The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

 

Blue Movies

The 2006 Dodgers are certainly taking their fans on a rollercoaster ride. Having lost their first 13 out of 14 after the All-Star break, they won 11 straight to nearly even the score before losing last night. Key contributions from deadline acquisitions Greg Maddux (who tossed six no-hit innings in his Dodger debut) and Wilson Betemit (three homers and a .306/.359/.611 line in his first nine games since being traded) have made GM Ned Colletti look pretty smart lately, though that's balanced out by the lack of wisdom and foresight shown in the Mark Hendrickson trade from late June. All in all, Baseball Prospectus' Postseason Odds put them at a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs, up from the 43.1 percent cited in this week's Prospectus Hit List, now up at BP.

If you've got the Dodger blues and need a reminder of the good times for a team that's won just one postseason game in the past 17 years, A&E Home Video and Major League Baseball have teamed up to release a collection of vintage World Series highlight films for the L.A. club's five World Championships in a snappy two-disc set. Why the team's lone championship as the Brooklyn Dodgers (1955, of course) isn't represented here is a very good question, but for the $24.95 this costs at A&E's online store, it's still worth the money. Stay tuned and you could even win one of three sets that A&E has provided me.


World Series films are a curious genre unto themselves. Slicing and dicing highlight footage from each year into a package of around 40 minutes, they don't offer the heft or time-machine caliber immersion of catching a game on ESPN Classic, and they certainly don't bottle up every precious moment of a championship season the way an avid fan would like. But the films do offer a generous supply of nostalgia for those teams -- sweet memories of the 1981 and 1988 squads, the two of my lifetime -- as well as a window into the times when they were created. And for Dodger fans, the range of favorites covered in these victories from 1959 to 1988 -- from Gil Hodges and Duke Snider to Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to the Longest Running Infield, Pedro Guerrero and Fernando Valenzuela to Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson -- simply can't be beat.

Over the course of the 29 years spanned by this set, we also see the state of the art in covering sports advance rapidly. Take the 1959 footage of the Dodgers battling the White Sox; the Series had only been broadcast in color since 1954, and the footage from this matchup hasn't aged particularly well. It's not very sharp, the camera angles are relatively limited, there are no closeups of action, and instant replay hadn't even debuted; for key plays, the footage (some of which is in slow motion) is just freeze-framed when the ball hits (or misses) a fielder's glove. Longtime Dodger announcer Vin Scully does the narration, but he hadn't come into his own yet either. His voice, deeper and less mellifluous than it is now, his tone and pace like that of a generic newsreel narrator. In this early footage, Scully offers very little beyond the play-by-play, often even dispensing with batters' first names.

None of which is to say that it isn't still fun to watch. We see plenty of 23-year-olds Drysdale and Koufax working against the Sox, along with some late-career footage of Boys of Summer Hodges, Snider, Carl Furillo, Jim Gilliam and Johnny Podres. This was just the Dodgers' second season in L.A., the team was still an odd mix between old and new, and Dodger Stadium hadn't even been built. Instead the Dodgers played in the enormous, awkwardly configured L.A. Coliseum (251 feet down the leftfield line with a 40-foot high screen, and a huge half-circle of foul territory running from pole to backstop), where they set World Series attendance records with crowds of more than 92,000. Hodges, highly underrated second baseman Charlie Neal, and reliever Larry Sherry (who earned two wins and two saves out of the bullpen to garner MVP honors) led the way in the 4-2 Series win. For the Go-GoSox, we get to see the keystone duo of Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio, sleeveless Ted Kluzewski and beer-soaked Al Smith, who got doused in one of the more memorable World Series photos of all time. At the close of the series footage, a message exhorts the viewer to "See a ball game often. It's fun and excitement for the entire family!" Wohoo!

By 1963, the presentation in this set is upgraded considerably. Even with footage that's occasionally noisy, the color is much more vivid, with both legendary Yankee Stadium and still-new Dodger Stadium (which had opened the previous season) looking particularly lush. There's even instant replay, the new kid on the TV block, but the old freeze-frames are still used as well. Scully is again at the mic, and despite a rather poor audio quality (sounding a few generations removed from the source) his voice has grown more distinctive, his pace a bit more relaxed even if the script carries odd details like him noting the arrival of the colorguard and the pregame umpire huddle.

The Series opens with a for-the-ages matchup between Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford, with Scully building the tension as Koufax sets a Series record with 15 strikeouts. Packed with 69,000 fans, Yankee Stadium is a star unto itself, the distinctive white facade of the upper deck, the trio of monuments (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins) in play, 450 feet deep in centerfield along with the flagpole, with the plaque of GM Ed Barrow looming on the wall behind them. "The Subway Series has gone transcontinental!" remarks Scully as the action shifts to Dodger Stadium, with shots of L.A.'s freeways (oh, the irony!) celebrated as progress, along with the newfangled ballpark. It's all Dodgers in this series, as they swept the Yanks, holding Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra and company to the grand total of four runs. Dodger pitching carried the day, with Koufax hurling two complete games; in the second, we see fantastic slow-motion footage of his delivery. Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres each pitched well, and in fact the Dodgers used just one reliever, Ron Perranoski, for a grand total of 2/3 of an inning in the entire series. The Dodger championship ends on a weird note, the team storming out of the dugout before an ump's call on a force play at second base is reversed, keeping the Yankees in business for one last out. It hardly mattered.

By the 1965 film, the visuals have improved even more; the colors are even richer, the shots closer and with more variety. But this seven-game epic between the Dodgers and Twins is missing something, namely Games Two and Four, and with a running time of just 31 minutes (the shortest of the bunch by about seven minutes), that's downright inexcusable. It should be noted that's the original producer's fault, not A&E's -- they're not adding outtakes or even commentary tracks to these films, just batching them together and presenting them in a bare-bones format.

So after the Twins, led by four RBI from MVP shortstop Zoilo Versailles, beat Don Drysdale in Game One in Minnesota, the second game (also won by the Twins) is absent except for the game's defensive highlight, a diving catch made by Minnesota leftfielder Bob Allison. And after the Dodgers work their way back into the series via a Claude Osteen shutout in Game Three, the Dodgers' Game Four win (behind Drysdale and a three-RBI day from Ron Fairly) is summarized with a 15-second montage and a couple sentences from Scully. Grrrrr. Nonetheless, when what remains centers around prime Sandy Koufax, it's tough to complain. As with the absent Game Two, Koufax is paired up with Jim Kaat in both Games Five and Seven. He stifles the Twins on four hits in the former, though perhaps the most memorable footage is of Dodger Willie Davis tripping on the basepaths during a steal attempt and crawling to second base safely. Great comic relief. Still, even with plenty of Koufax in Game Seven -- before the game, chatting with reporters and posing for the obligatory photo op with Kaat, then running through the Twins lineup like a hot knife through butter -- this is the least satisfying of the batch.

The Yankees are back at the start of the set's second disc, matching up for the third time in five years in the 1981 World Series. This film starts with a brief montage of the two teams' highlights from that year's strike-created, three-tiered playoff system, so even before the opening credits have rolled, we're treated to Blue Monday, and Reggie Jackson admiring a towering home run. In fact, this film is full of montages which offer plenty of spectacular plays without context or narrative, a common sight now, but still jarring compared to the Al Gore-stiff linearity of the earlier World Series films here. There's also some of that funky NBC Sports theme music, great period stuff sure to take anyone back to the day. And yes, Vin Scully is still on board.

The 1981 Series featured many of the same characters from the two teams' 1977 and 1978 matchups: the Longest Running Infield (Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey) and Dusty Baker for the Dodgers; Reggie, the fearsome Goose, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, and Lou Piniella on the Yankees side, and Tommy John crossing the divide via free agency. Managers Tommy Lasorda and Bob Lemon, a study in contrasts if there ever was one, also return. But this time there's a difference. After the Dodgers lose the Series' opening two games in the Bronx (with a few sparkling plays by Nettles conjuring up an ominous sense of déjà vu with its echoes of 1978), they stay alive via a gritty performance from 20-year-old rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela. The young screwballer tops 140 pitches while allowing 16 baserunners, and while that might not have been in his best long-term interests, it makes for great theater, particularly when a miked Lasorda visits the mound to offer bilingual encouragement straight out of the Slap 'Em on the Ass School of Pitcher Management, as the Dodgers hang on to win. Amid the comeback, in which the Dodgers took the final four games, we also see Cey getting drilled in the helmet by a fierce Gossage fastball, one of the scariest beanings in World Series history. The only thing missing from this triumph is any mention of George Stienbrenner's dubious claim of a scuffle with two drunken fans in an L.A. hotel elevator, and his apology to New York fans after the Dodgers clinched on their turf.

In the set's finale, Scully is joined by NBC cohorts Bob Costas and Joe Garagiola as the team battles the Oakland A's in the 1988 World Series, the most unlikely of these Dodger championships. If the recent past has colored our view of the A's, led by Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, as juiced-up wonders, then it's only fair to admit that after watching this, one comes away with the sense that the Dodgers weren't skimping on the pharmaceuticals either. They look greenied to the gills from the moment Steve Sax, after getting drilled in the back by fearsome A's hurler Dave Stewart, sprints to first base in the home half of Game One's first inning. Indeed, what looked like a mismatch on paper between the heavily favored A's and the underdog Dodgers turns out to be one going in the opposite direction because of the super-energized play of Dodger scrubs such as Mickey Hatcher (who runs the bases with abandon, arms aloft, after homering) covering for the absence of injured Kirk Gibson.

But the Dodgers couldn't have won without Hershiser, who after tossing a record 59 scoreless innings to close the regular season, yielded just five runs in 42.2 postseason frames. Hershiser's memorable save out of the bullpen in the League Championship Series is featured here (along with my favorite Dodger home run of the season, Mike Scioscia's game-tying ninth-inning dinger off of Dwight Gooden) prior to footage of the series proper. Before we get to see him continue his dominance, we get one of the most memorable moments in World Series history, Gibson's game-winning pinch-homer off of Dennis Eckersley. Nearly every pitch of the at-bat is here, along with intercut talking-head clips of Lasorda and Gibson, and of course Scully's classic call. It simply doesn't get any better.

Hershiser's talking-head clip, discussing his Game Two pitching, hitting, and aggressive baserunning as the highlights intercut, is a real hoot; he looks like a grown-up Opie, but on the mound he's all business as he clamps down on the A's. Even with Oakland taking Game Three on a McGwire walkoff and the final two games decided by a total of four runs, this Series wasn't even close. Willed on by the ebullient Lasorda, guys like Hatcher, Mike Davis, John Shelby and Franklin Stubbs (nearly justifying six years of disappointment as a Dodger with a 5-for-17 performance) ran roughshod over Tony LaRussa's smug superstars in five games, even as Scully and Costas marvelled at the Dodger lineup's obvious weakness.

Amid the rout are two nice featurettes which round out this film to about an hour, by far the longest in the set. The first flashes back to the two teams' prior World Series meeting in 1974; we see a green-and-gold Reggie and Rollie Fingers along with a youthful (and equally ebullient) Lasorda, then the Dodger third-base coach, and one hell of a throw by Dodger rightfielder Joe Ferguson to kill a run at the plate. The second is a memorable three-minute tribute to director Harry Coyle, a 36-year-veteran of the World Series at the controls for his final Fall Classic. The segment flashes back to such Coyle-directed moments as Billy Martin's famous grab of Jackie Robinson's bases-loaded pop-up in Game Seven of the 1952 World Series, Carlton Fisk's home run, Bill Buckner's error and Gibson's homer.

Such touches make this by far the most accomplished of the World Series films here, and help the set wrap on the highest of notes. There's really no better way to soak up so many great Dodger moments across the eras than these two discs.

• • •

Now, as for the the chance to win one of these sets, please email answers to the following. The first correct answer to each question wins a set.

1. Several Dodgers won multiple World Series rings as a member of the club, but only one player appeared in four of the team's winning World Series. Who is he?

2. Everybody remembers Bob Lemon's decision to pinch-hit for former Dodger Tommy John in Game Six of the '81 Series, but what other dubious decision did he make in that series regarding John?

3. Which former World Series MVP comes off the bench to play a key role in one of these World Championships?

I'll be back with a review and similar promotion of a five-disc Yankee World Series set, hopefully next week.

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