Nov 08

A long wait rewarded: The 1981 Dodgers


Jon Weisman/ESPNLosAngeles.comRon Cey signs an autograph near a replica of the 1981 World Series trophy Saturday.

The 1980s might be considered the last glory days for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But for Dodger fans at the start of that decade, those were desperate times.

It had been 15 seasons since the Dodgers had won World Series title, their longest drought since Next Year first came in 1955. They had suffered through three near-misses, each arguably more agonizing than the last, in their 1974, 1977 and 1978 Fall Classic falls.

The 1980 Dodgers had arguably the most dramatic season yet of that era, winning three games on the final three days of the regular season before falling in a 163rd game against Houston still painful for those who remember it.

Even their hot start in ’81, when the Dodgers won 29 of their first 40 games, was clouded by — yes, this resonates today — off-field issues. A labor crisis was brewing, the sport’s biggest yet. Would the Dodgers, potentially the best team in baseball, even be able to finish their season?

Some Dodger fans today – especially the younger ones – don’t think of the 1981 World Series title much, or at least they take it for granted. The 1988 title is the one on everyone’s frontal lobe: Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser and friends giving the franchise its last taste of October glory. It’s the team that the desperate fans of today call back to.

The 1981 team, though, is the team that for which the desperate fans of the last generation give thanks.

Saturday in City of Industry, more than 20 members of the 1981 World Series team, along with manager Tommy Lasorda gathered, for a memorabilia signing event that certainly was a money-making function at its core, but also a time for appreciation. Hundreds of fans had lined up, some just as dawn was breaking, for the chance to spend a few minutes here, a few minutes there with a team that will never be forgotten but too often gets overshadowed.

Jon Weisman/ESPNLosAngeles.comDusty Baker smiles for the cameras at the ’81 team reunion.

As much fun as it was to have a personal encounter with the heroes of ’81, I would say I found the most pleasure in seeing them reunite with each other. During my longest interview, a warm, 15-minute chat with Dusty Baker, the highlight was nothing between me and him as much as when Bill Russell arrived and Baker got up to hug him, the pair having not seen each other in years. Baker was still smiling when he sat back down.

“You look at some of the guys that are in the Hall of Fame that never got to the World Series,” said catcher Steve Yeager, co-1981 World Series MVP with Ron Cey and Pedro Guerrero. “Ernie Banks comes to mind – that was such a great player who never had the experience of getting to the World Series let alone win one, so it means a lot to each and every one of us.”

Baker said in his interview that he didn’t feel extra pressure to win a World Series in 1981, but others indicated otherwise.

“That was always in the back of our minds,” said outfielder Ken Landreaux, “that it’s been a while since we won a World Series.”

Added then-outfielder and now-broadcaster Rick Monday: “We had a chance to get rid of the great bitter taste that lingered for a number of years. When we went to Spring Training in 1981, you could look around the locker room and see this was a club that was probably not going to be together as a whole next year or the following year, because we had a lot of younger players that were coming up.

“One of the things a lot of people forget about, and I tried to find a copy of it. … (In) the winter of ’81, Tommy Lasorda sent us all a letter, all the players. And basically in that letter, he challenged us and encouraged us, and he said, ‘Look, you’ve gotta be ready to go.’ ”

That resonated even more for the older players. A new generation of Dodgers was transitioning in – Guerrero, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Sax, Mike Scioscia, Greg Brock, Mike Marshall – some having arrived, others on the cusp. The window for the 1970s crew was shutting.

“I know we were desperate because a lot of us, (we) were not necessarily at the end of our careers, but we were approaching that area, and there was an influx of younger talent,” Monday said. “There was an immediacy of wanting to get things done and get things done in a hurry.

“We got off to a terrific start obviously, and then the strike came into being, and that changed everyone’s viewpoint of what was happening.”

Though the aftermath of the strike, which shut down baseball between June 12 and August 9, turned out to have the effect of guaranteeing the Dodgers a playoff berth, thanks to the one-time institution of the split-season format, it also created a disheartening possibility that the magic would be lost.

It’s obviously quite different from the ownership crisis that has dogged the Dodgers the past two seasons, but the effect was similar in one respect – unpleasant off-field issues taking a bite out of the Dodgers’ World Series hopes.

“(The strike) was always on your mind,” Baker said. “You never thought it was gonna happen, and then once it happened we were all in shock. I remember we were all in St. Louis – we had to get our own way home.

“After that I kept working out, the team kept working out, then guys started dropping out (because) it didn’t look like were going to go back to work. But I couldn’t imagine baseball not finishing the season, similar to basketball right now … because there’s a lot being lost by both sides.”

After baseball resumed, the Dodgers meandered through their second half, going 27-26. Though the games didn’t count for them, they raised doubts about whether they were postseason-ready.

And then, of course, each postseason series involved the slaying of those doubts. Down 2-0 in the first National League Division Series against the Astros, with one run in their first 20 innings, the Dodgers came back and won. Down 2-0 in the NL Championship Series against Montreal, the same thing, capped by Monday’s ninth-inning Game 5 blast.

When they lost the first two games against the Yankees, Dodger fans should have been used to it by now. But speaking for myself, then not quite 14 years old, you could run from despair but you couldn’t hide.

Monday, however, said the Dodgers themselves weren’t phased.

“It was a club that was just goofy enough or shortsighted enough,” he said, “we didn’t think, ‘Oh geez, now we don’t have a chance.’ We were just crazy enough because we had to do the same thing in Montreal and Houston.”

Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesKen Landreaux celebrates after catching the last ball of the 1981 World Series.

Four games later, the final out of the 1981 World Series landed in the center-field glove of Landreaux.

“I still have it,” he said. “I almost threw it in the stands when I was running in to jump in the dogpile, but I held onto it.”

Were it not for the extraordinary moments in 1988, that would have been the last World Series-clinching out in Dodger history.

Those who gathered Saturday are eager to see those 1980s teams become more forgotten, in a manner of speaking – to see them replaced by a new set of champions. With new ownership poised to arrive in Los Angeles, there’s new hope.

“I think we did as a group a really doing good job of carrying the flag and living up to the tradition and history of the Dodgers, and I look forward to the day our organization can return to that spotlight,” Cey said. “It’s a treasured franchise in Major League Baseball, and we need to get back on top.”

Cey said the new owners need to be prepared to do “whatever it takes” to restore the Dodgers. Baker added that it was that kind of mentality at the top of the organization that reduced the pressure he felt going into 1981.

“Every year that we left for Spring Training, we knew that we’d be close to the top some place,” Baker said. “That’s a great feeling of a good organization and a team. When the season starts, you may not win or win it all, but you know you’re in the hunt and have a chance to do it. That’s all you can ask for.”

Thirty years later, you might even have a little kid who never saw you play live, line up to pay homage.

“I really wanted to come here,” said 11-year-old Erik Mawk of Atascadero, “because there was so much history being champions and how they defeated the Yankees while being the underdog.

“It was a great, inspiring story.”

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.