With its six-month, 162-game schedule, a major league baseball season is not supposed to be a 100-yard dash. It is a marathon, an endurance test demanding strong will, a steady pace and reserve strength for a finishing kick. At least, that is the theory. But from the very start of this season the Los Angeles Dodgers have been going flat out, crushing the opposition and setting new standards for early excellence. They have won with force, and they have won with finesse. They have been awesome at home and on the road, in the warmth of the afternoon and in the chill of the night, against hard-throwing righthanders and against curve-balling lefthanders. They won their opener, have kept on winning and give every indication they plan to win some more.
The Dodgers actually began to take off in March, hanging up a 17-7 exhibition record, the best in baseball. They continued winning on Opening Day, beating San Francisco 5-1. By April 30 their lead in the National League West was 7� games, the largest ever for the first month of the season. And at one point last week the cushion had grown to a downy-soft 10� games, mainly because of an astonishing 22-4 start that ranked with the best getaways in baseball history. Only the 1946 Boston Red Sox, who were 21-3, and the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, who were 22-2 (see box, page 28), were in the same class.
Almost as remarkable as the Dodgers' successes are the obliging failures of their Western Division rivals. Not only was Los Angeles the only one of the six Western clubs with a winning record at the end of last week, but world champion Cincinnati, though locked in a battle for second place, was also five games under .500, three games out of the cellar and in danger of finding its Big Red Machine flooded by a tidal wave of Dodger Blue Blood.
Rallied by the exhortations of new Manager Tom ("I told you so") Lasorda, Los Angeles has been playing near-perfect baseball. Last year, when they finished 10 games behind Cincinnati in Walter Alston's 23rd and final season, the Dodgers were pussycats at the plate. Now they lead the league in hitting (.296), scoring (six runs a game) and home runs (35). They have struck early, crossing home plate by the fourth inning in all but two of their games, and they have struck late, coming from behind to win nine times. They have been well served by their other talents, too. Los Angeles has twice as many double plays (28) and stolen bases (20) as its opponents, and after a slow start the Dodger pitching staff ranks third in the league with a 3.26 ERA.
Individually, there seem to be two or three Dodgers behind every statistical bush. The best numbers belong to Ron Cey, who at week's end was leading the majors in home runs with 11 and runs batted in with 37 and was batting .357. The third baseman's 29 RBIs in April were a major league record, surpassing the 27 by Willie Stargell in 1971 and Reggie Jackson in 1974. As Larry Bowa of Philadelphia advised Cey before last Friday's game at Dodger Stadium, "You've already had a great season. Why don't you quit?"
None of the Dodgers are likely to quit while they are this far ahead. They are enjoying themselves too much. Reggie Smith, a dissident in Boston and St. Louis, is full of bonhomie and is even playing right field with a sore Achilles' tendon. Centerfielder Rick Monday can sometimes be seen parading around the dressing room wearing Lasorda's uniform shirt with a pillow stuffed beneath it. Monday, who came from the Cubs in the Dodgers' only major off-season trade, is leading the team with five game-winning hits. He can wear the manager's pants if he wants to.
There have been about as many reasons advanced for Los Angeles' success as there are players on the roster. Don Sutton, one of the Dodgers' four unbeaten pitchers, espouses the "octopus" theory. "If one tentacle doesn't get you, another one will," he explains. Cey emphasizes the acquisition of Monday and the improved physical condition of Smith and Leftfielder Dusty Baker, both of whom underwent off-season surgery. Baker has already surpassed his '76 home run output of four, and Smith is one of four regulars batting over .300. Other Dodgers, notably Catcher Steve Yeager and Pitcher Burt Hooton, cite the psychological influence of Lasorda. "The minute Tommy was named manager, we were revitalized," says Hooton. "When he told us how much confidence he had in us, it lifted us. Walt never said things like that." Adds Yeager, "With Tommy motivating us, we're not afraid to go out on the field against anyone."
Lasorda insists the daily lineup card explains everything. "They're winning because they're outstanding," he says. "I'm not surprised by our success at all." Lasorda does admit he may have expedited matters some by working his eight regulars—Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Smith, Cey, Steve Garvey, Monday, Baker and Yeager—as a unit all through spring training. Before the preseason schedule began, Lasorda kept them on their own private practice field, where they got plenty of extra batting practice and could train, he says, like heavyweights preparing for a championship fight. He started the eight in the first intrasquad game and again in the exhibition opener. All spring he played them together and rested them together; they became a single body with eight equal parts. When it was suggested last week that the Mets might want to break the unit up by trading slugger Dave Kingman for Baker, Lasorda replied, "If I have any say, the answer will be no. And I do have the say."
He also has the other Cey, who is known as Penguin because of his short-legged, solid build and waddling, splayfooted walk. "I look at him and I can't call him Ron," says Lasorda. "He's got to be the Penguin." The Penguin followed his torrid April with a cool one-for-25 start in May. Then he broke the slump last week with a dramatic grand slam off Tom Seaver, who had walked Smith intentionally to fill the bases for Cey. The slam was the fourth of the Penguin's career, his second of the season and the first homer he ever hit off Seaver. He followed it with a one-run shot, two singles and four RBIs the next two evenings against the Phillies.
Cey has always been a consistent, if surprising, source of power. In his four seasons as a regular he has averaged 20 home runs and 90 RBIs a year, made the All-Star team three times and set a single-season fielding record for Los Angeles third basemen. This season he has had a 17-game hitting streak; he also drove in 12 runs in one three-game stretch. This dazzling display could not have come at a better time; before the season began the Dodgers told Cey he could renegotiate his contract. That bit of kindness will cost them plenty.