FLYING INTO FIRST THE ADDITION OF SPEEDSTERS ERIC YOUNG AND OTIS NIXON HAS HELPED L.A. SURGE TO THE TOP OF THE NL WEST

September 07, 1997

Rupert Murdoch is not going to like this. When the Australian
media mogul and owner of the Fox television network first
expressed interest in buying the Los Angeles Dodgers in the
spring, he probably thought he was going to add another screwy
sitcom to his stable. At the time, the Dodgers' family was more
dysfunctional than the Bundys', and there seemed to be as many
self-centered prima donnas in the L.A. clubhouse as on the set
of Beverly Hills 90210.

The team's manager was fighting with his pitchers, the pitchers
were feuding with the hitters, and the general manager was
sitting idly by, watching numbly as the most talented team in
the National League West went down in flames. The diverse
languages and cultural backgrounds of the players made the
clubhouse appear about as peaceful as a congested Los Angeles
freeway. If you were a sports columnist, talk-show host or San
Francisco Giants fan, it was a beautiful thing. Murdoch must
have thought that all the Dodgers needed was a wacky neighbor
and a little cleavage, and his network would have another quirky
ratings winner on its hands.

Well, bad news for Rupert: While he is moving forward with his
plan to purchase the team from the O'Malley family (the two
parties are expected to agree on a price any day now), he should
be warned that it's not quite the same club whose tires he
kicked way back when. On the contrary, the Dodgers of late are
getting along like the cast of Barney and Friends and performing
like Olivier. At week's end they had won 10 of their last 12
games, boosting their record since July 1 from two games under
.500 to 21 over and pushing their lead over San Francisco to 2
1/2 games. In doing so, Los Angeles displayed remarkable balance
on the field and off, reserving its wrath for opposing pitchers
and spreading more love and optimism in the clubhouse than you
find at a Promise Keepers meeting. "When I was with Colorado,
all we heard was how this team didn't get along and everyone was
out for himself," says second baseman Eric Young, who was
acquired from the Rockies on Aug. 18. "Then I got here and I
couldn't understand it. It's exactly the opposite. As far as I
can tell, everyone gets along. Everyone is trying to help each
other out."

The scene was a little different in early June, when L.A. fell
five games behind the Giants. Manager Bill Russell found himself
in mid-game shouting matches with two starting pitchers, Ismael
Valdes and Pedro Astacio. Both confrontations, naturally, were
caught on camera and replayed on the evening news as often as
the Bronco chase. Valdes was involved in another early-season
incident when he and first baseman Eric Karros had to be
separated by teammates in the clubhouse after a loss to the
Marlins in Florida. "Sure, we had fights, just like brothers and
sisters have fights," says Russell. "It's a long season, and
every team has its problems. [Steve] Garvey and [Don] Sutton
fought when I played [for the Dodgers], and we still won. The
important thing is we came through it, and we're a better team
because of it. You walk in the clubhouse now, and you can just
feel the energy, the enthusiasm."

There are a number of reasons for Los Angeles's dramatic
turnaround, but as usual, it starts at the top. A handful of
bold moves by general manager Fred Claire has injected speed and
excitement into the Dodgers' lineup. Many observers thought
L.A.'s most urgent need was for a lefthanded power hitter, but
the record does not bear them out: Los Angeles has had more
success against righthanded starters (54-39 through Sunday) than
lefties (24-21). Claire decided that the team's real need was
for pesky table-setters, so he backed up the truck and loaded
up. He acquired veteran centerfielder Otis Nixon, who at the
time was second in the American League with 47 stolen bases,
from the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league catcher Bobby Cripps
on Aug. 12, sent Astacio to Colorado for Young six days later
and then, as if trying to complete a relay team, got fleet
leftfielder Darren Lewis from the Chicago White Sox last week
for utilityman Chad Fonville. Lewis, who holds a couple of major
league records for outfielders (most consecutive chances without
an error and most consecutive errorless games), will likely
share leftfield with a slumping Brett Butler (1 for 19 at week's
end). Just like that, the L.A. lineup is as quick and disruptive
as a brushfire. For once, catcher Mike Piazza--baseball's most
eligible bachelor, according to a recent poll--finds himself
surrounded by as many fast men as fast women.

"It seemed as if I used to go weeks on end without batting with
guys in scoring position," says Piazza. "But that's changed. The
guys at the top of the order are doing their job, and we're
scoring runs."

In a game against the Pirates in Pittsburgh last week, Young and
Nixon combined for nine hits in 12 at bats. The next day, at
Dodger Stadium against the Oakland A's, Los Angeles stole a
season-high seven bases, including three by Nixon and a
career-high two by Piazza. Young, who began his career with L.A.
before going to the Rockies in the '92 expansion draft, was 19
for 58 (.328) in his first two weeks back with his old team.
Every time the Dodgers put a rally together, the new guys seemed
to be in the middle of it.

At home against the Seattle Mariners last Saturday, Piazza came
to the plate with runners on base four times in the first six
innings. He struck out in the first, grounded out in the second
and popped out in the fourth, but with Lewis and Nixon on base
in the sixth, he lashed a three-run homer to rightfield, his
32nd home run of the year. "I think the trades sent a message to
the players," says Russell. "They know that Fred is committed to
winning this year."

So far Piazza has shown his appreciation with an offensive
outburst that, coming from a catcher, seems almost unfair.
Through Sunday, Piazza had hit in 15 of his last 17 games and
had seven homers and 19 RBIs in his last 61 at bats. He led the
National League in home runs (16) and RBIs (46) since the
All-Star break and became the first Dodger to hit 30 home runs
in three straight seasons since the team moved to Los Angeles.
And unlike in seasons past, he seems to be getting stronger as
the summer wears on. Maybe someone should tell Colorado's Larry
Walker not to clear off shelf space for that MVP award just yet.
Piazza, who finished second to the San Diego Padres' Ken
Caminiti last year, appears to have made it a race.

"To me, the way you figure out the MVP is, you ask yourself, How
would the team do if you took that guy away?" says Young. "If
the Rockies lost Walker, where would they be? Probably not much
worse than they are now [in third place]. He missed almost half
the year last season, and we finished third. But without Piazza,
where would the Dodgers be? In first place? I doubt it."

"If I win it, it would be an honor; if not, it's no big deal,"
says Piazza. "Now, if I was the MVP of the World Series, that
would be cool."

Piazza, as usual, has put up remarkable numbers while handling
one of the top pitching staffs in the majors. Through Sunday the
L.A. hurlers were second in the big leagues behind the Atlanta
Braves with a team ERA of 3.34 and had held the opposition to a
league-low .239 batting average. Astacio became expendable when
Ramon Martinez came back on Aug. 20 after missing 51 games with
a slight tear in his right rotator cuff. At week's end Martinez
was 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA in 11 innings since his return. In an
11-2 win over the Mariners last Saturday, before a sellout crowd
of 53,638, he made Ken Griffey Jr. look hapless, striking out
the Seattle star the first two times he faced him--each time on
three pitches. "This is a totally different team [than before I
was hurt]," says Martinez. "This is a better team than the one
in '88 that won the World Series. We are playing like world
champions."

No one is saying much about the great clash of cultures anymore.
When Piazza said in late June that language and cultural
differences made it hard for the Dodgers to play as a team, his
remarks exploded into the story of the season in Los Angeles.
Because of the Dodgers' renowned diversity, Piazza said,
"there's going to be problems just as far as guys being able to
relate to each other on a daily basis." The language barrier was
most troublesome for Piazza, who has to communicate with a
starting staff that includes pitchers from the Dominican
Republic (Martinez), Japan (Hideo Nomo), Korea (Chan Ho Park),
Mexico (Valdes) and Walnut Creek, Calif. (Tom Candiotti).

"I want to make it clear that I wasn't putting myself above
criticism--I was as guilty as anyone," says Piazza. "As far as
our priorities as players, we just didn't have the team at the
top of the list. We were like cockroaches when the lights come
on, everyone running for cover, afraid to take the blame when
things went bad. The Latin guys may have been a little confused
by what I said, but I explained it to them. I think it woke
everyone up and made us realize what we were throwing away. All
the different little groups started coming together as a team."

Karros laughs at the notion that the clubhouse was a fiercely
divided place earlier in the season and has since joined hands
in peace and harmony. "Hey, we're different people from
different cultures--of course we're going to hang out with the
people we have things in common with," says the first baseman,
who hangs out with Piazza. "But you know what Mike and I did one
night when all this controversy was raging? We went out with
Nomo and Chan Ho. They took us to a club in Koreatown, here in
L.A. And we probably had the best time we've had all year. It
was great. The fact is, the chemistry of this team is no
different than it was earlier in the year, and no different than
any other year. What do you think, we start winning and we're
all best friends, hanging out together every night? It doesn't
work that way."

Still, Karros admits that the Dodgers seem more unified on the
field these days, and he believes they started coming together
in early July, in a win over the Anaheim Angels. Park, a pitcher
whose heart had been questioned by some veteran Dodgers, brushed
back the Angels' Tony Phillips with a pitch and did not back
down when Phillips stepped toward the mound. A brawl was
averted, but afterward Park continued to throw inside, and Los
Angeles swept the two-game series. "If I had to pick one thing
that changed our season," says Karros, "that would be it. That
showed me something."

Karros was asked last Saturday which of the L.A. pitchers he
would choose if he had to win one game. Martinez? Nomo? "I'd
have to throw Chan Ho," Karros said of the 24-year-old Korean,
who was 13-6 with a 3.12 ERA at week's end. His answer rang
louder than any of the early-season shouting matches.

Of course, even if the Dodgers take the division title, they
will still be under intense pressure to advance in the playoffs.
Los Angeles has reached the postseason each of the last two
years but has failed to win a single game in either playoff
series. It has gotten embarrassing. At least Atlanta waits until
the World Series before unraveling.

The Dodgers were swept by the Braves in the first round last
season after surrendering the division lead to the San Diego
Padres in the last weekend of the regular season and settling
for a wild-card berth. In '95 they were bounced by the
Cincinnati Reds in three straight after winning the National
League West. "If we are lucky enough to get back to the
playoffs," says Piazza, "we want to make sure that doesn't
happen again."

This time Los Angeles seems built for September and October. The
Dodgers have a healthy mix of veterans and youth, strong
starting pitching, a deep bullpen (though a shaky closer in Todd
Worrell) and a white-hot MVP candidate anchoring the lineup.
"This is a more balanced team, a better team, than the last two
years," says Karros.

We'll soon see. Certainly everyone in L.A. will be watching.
With no pro football to get in the way anymore, it's baseball
season in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers will make the coming
weeks interesting. "There's nothing sadder than walking into a
ballpark in September with nothing on the line," says Claire.
"That's not going to happen here. The bottom line is that from
here on, every game we play will be a meaningful one."

And every fight, they hope, will be against the other team.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO The 38-year-old Nixon legged out a bunt against Seattle, proving once again that he can still motor down the line. [Otis Nixon and Paul Sorrento in game] COLOR PHOTO: JON SOOHOO [Eric Young and other in game]

SETTING THE TABLE

Since Otis Nixon and Eric Young (right) arrived in Los Angeles
on Aug. 12 and Aug. 18, respectively, they have done exactly
what they were brought in to do: score runs. Here's how their
numbers stacked up at week's end:

PLAYER AB H BA BB RUNS SB CS

ERIC YOUNG 58 19 .328 5 16 7 0
OTIS NIXON 76 18 .237 7 10 5 2
TOTAL 134 37 .276 12 26 12 2

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)