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Pennant fever," Los Angeles style, seems, at first glance, to be an anomaly. There is no snake dancing on the freeways, no free champagne being broken out at Romanoff's, and Hungarian directors have not yet hysterically scheduled the imminent shooting of a musical titled The Year the Dodgers Won the Pennant, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor as a lady manager.
Even at the ball park pennant fever manifests itself in attendance running 73,000 behind last year's total, in fans leaving a 5-3 game at the top of the eighth with the home team ahead and shaking angry fists at the official scorer because he failed to award a no-hit game to the other team's pitcher. A visitor might be pardoned for demanding: "What is this—Philadelphia?"
In spite of all this, the Dodgers are close to first place, and Los Angeles, in its own way and by its own lights, was last week in the grip of what the tabloids love to call "pennant fever." On a rocket test stand in the mountains north of the city, project engineers spent almost as much time huddled around their transistor radios as around the instrument panels of their static thrust engines, and mingled with the patois of the space age was the good old stand-by, "What's the score now, Buddy?" From the posh and paneled palaces of high finance on Spring Street, all the way to Beverly Hills, the sports ticker was running neck and neck with the Dow-Jones. In the street and around the backyard barbecues the conversational gambit always started, "Do you think the Dodgers can do it?" The Dodgers, Los Angeles version, were in the rarefied atmosphere of the first division, and the populace didn't know whether to brag or demand a saliva test.
Most importantly, the fever has infected the ball club itself. "There's not a man on this team doesn't think we can win the pennant now," proclaimed the Dodgers' own "Big D," the pitcher Don Drysdale, as he waved his long right arm triumphantly aloft in the dressing room for an application of hot compresses. "We're not thinking about it," noted the lean, graceful second baseman, Charlie Neal, who then corrected himself. "Of course, we're not not thinking about it, either." Off in a corner, the canny coach, Charley Dressen, brought the quiet science of baseball to bear on the picture: "You take Milwaukee," he suggested. "They got a one-game edge in the lost column as of tonight. But they got eight more games to play on account of they had postponements. Now, they got to win all eight to pass us if the season ends tomorrow. Is that a good position for them to be in? In the first 80 games they pitch Spahn and Burdette in 37 of them. They got lots of double-headers coming up where they can't pitch Spahn and Burdette in as many games because there'll be two a day."
Even the manager, Walt Alston, whom a newspaperman once referred to as "the world's champion listener," was moved to comment on the possibility of a World Series in the Coliseum. "We got just as good a chance as anybody if I can just get some hittin'."
There are a few big reasons why this could be so. First and foremost is Don Drysdale. His won-lost record, which was 4-10 about this time last year, is 13-6 now, and that is only part of the story. Drysdale's mere presence in the lineup is enough to turn rival batters' lips white. "Getting to bat against Drysdale," groaned the Pirates' Dick Groat, "is like getting an appointment with the dentist." Drysdale is particularly terrorizing at night in the Coliseum, when the light level makes batting against his side-arm fast ball about on a par with playing Russian roulette. But Drysdale requires four full days' rest between starts. Manager Alston gives it to him, but he also calls upon Don for relief stints in between, an overreliance which could be as bad psychologically for the team as it is physically for Drysdale.
The Dodger relief corps, historically formidable, has now degenerated into what one sportswriter called the "mid-game batting practice crew," thus compounding the load on Drysdale. Johnny Podres came up with his annual midyear backache which nothing but the month of August seems to cure; and Sandy Koufax, after whiffing 16 in one game, took on a shoulder twinge which has scared the entire Dodger organization.
Probably the most important change in the 1959 Dodgers was that they finally came upon a first baseman and a third baseman. They were there all the time in Gil Hodges and Jim Gilliam, respectively, but they came to Los Angeles effectively disguised. Hodges, the tiger of Ebbets Field, became the pussycat of the Coliseum, batting .259, hitting only 22 home runs with the shortest left field in the history of baseball and driving in only 64 runs last year. This year he has already hit 19 home runs, is batting .293 and has driven in 61 runs. For Los Angeles it is like finding that raggedy old relative you took in has suddenly turned out to be filthy rich and generous. Jim Gilliam batted only .261 last year. This year he is batting .318. Even if he doesn't stay there, he has already done more good in 1959 than he did all last year.
The Dodgers may yet lay an egg. But for Los Angeles, therein lies their charm. The nightly chapter at the Coliseum has all the artful suspense of the old Pearl White serials. When Gil Hodges slid sickeningly into second base one night last week to the sound of a crunching ankle, the spectators reacted with the white-faced dismay of kids watching Tom Mix (or Marshal Dillon) get lassoed by the bad guys for the first time. The most ear-splitting cheer of the season greeted the public address announcer John Ramsay's later report that no fracture was involved.
The Dodgers may get their fingers stomped as they cling to the edge of the precipice, get tied to the railroad track or get swept toward the buzz saw. Yet more and more people in the City of the Angels are coming to believe that virtue will triumph and the fadeout will see the Dodgers riding off into the sunset with the pennant flying in the wind machine behind them. Milwaukee, you see, is through. Dressen proved that. Pittsburgh? Come now. The trusty old friend never gets the girl, does he? The Giants? The newsboy on Hollywood Boulevard sees through them: "Take away Willie Mays and whaddaya got? I'll tell ya: the San Francisco Seals, that's what."