Three months ago, when the Dodgers couldn't play their way out of a wet paper bag, the rest of the league was divided into two camps.
One camp consisted of players who laughed openly at the Dodger defense. The other faction was made up of players who, out of respect and kindness, laughed at the Dodger defense behind the Dodgers' backs.
Met third baseman Ray Knight, a member of Group A, commented late in May, "That defense surely is not a major league defense. They can't win over there (in the Western Division) unless they play defense."
The Dodgers, it was rumored, wore fielder's gloves mainly to protect themselves from those white, round, hard things that bounce and fly around a ballpark.
But a funny thing happened to the Dodgers on their dramatic climb to first place "over there." They started playing defense. They stopped treating the baseball as if it was a UFO.
This shocking turnabout took place just about the time the Dodgers, in desperation, moved a rookie second-string second baseman to shortstop.
Instant magic? Not exactly. Mariano Duncan made an error his first night at shortstop, and it caused the Dodgers to lose, 2-1, to Houston and Nolan Ryan.
"My first three weeks here, first month, I make 10 or 12 error," Duncan says. "But I never nervous, really. Never, never, never."
"I've never been nervous. Never, never, never."
Mariano's cool finally prevailed over his inexperience. He became an overnight shortstop sensation. Call it a coincidence if you want, but about the time Duncan settled into his job, the rest of the team started to play defense, too.
You might say they adopted Mariano's philosophy of defense.
"Every time I see the ground ball go to the shortstop (position), I try to catch the ball and throw it," Duncan says.
It's only easy if you think it is.
Suddenly, around the league, the laughing stopped. The Dodgers' winning started. Pretty soon, they were in first place.
The yawning also stopped. The Dodgers, one of the most boring clubs in the bigs, became exciting. What did Duncan contribute? Besides his play at shortstop, the likes of which have never been seen in a Dodger uniform, the kid hit pretty well and ran the bases like a fugitive.
Three times he has bunted for a double.
Duncan says with a modest smile, "Bill Russell say, 'Damn, Mario, what do you have in your legs? I'm 18 years in the big leagues and never seen someone bunt for a double.' "
Three bunt doubles. Sunday, in a loss to the Phillies, Duncan sprinted from first to third on a routine wild pitch.
"Maybe the catcher's thinking I stay at second base," Duncan says. "Maybe he go slow to the ball. Every time, I look for the extra base."
Why not? The kid is ready to play. He has become the heir to the Dodger shortstop position, a royal lineage. But Duncan is so young (22) he hasn't had time to absorb a lot of Dodger history.
I asked Duncan if he knows who the Dodger shortstop was before Bill Russell. He ponders the question. Shakes his head.
"It was Maury Wills," I told him.
"I have heard of him," Duncan says. "But I don't know what position."
Before Wills was Pee Wee Reese, now in the Hall of Fame.
"I met Pee Wee," Duncan says, his face brightening. "He talked to me at the old-timers game. He told me, 'Keep it going, you've got everything.' "
Sure, but what does Pee Wee Reese know?
Duncan isn't cocky. He is just very comfortable at his new position. And he's a very happy, bright, upbeat kid. He spoke no English two years ago, and now he speaks it fast enough to be a top-40 radio DJ.
There's a lot of enthusiasm there, too. After going 0-for-4 Sunday, striking out twice, and going 1-for-17 in the series against Philadelphia, Duncan says, "I no worry about striking out, because tomorrow is another day. If I worry about this, I strike out tomorrow. The game's over. That's it."
Hey, there's no pressure. Just because Mariano is one of 10 children, and supports that family by sending money back home to San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
His father worked in a sugar cane factory, but when Mariano came to America to play ball, he told his dad to turn in the old time card.
"I work here, I have money, I think 51 is too old to work in the factory," Mariano says. "I say, 'Daddy, I don't want you to work no more.' "
An amazing, heartwarming success story, right? Sure, but let's keep it in perspective. Let's remember this kid is human, he has limitations.
Talking about his three bunt doubles this season, Duncan says, "Some people ask me, 'Why not go for a bunt triple?' "
Mariano wears a puzzled look.
"Is not too easy," he says.