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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

 

Spirit of '77, Part III: The Dandy Dons

Dear Alex,

Oy, it feels like ages since you responded to my first volley, which gets at one of the drawbacks of a set as massive as this -- particularly during baseball season, finding the time for a three-hour dig through the archives takes some doing.



Anyway, you did a great job of bringing the Yankees into the Series with your last post, so as we turn to the Game One disc, it's time for me to bring the Dodgers into this. As I said before, they got out to a 17-3 start under new skipper Tommy Lasorda, who had taken over from Walter Alston after the latter's 23 years at the helm. Lasorda was an organization man who'd reaped the benefit of managing in the Dodger chain during one of the great player development bounties in baseball history. He won five pennants in seven years in the minors, managing the longest-running infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey at various stops, along with other notable future major leaguers. His 1970 Spokane team -- Garvey, Lopes, and Russell, as well as league MVP Bobby Valentine, pitchers Charlie Hough and Doyle Alexander, catcher Bob Stinson, first baseman Tom Hutton and outfielders Bill Buckner, Tom Paciorek and Von Joshua -- is considered one of the greatest in minor league history. Nine players on his '77 club had played for him on their way up.

Lasorda had become Alston's third-base coach in 1973, and he quickly proved a Technicolor contrast to the taciturn black-and-white skipper who'd been managing the Dodgers since 1954. He was a holler guy, basically, and a celebrity in the making, pals with Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles. On July 31, 1974 NBC famously miked Lasorda for a Game of the Week broadcast in which he predicted a home run from Cey; when it happened, he became the game's highest-profile third base coach.

Even after he took the helm, Lasorda was viewed as more of a cheerleader than a tactician. That's not an unfair description; his specialty was motivating his players, and he did so by trying to impart as much confidence in them as humanly possible. Famously, he got through to Reggie Smith, the rightfielder acquired from the Cardinals midway through the 1976 season. Smith's reputation as talented but moody can be traced to the racism he experienced early in his career as a member of the Red Sox (in Shut Out, Howard Bryant would write, "Outside of [Celtics center] Bill Russell, no black player would endure a more pronounced conflict with Boston than Reggie Smith."). He'd gotten along better in St. Louis, but when Lasorda told him he needed him, those were words that none of his previous managers had bothered to impart. Smith was effusive with praise for Lasorda: "He gave us a greater sense of being part of something, and we had to believe in ourselves because he never doubted us. He preached to us from day one that we were going to win it. In all my 15 years, I had never heard a manager say it so emphatically." Smith responded with a .307-32-87 season in 1977, becoming part of the first quartet of 30-homer teammates in baseball history (Cey, Garvey, and Dusty Baker were the others) as well as pacing the Senior Circuit in On Base Percentage (.427).

The '77 Dodgers went virtually wire to wire, spending just three days out of first place, all in the first week. They beat the two-time defending World Champion Reds by 10 games, clinching the division on September 20, and winding up the regular season at 98-64. Health was a huge factor; the Dodger starters missed just two turns all year; one through five, they made at least 31 starts apiece, with everybody topping 212 innings. That kind of staff durability is just unreal. Tommy John (20-7, 2.78 ERA) and Don Sutton (14-8, 3.18) led the way.

Perhaps flat because they'd clinched so early, the Dodgers dropped the first game of the League Championship Series to the Phillies, who were in the midst of a three-year run as NL East champs and had won 101 games in 1977 under Danny Ozark, the man whom Lasorda had replaced as third base coach (Ozark was part of the Dodger organization from 1947-1972). Russell made a pair of errors that led to four early unearned runs, chasing John in the fifth inning. Though Cey smacked a grand slam to tie the game in the seventh, the Phils scored two in the eighth off Elias Sosa. The Dodgers came back to tie the series the next night when Don Sutton tossed a complete-game nine-hitter.

That set up Game Three, which I wish had been included in this set, as it's a crazy classic. The Dodgers scored a pair in the top of the second off Phillies starter Larry Christenson, but their inning ended when catcher Steve Yeager was thrown out at third base on a double by Dodger starter Burt Hooton. The Phils came back with three runs in the bottom of the inning; Hooton walked Christenson, Bake McBride, and Larry Bowa consecutively with the bases loaded, forcing in a run each time. Lasorda gave Hooton the hook, and it paid off. Rick Rhoden came out of the bullpen to get the dangerous Mike Schmidt to foul out to catcher to end the threat. Rhoden then went four more scoreless frames as the Dodgers chased Christenson in the fourth and tied the game

The score remained knotted at three until the bottom of the eighth, when the Phils netted two on a Richie Hebner double, a Garry Maddox single, and an error by Cey on a Bob Boone grounder. That set up a legendarily wild ninth where the Dodgers were down to their final out against ace reliever Gene Garber. Pinch-hitter Vic Davalillo, a 40-year-old who'd been plucked out of the Mexican League in mid-August, beat out a drag bunt -- with two outs! Pinch-hitter Manny Mota, no spring chicken himself at 39, launched a fly ball in the vicinity of leftfielder Greg Luzinski ("the worst outfielder I have ever seen, bar none," wrote Bill James a few years ago. My dad bought me a Luzinski glove when I was a kid, which explains a bit about my playing career). Luzinski could only trap the ball after Mota's drive hit the wall; his relay sailed past second baseman Ted Sizemore, allowing Davalillo to score. Lopes then hit a ball that apparently hit a seam in the turf and ricocheted off Schmidt's knee. Bowa recovered the carom and threw to first "in a dead heat with the flying Lopes," as the New York Times' Joe Durso wrote, while Mota broke for home with the tying run. Ump Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe; "the Phillies were shocked, outraged, and tied," wrote Durso. Garber tried to pick off Lopes, but threw wildly, allowing the speedster to take second, and then Russell brought him home with a single. Mike Garman worked through Bowa, Schmidt, Luzinksi (whom he hit) and Hebner to close out the game and give the Dodgers a series lead.

The Phillies came back with ace Steve Carlton -- who'd gone 23-10 on his way to the second of four Cy Young awards -- versus John in the fourth game. Dusty Baker clubbed a two-run homer in the second, and sparked a two-run rally in the fifth with a leadoff walk. Carlton took an early exit when he walked Cey to open the sixth, while John went the distance to give the Dodgers the pennant. Baker, who'd gone 5-for-14 with a double, two homers and eight RBI, won the LCS MVP award.

So that takes the Dodgers into the World Series, where we pick up the visuals. This was the ninth time they would meet the Yankees in the Fall Classic, but the first since their four-game sweep in 1963. What stands out in retrospect is the contrast between the two teams. The Dodgers were largely homegrown and at least during the initial stages of Lasorda's reign, had reputation for harmony, or more accurately, an outward facade of harmony. The Yankees were the first team to succeed via free agency, adding Catfish Hunter prior to the 1976 season and Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett prior to 1977, and of course they were anything but harmonious.

Gullett got the Game One call for the Yankees. Even at 26, he was already a seasoned vet of the postseason, having pitched for the Reds in four World Series, including the previous year's defeat of the Yanks. But the signs of Gullett's demise were already apparent. The broadcast crew -- Keith Jackson on the play-by-play, Howard Cosell on the color commentary, and Tom Seaver as the jocko analyst -- commented on his problems with shoulder soreness; Gullett had lasted just two innings during his LCS start. Here he worked his way into trouble early, walking Lopes to lead of the game and then surrendering a triple to the number two hitter, Russell, who tagged a ball into deep left-center, about 410 feet. That would be a home run today, but the dimensions of Yankee Stadium post-renovation were 312 down the leftfield line, 430 to left-center, 417 to center, 385 to right-center, and 310 down the rightfield line. Billy Martin popped out of the dugout and Dick Tidrow began warming up.

As to the broadcasters, you called them the worst ever in one of your comments. That's overstating the case a bit; Jackson, who was the game's preeminent college football voice, and Cosell, better known for his work on Monday Night Football, were simply out of their element covering baseball. The former had no idea what to do with numbers; when the switch-hitting Smith was batting, he'd cite the guy's homer and RBI splits with no sense of proportion as to his batting average or number of at-bats. The latter's bombast was a poor match for the sport ("Dusty Baker is one of the most dramatic figures in all of baseball"?) and the received wisdom he spigoted was painfully apparent. I have a ton of affection for both men's work calling football games -- my brother and I started doing Cosell imitations around the time we became conscious of TV sports -- but they're completely miscast here. As for Seaver, even 30 years later I can't stand the sound of his voice, which manages to be both nasal and piercing enough to cut tin.

Anyway, the Dodgers picked up Russell's run on a sacrifice fly by Cey. Cosell let out a groaner when he introduced the Dodger third baseman: "They call him the penguin, he walks like a duck." What the? But Gullett managed to escape the inning despite issuing three walks and the triple, aided by Smith getting caught in a rundown on an attempted steal.

Getting the start for the Dodgers was Don Sutton, the team's link back to the days of Koufax and Drysdale. He was their big game starter; up to that point Sutton had compiled a 4-0 record and a 1.39 ERA in five postseason starts. Permit me to gush for a minute here, as the guy was a personal favorite of mine. Goofy frizzy hair and all, he was simply one of the most unheralded of his day. He stuck around to win 324 games and strike out 3,574 hitters, a figure that ranked fourth at the time he retired and is still seventh two decades later. But since he never a Cy Young award and had only one 20-win season -- a byproduct of the Dodgers shifting to the five-man rotation well ahead of the curve -- in an era where the likes of Seaver, Carlton, Perry and Fergie Jenkins dominated in the NL, he gets short shrift.

Sutton was eminently adaptable, with a five-pitch arsenal that included one of the game's great curveballs, a knuckle-curve that draws a lot of comparisons to Mike Mussina. He was also reputed to dabble in the black art of scuffing a baseball, and he relished the allegations. There's a story that when he met Perry, the spitballer offered him a tube of Vaseline, and Sutton handed him a sheet of sandpaper. "I'd wear a toolbelt out there if they'd let me," he told Tom Boswell.

He was still a workhorse at this point in his career, but as he aged he understood the changing dynamic that made him a six-inning pitcher. He cashed in via free agency, signing with the Astros after the 1980 season -- friction with Lasorda and Garvey played a part, but the Dodgers were idiots for letting him go -- and later famously exclaimed, "I'm the most loyal player money can buy." He's reputed to have never missed a turn or spend time on the DL durig his 23 year career, but both of those are myths; he missed the 1981 postseason after sustaining a broken kneecap when a Jerry Reuss pitch got away from him (he wound up having surgery to insert two screws), and he went on the DL with a sprained elbow in 1988, the 23rd and final year of his career.

Sutton gave up a run in the first -- three straight two-out singles, with Chris Chambliss delivering Thurman Munson home -- but that aside, he pretty much cruised through to the sixth. But just moments after Garvey was thrown out at home on a single by centerfielder Glenn Burke, Willie Randolph jacked a solo homer to shallow leftfield to lead off the bottom of the frame.

It's weird and more than a little sad to see Burke, a guy whom I know plenty about but have no memory of as a player. A light-hitting speedster who really never got it together in the majors, he's remembered for two reasons. First and foremost he was gay, a fact that was acknowledged only after his career was over. I actually remember reading the Inside Sports article that outed him; I rarely got ahold of that magazine but for some reason I scored that particular copy when we were flying somewhere. Apparently the Dodger brass had its suspicions about Burke because he was close with Lasorda's flamboyantly gay son (sadly, both of them would die of AIDS in the '90s). By the middle of the 1978 season, Burke would be traded to the A's, and he'd be out of baseball before 1981 due to a knee injury and drug problems. The really shitty thing about his outing, I've learned in researching this, was that it was his long-term boyfriend, Michael J. Smith, who wrote the Inside Sports piece without disclosure that they were partners.

Second, and on a much lighter note, Burke reputedly invented the high-five when he greeted Baker at home plate after the latter's 30th homer. Moments later, Baker returned the favor when Burke followed with his first major-league homer. That's pretty cool, and it was something of a relief to find Retrosheet corroborating the order of events if not the genesis of the predominant sports gesture of the past 30 years.

Anyway, Lasorda kept Sutton in after yielding the tying run, even let him bat for himself in the top of the seventh, and he drew a walk. He dodged trouble in the bottom of the frame when Lou Piniella lashed a single to right-center and was gunned down by Smith trying to take second. Bucky Dent followed with a chopper to Cey, whose throw to Garvey pulled him off the bag, safe for a single. The play prompted an aside from Cosell about the rivalry between the two Dodger infielders, and Cey's outspokenness regarding Garvey's image-consciousness. Fissures in the facade of harmony.

Of course, it would be Sutton and Garvey between whom the fur really flew the next summer, but I'll let you hit that note, Alex. And since I've more than gone past my pitch count here, this seems as good a point as any to hand the ball over to you.

Get 'em...

j

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