Tough Customers In spite of myriad woes, including a pitching staff devastated by injuries, the Dodgers haven't sold themselves short in the tight National League West race

August 19, 2001

Third baseman Adrian Beltre became worried when he heard knocking
noises on his door and in the hallway of the Pfister Hotel in
Milwaukee after he and his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates had
checked in during the wee hours of July 23. His anxiety grew when
the air conditioning in his room suddenly clicked off, then on,
then off, then on again. Worse, the television intermittently
turned on and off by itself.

What really scared him, though, were the pounding noises that
seemed to be coming from the other side of his headboard. They
sounded like a man beating an open hand against the wood. This
activity went on for three nights. Beltre, two teammates said,
was so unnerved that he took a bat to bed with him, as if he
could disprove the baseball saw that you can't hit what you
can't see. "Uh, no," Beltre said sheepishly last Saturday about
packing lumber in his slumber, "but I should have, and I might
if it ever happens again. Three nights there and I slept a total
of two hours."

Says teammate Gary Sheffield, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I
heard the knocking. And I'm a heavy sleeper."

It's been a thriller of a season for the Dodgers. It began with
Beltre needing an emergency appendectomy in the off-season and
related follow-up surgery that kept him out of Los Angeles's
first 36 games. The high anxiety continued with Sheffield
demanding a trade in near-daily spring training blowups against
management, the firing of general manager Kevin Malone in April
and injuries thereafter to three fifths of the most expensive
rotation in history. Pfister poltergeists? On the Scare-o-meter
they're nothing compared with dropping $192,000 a day on three
guys who might not throw another pitch this season. The job of
sorting through the chaos fell to a former box salesman who was
hired as Los Angeles's manager last November.

Like any worthy protagonist, though, Los Angeles keeps coming
back for more. Despite their woes, and even though they lost
three straight road games to the Philadelphia Phillies last
weekend, the Dodgers have hung with the San Francisco Giants and
the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West, the banana
republic of divisions--it seems every time you look up there's a
new leader. Last Friday it was the Dodgers, on Saturday it was
the Diamondbacks. On Sunday, Arizona hung on to the lead, but
San Francisco overtook Los Angeles for second, as the three
teams remained bunched within a game and a half of one another.
"I don't see any team separating itself in our division," Los
Angeles's rookie manager Jim Tracy said last Friday. "This is
the way it's going to be. I expect it to go right down to the
last week."

The Dodgers play 13 of their final 16 games against the
Diamondbacks and the Giants, almost guaranteeing a
Hollywood-worthy denouement. The three West contenders have
home-and-home series remaining against one another in a kind of
round-robin tournament to decide the division--unless one club can
defy Tracy's expectations with a breakaway run. San Francisco,
the defending western champ, was nearest to getting a jump on
that trick. The Giants were 14-3 through Sunday since acquiring
first baseman Andres Galarraga from the Texas Rangers on July 24.
"I like San Francisco," one National League general manager says.
"The Giants have depth, they have veterans, and Galarraga gives
them a presence. He knows how to win."

The Diamondbacks, though, have shown staying power, especially
because pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling have been as
hard to hit as nocturnal visitors at the Pfister. Arizona's
version of Koufax and Drysdale--or is it Spahn and Sain?--were
32-10 through Sunday. The rest of the staff was 34-41.

The stats say the Dodgers shouldn't even be in contention, not
with their middling-to-poor rankings in hitting (eighth in runs
in the National League), pitching (seventh in ERA) and defense
(12th in errors). Moreover, they lost their $15 million-per-year
ace, righthander Kevin Brown, on July 16 with a sprained muscle
in his throwing elbow. Brown joined the disabled list behind
fellow righty starters Andy Ashby (for $6 million this year he
made two starts before a torn flexor muscle in his elbow shelved
him for the season) and Darren Dreifort ($9 million, 16 starts
before a torn ligament in his elbow ended his season). A fourth
starter, rookie righthander Luke Prokopec, was put on the
disabled list last Thursday with a blister on his right middle
finger and is expected to miss two weeks.

When asked last Saturday about Brown's chances of pitching again
this season, Los Angeles's interim general manager, Dave Wallace,
said, "We hope to have him for September. I'd say it's 50-50. He
should start tossing in the next week to 10 days, and we'll have
a better idea after that."

The injury to Brown prompted Wallace to obtain veteran
righthander James Baldwin from the Chicago White Sox on July 26.
The Dodgers, though, had dropped two of his three starts,
including a 10-5 loss to the Phillies last Friday. Even worse,
Baldwin strained a rib-cage muscle in that game and is expected
to miss at least one start. Now Chan Ho Park (11-8) is the only
experienced member of the rotation. The other starters are
righty Terry Adams, a converted reliever who through Sunday had
already thrown a career-high 114 1/3 innings; righty Eric Gagne,
who was 9-12 in 48 major league games; and when he recovers from
his blister, Prokopec, who was 7-7 lifetime in 25 big league
games.

"What I worry about is sending the young guys out there down the
stretch," Wallace says. "You don't know how they'll react. But I
ran into [former major league manager] Jim Leyland, and he told
me, 'They might not know any better. They might have no fear.'
The way I look at it, no matter what happens, they'll be better
for this experience and the organization will be better for it."

Gagne lasted only four innings on Saturday, leaving with the
Dodgers trailing 5-1 in a game they would lose 7-3. His critical
mistake was hanging a first-pitch changeup to the Phillies'
Travis Lee with two outs and the bases loaded in the first
inning. Lee walloped it for a grand slam.

Los Angeles doesn't have an offense explosive enough to wipe away
such abbreviated efforts by its starters. Through Sunday it had
played more one-run games (42, including 22 wins) than any other
team in the majors. Beltre, 22, who regained the 31 pounds he
lost because of his operations, and shortstop Alex Cora, 25, are
free swingers with below-average on-base percentages. First
baseman Eric Karros has hobbled through a .241 season because of
a sore back. Between Marquis Grissom (.241) and Tom Goodwin
(.233), centerfield is an $8 million sinkhole of offense.

Catcher Paul Lo Duca, however, has been a revelation in his first
year as a regular. With 18 home runs and 20 strikeouts at week's
end, Lo Duca could become the first player since George Brett
with more dingers (minimum five) than whiffs. Los Angeles mostly
relies on sluggers Sheffield and Shawn Green. Green's 32 home
runs are the most by a Dodgers lefthanded hitter since the
franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Sheffield (25 homers, 64 RBIs) has been his usual productive and
provocative self. He railed at management in spring training for
what he thought was a failure to deliver a promised contract
extension. Since then he has been steamed at baseball's campaign
to have umpires call more strikes. In the first inning on
Saturday, for instance, five Dodgers had to restrain Sheffield
from jawing too vociferously at home plate umpire Brian Runge,
who called a third strike on a pitch rumored to be near the
outside corner.

"When [umpire] Bruce Froemming told us at a meeting in spring
training, 'We're going to call the high strike but not that pitch
off the plate,' I said to myself, I'm going to hit 80 home runs
this year," Sheffield says. "But they're calling the pitch up,
down, outside. I've started swinging at almost anything. I used
to wait for a pitch to come into a box I knew was the strike
zone. I can't do that anymore."

At least Sheffield is now content to be a Dodger. Tracy, in a
move that announced his firm grip on the club, made sure of that
by calling a meeting before a spring training game in which he
encouraged Sheffield's teammates to address his desire to leave.
"I wanted to get closure," Tracy says. "No sense in hoping it
would magically go away. So I laid things out on the table."

Tracy closed the door behind him in the Vero Beach, Fla.,
clubhouse. "When we open that door," Tracy said, "we are going
to walk out a baseball team. United. We are staying here until
we come out a team. If that means we're late for a Grapefruit
League game, so be it." During the meeting many of his teammates
told Sheffield that they wanted him to remain with the team,
that they needed him to win. Sheffield, touched by the support,
rescinded his request to be traded.

Tracy, 45, was hired to replace Davey Johnson, who was 163-161 in
two seasons with the Dodgers. One of Tracy's first decisions was
to telephone Adams and tell him to be prepared to work as a
starter in spring training. Tracy, who had been Johnson's bench
coach and earlier had served the Montreal Expos' Felipe Alou in
the same capacity, wanted Adams ready to start in the event of an
injury. "Use all four pitches," Tracy told Adams, who had needed
only his fastball and slider as a reliever, "and don't worry
about results. If you're not getting outs, I'm going to turn my
head as if I didn't see it. You're not trying to make the club.
You're trying to get stretched out in case we need you as a
starter."

"The way he talked, I knew he was serious," says Adams, who was
8-5 as a starter after Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Phillies. "If I
hadn't started in spring training, I wouldn't have been able to
make the transition so quickly during the season. Trace has been
unbelievable. He's one of the guys, someone you can ask a
question and talk to about anything. Some managers you feel you
can't go to if you have a problem or even a question. Trace isn't
like that. All of us are comfortable with him."

According to bench coach Jim Riggleman, Tracy "is as good as
anybody as far as paying attention to details." All Dodgers, for
instance, must stretch together and stand at attention on the top
step of the dugout for the national anthem. Spring training hours
were packed with fielding drills.

As an outfielder Tracy was a .292 hitter in eight seasons in the
minors and played in 87 games for the 1980 and '81 Chicago Cubs.
When he retired in '84, he took a job selling boxes and,
simultaneously, another delivering bundles of newspapers to
retailers in suburban Chicago. In '87 he jumped at an offer to
manage a Class A team for the Cubs. Tracy moved on to a Double A
job with the Cincinnati Reds in '89 but was fired after four
years, the last as minor league field coordinator, in a dispute
about a raise. Dan Duquette, Montreal's general manager at the
time, quickly asked him to manage the Expos' Double A team in
Harrisburg, Pa.

"It was a similar environment to this year's," Tracy says.
"About 14 guys got promoted to Triple A that year, so we were
bringing in young guys. We were 35 games over .500, and then we
went another 15 over with the young guys. That was a season I'll
never forget. We had a playoff series against Canton-Akron, and
the atmosphere was unbelievable. It gave you a feeling of what
it must be like on the major league level."

The Dodgers haven't won a postseason game in 12 seasons, their
longest drought in 60 years. Their pursuit this year is in the
hands of someone whose playoff frame of reference is the
Harrisburg Senators taking on the Canton-Akron Indians and who
must rely on a stand-in rotation with little big-game experience.
Nonetheless, they remain in the race, like strange noises in the
dark of night, testing the boundaries of belief.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Home work Lo Duca, who's been a big hit at the plate with 18 homers and 60 RBIs, can't keep the Rockies' Ben Petrick from scoring. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Pitching in With four starters on the DL, the Dodgers hope Park (left) and an unbending defense can keep them in the pennant race. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROB TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME A steal Despite long absences by players like Beltre, who missed 36 games after surgery, Tracy has a shot at a rare distinction.

Startling Successes

If the Dodgers win the National League West, Jim Tracy would
become the seventh skipper to win a division championship in his
first major league season (not including managers who took over a
team in midseason). Here are the six who have done that and how
they fared in the postseason:

SEASON RECORD POSTSEASON RESULT

Larry Dierker, Astros 1997 84-78 Lost Division Series
Hal Lanier, Astros 1986 96-66 Lost Championship Series
Jim Frey, Royals 1980 97-65 Lost World Series
Bill Virdon, Pirates 1972 96-59 Lost Championship Series
Sparky Anderson, Reds 1970 102-60 Lost World Series
Billy Martin, Twins 1969 97-65 Lost Championship Series

The Dodgers haven't won a playoff game in 12 seasons, their
longest postseason drought in 60 years.

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)