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Jim Murray

They Have Muscle but Lack Sinew

March 29, 1985|JIM MURRAY

VERO BEACH — They tell stories down in the Caribbean about Pete Guerrero, the mighty third baseman of the Dodgers.

They tell how he was walking down a road one night and came upon a poor devil, trapped underneath an overturned truck and trailer, who begged Guerrero to go for help. Pete said: "Sure, just as soon as I lift that truck off you."

They tell of the time he was trying to prove to the umpire that he had been struck in the biceps by a pitched ball and the biceps was all right but the ball was bleeding. What was left of it.

They tell about the time he crashed into a catcher at home plate and it took a blowtorch and two crowbars to cut the guy loose. To this day, they say, the catcher has Dodgers stenciled backward on his chest.

They tell about how his body is so hard you could scratch a match or cut glass with any part of it. He wasn't born, he was quarried. He's so strong that whenever he can't find a parking space for his Volkswagen, he just carries it around with him.

When he goes downtown, they say, he should wear rubber tires around him, like a tugboat, so that he doesn't smash things he bumps into.

He could bend a crowbar, they tell you, provided that he didn't break it first. He's probably the only guy in the lineup who doesn't need that bat. He could hit a homer without it.

And so on. The stories are all apocryphal, of course. Guerrero doesn't even drive a Volkswagen.

Some year ago, when he first showed up in their uniform, Pedro Guerrero looked to the Dodgers like the second coming of Babe Ruth. Coming off a year in which he was co-MVP of the World Series, he hit 32 home runs two years in a row, batted over .300 and knocked in more than 100 runs.

The Dodgers began to wonder whether they needed that expensive supporting cast. Pete was a pennant all by himself.

So, they began unloading high-priced supporting players, such expendables as Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Dusty Baker, and replacing them with the meat of the lineups from San Antonio and Albuquerque. I mean, would Caruso need another tenor?

Suddenly, all Pete had to do was make up for the loss of 660 lifetime home runs and about 45 years of experience. He began to see pitches you wouldn't throw to Hitler.

You see, even though baseball is not precisely a team game--it's more a series of solo performances by the artists--it does have its occasional teamwork fallout.

For instance, the more dangerous the lineup generally, the better it is for the individuals in it.

Therefore, when Guerrero was batting behind--or in the middle of--a corps of batters that included Cey, Garvey and Baker, he got to see the kinds of pitches you could bring home to mother. Nice, honest, earnest out pitches. The kind you can hit. Far.

When he began to be surrounded by triple-A types who could not be presumed to scare a major league pitcher, he began to look at the kinds of pitches that should be arrested for loitering--sick sliders, scurvy fastballs, dirt curves, all well outside the strike zone. They were pitches that had popup written all over them. The best pitch Pedro got to hit usually was Ball 4.

There is an axiom in baseball that says: "Don't ever let the big guy beat you a ball game."

Loosely translated, it means: "Don't ever give a good pitch to a Henry Aaron or a Willie Mays or, indeed, any cleanup hitter with the game on the line."

Baseball's book calls for a pitcher to throw anything but strikes in that situation. To walk him, if necessary.

But, that is possible only when Mr. Big is surrounded by banjos, Punch-and-Judies, out men and other derogatory baseball terms for unskilled professionals. You don't take a chance on walking the batter when the next batter is Babe Ruth. Or Steve Garvey.

But when you've got two unproven hitters from Albuquerque, or a chorus of banjos following along, you can throw some pitches that are right out of a Peoria alley. Very few strikes. Lots of gutter balls.

This is known as pitching around a dangerous player. Also known as taking the bat out of his hands, it is a well-worn tactic in the deployment of a skilled team. It is a major frustration to a man expected to carry (i.e., lead to the pennant) a ball club.

Guerrero does not reason that the Dodgers pay him a million dollars a year to draw walks, semi-intentional or otherwise. Walks are for light-hitting leadoff men. Walks are not for guys who can lift trucks or walk through walls. Walks are for guys who bunt for hits, not swing for homers.

"I know what's coming up there," says Guerrero. "I have had pitchers tell me they're not going to let me beat them. They're going to make the rest of the lineup do it."

It's hard to maintain a pace of 32 homers a year on pitches that may bounce on their way to the plate, or scrape your belt buckle on the way past it. Ball 4 is not your basic gopher pitch.

Guerrero's home-run production dropped in half.

Stars in a lot of professions resent sharing the spotlight. They want all the closeups to themselves. Or they work alone.

Guerrero is not fussy. He'd be glad to share the home-run record with two or three co-stars if he could also share the fastballs. He's tired of doing a solo. Even Jesse James needed a gang, Caruso an orchestra.

In a baseball order, sometimes it takes three to tango.

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