His jockstrap with the number 22 marked in black on the
waistband hangs from a metal hook in the locker. His Los Angeles
Dodgers uniform is draped neatly on wire hangers, while his blue
cap and his batting-practice jersey dangle from another hook.
His shoes are lined up on the floor like obedient soldiers: a
pair of rubber-soled baseball shoes marked 22 and a pair of
shower sandals with Bugsy scrawled on each heel.
There is a ghostly quiet about this perfectly arranged cubicle
in the visitors' clubhouse of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.
Centerfielder Brett Butler will not be needing it, because he is
in New Orleans trying to regain his strength after throat cancer
and its treatment reduced him to a 140-pound waif with sunken
eyes. He has damaged nerves in his shoulders, his neck is bright
red from more than 30 radiation treatments, and his throat is so
pocked with sores that he can swallow only liquids.
Still, Butler's locker will be re-created in St. Louis this
week, just as it was in Pittsburgh last week. Like curators of a
traveling museum exhibit, the L.A. equipment people take his
belongings everywhere the Dodgers go and arrange them in a
locker just as if he were there. "His uniform is always waiting
for him," says Bill Russell, who guided Los Angeles as manager
pro tem for 30 games after Tommy Lasorda suffered a mild heart
attack in late June, and was named manager for the rest of the
season when Lasorda retired on July 29.
The tribute, however gallant in intent, is a silent reminder
that the Dodgers aren't whole. In Cincinnati last weekend they
won two of three games against the Reds and at week's end were
in a second-place tie with the Colorado Rockies, 2 1/2 games
behind the San Diego Padres in the National League West. Los
Angeles has never been more than seven games better than .500,
and it is having a difficult time trying to repeat as division
"It's been, uh, interesting, let's put it that way," catcher
Mike Piazza said last Saturday, before a game in which pitcher
Hideo Nomo took a no-hitter and a 7-0 lead into the sixth
inning, but the Dodgers wobbled to a 7-5 victory that ended with
the bases full of Reds. "I can't say that it's been a lot of
fun. I've never been through a season in which we've lost so
many games in such frustrating ways, like with errors or leaving
guys on base."
Butler's locker isn't unique. The Dodgers left another eerie,
Smithsonian-like memorial back in Los Angeles: On Sunday, 13
days after Lasorda retired, the manager's office at Dodger
Stadium remained undisturbed, still filled with his personal
effects of the past 20 years. The place always had the feel of a
New York Italian deli, with autographed pictures of celebrities
on the wall and huge, steaming trays of food passing through
before and after games. You half expected to see logs of
provolone and mortadella hanging from ropes tethered to the
ceiling. During Russell's first six games after Lasorda stepped
down, he worked out of the coaches' room, and then L.A. hit the
road. The manager's office was to have been cleaned out by the
time the Dodgers returned home this week.
It has been an emotion-twisting year for Los Angeles. With
soft-focus video, tinkling piano music and John Tesh
voice-overs, the NBC Olympics people could turn the Dodgers'
season into a tearjerker with a 23 rating and strong female
demographics. Or, as shortstop Greg Gagne put it more bluntly,
"Guys gettin' hurt, guys gettin' cancer, guys havin' heart
attacks. It seems like every time we start to feel good about
ourselves, something goes haywire."
Pitcher Ramon Martinez pulled a groin muscle while running in a
snowstorm during a game in Chicago in April, which caused him to
miss six starts. Third baseman Mike Blowers blew out a knee
running the bases in May, which put him out for the season. Five
days after outfielder Wayne Kirby joined the Dodgers from the
Cleveland Indians on June 24, his father died. Earlier in the
season pitching coach Dave Wallace's father also died.
"There has never been a season in my 30 years in baseball in
which so many emotional things have happened," says Los Angeles
general manager Fred Claire. "That said, the thing we have to
focus on is the pennant race. We've been through a lot, but not
at any time would I use that as an excuse for why we haven't
played as well as expected."
"For us to be only a couple of games out with everything that's
happened is amazing," Piazza says. "We haven't put a decent
streak together yet. But if we can hang in there and stay within
two or three games down the stretch, anything can happen."
Last Friday in Cincinnati the Dodgers absorbed a 9-4 defeat in
which they had only five hits. With that loss they maintained
the worst on-base and slugging percentages in the National
League. They also have struck out more often than any team in
the league, and they have scored fewer runs than any club except
the Philadelphia Phillies. L.A.'s season might have been
downright horrific without Piazza, who at week's end led the
league in hitting at .341. The Dodgers have leaned so heavily on
him that through Sunday they were 31-13 when he drove in a run
and 30-43 when he didn't.
Piazza's feeble supporting cast includes second baseman Delino
DeShields, who came to Los Angeles in 1994 as a lifetime .277
hitter but has batted .247 since. At week's end he was down to
.236 for this season, and since July 4 he had not had an
extra-base hit in 112 at bats. Other Dodgers underachievers were
outfielder Billy Ashley and third baseman Mike Busch, who had
combined for a .188 average while whiffing 68 times in 170 at
bats. On Sunday the Dodgers sent Busch to Triple A Albuquerque.
What has most stifled the Los Angeles offense, however, has been
the absence of a suitable replacement for Butler in the leadoff
spot. Until last Friday, Lasorda and Russell had tried six
players at the top of the lineup, including Chad Curtis, who had
been a .176 bust since arriving in a trade from the Detroit
Tigers on July 31. Those six players had hit .234 in the top
spot, so in Cincinnati Russell tried a seventh leadoff hitter,
rookie Todd Hollandsworth, who had climbed through the Los
Angeles farm system as a middle-of-the-lineup run producer.
In his first 10 at bats in the leadoff spot Hollandsworth ripped
five hits, including two home runs and two doubles. With that
surge he elevated his batting average to .295 and, befitting a
Los Angeles tradition longer than the Dodger Dog, made himself a
candidate for Rookie of the Year. Hollandsworth could become the
unprecedented fifth straight player from the same club to win
that award, following Nomo, Raul Mondesi, Piazza and Eric Karros.
Hollandsworth's two-run, sixth-inning dinger last Saturday was
the decisive blow in L.A.'s 7-5 victory, though at first it
seemed only to pad a 5-0 lead. Nomo, who tied a career high with
seven walks, surrendered four runs in the bottom of the inning.
The Tornado no longer dominates consistently, as he did early
last year when he blew onto the scene and started 9-2 with a
1.89 ERA. Since last Aug. 10, Nomo has gone 15-13 with a 3.67
ERA. "His delivery was so different to hitters," Wallace says of
Nomo last season. "But they've adjusted."
Nothing comes easily for these Dodgers. Now that scientists have
discovered possible signs of life on Mars, they can start
hunting for clues of it in the Los Angeles clubhouse. The
Dodgers have players from five countries (the Dominican
Republic, Japan, Korea, Mexico and the U.S.), and such diversity
might contribute to the team's shaky chemistry. "Once the game
starts we're all pulling in the same direction," DeShields
says. "But once it's over"--he points in five directions--"we're
On June 19 in Chicago, pitcher Chan Ho Park, from Korea, won a
game for himself when he walked with the bases loaded. He was
chatting gleefully with reporters in the clubhouse afterward
when one of the scribes peeked into his locker and asked, "What
happened to your suit?" Park's teammates had chopped off the
sleeves and pant legs in one of those typical locker room jokes.
Park did not see the humor. He threw a chair and a fit, ticking
off his teammates. He wore his uniform out of Wrigley Field and
onto the team plane.
Last week Mondesi pulled off the rare boneheaded move of showing
up 15 minutes late for a night game in Pittsburgh. Mondesi is a
terrific talent whose behavior is sometimes confounding. Russell
benched him. "It would be one thing if it was a one-time thing,"
says Russell, who that night was managing his eighth game since
Lasorda's retirement. "He's been late before, maybe by a few
minutes. This one could not be ignored." Inserted back in the
lineup for the next game, in Cincinnati, Mondesi responded by
going 0 for 9 against the Reds on Friday and Saturday, which
dropped his 1996 average to .277, 18 points less than his
Russell, a former L.A. shortstop who has spent 30 of his 47
years working for the Dodgers, has quickly put his imprint on
the club, if not on the manager's office. He's more likely to
start base runners than Lasorda and less likely to name-drop. "I
might get a picture of Louis L'Amour," he says.
"It's more laid-back now," DeShields says of life under new
management. "With Tommy there was always some sideshow going on:
People in the clubhouse, doing commercials, whatever. Don't get
me wrong. I love Tommy, and he's a legend. It's just quieter now."
Still, Russell's task is large, especially for a rookie manager
taking over a team in midstride. He must get Los Angeles to
ignore its emotional scars and play the last quarter of the
season at a level it hasn't reached so far. "We haven't hit well
with runners on base all season," says Russell. "Sooner or later
we're going to do it."
The Dodgers have won more than three games in a row only twice
this season. At week's end they were 14-14 since the All-Star
break, and they had committed 36 errors in their last 28 games.
If Los Angeles needs a booster shot for the stretch run, Claire
has one in mind. Two weeks ago Butler finished his radiation
treatments in Atlanta, and he flew to L.A. the same day. "His
neck looked like it had been in a microwave," Claire says. Last
week Butler began workouts in New Orleans with a personal
trainer and regained 10 of the 20 pounds he had lost. "Don't be
surprised," Claire says with a smile, "if you see Brett in
centerfield at some point."
It's a long shot, one Russell knows he can't count on. But
maybe, just maybe, that crisp uniform number 22 will come down
off its hangers and end up crumpled in the team laundry bin,
soiled with sweat and dirt. It will never have looked so good.
And the same might be said of the Dodgers.