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BASEBALL '85 : DODGERS : It Might Be Another Long Season in Chavez Ravine If the Previews Are Correct--Some Say Team Can Finish No Better Than Fourth

April 08, 1985|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

It's still a guaranteed smash at the box office, but so was "Porky's Revenge." If the critics coast-to-coast are to be believed, the 1985 Dodger revue is an artistic disaster, and the show has not even begun.

For the first time in Tom Lasorda's nine years as manager, the Dodgers are given virtually no chance of winning the National League's Western Division. Judging by the reviews, Lasorda should be preparing his concession speech instead of his Opening Day lineup. A sampling of opinion:

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, picking the Dodgers to finish fourth: "A truly mediocre team last year . . . myopic arrogance dooms them to another down season."

Sport magazine, also predicting fourth: "There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Dodgers' player development system was the standard against which all other teams were measured. . . . We won't be fooled again. The last few years have shown us that much of that image--finely constructed and expertly tooled--is mere Hollywood puff."

The Sporting News columnist Bill Conlin, who picks them fifth: "Lots of luck to a defense that includes Steve Sax, Dave Anderson, Al Oliver and Pedro Guerrero."

And so it goes. The Dodgers are bearing the fruits of their first second-division finish in 15 years and their first sub-.500 season in five. And while Dodger Vice President Al Campanis may sound like a Greek oracle with such pronouncements as "Woe to them who misplace the Dodgers," to others he sounds like a fortune-teller who pulled a joker out of his deck of Tarot cards.

Baby Blue, the Dodger kiddie crusade that won a division title in 1983, is showing signs of arrested development.

"Whether we have oversold our talent, or overstated what our talent is all about, I don't know the answer," said Dodger Vice President Fred Claire. "I hope we haven't. It would be foolish to oversell our talent.

" . . . The players we have today have arrived with much greater pressure than when Garvey, Cey and the others came on the scene in the early '70s. We hadn't won since '66, and '67 and '68 were really bad years. It wasn't until '74 that we won again."

If the prognosis sounds uncommonly bleak, consider that for the bottom-liners, the fact remains that Al Oliver and Jay Johnstone constitute the Dodgers' only response to finishing last in the majors in hitting last season and last in the league in runs scored.

The defense will be intermittent and the Dodgers' pitching staff, which figured to be the league's best, is threatening to take up permanent residency in the trainers' room. Alejandro Pena already has been lost, probably for the season, Rick Honeycutt is a constant worry, and Steve Howe is the X factor.

Then there's Tom Niedenfuer, who had shoulder trouble last spring, elbow trouble in May and passed out from a kidney-stone attack in June. Couldn't possibly have another season like that, right? Well, this spring, Niedenfuer nearly choked on a piece of pasta in the Dodger clubhouse. It's hoped that was only an oversized tortellini, not an omen.

Oliver had a splendid spring at the plate, but that's no surprise from a man who has hit over .300 in each of the last nine seasons. Still, he represents a calculated risk: The Dodgers are betting that he wins them more games with his bat than he loses for them afield, where his arm has forced the Dodgers to adopt a defensive alignment similar to what you see in softball, with shortstop Dave Anderson in the outfield so much he looks like a 10th fielder.

That's one reason Oliver has had more teams (4) than home runs (0) since July, 1983.

Oliver, who will bat in the No. 3 spot in the Dodger order, has driven in more than 80 runs 10 times in his career, but whether he does so in Los Angeles will be dependent on the first two men in the Dodger order, Steve Sax and Ken Landreaux.

Sax's batting average not only dropped nearly 40 points last season, his on-base percentage of .300 was the worst of any leadoff man in the league. Landreaux (.251) had an even worse on-base percentage, .295, and his 10 stolen bases was his lowest total in four seasons. And if Landreaux isn't helping the Dodgers at the plate, he's not helping them at all; the Baseball Abstract rates Landreaux last among NL center fielders defensively.

The party line is that both players had off-seasons in 1984. Indeed, Sax showed signs this spring of being the offensive catalyst he needs to be; Landreaux, less so.

Lasorda had a proposition for Landreaux one day in Vero Beach this spring.

"K.T., let's you and I go into the clubhouse, lie down side by side on two rubbing tables in the trainers' room, and we'll have one of the great heart surgeons, Dr. DeBakey, take my heart and put it in your body. And we'll take your heart and put it in my body.

"I'll guarantee you, you'd be one of the greatest players ever to wear a Dodger uniform. You'd put up numbers that'd shock Ty Cobb. First, you'd be a lot smarter. Second, you'd be tougher. Third, you'd have more power. And fourth . . . "

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