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"No one's perfect," says Guerrero, "but I feel that no matter what the pitcher throws, I'm going to hit it. If he doesn't want to pitch to me, I'll take the walk. I feel there's no way to get me out."
It wasn't a change of stance or attitude that transformed Guerrero into baseball's hottest hitter. It was merely a page from Lasorda's managerial book. Actually, Lasorda has just come out with an autobiography, The Artful Dodger, in which he describes himself as "the son of an Italian immigrant, a runny-nosed lefthanded pitcher with a decent curveball, a player good enough only to be the third-string pitcher on his high school baseball team...." There's a mind behind the verbiage. Indeed, Lasorda has been managing like the Dugout Wizard, a character he plays on The Baseball Bunch. He has conjured up 67 different lineups in 96 games and juggled 25 different egos at once, and last week he passed Leo Durocher to become the Dodgers' third-winningest manager, with 741 victories in nine seasons. But it was a single move he made with Guerrero that launched the Dodgers on their tear.
On June 1, L.A. was 23-24 and in fourth place, 5½ games behind the first-place Padres; they had committed 62 errors in 47 games. Guerrero, then playing third, had made nine of those errors and was batting .268, with four homers and 16 RBIs. Bad numbers for someone making $1.25 million this year. With one wave of his wand, Lasorda moved Guerrero to left. Guerrero was the happiest man in town. And everything seemed to fall into place after that. While cleanup batter Guerrero came to life, No. 3 hitter Ken Landreaux increased his average from .215 to .265 and fifth-place hitter Greg Brock, a bust for 2½ seasons, suddenly stopped striking out all the time and raised his average from .215 to .276. Meanwhile, the fielding improved once shortstop Dave Anderson replaced Guerrero at third and rookie second baseman Mariano Duncan settled in at short. Lasorda's typically strong pitching staff—given clutch hitting and good fielding for a change—piled up W after W. Fernando Valenzuela (12-8) has won his last five decisions, Bob Welch (5-1) his last four, and Orel Hershiser IV (11-3) and Jerry Reuss (8-6) their last three. For his 10th win, Hershiser beat the Pirates on one hit. "I can't remember a team starting out like we did and turning it around this much," says utilityman Bill (the Dean) Russell, a veteran of 17 Dodger seasons. "Pedro really started something."
Admitting that Guerrero didn't belong at third was an uncharacteristic move for Lasorda, who had switched him from the outfield to third amid much hoopla in 1983. The Dodgers pride themselves on astute position shifts. Three-quarters of their famous infield of 1972-81 consisted of shiftees: Steve Garvey had been a third baseman, Davey Lopes and Russell outfielders. But the Wizard realized that in these desperate times he might have to eat a little crow.
"Guerrero hadn't been fielding badly," says Lasorda, who protects his players as carefully as anyone in baseball. "I said, 'Pete, you're doing a hell of a job at third, and I know you want to do whatever you can to help the club. I'm going to put you in the outfield because I need your bat more than your glove. Maybe you'll start hitting. Let's give it a try.' Son of a gun if he didn't catch fire. He homered that night, and it was just one after another after that."
"When I was playing third last year, I wasn't patient at the plate," says Guerrero. "This year I am." In his struggle to master third, Guerrero had to do too much thinking. He says that he was concerned about his fielding even when he batted. In leftfield, baseball's easiest position, he's more relaxed. In fact, he even takes his hitting into the field. "I practice my stance, I think about the pitch they threw me last inning that got me out, and what I'll do the next time," he says.
"He's a changed man," says batting coach Manny Mota. "He's happy, and his mind's clear."
"Pedro never asked to be switched to the outfield," says Denise, "but he was happy when Tommy did it."
Of course, there are some Lasorda critics who are quick to point out that what the Dodger manager did in shifting Guerrero back to the outfield was not so much a stroke of genius as correcting a stupid mistake. Whatever, there is little doubt that Lasorda's sudden inspiration to play the 22-year-old Duncan—a second baseman by trade who had played only 56 games at short in the minors—as his regular shortstop on May 5 now smacks as the stroke of a genius. "We're like the Marine Corps," says Lasorda. "You put that uniform on, you're ready to play."
"The first three weeks I made six errors," says Duncan, who comes from Guerrero's hometown, San Pedro de Macorís, in the Dominican Republic, "but Tommy kept telling me, 'Keep going, everyone makes mistakes.' When my manager tells me that, I'm very, very happy." Duncan has since made one very, very memorable play after another, and his backers have made one extravagant boast after another. "We've discovered another Ozzie Smith," says Russell with typical Hollywood hype.