Remember Mr. Potato Head, the man of many funny faces from your childhood? Don't laugh now, but Mr. Potato Head has something to do with the Los Angeles Dodgers' repossession of first place in the National League West. It sounds silly, but from Aug. 11, when they started awarding the Mr. Potato Head doll to the hero of every victory, through Sunday the Dodgers had a record of 18-7 and moved from 6½ games behind the Atlanta Braves to 2½ games in front of them. Put a smile on Mr. Potato Head.
Of course, Mr. Potato Head hasn't done it alone. There are other, more substantive reasons why, in a repeat performance of last year's pennant race, L.A. has erased a large Braves lead. The Dodger defense, which by July 17 had committed 108 errors, has settled down—only 39 errors since then—especially in the infield, where Third Baseman Pedro Guerrero and Second Baseman Steve Sax are no longer turning every ground ball into an adventure. Give Mr. Potato Head a good arm.
On Aug. 19 Los Angeles acquired lefthander Rick Honeycutt from the Texas Rangers, making the best pitching staff in baseball even better. An extra arm for Mr. Potato Head. The batting is improved, too: Outfielder Mike Marshall has recovered from an early-season beaning, First Baseman Greg Brock broke out of a prolonged slump with four taters in nine games two weeks ago, and at week's end Guerrero had hit .452 in his last 11 games, with two homers, five doubles, one triple and 10 RBIs. In addition, the catching corps, beset by injuries all season, has been rescued from self-destruction by young Jack Fimple.
This hasn't been an easy year for the Dodgers or their manager, Tommy Lasorda. "I lost both catchers [Mike Scioscia with a torn rotator cuff and Steve Yeager with a broken wrist] and had to go with two kids who'd never caught a day in the majors," says Lasorda. "In the same week I had to tell each member of my double-play combination [Shortstop Bill Russell and Sax] that his father had died. I lost my lefthanded relief pitcher [Steve Howe] for over a month to drug rehabilitation. One of my lefthanders [Jerry Reuss] didn't win for two months, and in one of those months the other lefthander [Fernando Valenzuela] didn't win either. My leftfielder [Dusty Baker] is having an off year, and my second baseman has a hard time throwing to first base. Now what are the odds of all that happening in the same season?"
On Aug. 10 the Dodgers lost to Cincinnati 9-2 and were 6½ games back, and after the game Lasorda chewed them up and spat them out. Says Outfielder Rick Monday, "Back in 1977 we were 8½ games ahead in August, and Tommy called a meeting. Well, Boog Powell, who was with us, kept count with one of those ball-strike counters, and he had Tommy at 160 expletives in 20 minutes, which was the world indoor record. After that loss in Cincinnati, Tommy spoke for about 10 minutes and nearly broke the record." At the end of his tirade Lasorda told the Dodgers he wanted them in uniform at 11 a.m. the next day before their night game with the Reds.
Lasorda's speech was followed by a players-only session in which some veterans, notably Pitcher Pat Zachry, Baker, Monday and Russell spoke up. Marshall specifically asked Russell to say a few words, and The Dean, as his teammates call him, who rarely speaks at meetings, hit home with his talk. He suggested to Marshall and Brock that they stop trying so hard and that, rather than worrying about themselves, they play for the team.
It rained the next morning, but that gave Lasorda another opportunity to exercise his lungs, although he was much gentler. "I asked them if it wasn't too much to gain one game a week for seven weeks," he says. At the end of Lasorda's talk, Monday brought out Mr. Potato Head for the first time. "It got a big laugh," says Russell, "and it was the right way to end the meeting. All the tension was gone."
The Potato Head saga boils down to this: The award is in honor of Paul Padilla, the bald assistant trainer who bears a striking resemblance to Mr. P. The trophy had been suggested to Monday by Pitcher Joe Beckwith, who was eating breakfast one morning when his 2-year-old daughter, Merrill, brought a Mr. Potato Head doll to the table. Beckwith went out and bought one of his own, then painted Padilla's hairline on it.
So now, after every victory, Padilla presents Mr. Potato Head to the game's most valuable player, and the entire clubhouse breaks into the Mr. Potato Head song, which is sung to the tune of Hooray for Hollywood. However, the lyrics aren't meant for children ages two to six. Take Mr. Potato Head's ears off.
Through Sunday, 13 different Dodgers had won him, Outfielder Ken Landreaux and Pitcher Bob Welch leading the pack with three potatoes each. After the presentation ceremony, Padilla puts the MVP's number on Mr. Potato Head's back. After every loss he takes the smile off Mr. Potato Head and lowers his arms, which after the next win are raised in triumph. "I'm not going to say we're winning because of him," says Padilla, "but I think the players do see it as a kind of motivation."