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BASEBALL PREVIEW : The Flag Is Up, and the Dodgers Are Ready to Run : Prospectus: Star-studded team might be lacking in some areas but there's no shortage of expectations


It is two weeks before the start of the regular season. Brett Butler is standing in the middle of the Dodgers' spring clubhouse, wearing dress slacks, a silk shirt and dock shoes, practicing his bunting.

"The pitcher throws me a fastball and-- whoop --I turn around and get it this way," he says, spinning and twirling an imaginary bat. "Hey, he wants to come outside, I go out and get it like this-- whoop . The third baseman is charging-- whoop --I slap it out this way.

"Darn, I can't wait. I just can't wait. Who is the starting pitcher for the (Atlanta) Braves on opening day? C'mon, who is starting opening day?"

It was one week before the start of the regular season. Inside the visiting manager's office in Kissimmee, Fla., Tom Lasorda is snarling and clacking his teeth.

"You know what this team is like?" he asks, jumping to his feet and stamping his spikes on the concrete. "We are like horses at the starting gate. Horses going crazy, biting at the bit, trying to get out. Chomp, chomp, snarl ."

It is the final day of the spring training. The Dodgers have just used their regular lineup for only the second time in the spring and defeated the New York Mets, 3-2.

"Look around, just look around here," says Darryl Strawberry, who has had 10 extra-base hits in 36 spring training at-bats. "Once we get the regular guys in there, it looks pretty nice, doesn't it? Looks real nice, I'd say."

He lowers his voice, as if the rest of the National League could hear.

"I'll tell you what, baby," he says. "This team is ready."

The 1991 Dodgers may be questionable in several areas, but one thing they are not lacking is expectations.

As they prepare for opening day Tuesday in Atlanta, there may not be one person in that rich, veteran clubhouse who does not feel they are destined to win a championship.

It starts with Strawberry, who was purchased for $20.25 million and already is worth more.

Who else can single-handedly make Lasorda talk himself hoarse, a bizarre occurrence that happened on Strawberry's first day of spring training. Lasorda lost his voice just as he was finishing the story about somebody calling a taxicab to retrieve one of Strawberry's home runs.

Strawberry will show a good arm in right field, but make no mistake. He is about home runs.

He has hit at least 25 homers in each of his first eight big league seasons, the longest beginning-of-career streak in major league history. He has hit 171 homers in the last five years, the most in baseball during that time.

Critics say he can't hit left-handed pitching, but since his debut in 1983, Strawberry has more homers against left-handers, 80, than anyone but Dale Murphy.

But the Dodgers are not all Strawberry. There is also some cream. There are five former all-stars in the opening-day lineup, including Strawberry, first baseman Eddie Murray, catcher Mike Scioscia, second baseman Juan Samuel and shortstop Alfredo Griffin.

Three of the four starters who have not been all-stars have similar credentials. Butler, the center fielder, tied for the National League lead with 192 hits last year with the San Francisco Giants. Kal Daniels, the left fielder, tied the club record for left-handed hitters with 27 home runs. Tim Belcher is a former Topps' rookie pitcher of the year.

That leaves third baseman Jeff Hamilton as the only starter without a loaded resume, but at least he is noteworthy as baseball's only active player with more than 1,000 at-bats--1,111--who has never stolen a base.

"We have the best team I have ever been around, and I'm not just saying that," said pitcher Bob Ojeda, a winter acquisition who played for the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets. "There is absolutely no reason in the world why we can't win (a championship)."

Which is not to say that a few Dodgers still aren't realists.

"Correct me if I'm wrong but the Cincinnati Reds did not all go down in a plane crash, did they?" Belcher said.

Oh yes, the defending World Series champion Reds. The Dodgers know that their 10th-inning, 5-4 victory over Cincinnati in the last week of spring training was a precursor to 18 intense games between the teams this season.

The Dodgers figure they have at least caught the Reds on paper after furiously acquiring talent over the winter with owner Peter O'Malley's riches.

The entire new package, highlighted by Strawberry and Butler and including spring training acquisitions Gary Carter and John Candelaria, cost the Dodgers about $38 million. Whether it will be worth it or not depends on the three H's: Hershiser, hardiness and happiness.


Many Dodgers are saying they can win the championship without pitcher Orel Hershiser, but they don't yet sound as if they believe it.

Last year, in all likelihood, they would have won it with him. After he underwent reconstructive shoulder surgery April 27, it took three months before one of his replacement starters recorded a victory. And they finished just five games behind the Reds.

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