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Seventeen months ago, on a humid Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, one of the more triumphant scenes in baseball history took place when Sandy Koufax finally got the last out of a lingering ninth inning to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a four-game sweep of the World Series with the New York Yankees. Players swarmed around Koufax in a shouting, backslapping knot to celebrate the finest moment a baseball team can know, and Dodger fans throughout the country rejoiced and gloated as never before. It was total victory.
But that was 17 months ago, long, sad months for the Dodgers and their followers. Last season the Dodgers had to win their final game of the year to gain a tie for sixth place; they had been virtually eliminated from serious contention for the pennant at about the same time that records of Easter Parade were being remaindered from the nation's jukeboxes.
Now, this year, as the chastened Dodgers of 1965 work their way through their spring-training exhibition schedule, they are the most drastically changed team in the major leagues, baseball's "mystery a go-go." True, the 11 players remaining of the baker's dozen who knocked off the Yankees in the World Series are still the Dodgers' big names: Koufax, Drysdale, Maury Wills, the Davises—that crowd. But big Frank Howard is gone, traded to Washington, and Jim Gilliam has retired to the coaching lines, maybe. The perfect relief pitcher, Ron Perranoski, lost his magic last year, and Johnny Podres was ailing so badly that he pitched only three innings all season. Tommy Davis' batting average dropped 51 points. The old baker's dozen needs help badly, and the Dodgers expect it to come from people you have seldom, if ever, heard of—Wes Parker, Jim Lefebvre, Bart Shirley, John Purdin, Willie Crawford, Tommy Dean, John Werhas, Al Ferrara, Derrell Griffith, Hector Valle, Greg Goossen, Howie Reed, Bill Singer. The Dodger roster is loaded with youthful nonentities. Seventeen of them are 23 or younger, five are 19, two are 18. Twice in recent weeks this infusion of youth has totally confused even the Dodgers themselves.
One morning Don Drysdale, who has been a Dodger since 1956, argued that once the Dodgers got organized they would have a very good chance this season to rise back to the top of the National League. A few days later Drysdale said despairingly that the New Dodgers did not have hitting enough to generate even a serious threat. Earlier the Dodgers had been brought together on a hill behind center field at Vero Beach for the official spring-training picture. There stood Manager Walter Alston surrounded by his coaching staff of four men—not one of whom has ever had any major league coaching experience. The rest of the club looked like a group of kids from Van Nuys High on their way to decorate the gym for the senior prom. After the picture was printed, it was discovered that there in the very front row between Don Drysdale and Maury Wills was a rookie, not even on the roster, who wasn't supposed to be in the picture at all. A Dodger official laughed and said, "Well, in a situation like this anything is possible."
Vast and rapid changes on any baseball team indicate one of several things: 1) certain key players did not perform well and must be replaced; 2) some older performers are getting too old to be counted on; 3) certain youngsters in the farm system have developed to such a degree that they must be brought up immediately; 4) the team has a lot of bonus players who must be put on the major league roster for a year or else they will be lost to other teams in the draft; or 5) the team is going all out with a style of play that the management feels will prove successful. With the 1965 Dodgers it is not one of these things—it is a combination of all five.
When the Dodgers make vast changes all baseball watches, because the Dodgers are historically a team that can be kicked one year and kissed the next. When the Dodgers left Brooklyn seven years ago the management felt that its new California clientele should get to see some of the stars who had performed so well in the past. But that aging 1958 team finished seventh. The next year new players like Wally Moon and Maury Wills were brought in, and the rebuilt team finished first. After blowing pennants in each of the three seasons that followed, including the late-season collapse of 1962, General Manager Buzzie Bavasi made a few trades and the Dodgers won by six games in 1963. Then came 1964.
"Last season," says Bavasi. "was discouraging to me. Very discouraging. I'll take the blame for quite a bit of it, because I put too much faith in some of our players and I was wrong." One of the players Bavasi apparently feels he was wrong about was Frank Howard, the 6-foot-7 slugger who was the Dodgers' only genuine home run hitter. Last December Bavasi traded Howard to the Washington Senators along with four relatively faceless players, including Infielders Ken McMullen and Dick Nen. In return the Dodgers got Claude Osteen, one of the best left-handed pitchers in the American League last year, and Third Baseman John Kennedy, a modest hitter but a splendid fielder. Acquiring Osteen and Kennedy seemed the obvious reason for the trade. But in giving up Howard, McMullen and Nen in a lump, the Dodgers seemed to be saying something else. McMullen and Nen, like Howard, are—or hope to be—long-ball hitters. Apparently the Dodgers had abandoned, once and for all, a playing style built around the home run, and they did it for some very logical and interesting reasons.
"We believe," says Fresco Thompson, vice-president and director of minor league operations, "that people get more excitement out of the bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run and stretching a hit into extra bases than they do from watching somebody hit a ball into somebody's lap and then jogging around the bases." Walt Alston makes it even clearer. "In Dodger Stadium," he says, "it is almost impossible for anyone to hit a home run. The air is heavy at night, and the ball will not carry. Unless you hit the ball exactly down the lines [330 feet to both left and right fields], it isn't going to go out."
Certainly the 14,000 people who have already bought their season tickets for Dodger Stadium in 1965 are going to be in for a different form of baseball than even the powerless Dodgers of the recent past have provided.
Howard hit only 11 home runs at home last year, and the rest of the Dodger team averaged only one home run every 50 innings. (Even the Mets hit a homer at home on an average of one every 14 innings.) Says Johnny Podres, "Pitchers love to pitch in our stadium because it takes three hits off them to score a run. But with the speed we have and are developing, we can often do it with two hits."