A Bolt Out Of The Dodger Blue

Los Angeles, struggling a month ago, zoomed to the NL West lead thanks to Pedro Guerrero's bat and an aggressive brand of play
August 04, 1985

The sun was setting last Friday on the San Gabriel mountains behind the centerfield fence of Dodger Stadium, and the shadows were creeping over the pitcher's mound as the Dodgers and Cubs moved into the bottom of the third of a scoreless game. Up to the plate in this twilight zone stepped Pedro Guerrero, the man who, more than any other, had brought L.A. out of the darkness.

In April and May the Dodgers were the laughingstock of baseball, committing errors in such bunches that they threatened to set records for ineptitude. In June the pace of the boots slowed and the Dodgers steadied themselves, but still, when they woke up on July 5, they trailed the defending National League champion San Diego Padres by five games in the West.

However, when they went to bed Sunday night, the Dodgers were 4½ games ahead of San Diego. The swing of 9½ games could not have been accomplished without the help of the Padres (see box, page 16), who lost six in a row before winning Saturday, but the Dodgers helped themselves in a big way, too. They won five straight games last week, and they've gone 16-5 since July 4.

And the man leading them has been Guerrero. On Tuesday he doubled in his last two at bats as the Dodgers beat the Pirates 6-0. On Wednesday, L.A. defeated Pittsburgh 9-1, and Guerrero walked, singled and walked twice more. On Thursday he walked, homered, singled and was hit by a pitch in the Dodgers' 7-3 win over the Cubs. Going into Friday's game, Guerrero had reached base 10 straight times.

In the first inning Guerrero hit a fly deep to right off Dick Ruthven that might have been a homer had not a fan deflected the ball, turning it into a ground-rule double. Now, as he came up with a man on in the third, the Dodger Stadium scoreboard told the 41,231 fans in attendance that Guerrero had reached base 11 straight times to tie the team record held by Ron Cey. Ahead lay Ted Williams's alltime mark of 16. Many of the fans were on their feet, clapping as Guerrero faced Ruthven, now engulfed by shade.

"All I want is a hit," Guerrero thought as he took his bold, upright stance at the front of the batter's box. At 3 and 2 Ruthven threw him a curve, and Guerrero went with it. A righthanded hitter coolly riding an outside pitch to rightfield is one of the more pleasing sights in baseball. Guerrero's parabola of a fly drifted and seemed to pick up distance as it finally settled into the rightfield seats. As the fans stood cheering, Guerrero loped around the bases, past Cey, now the Cubs' third baseman, and pointed an index finger at his wife, Denise, to share the moment with her. He made a curtain call from the dugout.

The Cubs pitched around Guerrero and walked him his next two times up, lengthening his on-base string to 14. Manager Tommy Lasorda took Guerrero out of the lineup with the Dodgers ahead 10-0 in the eighth, thus prolonging his Williams chase to Saturday afternoon.

The suspense was brief. In the first inning Guerrero fell behind Scott Sanderson 0 and 2, fouled off several pitches, worked the count to 3 and 2 and then lined a sacrifice fly to deep center. End of streak. Later in the game Guerrero singled and scored the winning run in the Dodgers' 5-4 victory.

The Dodgers' season turned from dismal to spectacular in June, when Guerrero hit 15 homers for the month, to equal a record held by Babe Ruth, Roger Maris and Robert (Indian Bob) Johnson. A back injury kept Guerrero out of seven games just before and after the All-Star Game, but the last two weeks he has hit .650 and scored 13 runs. For the year he is hitting .327 with 23 homers, 53 runs batted in and 69 runs scored, and he leads the league in both on-base percentage (.427) and slugging (.612).

"The guy is scary," says Chicago left-fielder Gary Matthews. "He lays off borderline pitches, and he hits everything else hard."

"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.

Some moves Lasorda didn't make have also paid off for the Dodgers. He stuck with Steve Sax when people suggested he ought to find a second baseman who could throw the ball to first base and not to the box seats—and he never gave up on the much-maligned Brock despite his .222 average the two previous seasons. Sax no longer handles the ball like a live grenade, and Brock is outhitting his celebrated predecessor at first base, Garvey, by 13 points and three homers.

"When the guys were down this spring, Tommy would take them to dinner and tell them to keep their heads up," says bullpen coach Mark Cresse. "He knows that when a guy's down, that's the time to go to him. The key to success is knowing how to build players up."

Through it all, the Wizard has sat in his office babbling in English, Spanish and Italian and greeting his customary gaggle of stars and scribes. "Johnny Mathis!" he boomed as the singer dropped in one day last week. "How many people know what a great high school high jumper you were?" In walked... "Lindsay Wagner!!!" The phone rang. "Reggie!" he yelled into the receiver, not the least surprised that former Dodger Reggie Smith was calling him for the first time in a couple of years. "Come on over—we'd love to see you!"

Ricky Honeycutt, pitcher Rick Honeycutt's 3-year-old son, bounded into Lasorda's arms. "Hello, Ricky, who do you love?" Lasorda said.

"Uncle Tom."

"Positive brainwashing," the senior Honeycutt said later. "Tommy asks Ricky the same question every time and gets the same answer. And he's the same way with adults: He's a motivator."

For his part, Lasorda can look for motivation to a poster of Guerrero in a far corner of his office. Advertising baseball shoes, Pedro is posing with a smoldering expression on his face and a smoking bat. The caption reads BLUE THUNDER.

Smoking bat? Blue thunder? There must be a wizard at work.

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/LOS ANGELES DODGERSNothing can stop the Dodgers. Cardinal Jack Clark barreled into Mike Scioscia, and while Clark was out, so was Scioscia—like a light. He had to be carried off, but he was back the next night.
PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAnd Lasorda's pitching isn't thin, either. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONWith 16 homers, Brock is making L.A. fans forget predecessor Steve Whatshisname. TWO PHOTOSRICHARD MACKSONGuerrero was met by the reception committee after his two-run homer on Friday. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe rookie Duncan has been a hit at short, but here at the plate he was just plain hit. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERRyne Sandberg (above) was safe because Scioscia obstructed him; coach Joe Amalfitano watches Cey tag out Sax. PHOTORICHARD MACKSON[See caption above.]