It was a throwaway line in May, buried in the small print of a newspaper game story, but it became an obsession for Dodger Vice President Al Campanis.
Campanis was going to Florida, the reporter wrote, but no, he wasn't headed there to retire. He was planning to watch pitcher Bob Welch, who was rehabilitating his right elbow in Vero Beach with the Class A Dodgers.
Ha, ha, Al, and don't forget the bottle of Geritol.
But Campanis, who will be 69 on Nov. 2, wasn't laughing. There may be a lot of guys his age living off their pension and Social Security benefits while basking in the sunshine of senior-citizen colonies, but Campanis took this one personally.
"That was an under-the-belly punch," Campanis said months later, still bringing it up in almost every conversation he has with reporters. "And I don't like low blows."
To Campanis, that line represented the dark suggestion that he had outlived his usefulness. Take your bat and ball and telephone and go to Florida, Al, where it's 90 degrees in the shade but far, far away from the limelight.
Already, there were people--"pied pipers," Campanis called them--break-dancing on the imagined grave of the vaunted Dodger system, which churned out winners for decades but finally, or so it appeared, churned to a halt. What Branch Rickey had wrought, the pied pipers were saying, Campanis was now tearing asunder.
Look at the trades he'd made, or the ones he'd failed to make. Al Oliver for Pat Zachry? The most useless trade in baseball, the critics sneered. Rickey Henderson, the outfielder and leadoff man Campanis so coveted but lost to the New York Yankees in part, or so the story went, because the Oakland A's were put off by Campanis' fish-or-cut-bait arrogance.
Why, Campanis had furnished Cincinnati with an entire bullpen--Ted Power and John Franco--and had nothing but cash and Rafael Landestoy to show for it, and Landestoy was history. He had given the New York Mets a young left-handed pitcher, Sid Fernandez, who had a better strikeout-to-innings-pitched ratio than phenom Dwight Gooden, for a journeyman reliever and a bench-warmer. Rick Sutcliffe, Cy Young winner, gone. Ron Cey, gone.
And then there was last spring's biggest joke, the so-called "miracle deal" Campanis hinted he might pull off. Even with their pitching, only a miracle, it seemed to some, could salvage a Dodger team that the year before had finished in the second division for the first time in 15 years.
But there would be no miracle deal, if there ever was one. "Luck is the residue of design," Campanis often says, quoting his mentor, Rickey. But disaster is the residue of a design gone awry, and the Dodgers seemingly had drawn up a blueprint for a fall.
Or so it appeared to the so-called pied pipers. Campanis, however, still believed in the Dodger system, and he was supported in that belief by owner Peter O'Malley. And now that it is fall and the Dodgers are champions of the National League's Western Division for the sixth time and third time in the last five seasons, that faith has been vindicated.
The Dodgers did not win the division due to spontaneous combustion: the idea that because MVP candidate Pedro Guerrero started to hit, so did everyone else, although that did, in fact, happen.
And they did not win simply because others--the San Diego Padres and the Atlanta Braves--failed in a weak division.
They won because Campanis succeeded in dismantling one championship team--the Garvey-Cey-Lopes-Baker Dodgers--and found the replacement parts within the Dodger system for another. Just as he said he would. And Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda exercised the patience to let them develop.
Mike Scioscia, groomed within the Dodger system. Mike Marshall. Greg Brock. Steve Sax. Mariano Duncan. Fernando Valenzuela. Orel Hershiser. Welch. Tom Niedenfuer. Ken Howell. All scouted, signed and developed by the Dodgers. Guerrero, plucked from the Cleveland Indians at age 17 but all but home-grown.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that the Dodgers could give away as many quality players as they have, or could lose a valuable starting pitcher like Alejandro Pena for the season, and still have enough native talent to go around.
And there were two valuable late-season additions, Enos Cabell and Bill Madlock, who were obtained with what were leftovers from the Dodger system but considered future prospects to the teams that traded for them.
"Cabell and Madlock gave this team stability," Campanis said. "They taught them how to win in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, just like guys who help a basketball team win in the last two minutes.
"The players we gave up for Cabell we felt couldn't make our club. The players we gave up for Madlock, we went for now . That's the way we had to look at it."