VERO BEACH, Fla. — The most damaging hit in L.A. Dodger history?
Well, it was not necessarily the home run Jack Clark hit off Tom Niedenfuer for the 1985 National League pennant, nor any one of the three Reggie Jackson hit for the 1977 World Series championship.
Nor does it have to be the ground single Willie Mays ripped through the pitcher's box to keep the winning ninth-inning rally alive in the playoff game in which the San Francisco Giants won the 1962 pennant.
So, what was it? It's too early to tell. But, how about the line single Pedro Guerrero hit to right field in the first inning of the final game of spring training here last year?
If you don't want to vote for that, how about the hit in the dirt the baseball made a few seconds later on the hit-and-run play that sent Guerrero to third?
Well, not quite to third. Because a funny thing happened to Pedro on his way to third. He never got there. He never touched the bag. He was, you might say, an easy out. Because he was lying in a heap by the time the ball got to third.
So, you would have to say, was his career.
When Guerrero was heading for third that April day, he was on his way to more than an extra base. He was on his way to Dodger immortality. He was a .320 hitter with 33 homers, 87 ribbies, 22 doubles and even 12 stolen bases the year before. He was one of the game's most awesome offensive machines. He was, in short, the franchise. The pennant.
When he left third base that day, on a stretcher, he was just another traffic accident, a guy who came into an intersection too hard to put the brakes on.
He could also have been a tragic figure of baseball history, a guy cut down in his prime like Herb Score, Tommy Davis or Bobby Thomson.
His left knee was twisted grotesquely beneath him that afternoon. For the rest of his life, his knee was going to tell him when to expect rain. It might not be good for much else. Pedro might have hit his last curveball, taken his last step without a cane. Or, at least, never have been the overpowering player he once was.
There was precedent for that kind of thinking. In 1965, Tommy Davis was that kind of player for the Dodgers. In two previous years, he won the league batting championship. He drove in 153 runs in 1962. In the 17th game of that year, 1965, he slid hard into second base. There was a snap--and Davis' ankle was on backward.
Tommy put in a dozen more years in the big leagues, but not at the level on which he once played. He wandered around the game, a nomadic player, a fill-in, finally phasing out his career in the American League as a DH. He never was the bubble-gum card hero he had been.
Bobby Thomson hit the most dramatic home run in major league history when he won the 1951 pennant playoff for the New York Giants. Three years later, he slid into second base in spring training and the rest of his career was a limp and an anti-climax, the One-Play O'Brien of baseball.
Herb Score, of course, was the all-world fireball pitcher, who threw one blazer too many. It came back off the bat of Gil McDougald twice as fast as Score threw it, hit him on a line and all but obliterated the left side of his face, to say nothing of his career.
Guerrero's accident was as scary as any of them. But it seems to have had an unpredictable side effect.
Before the accident, calling Guerrero fiery was like calling Mt. St. Helens that. Pedro would have had to calm down to be merely fiery.
He was no more belligerent than the German army. He thought rules were for guys who couldn't hit 30 home runs, team buses were optional and arrival dates flexible. When you had to interview him, you felt like throwing in a piece of meat first.
Pedro couldn't understand why baseball wasn't like watch making, why you didn't just fit in all the parts and let it go at that. He didn't seem to notice that nobody was paying guys a million and a half a year to tell time and that show business made other demands on you.
If you just wanted a pure ballplayer, Pedro was probably your guy. If you could pick a physique off a gas-pipe rack and put it on, it would probably be Guerrero's. Pedro was built like a capital "X." Shoulders as wide as the back of a cab, wrists like two pieces of lead pipe, he had this kind of knock-kneed movement of the born runner and he was as nerveless at the plate as he was high-strung off it.
He was an intelligent player. He picked up idiomatic English years before most Dominican players and he spoke it forcefully and melodiously. He was seldom fooled by the same pitch twice and you couldn't get a fastball by him in the dark.
He was aggressive. Confident didn't begin to describe Pedro. Pedro's attitude was such that he would be surprised--and hurt--if Babe Ruth started ahead of him.
All this seemed to have come to a shuddering halt April 3, 1986. For the first time in his life, Pedro Guerrero was scared of something--himself. His own frailty.