May 18

Looking back at the worst Dodgers starts since ’88


Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesJohn Shelby finished second on the Dodgers in home runs in 1987 at age 29, then declined.

As Dodgers watchers everywhere wonder how much latitude struggling James Loney will get, I thought I’d take a look at how much latitude others in similarly dire straits have gotten.

Loney has a .534 OPS, putting him firmly in position to have one of the worst Dodgers starts through the end of May of any regular since 1988:

Worst OPS through May
(minimum 3.1 plate appearances per team game)
.452 John Shelby, 1989
.457 Alfredo Griffin, 1988
.532 Mike Davis, 1988
.582 Cesar Izturis, 2003
.595 Jose Offerman, 1994
Source: Elias Sports Bureau (not adjusted for park factors)

Here’s what happened next to those five:

John Shelby, 1989
Shelby came to the Dodgers in a May 1987 trade and hit 21 homers in 120 games. He declined in 1988 to a .715 OPS but still contributed 10 homers and respectable defense in center field for the World Series champs. However, the roof caved in the following year.

He finished April batting .186 with two extra-base hits — and then got worse. In May, he got two more extra-base hits, but his batting average fell to .168 — and then got worse. Still playing almost every day, he slid to .160 — going 0-for-10 in the 22-inning game at Houston — although he did hit his one and only home run of the year that month.

You might conclude that there was a lack of offensive alternatives, especially considering that injuries limited Kirk Gibson to 71 games, but Gibson missed only four weeks before the All-Star Game and played regularly in June (including an 0-for-8 game June 17 against San Diego). Mike Marshall was off to a slow start in right field, but on the bench was Mickey Hatcher, who batted .307 before the All-Star break. However, none of those three could really play center field — although the Dodgers did try Gibson there occasionally.

In June, the Dodgers called up 24-year-old Jose Gonzalez. He mostly rode the pine in the early going but got a week’s worth of starts in late June and went 12-for-26 with three walks, at which point he began getting the majority of playing time in center field. Franklin Stubbs, Billy Bean without an “e” and Mike Huff were among those getting a shot, as the Dodgers looked for anyone who could help.

Shelby was sent to the minors in July by Dodgers general manager Fred Claire. “They said I could either come to Albuquerque … or be released,” Shelby told the Los Angeles Times later that year. After an .810 OPS in 32 games with the Dukes and manager Kevin Kennedy, he returned to the majors to play much of the final five weeks in center for the Dodgers and hit his season peak. Unfortunately, that peak was merely a .248 batting average with only three walks to go with 26 strikeouts — a .583 OPS. He never got it together.

He remained a Dodger until the next June, however, before he was released. He signed with Detroit and homered in his first game as a Tiger.

Alfredo Griffin, 1988
Savvy readers will notice the Dodgers went to the World Series despite two horrific starts from newly acquired regulars. One was Griffin, who came in a big, multiplayer trade with Oakland with the intention of ending the Dodgers’ shortstop-by-committee approach of 1987 (Mariano Duncan, Dave Anderson and Glenn Hoffman).

Griffin was hitting a robust .224 (.642 OPS) through April 23, then slumped to a .128 batting average and .334 OPS over the next four weeks, leaving him at .457 when he was sidelined for two months with a broken right hand from a Dwight Gooden fastball. Anderson got most of the starts in Griffin’s absence and almost stole the job for good with a Jamey Carroll-like .309 batting average and .416 on-base percentage in his first 40 starts, but he tailed off dramatically just as Griffin was nearing his return.

Griffin, still probably not completely healed, had a .558 OPS the rest of the season, then went 7-for-41 with two walks and one extra-base hit in the postseason.

Eric RisbergMike Davis found redemption in the 1988 World Series.

Mike Davis, 1988
Before the ’88 season, the Dodgers were counting on a free-agent signing in a big way — but until Gibson became available, that free agent was Davis, who hit 65 homers in his final three seasons with the A’s. But Davis reached the end of May without a single long-distance call, struggling with a .210 batting average, .283 on-base percentage and .248 slugging percentage.

He started 38 of the Dodgers’ first 41 games, but it was around the end of May that manager Tommy Lasorda’s patience began to run out. Davis started only 11 of the next 81 games, although he never went more than a few days without an appearance. Mike Marshall moved to right field from first base, where Lasorda mixed together a combo of players including Hatcher, Stubbs, Danny Heep, Tracy Woodson and, until he got traded to St. Louis, Pedro Guerrero.

Stubbs would by default be considered the player who replaced Davis in the lineup, and the former first-round pick wasn’t all that much to write home about with a .288 on-base percentage and .376 slugging for the year. But Davis never got any better. From July 25 on, he went 10-for-70 with six walks, a .394 OPS.

It was this year-long collapse that made the two-out walk he drew off Dennis Eckersley in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series so improbable and impossible in its own right. He then hit a home run in the clinching Game 5, matching his entire regular-season total.

Cesar Izturis, 2003
Izturis became the Dodgers’ regular shortstop in 2002 at age 22, his first year with the team after coming in a trade from Toronto. As he was well above average in the field, the Dodgers were willing to tolerate almost anything from him with the bat, riding out a .512 OPS after May 1 that year.

The following season brought hope for improvement, but after a 5-for-9 start in an opening series at Arizona, Izturis was down to a .582 OPS through May. Unlike his predecessors on this list, his glove and health kept him in the lineup. He played 158 games in 2003 and started 154, even though he barely showed any improvement at the plate, finishing the season at .597.

Two years later, Izturis reversed his fortunes at the plate so dramatically that he was batting .342 at the end of May with an .812 OPS, numbers that propelled him to the All-Star Game despite a June in which he went 9-for-86 with four walks.

Kevork Djansezian/APJose Offerman played his last major league game in 2005 but never appeared at shortstop after 1996.

Jose Offerman, 1994
Once the most touted prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system, Offerman launched his career in 1990 with a home run in his first major league at-bat. But through the first four seasons of his career, his career OPS was a mediocre .650 in nearly 1,500 plate appearances. That wouldn’t have been so bad if, unlike Izturis, he hadn’t become notorious for his fielding flaws, making 79 errors in 1992-93 alone.

In 1994, he got off to his worst start yet. Like Loney, he was able to string together some singles, going 15-for-44 over a two-week period, to get his batting average above .200. But when May turned to June, his OPS was still below .600.

Offerman stayed in the lineup in June, muddling along at the same pace. His major league season ended abruptly June 26 with a demotion to Albuquerque by Claire (who replaced him with Rafael Bournigal), about six weeks before labor strife ended the ’94 season.

The crazy thing about Offerman is, unlike everyone else on this list, he actually earned some long-term bragging rights at the plate. Presaging Izturis, he parlayed a hot start to the 1995 season (.429 on-base percentage/.442 slugging through June) into a spot on the All-Star team. Still only 27 when the Dodgers sent him to Kansas City in exchange for pitcher Billy Brewer (who then went to the Yankees for Mike Judd), Offerman went on to play another decade in the majors, collecting more than 1,000 hits, twice leading the American League in triples and making the All-Star team again in 1998.

*Andruw Jones, 2008
You might be wondering why the notorious flail that was Jones wasn’t on the list. He just missed having enough plate appearances to qualify for the above criteria. Had we relaxed that requirement, his .543 OPS would give him the fourth-worst start by a Dodgers regular since ’88. He started 36 of the Dodgers’ first 43 games. One year ago today, he made his final start before knee problems sent him to the disabled list, where he remained until July. Playing semi-regularly upon his return, he showed no improvement, going 10-for-63 with a .433 OPS and driving the Dodgers to make the end-of-the-month trade for Manny Ramirez.

Jerry Lai/US PresswireJames Loney had an .810 OPS a year ago today. He’s now at .534.

**James Loney, 2011
What does this all mean for Loney? A bad start doesn’t have to mean the end of his career, although it would help if he were a middle infielder.

Anything can happen — all we have above are anecdotes — but it can’t be a comfort to know that since 1988, none of the Dodgers who have started their seasons in similar fashions recovered before the year was out.

May 06

Happy 80th birthday, Willie Mays

Willie MaysKidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesWillie Mays poses at the Polo Grounds during his rookie season in 1951.

Baseball legend Willie Mays turns 80 today. David Schoenfield of ESPN.com’s Sweet Spot blog, from which I borrowed the above photo, has a piece arguing that Mays was the greatest ever, while John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle catches up with Mays today. Happy birthday, Willie.

May 04

Maury Wills, Pete Gray, Chicken elected to Shrine of the Eternals


Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesMaury Wills, 1959

Dodger speedster Maury Wills has been elected to the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, along with World War II-era ballplayer Pete Gray and Ted Giannoulas, aka the San Diego Chicken.

Wills’ candidacy rested on his role in popularizing the stolen base as well as his lifelong devotion to the game, while Giannoulas earned his popularity in a much different way, strutting through Padres games in his Chicken costume.

Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesPete Gray

Gray, who lost his right arm in a childhood accident, began in professional baseball in 1942 at age 27 and gained national attention two years later when he batted .333 for the Memphis Chicks with a league record-tying 68 stolen bases. Entering the majors with the St. Louis Browns during the wartime player shortage, Gray had a .259 on-base percentage and .261 slugging percentage, but still wowed fans with his ability to catch a fly ball, roll the ball across his chest as he tucked his glove under his right shoulder and then throw in one motion. Gray continued to barmstorm for years in the minors. He passed away in 2002 at age 87.

The trio join the previously elected Eternals: Jim Abbott, Dick Allen, Roger Angell, Emmett Ashford, Moe Berg, Yogi Berra, Ila Borders, Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan, Bill Buckner, Roberto Clemente, Steve Dalkowski, Rod Dedeaux, Jim Eisenreich, Dock Ellis, Mark Fidrych, Curt Flood, Josh Gibson, William “Dummy” Hoy, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Bill James, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Roger Maris, Marvin Miller, Minnie Minoso, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Jimmy Piersall, Pam Postema, Jackie Robinson, Lester Rodney, Pete Rose, Casey Stengel, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill Veeck, Jr. and Kenichi Zenimura. Induction day is July 17 in Pasadena.

Here are the 2011 Baseball Reliquary vote percentages (top three earn election):

Continue reading

May 02

When Willie Davis’ streak was on the line …


Rogers Photo Archive/Getty ImagesWith Walter Alston looking on from the dugout, Willie Davis stands in the batter’s box in 1969.

Four years ago, I wrote about the 31st game of Willie Davis’ record-setting Dodger hitting streak and Vin Scully’s broadcast of it:

… In the bottom of the seventh inning of the 1969 game, his hitting streak on the line, Davis tried to bunt his way aboard, to no avail. With the Dodgers still leading by four runs, and starting pitcher Claude Osteen having thrown 25 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, it appeared Davis’ pursuit was done.

But in the top of the eighth, New York’s Tommie Agee and Donn Clendenon each hit two-run home runs, tying the game. The Dodgers were stunned — so stunned, they didn’t collect themselves before the next Mets batter.

“Ron Swoboda hits the ball to Osteen, who throws him out — and [Dodger manager] Walter Alston was on the field! He was heading to take Osteen out, when Swoboda hit the first pitch back to the box,” Scully exclaimed with amazement.

On top of that, the tie meant that opportunity had made a U-turn back toward Davis. And in the bottom of the eighth, two walks alternating with two strikeouts presented a unique conundrum for Dodger fans, one that Scully didn’t hesitate to point out.

“If the pitcher makes out, or whoever bats for him [it would be Willie Crawford], then Willie Davis will then be the No. 3 hitter in the ninth inning — unless the Dodgers get a run and win it, of course,” Scully said.

“And boy this is a really tough one, isn’t it? Crawford is trying to win the game. If he makes the last out in the eighth, Willie Davis will get another shot at extending his streak.”

Crawford grounded out, and then the Mets stranded a runner at second base in the top of the ninth, setting up Maury Wills, Manny Mota and Davis to bat in the bottom of the inning.

Delightfully for drama’s sake, Wills singled sharply to left field.

“And for more of the fun for the folks in the stands trying to figure out about Willie Davis,” Scully said, “if Mota sacrifices Wills to second, will they pitch to Willie? Left-handed pitcher on the mound. He’s a left-handed batter.”

“And now we are faced with that situation — do you walk Willie Davis?” Scully continued after Mota did bunt, successfully. “He’s getting an ovation. The one thing in his favor, oddly enough, is there’s a left-handed pitcher on the mound. If there’s a right-hand pitcher, the odds figure for sure they would walk him intentionally. But what will they do with a left-hander? I tell you what, if they walk him, you’re going to hear a few boos.

“Duffy Dyer is standing up behind the plate. And let’s see. If he does not go in a crouch, they’re going to put him on. Dyer looks over at [Mets manager Gil] Hodges. He’s not in a crouch … and now he goes in a crouch! They’ll pitch to him. Dyer kept looking at Hodges, and finally settles in a crouch. And Davis has one last swing — or is it the last swing?

“Bottom of the ninth, 4-4. [Jack] Dilauro looks at Wills. The left-hander at the belt. The pitch to Willie. … Soft curve — it’s a base hit to left! Here comes Wills; he will score!”

As he knows to do so well, Scully stayed silent to let his listeners hear the crowd cheer — for 44 seconds. And when he came back, he had this:

“Day after day, and year after year, the Dodgers remain the Dodgers. And through all the lightning bolts, the thunder, the heartbreaks, the laughs and the thrills, it’s comforting to know in this wacky world, the Dodgers are still the Dodgers. Incredibly enough, Willie Davis, on one last shot, when the question was in doubt if he would be even allowed to swing the bat, gets a ninth-inning game-winning base hit to extend his hitting streak to 31. And as Alice said, ‘Things get curiouser and curiouser.’ What a finish.” …


If Andre Ethier blows past the halfway point to Joe DiMaggio tonight and is going for 31 games in a row Friday, it will be against … the Mets — but in New York. Unfortunately, unless he decides to make an exception to his travel schedule, Scully wouldn’t be there to broadcast it.

Apr 24

Tumblin’ dice

Next roll for Andre Ethier – longest April hitting streak in major-league history. From the Dodgers via Elias Sports Bureau and Trent McCotter from the Society of American Baseball Research:

Joe Torre (22), April 6-28, 1972
Danny Bautista (21), April 7-30, 2004
Rico Carty (20), April 8-30, 1970
Andre Ethier (20), April 2-current, 2011
Steve Garvey (20), April 7-30, 1978

Seasons used to start later than they do today.

The longest hitting streak by a Dodger since 1988 is Paul Lo Duca’s 25-game skein in 2003. Here’s the all-time Dodger top 10:

31 Willie Davis, 1969
27 Joe Medwick, 1942
27 Duke Snider, 1953
25 Paul Lo Duca, 2003
25 Steve Sax, 1986
25 Willie Davis, 1971
25 Buzz Boyle, 1934
25 Harvey Hendrick, 1929
24 John Shelby, 1988
24 Zack Wheat, 1924

Longest consecutive-game streaks for a Dodger reaching base:

58 Duke Snider, 1954
53 Shawn Green, 2000
47 Ron Cey, 1975
44 Len Koenecke, 1934
44 Zack Wheat, 1919
43 Augie Galan, 1945
41 Eric Karros, 1994
40 Babe Herman, 1926
39 Steve Saz, 1986
39 Billy Grabarkewitz, 1970
39 Duke Snider, 1953
39 Jim Gilliam, 1953

The Snider and Gilliam streaks intersected for 21 days in August.

Apr 09

Thirty years later, Fernando Valenzuela’s legacy is his tenacity


Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesFernando gettin’ ready …

Today is the 30th anniversary of Fernando Valenzuela’s first start in the majors, the 2-0 Opening Day shutout that launched Fernandomania.

But I’m going to take this occasion to focus on a different start, one that I think came to define Valenzuela as much as Fernandomania did, if not more: Game 3 of the 1981 World Series.

At age 20, Valenzuela sizzled through the first eight starts of his career like no one we’d ever seen, but the story of his career was one of perseverance. In fact, even on Opening Day 1981, Valenzuela allowed baserunners in five of his first six innings, including runners on second and third with one out in the sixth inning of a 1-0 game.

But nothing captured Valenzuela’s endurance like his marathon in the ’81 Series, played before what at the time was the largest recorded attendance at Dodger Stadium, a legitimate 56,236.

Thanks to indispensable friend of Dodger Thoughts Stan Opdyke, I was able to listen to the radio broadcast of the October 23, 1981 game, with play-by-play by Vin Scully and color commentary by Sparky Anderson. It was a resplendent broadcast, full of detail to match any televised high-def TV closeup, a broadcast that really brought home how Valenzuela struggled and survived.

‘The worst’
The Dodgers had lost six consecutive World Series games, all to the Yankees, when the two teams met at Dodger Stadium on this night. Valenzuela had most recently pitched 8 2/3 innings in the Dodgers’ National League Championship Series’ clincher won by Rick Monday’s ninth-inning home run, so he wasn’t new to pressure. But keep in mind also that he was throwing in the World Series on three days’ rest. (The World Series started barely 24 hours after the NLCS ended.)

Scully was on his game well before Valenzuela, who walked leadoff hitter Willie Randolph on a ball four that was way outside and, one out later, also walked Dave Winfield. Cleanup hitter Lou Piniella hit a 6-4-3 double-play grounder which Davey Lopes turned despite the onrushing presence of Winfield, who didn’t slide. “Davey Lopes had Dave Winfield coming at him like some Redwood Tree,” Scully said, later adding, “It was as if Davey was trying to throw over the Empire State Building.”

Getty ImagesRon Cey (shown here in a later Series game) put on an offensive and defensive showcase in Game 3.

The Dodgers, who had yet to lead in the Series, finally took the upper hand in the bottom of the first. Lopes doubled, and a perfectly placed Russell bunt put runners on first and third. A struggling Dusty Baker popped out and Steve Garvey struck out, but Ron Cey drove a 2-2 fastball from the game’s other rookie starting pitcher, Dave Righetti, over the left-field wall for a 3-0 lead.

“I’ve seen him hit more good high fastballs out of the park than you’d ever want to see,” said Anderson, the former Cincinnati Reds manager who had moved on to Detroit.

Los Angeles had a chance to pad the early lead when Pedro Guerrero was hit by a pitch and Rick Monday drove him to third on a hit-and-run single, but Steve Yeager popped out.

Valenzuela had his shutout for only one more pitch. Bob Watson drilled an 0-1 offering to center. “Going in on the ball is Guerrero,” Scully said, “and it goes into the seats for a home run! That’s how hard Watson hit the ball.”

The next hitter, Rick Cerone, doubled down the left-field line directly off the railing, with Yankees manager Bob Lemon arguing for a home run. Six Yankee batters into the game, the Dodger bullpen began warming up for the first time, starting with Dave Goltz. Aurelio Rodriguez flied out, but Larry Milbourne (playing for the injured Bucky Dent) singled home Cerone to cut the Dodger lead to 3-2.

After a Righetti sacrifice, Valenzuela walked Randolph again before getting out of the second inning on a comebacker.

Righetti was faring little better. He walked Valenzuela to lead off the bottom of the second inning. Lopes bunted Valenzuela to second base, prompting Scully to ask Anderson how concerned the Dodgers should be about Valenzuela being out on the bases. Anderson didn’t seem to think there was much to worry about. Valenzuela went to third base on a Russell groundout, but stayed there when Baker popped out for the second time in two innings.

To start the third, Valenzuela kindled hopes that his worst was behind him when he struck out Winfield. “That’s the first true Valenzuela screwball I’ve seen tonight,” Scully commented. But Piniella singled. Lopes briefly saved Valenzuela with an over-the-shoulder catch of a Watson blooper, but Cerone, who narrowly missed a homer in his previous at-bat, left no doubt this time, whacking a screwball over the wall in left-center to give New York a 4-3 lead.

By this time, Scully couldn’t avoid the reality.

“This might be the worst game I’ve ever seen Valenzuela pitch,” he said.

Batting for Valenzuela …
Valenzuela’s troubles continued with the next batter. Rodriguez reached second base on an infield single that Lopes threw into the photographers’ well. That compelled Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda to have Valenzuela walk Milbourne intentionally, so that he could use Righetti as an escape valve with a strikeout.

Still, to this point, Valenzuela had allowed 10 baserunners in three innings, surrendering the Dodgers’ early lead while throwing no fewer than 71 pitches. Said Scully of the crowd, “That wave of enthusiasm has suddenly crashed upon the shores.” Anderson, meanwhile, wondered whether New York fans might have misgivings of their own. “The Yankees, you know, have left five (runners), so they could have torn this thing wide open.”

Righetti remained wobbly. When Garvey singled on a 3-2 pitch to lead off the bottom of the fourth, George Frazier began warming up in the Yankee bullpen for the third time, and when Cey walked, Frazier was called in.

Lasorda did his best to make Frazier feel comfortable by asking Guerrero to bunt. He had three sacrifices in the 1981 regular season and hit into four double plays in the NLCS, but the idea of it still raises howls. Not surprisingly, Guerrero flailed twice and then struck out.

Scully: “That must kill you (as a manager).”

Anderson: “The bunt, I promise you Vinny, over the course of the whole season will cost you more runs than any play we do. Bad baserunning and bunting will kill more rallies than any other thing in the game.”

After Monday flied out, Lasorda made an even bolder move, pinch-hitting Mike Scioscia for Yeager in the third inning. Scioscia grounded to short, and the Dodgers remained behind by a run.

Because he was due to lead off the bottom of the fourth inning, Valenzuela was pitching to stay in the game at this point. He responded with his best inning so far that night, retiring the side on 12 pitches, though even then, he walked Winfield with two out and had to survive a Piniella liner to Baker to left.

Subsequently, a leadoff double in the top of the fifth inning by Watson caused Tom Niedenfuer to begin warming up, but two outs and another intentional walk to Milbourne later, Frazier was left to bat for himself by the same manager who would infamously hit for Tommy John in Game 6. Frazier struck out, stranding the Yankees’ seventh and eighth runners of the game.

APAurelio Rodriguez nearly did the Dodgers in at third base the same way as Graig Nettles once had.

In the bottom of the fifth, Garvey reached first on an infield single that Rodriguez (starting in place of an injured Graig Nettles) did well to keep from becoming a double. Cey walked on a 3-2 pitch. Once again, Guerrero was up with two on and no outs, but this time, the bunt was off. Guerrero hit a big chopper over Rodriguez’s head for an RBI double that tied the game.

Monday was walked intentionally to load the bases for Scioscia with none out. As lefty Rudy May came in to face the Dodger catcher, Reggie Smith came out on deck to hit for Valenuela, whose night appeared over after five innings and 95 pitches. Steve Howe was throwing in the Dodger bullpen.

Scully and Anderson agreed that Scioscia did the one thing to keep Valenzuela in the game. He grounded into a double play, driving in the go-ahead run while putting two outs on the board. With more baserunners or fewer outs, the announcers believed that Lasorda surely would have pulled Valenzuela, but with two out and a runner on third, the manager decided to stick with his pitcher. What’s interesting is that for all his struggles, Valenzuela’s walk to the batter’s box earned roars of delight from the crowd.

Valenzuela grounded to short, stranding the Dodgers’ sixth runner. But he headed into the sixth inning staked once more with a lead.  This time, could he hold it?

‘If that don’t help him, nothing will.’
If you can believe it, Valenzuela went back out on that hill and walked the first batter he faced – Randolph for a third time. Lasorda immediately came out to the mound to talk to Valenzuela. Niedenfuer and Howe were up in the bullpen. “No command of the breaking ball,” said Scully.

Valenzuela was truly at the end of his rope.

And then, Scioscia saved his pitcher again – this time, in a more positive fashion. Randolph broke for second on a steal, and Scioscia nailed him.

“That’s a big play right there for Fernando,” Anderson exclaimed. “If that don’t help him, nothing will.”

It did help him. Jerry Mumphrey struck out on three pitches, Winfield grounded to third, and Valenzuela completed his third consecutive 12-pitch inning. For the first time all night, he put up a zero while the Dodgers had the lead.

The seventh was positively svelte for Valenzuela, though not without a scare. He retired the side in order on 10 pitches, but not before the middle batter, Watson, belted one to the left-field wall, where Baker caught it. In a precursor to his famous line that capped Valenzuela’s no-hitter nine years later, Scully said of the hanging curve to Watson, “You could have hung your sombrero on that one.”

The Dodgers certainly weren’t doing much in the way of providing insurance runs. In the bottom of the seventh, Cey (who went 2 for 2 with two walks) singled to become the sixth Dodger to reach base leading off an inning. But Guerrero struck out, and just as Anderson had finished describing Derrel Thomas (batting for Monday) as someone “of limited ability who has made the most of it,” Thomas hit into a double play.

The top of the eighth featured what might have been the definitive defensive play in the nine years of the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield. Rodriguez and Milbourne started off the inning with singles, becoming the 15th and 16th batters to reach base off Valenzuela, compared with 21 outs. Bobby Murcer, a 35-year-old veteran, came up to pinch-hit. (Dodger nemesis Reggie Jackson was on the Yankee bench with an injury suffered running the bases in Game 2, and though it was believed he was healthy enough to bat, he did not.)

On the first pitch he saw, Murcer squared to bunt – and popped it in the air, foul. Cey came charging in … and made a remarkable diving catch, before doubling up Milbourne off first base. The Dodger Stadium crowd let out a deafening roar.

Valenzuela then came within a pitch of walking Randolph for a fourth time, before the future Dodger hit a difficult ground ball to Cey. It would have been an infield single – if Rodriguez had held back at second base. But he came close enough to third for Cey to tag him directly.

Scully simply marveled.

“I tell you what (Valenzuela) is doing – a high-wire act in a windstorm,” he said.

El Toro
When Scioscia singled to start the bottom of the eighth (yes, another leadoff hitter aboard), Valenzuela took his bat up to home plate. He had now been nursing a one-run lead for three innings, and had thrown 131 pitches in the game. And thanks to Scioscia’s lack of speed, Valenzuela would spend the rest of the eighth inning standing at first base after bunting into a force play.

Lopes struck out and Russell popped out, and Valenzuela quickly prepared for his final inning on the mound. Dave Stewart joined Howe in the bullpen – by this time, it seemed the only pitcher that hadn’t gotten ready to relieve for the Dodgers was Lasorda himself.

Six Yankees had reached base at least twice against Valenzuela. Mumphrey, the only position player who hadn’t reached at all, grounded to Lopes on a 2-2 pitch. Two outs to go.

Winfield, whose World Series lack of performance would become the stuff of Steinbrennerian legend, hit a high drive to right-center field. Thomas and Guerrero converged, and Guerrero made the catch.  One out to go.

Piniella came to bat. “Garvey on the line at first,” Scully said, “Cey on the line at third, and the ballgame on the line.”

Tempting fate one last time, Valenzuela fell behind in the count, 2-0. A called strike, and then a foul.

George Rose/Getty ImagesHero.

Valenzuela wound up and threw his 146th pitch of the October evening.

“Fastball – got him swinging!” Scully exclaimed.

Scully immediately recognized and conveyed what the night meant.

“This was not the best Fernando game. It was his finest.”

Valenzuela, this game showed, was in it for the long haul.  He pitched in the majors until 1997, and tales of him going back to pitch in Mexico have been recorded to this very year. El Toro was simply as tough as they come.

Apr 06

Vigil tonight for Bryan Stow and against fan violence

Many of us are hoping that somehow, what happened to Bryan Stow becomes a turning point in the problem of fan violence. Here’s an example of some Southern Californians showing some initiative:

A community vigil in support of Bryan Stow, the victim of a beating in the Dodger Stadium parking lot after last week’s opening game, is scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. PT at the Los Angeles County Medical Center.

The vigil’s grass-roots sponsors, which include the Garfield High School Healthy Start Collaborative, East Los Angeles Prevention Project and the Latino Equality Alliance, are supporting Stow’s recovery while also taking a stand against the violence of his attack. Stow has been in a medically induced coma for the past several days.

He suffered a severe skull fracture and bad bruising to his brain’s frontal lobes, Dr. Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon, said Tuesday.

At one point, doctors had to remove the entire left side of his skull to ease pressure on his brain. The pressure is now normal but Stow remains in a coma from his injuries and from sedation to reduce his brain activity, Zada said.

“There is evidence of brain injury and dysfunction,” Zada said.

It was reported Tuesday that Stow, a San Francisco Giants fan, sent a text message while inside the stadium to family indicating that he was scared of what might happen to him.

“In response to this tragic event and to show our support for the victim, we call upon all community leaders, Dodgers fans and Angelinos to stand in solidarity with Giants fans and the family of Bryan Stow against any form of violence,” said a statement on the vigil’s Facebook page. “We call upon our community leaders to address this growing problem with our urban youth and young adults. We need to evaluate and respond to the issue of alcohol and substance abuse association with community violence.”

Organizers said a press conference would follow the vigil.

The L.A. County Supervisors, the L.A. City Council, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Giants and Stow’s employer, American Medical Response, have led contributions to a reward now totaling $100,000 for information leading to the arrest of the individuals who inflicted the beating on Stow, a paramedic and father of two from Santa Cruz, Calif.

The Giants announced Tuesday that “The Bryan Stow Fund” had been established through the San Francisco Police Credit Union. Donations can be made and further information can be found at www.sfpcu.org.

Here’s more of the latest news on Stow, a combined report by wire services and ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Tony Jackson.

* * *

  • Jim Murray on Jim Gilliam, 50 years ago today (via the Daily Mirror):

    … You might say Jim is with the Dodgers but not of them. The distinction is important. He starts every season in the dugout. He sleeps every night with his bag packed at his feet and rumors of a trade swirling around in his dreams. He lives his life in a kind of limbo midway between the Dodgers and the rest of the National League.

    Then the season starts and some “phenom” begins to leak at the seams, the stuffing oozing out of him at every trip to the plate. The manager sets a hysterical search amid the bat bags, locker room towels and press clippings of his wunderkind — and there sits Jim Gilliam, waiting. …

    When the Dodgers came to L.A., they brought Jim along with all the enthusiasm of a man asking his mother-in-law on the honeymoon. They had a hot-shot third baseman named Dick Gray, and began to offer Gilliam around like a claiming horse until Gray began to leak like a sieve in the field and strike out on balls the catcher couldn’t get his glove on.

    Gilliam became a third baseman and the Dodgers became World Champions …

  • Here’s a really nice column on the passing of a TV insider by Variety’s Brian Lowry.

    … His most memorable line is a cautionary one I’ve quoted for years — one that addresses the way coveted Hollywood promotions are often fraught with peril: “The best job you’ll ever have,” he said, “is the one that precedes the one you always wanted.” …

Apr 05

Opening Day, 1993


Lynne Sladky/APCharlie Hough was 45 years old when he threw the first pitch for the Florida Marlins.

Eighteen years ago today, I took a day off from grad school classes to stay in my Woodley Park apartment in D.C. and watch the Dodgers’ first game of the 1993 season, a game that also happened to be the Florida Marlins’ first game ever. Charlie Hough, a Dodger when I first became a fan nearly 20 years before, pitched the Marlins to a 6-3 victory over Los Angeles and Orel Hershiser.

It feels like a lifetime ago. Living out of California for the last time, writing my first screenplay, no job, no kids, no girl (though I fancied one). Twenty-five years old and no idea what was to come.

I can still feel the sun coming into my barely furnished apartment, the living room wide enough to swing a bat in. My brain was heavy, as it has so often been, but I was traveling light.

Apr 02

Orel Hershiser still the gem you remember

Orel Hershiser became known as one of baseball’s most intelligent, well-spoken and thoughtful players during his unforgettable 1988 season. Now, 23 years later at age 52, he comes across as a tenured professor.

When I caught up with him as he prepared for his first season on ESPN’s lead baseball broadcast team, he displayed all the insight of his playing days, with the added perspective of time gone by.

One of the most interesting things about Hershiser is that he comes across as very honest about his own abilities — both positive and negative.  There’s little false modesty with Hershiser — when 1988 is brought up, he politely challenges the tendency some people have to only cite that year from his career, noting that his 181 wins in his other years must mean something, and he also makes the case that he might have been an even better pitcher in 1989.

But ask him to talk about whether he was nervous at all when he reached the World Series in ’88, and he’ll tell you that he “felt butterflies every one of my outings in the big leagues.” And ask him for the truth behind the mythic story of Tommy Lasorda giving him the nickname of “Bulldog,” and he’ll be similarly forthcoming.

“I wasn’t a very good pitcher when the nickname ‘Bulldog’ came to me,” Hershiser said.

“It came about during a very hard time in my career. … It was my attitude and my fear and my respect for a big league hitter that was getting in my way.”

Hershiser spreads his savvy with enthusiasm, as a true fan and student of the game. It’s funny — this week, Andre Ethier expressed his frustration about the direction of the Dodgers. Ethier is 29 years old, has played in two National League Championship Series and is coming off a losing season. In April 1988, Hershiser was 29, had played in two NLCS and was coming off two losing seasons.

“I think you should have a mindset of getting to the playoffs,” Hershiser said. “Because once you get in the playoffs, it is kind of a crapshoot.”

But then Hershiser amplified his thoughts, noting the tangible difference between regular-season baseball and postseason ball.

“There are tactics,” he said. “There are surprises; there are things you can do in playoff baseball that can give you an edge.

“That scouting report is coming into the playoffs with you, and [the postseason] is time to change. It is time to surprise the opponent with pitches you might not throw in certain situations. It is time to hit and run in certain situations. It is time to suicide-squeeze. It is time to play reckless at certain times.”

In ’88, Hershiser said he threw a sidearm pitch to Jose Canseco “when I hadn’t probably thrown a sidearm pitch all year.” And Hershiser rhapsodized about faking a bunt on a 3-2 pitch with Alfredo Griffin on base before swinging away, to knock the A’s off-kilter.

Hershiser can’t say enough about how much it meant when Kirk Gibson fell in the Dodgers’ laps during post-collusion free agency. He told a tremendous story about the famous incident when Jesse Orosco eyeblacked Gibson’s cap and, as Hershiser put it, embarrassed Gibson and truly had him questioning his teammates’ commitment to winning. Calling himself a “semi-team leader,” Hershiser went into the showers with Gibson in full uniform to talk him back from “getting out.”

“Gibson,” Hershiser said, “made it cool to care.”

That attitude continued even through the end of the 1989 season, which found the Dodgers back below .500 and playing for nothing but pride when October came. In his final start of the year, Hershiser went 11 innings and threw 169 pitches.

“That’s who Tommy was,” Hershiser said, with full support. He didn’t want to come out of the game, not at all.

Hershiser had the full offseason to rest from that start, and doesn’t blame it for the shoulder trauma that knocked him out for 13 months in April 1990. He believes wear and tear was going to get him sooner or later, and at the same time, partly credits the rest of his arm received during that time for the success he had in the second decade of his career, which included three top-flight seasons in a sort of homecoming with Cleveland (he went to college at Bowling Green in Ohio).

His next stop was San Francisco, the Dodgers’ arch-rival, and Hershiser said he welcomed it because he knew Giants fans “would hold me accountable.” He enjoyed the experience of playing both in San Francisco and New York, where he pitched 179 innings for the Mets at age 40.

His final year in the majors was 2000, coming back full circle with the Dodgers. He had an upbeat spring and pitched six innings of one-run ball against Cincinnati in his second start, but he allowed seven runs in 1 1/3 innings in his third, hitting four batters. In late June, he suffered a terrible beating at the hands of the Cardinals that forced him off a major league mound for the last time.

Sitting in the Dodgers dugout this week, Hershiser recalled the moment … intelligent, well-spoken, thoughtful. Emotional.

“Tommy was the one who told me,” Hershiser said. “They let Tommy deliver the news back in the clubhouse, in the medical room where he took me right after that outing. He kind of pretty much never said ‘Orel, you’re released.’ He just said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time?’ And we agreed, and cried. You know, it was hard.

“This was the last place I sat, and had my head back on the cement [wall]. And I could feel the coldness of the cement of Dodger Stadium, knowing this was it. It was over. But it was great, because the fans gave me a standing ovation, they knew how bad I pitched, but they respected [me]. They knew it was over too.  It’s pretty good when thousands of people understand that you were really bad, but we respect you enough to do a standing ovation.”

Mar 05

A nostalgic look at baseball’s top 10s


Mark Rucker/Getty ImagesEddie Collins has the most hits of any second baseman in major-league history.

My second Sweet Spot post is a little off-the-wall and pretty much lacking in news value, but I still liked writing it. It was triggered by something small and utterly insignificant: my reaction upon revisiting baseball’s all-time hits leaderboard and seeing Eddie Collins, whose name never seems to come up in any baseball conversation I ever have, still there in the top 10, the better part of a century after he played.

Here’s a biography of Collins from BaseballLibrary.com.

Mar 03

Kids today …

“The kids today don’t seem to get any fun out of the game. You get the idea it interferes with something they’d rather do – like play golf or sell insurance or play the stock market. You don’t get the screwballs because they don’t care that much anymore.”

– Dodger vice president Fresco Thompson to Jim Murray, 1961, via the Daily Mirror

Feb 28

Jim Murray, 50 years later

It was 50 years ago this month that Jim Murray’s sports column debuted in the Times, notes Larry Harnisch of the Daily Mirror. Some selections from his opening work:

I am against the bunt in baseball — unless they start batting the ball against John McGraw batted against. The last time the bunt won a game, Frank Chance was a rookie. …

I’m glad the Rams traded Billy Wade. I won’t say Billy was clumsy, but on the way back from the line of scrimmage with the ball he bumped into more people than a New York pickpocket. I have seen blockers make ball-carriers look bad. Wade was the only ball-carrier I ever saw make the blockers look bad. …

I really don’t understand why the Angels haven’t signed up Bob Kelley to do their broadcasts. He’s the only guy in town who can prevent Vin Scully from throwing a shutout. …

Here’s what Murray wrote 50 years ago today, about Eli Grba, the Angels’ No. 1 pick in the expansion draft:

“Eli Grba” just isn’t a name you lead off with. It’s like laying down a bridge hand beginning with the deuce of trumps. Your partner is apt to head out of town without waiting to see the rest and we were afraid the Angels’ supporters would similarly run for cover when they failed to see a face card turned up at Boston. …

But there is a solution, it seems to me. The Angels now, granted Mr. Grba is a first-class pitcher even if his name sounds like something that a space chimp might say upon landing, should shop around not for a player or two but a vowel or two.

They might tap their own roster. Kluszewski, for instance, has letters to spare. But Klu runs to a surfeit of “z’s” and “s’s” and they don’t quite fit the bill. If the Angels had a farm system, they might bring up an “i” or two to the parent club. The Dodgers are loaded, but I can see Fresco Thompson scanning the high minors and reporting “not a lousy, stinking ‘e’ we can trade you in the whole lot …”

Feb 13

The Dodger Thoughts Spring Training Primers – a look back


Harry How/Getty ImagesNorihiro Nakamura went 5 for 39 with two walks as a Dodger. Trivia: In his final major-league game, the Dodgers scored 10 runs in the first inning.

This week, I’ll have my ninth Spring Training preview at Dodger Thoughts, and the time capsule effect of the previous eight is starting to mesmerize me.  As a warmup, I thought I’d present some artifacts from the past:

2003
Wilson Alvarez, LHP:
Dan Evans seems to really want him to succeed as the Omar Daal replacement, even though Darren Dreifort should fill that role. I’m dubious, but in terms of making the roster, he’s probably got enough to get spring training hitters out and make the move viable. If the Dodgers are healthy, a 12-man staff isn’t necessary, but, you know …

Chin-Feng Chen, 1B/LF: Once their most exciting prospect after batting .316 with 31 home runs, 123 RBI and 31 steals in San Bernardino in 1999, he now seems to have some real holes in his game: declining speed, no defense, strike zone issues. Still has something to prove.

Steve Colyer, LHP: 24 years old, had a 3.45 ERA in 59 relief appearances for AA Jacksonville last year. Struck out 68 in 62 2/3 innings. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Dodgers may be hoping for a lefty Eric Gagne (6-2, 195), but Colyer also walked 40.

2004
Shane Victorino, OF: Had a weird year as a Rule 5 draftee from the Dodgers by the Padres. Now back with Los Angeles, the Hawaiian is still only 23 – but like so many Dodger minor leagues, is a singles hitter without much walks or power. Still more promising at the plate than Romano.

James Loney, 1B: Ballyhooed, but I have this half-irrational fear his career will be like Todd Hollandsworth’s. Some power, some plate discipline, but not enough of both?

Russell Martin, 3B: We’ve come all the way down to the bottom to find a home-grown Dodger prospect who knows what ball four means. The 21-year-old Quebec native has 58 bases on balls (against 55 strikeouts) in less than 500 professional plate appearances. Say “Amen!”

Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesCody Ross had nine of his 10 career RBI as a Dodger in a three-game stretch at Pittsburgh in April 2006.

2005
Norihiro Nakamura, 3B: He has said he’s willing to play in the minor leagues, and an April in Las Vegas might be just the thing to give Nakamura rhythm and confidence. But he’ll get a long look in March.

Cody Ross, OF: Has 80 professional home runs at age 24. Injuries marred much of his 2004, and he’s never OPSed over .900 in the minors. But he’s a Paul DePodesta acquisition and that puts him in the game.

Oscar Robles, IF: Almost 29, he had some nice Mexican League numbers in 2004. Listed at 5-foot-11, 155 pounds, he is that rare player thinner than me.

2006
Andre Ethier, OF: A left-handed hitter, he could challenge Repko for the temporary last outfield slot, but more likely would be first in line if another outfielder stumbles after April 1.

Joel Guzman, IF-OF: The exciting prospect will also eye the major league injury report while discovering his new position, whatever that is. For our part, we’ll be watching his plate discipline.

Matt Kemp, OF: A true outfield prospect, it’s not impossible that the 21-year-old Kemp could be the first of the 2005 Vero Beach Dodgers to make the bigs.

Takashi Saito, P: This year’s Norihiro Nakamura, pitching side. A 36-year-old (on Valentine’s Day) pitcher with a 3.82 ERA in Japan last season doesn’t excite.

2007
Andy LaRoche, 3B: With Betemit perhaps begging for a platoon partner, the promising LaRoche has an outstanding shot at making his major league debut ASAP. I’m not impressed that people say LaRoche has fully recovered from his labrum surgery – we’ve been led astray before – but he can still be considered a strong candidate to make the team.

Jonathan Meloan, P: A fifth-round draft pick in 2005, Meloan is rocketing upward. In his 91-inning minor-league career, he is averaging 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings against exactly nine baserunners. Though he has only 10 2/3 innings of experience above A ball, fans in the know are salivating at the prospect of having two Big Bad Jons in the bullpen.

Scott Elbert, P: Sandwiched between Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw in the “Let’s get excited” line of starting pitchers, Elbert has struck out 346 in 310 2/3 minor-league innings. Sure to start the season in the minors, Elbert very possibly will finish it there to keep his service clock at zero. That’s not to say he couldn’t outpitch some guys that will make the team, but at the same time, with five walks per nine innings in the minors, it’s not as if he has nothing to work on. He turns 22 in August.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesRamon Troncoso

2008
Clayton Kershaw, LHP:
Never heard of him. Must be a scrub. But what the heck, if the Dodgers feel like he deserves a chance, who am I to stop them?

Ramon Troncoso, RHP: Troncoso, 24, went from Inland Empire to Jacksonvile in 2007 and pitched well in both places. In fact, the reliever blew the Cal League away, allowing only three earned runs in 30 innings, before settling in nicely with a 3.12 ERA for the Suns. The 2007s of Meloan and Hull show how hard it can be to get a callup, but keep an eye on Troncoso nevertheless.

Greg Miller, LHP: There could hardly be a better story this spring than Miller making the team. A Clayton Kershaw before there was a Clayton Kershaw, Miller reached AA at age 18 in 2003, striking out 40 and walking seven in 27 innings. But first his health and then his control betrayed him, and four years later, he was struggling. He walked 89 in 76 2/3 innings in 2007. But he also struck out 97, and the Dodgers still like him. If he can show any control in March, he immediately puts himself back on the fast track.

2009
Shawn Estes, LHP:
When I think of Estes, I think of a game show in which the category is “Pitchers I’ve been eager for the Dodgers to face in the 21st century.” Estes, who turns 36 this month, hasn’t had a better-than-average ERA since 2000, and while he hasn’t been awful, you have to wonder what the point is — especially considering he’s notched only 49 2/3 major-league innings and 23 strikeouts in the last two years. But hey, it wouldn’t be Spring Training without an aging pitcher determined to prove us wrong.

Ronald Belisario, RHP: According to the blog Bucs Dugout, Belisario is “the pitcher formerly known as ‘No, nobody knows why he’s on the Pirates’ 40-man.’ ” The 26-year-old averaged four walks and 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings in AA ball last year.

Juan Castro, IF: Always a defensive specialist, the 36-year-old Castro has completely stopped hitting. His on-base percentage over the last two seasons is .235, his slugging percentage .256. What’s to love? By reputation, at least, he is a much better fielder than DeWitt, Loretta or Blake, and the Dodgers could see value in that as he competes for a roster spot with a host of shallow-hitting glovers.

2010
Carlos Monasterios, P:
Last year, we were all caught off guard by Ronald Belisario making the big-league squad and excelling despite having virtually no resume to speak of. There’s nothing to Monasterios’ stat line that suggests he can be a big-leaguer in 2010 – he wasn’t even that great in winter ball – but I’m suspecting that the Dodgers didn’t acquire him (and Armando Zerpa) on Rule 5 day without a good reason. As with Stults, the Dodgers can’t send Monasterios to the minors. So I can see them stashing him in the back of the bullpen and testing him out before discarding him.

Kenley Jansen, P: Converted from catcher last year, the 22-year-old struck out a whopping 19 batters in 11 2/3 innings in A ball but also allowed 25 baserunners. So his target date is 2011 at the earliest.

US Presswire/Getty ImagessOrtiz x 2

Ramon Ortiz, P: He hasn’t been in the majors since 2007 and hasn’t had an ERA below 5.00 since his final season with the Angels in 2004. So despite a 3.05 ERA in the minors last year, I’m not buying what Ortiz, 37 in March, is selling.

Russ Ortiz, P: He hasn’t been in the majors since 2009 and hasn’t had an ERA below 5.00 since his final season with the Braves in 2004. So despite a 4.06 ERA in the minors last year, I’m not buying what Ortiz, 36 in June, is selling.