Baseball is too complex a game to be made to look as simple as the Los Angeles Dodgers made it last week. Imagine that you are Walter Alston, in your 19th consecutive year as manager, and trying to do Willie Davis (see cover) a favor. "Willie," you say, "you're the only guy on the club who has played every inning of every game so far. We have a 10-1 lead here in the top of the eighth and you deserve a rest." Willie looks at you and says, "No, Skip. Let me get one more rip." In the bottom of the inning Davis crashes a home run that skips off the teal-colored wall in the back of the right-field Dodger Stadium bullpen on one bounce.
Consider Maury Wills, just for a moment. Maury is 39, the only man in Los Angeles except Jack Benny who will admit it. But Maury is off to an 0 for 18 start. The splotch of gray on his head seems to be widening and he hasn't touched a banjo in four days. Maury goes out to Atlanta Stadium on the afternoon before a night game and takes extra batting practice. Maury is over the hill, everyone knows that. But, somehow, you keep him in the lineup and he triples to lead off the game, scoring what proves to be the winning run a little after.
Claude Osteen, one of the best Dodger pitchers, has a sore arm for the first time in his life and the rotation gets messed up. Twice other pitchers go into games that Osteen is supposed to start and each time they work magnificently. Then Osteen comes back and pitches a magnificent game himself.
Every ball your team hits seems to crawl between the defenders. Your guys look so good they could catch line drives with a pair of tweezers. In the course of every baseball season such things are bound to happen, but at the start of a season? Never. Well, hardly ever.
At week's end, despite Houston's almost equally sensational start, the Dodgers were still half a game ahead in the National League's ballyhooed Wild West show. The last time the Dodgers were in front of anything important was Oct. 1, 1966, and they got there then because a couple of guys named Koufax and Drysdale were pitching while the rest of the Dodgers were scoring seven runs a week. Somehow they won a pennant.
In their first eight games of this delayed baseball season, one in which the pitchers were supposed to be smothering the hitters because of the two-week strike, the Dodgers pounded out 78 hits, scored 43 runs and—grab the arms of the chair here—stole one base. To locate as good a Dodger beginning, historians had to go back to Ebbets Field and 1955.
Before a batter was out in the second inning of one game the Dodgers had scored eight runs. They topped that by driving in nine runs by the time one out was recorded in the third inning the following night. If the Dodgers keep playing like that their only major problem might be to convince themselves that they can beat the Montreal Expos in the National League playoffs.
In many ways the 1972 Dodgers seem out of character. Everyone remembers them as a pitch-and-putt team fallen on evil days. Over the last two seasons the team has changed its attitude about hitting, but its image endures. Unless the young and exciting Houston Astros can continue to keep pace with the Dodgers (a not unreasonable proposition), or the San Francisco Giants find a replacement for the injured Willie McCovey, or the Cincinnati Reds start to score, the Dodgers could turn the most promising divisional race in the major leagues into a rout by the Fourth of July.
In the last two seasons the ultimate West Division winner in the National League has been the team quickest out of the chute—and the club finishing second each time was the Dodgers. Two years ago Cincinnati won its first four games, three at Dodger Stadium. In 1971 San Francisco won 12 of its first 14 before gasping over the finish line a desperate game in front of the Dodgers. Los Angeles was unable to win both pennants mainly because of an 0-5 start in 1970 and a 3-6 beginning last year.
The Dodgers set out this spring determined to avoid such initial reverses. One of their most dedicated players was Jim Lefebvre, the second baseman, who dropped 15 pounds over the off-season by taking exercises, running with the UCLA track team, lifting weights and going on a high-protein diet. Few players could match Lefebvre's spring sprint: a .548 average in exhibition games and three game-winning hits in Los Angeles' first seven victories.