"Aptitude!" Tom Lasorda said in a loud voice, which probably is redundant. "The name of the game is aptitude! The ability to accept and apply instructions!"
If only everybody had it.
Like the prizefighter, Lasorda said, whose manager tells him 50 times: "Keep your left up, keep your left up." The boxer nods his head, plods back into the center of the ring, lowers his left hand and gets his nose turned into rice pudding.
Or like the dog, Lasorda said, who keeps re-decorating the living-room rug. "Every time he does it, his master rubs his nose in it, then throws him out the window. This happens 50 times. The 51st time, the dog goes up to it, rubs his own nose in it, then jumps out the window himself. Well, at least he's learning."
Steve Sax didn't have to be told 50 times. After becoming the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1982, he spent too much time trying to pull the ball to the left side instead of going with the pitches, taking the outside ones to right.
"You could draw a diagram where he was hitting it," Lasorda said. "Third base, short and left field. Every damn time. I finally told him, 'Hey, if somebody cut the field in half and we could only use half of it, would that make it easier to hit or harder?' Saxie said, 'Harder.' And I said, 'Exactly right! Harder! So why don't you start using both halves of the damn field?"
And so he has. Steve Sax, spraying to all fields, leads the Dodgers in hits with 45, ranks among the National League's top 10 hitters, and, best of all, is swinging so well that it has helped him become a better fielder.
Or maybe that logic is backward. Maybe Sax is fielding so well that it has helped him become a better swinger.
"The old chicken-and-the-egg thing," Lasorda said.
Whatever it is, this is not the same Sax who batted .243 in 1984, or the Sax who collected 13 extra-base hits in 488 at-bats in 1985. Nor is it the Sax who committed 22 errors last season, high for National League second basemen, or the Sax who used to have such a tough time making throws to first base.
When this Sax got an error last Friday against the Mets, throwing the ball past first base, not only was it merely his second error of the season, but it wasn't even his fault. In fact, his throw was perfect. Letter-high. Straight and accurate. A connect-the-dot job.
"Did you see that throw?" Sax asked Tuesday. "Right on top the base."
On a club that is dying with its boots, leading the majors in errors, Sax has not been a guilty party. His defense has been more than adequate. And since Lasorda and others choose to believe the old theory that a troubled fielder becomes a troubled hitter, they are convinced that Sax's robust batting average is no coincidence.
Things certainly seem to be going Sax's way these days. His work on the field has been exceptional. The bruised heel that kept him out of six games has healed. Off the field, he has done a couple of TV acting jobs--for example, "Who's the Boss?" a show that has absolutely nothing to do with Lasorda--and, as seen in the 1985 Dodger highlight film, still does a mean "Fernando" impersonation--the Billy Crystal one, not the left-handed pitching one.
About the only sad Sax news this season has been Boston's treatment of catcher Dave Sax, Steve's older brother. Dave was sent to the minors a few days ago after occupying the Red Sox roster from Opening Day on, without once being permitted to play.
"Not one inning," Steve said. "Pretty strange."
The Sax brothers are the guys whom ESPN's nickname-nutty Chris Berman refers to as Alto and Tenor. The Dodger second baseman would like to see good things happen to his brother. "I'm always rooting for him," he said.
They have a lot in common. So much so that it concerned Steve when a blip recently turned up on an electro-cardiogram conducted on Dave by one of Boston's doctors. "He had something wrong with his EKG, but everything's fine now," Steve said.
That is good news, because there has been a history of heart disease in the Sax family. Steve's and Dave's father and grandfather both died at an early age, 47. "I have to watch my diet," Steve said. "I take certain vitamins just to keep my cholesterol down."
The Dodgers need Sax to stay sound. Although a veteran, he is still only 26. And he is one hot veteran--a bunt single and a long double Tuesday against Montreal improved his batting average to .333.
For a while there, the Dodgers must have wondered if Sax was swallowing spinach as well as vitamins. He suddenly turned muscular, slugging three home runs in 25 at-bats after getting only two in his previous 1,057 times up.
The guy with No. 3 on his back was turning into Babe Ruth.
"Believe me, that's the only thing we have in common," Sax said.
"I'm just hitting the ball where it's pitched and I'm real relaxed up there. As a hitter, I'm still progressing."
Lasorda said: "He's more disciplined. More selective. More relaxed. He was always so hyper up there. We had to show him where he was going wrong. I told him, 'Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer there is, but even he has somebody watch him play to see what he's doing wrong.' "
Then Lasorda told this great story about Nicklaus jumping out a window. . . .