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SCOTT OSTLER

Whatever Guerrero's Got, Scioscia Seems to Be Catching It

July 29, 1985|SCOTT OSTLER

There have been several theories advanced on why the heck the Dodgers are tearing up the National League West.

The most popular theory right now seems to be communicable disease.

"Pedro Guerrero started hitting and everyone else followed his lead," explained one Dodger recently. "See, hitting is contagious."

Through the first two months of the season, medical experts assumed the Dodgers were immune. They had strong hitting antibodies.

So what happened? Nobody is sure.

One possibility is that Guerrero forgot to get his booster shot. He caught the hitting bug and then sneezed on the team bat rack.

Or was it something Pedro passed on by rummaging through the team's postgame buffet of cold cuts while wearing his batting gloves?

Whatever it was, the stuff spread through the team like athlete's foot. Appropriately enough, one of the first players to catch the bug was Mike Scioscia, the catcher. In fact, there are some who theorize that it was Scioscia, not Guerrero, who infected the team.

"It wasn't me," Scioscia said Sunday. "Pete's the foundation of the club."

Maybe. But Scioscia is at least the cornerstone. And he started hitting at about the same time Guerrero did, the beginning of June.

Scioscia began to experience the symptoms: Incessant ringing and pounding of the bat. Shortness of breath from legging out doubles. Fever, accompanied by hallucinations, with pitched baseballs taking on the appearance of grapefruits and soap bubbles as they approach the plate.

On June 4, Scioscia was batting .232. Going into Sunday's game--in which Scioscia and the other Dodger hitters took the day off--Scioscia was batting .283.

When you consider the way he's handling pitchers and playing defense, Scioscia has to be considered one of the primary reasons the Dodgers are no longer the object of snickers and chuckles wherever major league baseball is discussed.

If Scioscia's hitting isn't infectious, his defense is. How can you not be inspired by a guy who's willing to put his life on the line in order to cut off a lousy run?

A week ago Sunday, Scioscia took on Cardinal Jack Clark on a play at the plate. Clark forearmed Scioscia halfway to the grandstands, put Mike in the hospital. Scioscia was knocked out cold but held onto the ball for the out. Next time Clark will carry a crowbar to pry the ball out of Scioscia's glove.

On Saturday, Scioscia blocked the plate with Ryne Sandberg steaming home. Scioscia caught the ball and Sandberg in his mitt at same time, and held onto both. The ump ruled an illegal block.

The rule is you can't block the plate unless you have the ball. The purpose of this rule is to prevent a team from hiring Jack Youngblood or Lawrence Taylor to play catcher and bowl guys over at the end of home-run trots.

Blocking the plate is the most dangerous play in baseball, and nobody makes the play as consistently as Scioscia. The play is difficult because you have to ignore the guy who's trying to kill you in order to catch a baseball skidding and bounding toward you at 90 m.p.h.

Since nobody has developed a side-view mirror for catchers, the poor slob has to pretend to forget about the runner approaching home, foaming at the mouth.

"You try to keep tabs on the runner, but the important thing is to catch the ball," Scioscia says.

Does Scioscia ever cringe, anticipating the collision?

"You have to be fearless," Scioscia says. "It's not something you can teach yourself, you do it or you don't. It's probably something you get from your background. Growing up, everyone I played against played the game hard."

Scioscia grew up in Pennsylvania, in a tough town, where a man's idea of a weekend outing is to take the wife and kids coal mining.

Catchers back home not only blocked the plate from guys sliding home, they sometimes blocked the plate from guys coming up to bat. Everybody was named Rocky or Guido.

Still, with all he's accomplished, Scioscia is modest.

"Being the best (plate blocker in the majors), I don't know about that," he said.

All he knows about is working hard. In '82 he hit a lousy .219, and the next year he blew out a shoulder and missed the season. The Dodger catcher of the '80s was on the verge of being 86'd. Last year, though, he came back and hit .273. Right now he's hitting better, for average, than every Dodger starter but Guerrero.

Scioscia's on-base average is .384, second best on the club to Guerrero's .426. They'd let Scioscia bat leadoff, but he couldn't steal a base if you conceded him an 80-foot leadoff.

Still, he has become one of the most valuable Dodgers. He has become a genuine star in the current pennant drive. It hasn't gone to his head.

"I'm not complacent, I'm striving to be a better ballplayer," Scioscia says.

Just like his childhood heroes, Johnny Bench and Thurmon Munson.

"I really respected Munson, especially," Scioscia said. "I think he was a man who made the most out of himself, played the game hard."

That kind of feeling and attitude can be infectious. Scioscia is a carrier, and right now, there doesn't seem to be a damn thing the doctors can do about it.

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