VERO BEACH, Fla. — The demise of Ken Landreaux, long anticipated by veteran Dodger watchers, is going to happen. Even Landreaux is sure of that, though he says it would be a mistake if the end comes this season.
Critics, however, say that the mistake has been the Dodgers' keeping Landreaux in center field this long. They say that his fielding is suspect, his attitude sometimes belligerent and his desire nonexistent. They say that the Dodgers can't win this season with Landreaux as a starter.
Those criticisms, justified or not, have followed Landreaux through his six seasons with the Dodgers. Yet, he has survived, if not always thrived, despite the prospects given chances to replace him and countless rumors suggesting his departure.
Again this spring, the Dodgers have fueled speculation that Landreaux might finally be given a pink slip.
Al Campanis, Dodger vice president, has said that Reggie Williams, rookie Jose Gonzalez and nonroster prospect Mike Ramsey each will be given a shot at winning the center-field spot. Campanis also talks about the possibility of trading for a center fielder, the leading candidates being the Philadelphia Phillies' Gary Redus and the Cleveland Indians' Brett Butler.
The media, fans and even some Dodger players have pushed for free agent Tim Raines to replace Landreaux.
"This," Landreaux said, smiling thinly, "is a definite problem situation."
The job, it seems, always has been his to lose.
A few springs ago, the Dodgers talked up Ron Roenicke as Landreaux's replacement in 1983. But Landreaux kept the job, and Roenicke eventually found another one.
Last spring, Campanis had come up with another phenomenon, Gonzalez, to push Landreaux out of the way. At the end of camp, Gonzalez was in Albuquerque and Landreaux was still in center field. Gonzalez is back for another try this spring, and has company in Williams and Ramsey, a longshot.
You'd think the constant competition would make Landreaux insecure. All along, though, he's had the security of a four-year, $2.4-million contract, which has made him difficult to trade or release.
That contract expires, though, after this season and the consensus is that, then, perhaps even sooner, Landreaux will be gone.
Is he worried?
"I don't see any pressure here," Landreaux said. "I'll play where I'll play. If they are going to release me or send me off, I can't do nothing about that. If they think I can't do it no more, that's their opinion."
It is the opinion of Landreaux, coming off a sub-par 1986 season in which he hit .261 and had 29 runs batted in in 103 games, that none of his challengers would be a suitable replacement.
"I don't think there's anyone (in the Dodger organization) as good as me," Landreaux said. "Having potential and ability is one thing. . . . When I was coming up, I did all those things in the minor leagues they say these other guys are doing. But when I got to the major leagues, I found it a totally different situation.
"I don't think any of those guys are ready. But I can't control (management's) thinking. But I can control doing my own job."
That may be true, but the Dodgers and Landreaux seem to have different ideas of what his job is and how he should approach it.
Almost from the time he joined the club in 1981, the Dodgers have unblushingly said that Landreaux does not give maximum effort. They have said that he doesn't have the concentration to put his talent to use, and some even doubt whether he cares about the quality of his performance.
Campanis doesn't necessarily agree with all of those contentions, but he has been among the most recent of Landreaux's critics.
"It's been said--and I didn't say it, I'm just passing it along--that he is a classic underachiever," Campanis said. "It's his own mental conception of what he wants to do. Some people rise to the occasion, some don't.
"I like the guy, personally, but he's got to show me he can be the kind of player we want. It could change, if he changes his ways. But it's hard for him."
What the Dodgers want from Landreaux is consistent effort and production. Landreaux's .271 average in nine major league seasons shows that he can hit, but his defensive play often has been weak and his concentration lacking.
That's the maddening thing about Landreaux, a paradox in spikes. He combines tremendous talent with what is widely viewed as laziness. He is considered one of the fastest Dodgers, yet he sometimes moves with geriatric deliberateness.
Lasorda sometimes unloads his clubhouse tirades on Landreaux simply to get a reaction--any reaction--out of him. Often, Lasorda walks away shaking his head.
One day a few years ago, Lasorda yelled at Landreaux, who was filling a cup with soup in the clubhouse: "Kenny, what's the soup?"
Replied Landreaux, quietly: "Of the day."
Lasorda and Campanis laugh at that incident, but Landreaux occasionally makes them want to scream.