one who is always encouraging us and every day telling us the right things to do."
With dinner there is always a game of dominoes. It is friendly, if inconclusive.
"I win a little bit," Martinez says, "but we all do. It is even."
"I would say Ramon is best," Rodriguez says.
"No, me," Mondesi says, slapping himself in the chest. He laughed so hard at his playful boast that his earring shook. Then, looking more RuPaul than Raul and more Miranda than Mondesi, he headed out of the clubhouse a happy man. The weekend had been fruitful. More than a quarter of the season had been played, and the Dodgers had established something. Appearances notwithstanding, this is a team to be taken seriously.