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Jim Murray

Spring Not Always for the Young

March 20, 1987|JIM MURRAY

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It's the sweet swindle of spring. You can see it in their eyes, half fear, half defiance, all hope. It's the look you imagine the chorus line gets at the final audition.

You look at the young players and you have to remember Lou Gehrig was a rookie once. Stan Musial. Even the Babe had to make the team.

Maybe one of them is Don Mattingly. A young Koufax. Clemente.

The odds are long. But they have to believe. You have to know they were the best in their hometowns. They probably led every team in every league they ever played in.

But that doesn't guarantee they will ever get a time at bat in the big leagues. Here, they're just a number. The ball curves up here. The fastballs sink. The sliders disappear. The guys throwing them were all-state, all-everything, too.

They dream of going 4 for 4, the rookies, of stealing three bases standing up, of getting Mattingly on a fastball, looking.

But they'll probably be getting Lethbridge or Great Falls or, if they're lucky, San Antonio across the front of their uniforms by April. Only 2% of them will ever be able to hit or throw a major-league curve. Fewer will star at it.

Then, there's the other side of baseball. The veterans have an air about them. It's not a swagger, exactly, it's the confidence of the man who knows he belongs. There are 624 jobs open in baseball and one of them is his.

When they get on the team bus, they take seats to themselves. If they're delayed, the bus will wait. They are not future Dodgers. They are the franchise. Now.

If there is a superstar on this year's Dodgers, it is the short chunky man carrying the duffel marked with the number 12. In the pecking order of baseball, Bill Madlock Jr. belongs at the head of it.

Whatever the secret is to hitting a curving, dipping baseball, Bill Madlock has it in abundance. Few men have been able to do it with more consistency. Four times he was the National League batting champion. Look through the book. Only the great ones were multiple champions. Rogers Hornsby. Musial. Honus Wagner. Rose.

And Bill Madlock. Lifetime .307 hitter. The question is not whether he belongs in the game, it's whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

He is a franchise player. He sets his own pace in spring training. In the last two games, it is blistering--two doubles, a home run and a single.

His name will be remembered. A guy going through the roster 40 years from now may whisk right by others but he will stop at Madlock's. He will be remembered.

But will he be remembered as a Dodger? Will he be remembered the way Pee Wee Reese is, Steve Garvey, Duke Snider? Is he on the Dodger team but not of it, so to speak?

It's an important distinction. An itinerant player can fall into a home-team tradition. Rick Monday became forever a Dodger in the annals of the game with a single, pennant-winning home run in Montreal in 1981.

Bill Madlock may have put himself more in the Pittsburgh Pirates' pantheon when he delivered one of his patented Madlock specialties, a line single to right, in the World Series of 1979.

The circumstances were dire for the home nine that day. The Baltimore Orioles were on a roll, leading the Series, 3 games to 1, and playing their ace, Jim Palmer, to hammer the lid on a Pittsburgh team turning gray-green.

It was a late inning and the winning run was on second when Madlock came up. Palmer should have known better. But he pitched to him. The pitch was a strike.

Bill Madlock did what he usually does to strikes--hit it safely into right field.

The Pirates won the game, and, ultimately, the Series. Palmer should have walked Madlock. Lots of pitchers should have walked Madlock. It was not always that easy to do. Bill was a Will Rogers of baseball. He seldom saw a pitch he didn't like.

It was Madlock's finest hour. Even though he went on to win his third and fourth batting championships, it was the one of his 1,906 hits he will remember most.

Is there another Series-winning ribbie, another batting title, even a pennant in the offing for Bill Madlock?

Madlock is not so sure. Bill is an old pro and old pros deal in realities. He sees himself as a role player on the 1987 Dodgers just as he was on the '79 Pirates.

"I'm not the leader," he warns. "I'm not the 35-homer hitter, the 125 runs-batted-in. That's the job of Pete Guerrero and Mike Marshall, just as it was the job of Wilver Stargell and Dave Parker on the '79 Pirates.

"I'm the third player. The table-setter. I will get my 10 to 15 home runs, my 70 runs-batted-in, my runs scored. How far that takes us depends on the No. 1 and No. 2 players."

The mark of the pro is knowing how to play the cards he's dealt. Madlock is the type never to waste an ace--or a fastball.

He gave the team a clinic in hitting in the exhibition game against the Braves here Thursday. In the first inning, with Steve Sax on first, he picked out an inside breaking ball and slashed it down the left-field line for a two-base hit. Sax scored when the outfielder got handcuffed on the drive.

In the seventh inning, with Mariano Duncan on second, he picked out one of Gene Garber's patented sidearm change-ups, which is supposed to get you hitting off your front foot impatiently. Madlock waited for it--and drilled it viciously to center for the score.

It's the way the old pros do it. The Dodgers third-man theme seems to be working perfectly so far. The Dodgers hoped the kids were watching. It's why his next stop may be Cooperstown and theirs Albuquerque. But the Dodgers may not only hope there's Hornsby or Rose in there some place--but a Madlock as well.

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