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
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
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.
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."