"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 LA. 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 wildcard 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.