Thanks mostly to the Cincinnati Reds, the Los Angeles Dodgers have been, all season long, like the pretty little girl who is all dressed up with no place to go. At one point last week the Dodgers hung up in second place in the National League West, almost exactly the same number of games ahead of the third-place Atlanta Braves as they were behind the first-place Reds and, contrary to National League tradition, the number was not one to the north and one to the south in the standings but about 10 each way.
"There is no doubt that we are on a strange kind of treadmill," says First Baseman Wes Parker, "but we certainly have nothing to be ashamed of. We have won more games than any team in the Eastern Division."
Over the past two seasons Parker has been perhaps the least-appreciated player in baseball. Always regarded as a superior fielder, he has come on at the age of 30 to become a .300 hitter. He leads the major leagues in doubles with 34 and is on his way to becoming the first Dodger to drive home a hundred or more runs since 1962. "I have never seen a better defensive first baseman than Wes is," Dodger Manager Walter Alston said last week—and Alston has been managing for three decades. "He has always been a dedicated young man who works at things until they come out right, and it doesn't seem to matter to him how long it takes."
In simple confirmation of this assessment is Parker's explanation of how he became such a proficient fielder. "I fielded ground balls in my front yard for five or six hours a day for 10 years," he says. In the last five seasons Parker has made a total of only 25 errors, and even a couple of those were on debatable scoring decisions. "The thing about Wes," says Ted Sizemore, the Dodgers' second baseman, "is that his hands are so supple. They relax when he catches the ball instead of fighting it. Last year as a rookie he told me not to worry and just throw the ball close to him. If it's close he will make the hard play look easy, and he seems to make almost every play very easy."
Parker's development as a hitter has been generally overlooked. Prior to 1969 Parker had produced only three so-so years at the plate, never hitting better than .257. He also managed two really bad years and after one of them, a .239 season in 1968, the Dodgers gave up on Parker and tried to trade him.
It was during this same winter that Parker discovered Psycho-Cybernetics, a philosophy devised by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. A diligent student of Psycho-Cybernetics learns to drive negative thoughts from his mind so he can concentrate on the task at hand without fear of failure.
"A friend of mine had been very impressed by Psycho-Cybernetics," Parker says, "and he was so convinced it could help me that I went to San Diego and attended a four-day course in executive research which specialized in it. The classes ran from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon and I really got sold on the concept. I felt it could help an athlete just as much as a man in the business world. In fact, the fear of failure is much bigger in sports than it is in business."
Not long after completing the course Parker went to spring training, where he encountered another positive thinker, Dixie Walker. Walker, the old Brooklyn hitting hero, was the Dodger batting instructor, and he went to work with Parker from the first day of the training period. "Wes' flaw as a hitter," Dixie said the other evening, "was that he always seemed to hit the ball to the same place. He tried to pull too much. He needed to hit the ball where it was pitched in order to become a good hitter. Today, with his hitting improved, he is the most complete player on our club. Now he takes batting practice with an absolute purpose in mind instead of just going up there and swinging."
By the end of last week Parker had 76 RBIs, and at that pace will soon be the first switch hitter to knock in a hundred runs in a season since Mickey Mantle managed the feat in 1964.
The majority of switch hitters, of course, are small men who hit either at the top or the bottom of the batting order. Mantle was an exception, as are 6'4" rookie Ken Singleton of the Mets and 6'2" Ken Henderson of the Giants. The greatest edge a switch hitter has is that the curveball is always breaking in toward him, and with men in scoring position, that is a considerable advantage. "I've hit in every spot in the batting order at one time or another," Parker says, "but three, four and five are the best. You have to take too many pitches when you lead off, and hitting second is very difficult because there are so many things you have to do to protect and advance the lead-off runner."