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WHEELIN' AWAY OUT WEST
William Leggett
August 20, 1973
L.A.'s Little Blue Bicycle uses some old parts and an infield full of new ones trying to outrun Cincy's Big Red Machine
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August 20, 1973

Wheelin' Away Out West

L.A.'s Little Blue Bicycle uses some old parts and an infield full of new ones trying to outrun Cincy's Big Red Machine

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One member of the infield is an outfielder turned third baseman turned first baseman. Another, the shortstop, was a part-time outfielder only 16 months ago. The catcher began this season with fewer than 50 games of big-league experience under his chest protector, and the second baseman is a 27-year-old rookie who blows bubbles. The third baseman is young and raw, too, playing a position where so many before him have come and gone. Quickly. At various times during the season they have been collectively called The Babes of Summer or The Little Blue Bicycle, and their inexperience defies normal baseball criteria for judging a contender. There are games in which they hustle so hard they seem intent on getting the minimum out of the maximum, but after each pratfall these young Los Angeles Dodgers get up again, apparently stronger and wiser. And believing more firmly that they can withstand the oncoming crunch of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine to win the National League West.

In the spring Los Angeles figured to be a faceless team, something the O'Malley family had picked up at a garage sale on Route A1A in Vero Beach. Now who has the best record in the big leagues? The Dodgers. Who leads the majors in hitting and pitching? The Dodgers. Huge crowds pour into Chavez Ravine; 1.6 million have already been there this season to see what new miracle Walter Alston has wrought in his 20th year as the Dodger manager. Age apparently cannot wither Walter's ability to pull them out of the hat.

Among those who have found it hard to swallow the miracles are the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves, who in 37 attempts against the Dodgers have won only eight times. How do you believe a pitching staff that has held the opposition to a .223 batting average? Or a team that lacks home-run power, yet 17 times this year has won games with home runs? "Others might not believe," says the Dodger captain, Willie Davis, "but this team does. It listens, it learns and it believes."

In the balloting for this year's All-Star team only one Los Angeles player finished among the top five at any position, but when the All-Star squad trotted out onto the field a few weeks ago in Kansas City there were more Dodgers—six—than at any time since 1962. Obviously the Reds' Sparky Anderson, manager of the All-Stars, believed. His faith has been reinforced over the last two weeks while the Dodgers were in a hitting slump. Their pitchers took up the slack by allowing only 1.4 earned runs per game. Anderson knows that pitching normally decides pennant races, and it was Los Angeles pitchers who were holding off his red-hot Reds last week. As far back as fourth place, nine games out on July 1, Cincinnati has since won 31 of 41 to move within 1� of L.A. and set the stage for another wild finish in the West. If the Dodgers can hold off the Reds, then everybody will be believers.

Los Angeles has not won a championship in six seasons, the club's longest drought since 1940, and expectations for this year were more guarded than at any time since the club moved west. Due to the inordinate number of errors in 1972 (162 showed up in the box scores and countless other mental ones went unrecorded), the Dodgers had been regarded locally as some kind of civic disgrace. Because of that their total of 85 victories during a strike-shortened season went largely overlooked. Only the National League's division champions, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, won more.

One of the problems involved that old bugaboo, third base. Since arriving in Los Angeles the Dodgers had used 44 different men at third. "If Dodger third basemen ever voted in a bloc, they could win an election," wrote Los Angeles Times Columnist Jim Murray. To add to the difficulties, Maury Wills and six-time Golden Glove First Baseman Wes Parker had retired and Second Baseman Jim Lefebvre had gone off to play in Japan. In the opening week of play, the dourest of forecasts for the Dodgers seemed correct. The defense was again as leaky as a submarine equipped with screen doors and Los Angeles flopped off to its worst start ever (1-6). The team played only five errorless games in its first 25.

The Dodgers were—still are—bucking one of baseball's sternest precepts, which holds that only one young player per year can be fed into a lineup without the team suffering dire consequences. These Dodgers are not breaking in one young player but five. Catcher Joe Ferguson, First Baseman Steve Garvey, Second Baseman Dave Lopes (rhymes with ropes), Third Baseman Ron Cey and Shortstop Bill Russell had played a combined total of fewer than 200 games at their positions when this season started. In addition, the youngsters would be working with a pitching staff on which three of the five starters—Claude Osteen, Tommy John and Al Downing—and the two top relievers—Jim Brewer and Pete Richert—are low-ball pitchers whose success depends on batters grounding into infield outs.

The most experienced of the youngsters is Shortstop Bill Russell, and he is hardly a household word even on Sepulveda Boulevard. Of the 195 big-league games the Dodger youngsters played at their present positions Russell accounted for 121. When one plays shortstop for the Dodgers one is immediately placed in the company of eagles; the line of succession has gone almost directly from Leo Durocher in the late 1930s to Pee Wee Reese to Maury Wills. Russell took over in April 1972 at the age of 23 when Wills' on-base ratio slumped. Unlike his predecessors, Russell went to work without a single game of professional experience at the position. "I guess I stuck my neck out further with Russell than I normally do," says Alston. "We didn't have what I considered a front-line shortstop in our organization and I thought Bill was the best equipped to learn the position. He had been a superior defensive outfielder and I saw he had speed, agility, range and a strong arm, which tend to help make a good shortstop. I'm proud of the way he has come along and I can see him filling the position for the next ten years." For this season at least Alston has no other choice than to have Russell fill it. Shortstop is the one position where the Dodgers have no backup player. There will be great pressure on Russell not only to continue playing well but also to stay healthy down the stretch.

Bill is still in the learning process, at least in the field; at bat he is outhitting every shortstop in the majors (.278). Even his errors (22) are in line with those of San Francisco's Chris Speier (24) or Chicago's Don Kessinger (20), a veteran of over 1,200 big-league games. Russell has also knocked in 44 runs, exactly half of them coming with two outs.

Russell is not short of advice based on experience. He and Pitcher Claude Osteen (see cover) drive together to the park, and every day he talks endlessly with second-string Catcher Chris Cannizzaro, who has seen 11 major league seasons and service with half the teams in the National League. "It's been a struggle at times," Russell admits. "By nature I am a shy person and shortstops are not normally shy. Walt Alston stuck with me when times were hard and I had begun to wonder if I would ever be able to do the job. Then, all of a sudden in early May, I started to feel comfortable in the position. The hardest thing for me to do was catch the ball, and while that might sound silly it's true. I was actually afraid of the ball and now I'm not."

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