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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Now Everyone Will Learn if Dodgers Can Suck It Up

September 15, 1996|Bill Plaschke

The words cascaded down from the top of Dodger Stadium late Friday, words that were mean, and nasty, and splendid.

"You . . . , you . . . "

The point is not that Dodger fans were cursing home plate umpire Gary Darling, a veteran who can take it.

The point is that Dodger fans finally cared enough to curse somebody.

Some will contend that such language is inappropriate for children.

They are the ones who won't understand that it was 10:15 p.m., and that children old enough to be up at that hour are old enough to learn that this is what happens in a pennant race.

*

The kick was awkward, and ill-timed, and beautiful.

Bill Russell booted catcher Mike Piazza's mask across the dirt behind home plate late Friday, leading to Russell's ejection from a one-run game.

Some will contend that such behavior is inappropriate for a Dodger manager.

They are the ones who won't understand that Russell would have chewed up the mask and spit tacks at Darling's face if he thought it would help.

Because this is what happens in a pennant race.

*

Finally. A fair fight.

For most of the last week, the San Diego Padres joyously, angrily, dramatically romped through their little piece of Southern California . . . while the Dodgers calmly strolled through theirs.

The Padres win on an eighth-inning home run. The Dodgers win on a two-run double in the fifth.

The Padres win on a ninth-inning home run. The Dodgers win on a first-inning home run.

The Padres win on an eighth-inning comeback. The Dodgers win when their opponent commits three errors.

Two teams, two different calendars. The Padres were playing in mid-September. The Dodgers were still in April.

Then came Friday night, when a well-intentioned umpire was shielded from a play at home plate, missed the call, cost the Dodgers a deciding run in a game that could have given them a 1 1/2-game lead with 15 games remaining.

And finally. September came raining down from everywhere.

Did you know middle reliever Mark Guthrie could run that fast, scream that loud, pop his eyes nearly out of their sockets like somebody from the "Bullwinkle" show? Did you even know who Mark Guthrie was?

Dodger insiders have been saying that Tim Wallach works like another manager. If nothing else, everyone now knows he can charge an umpire like one.

And how about the real manager, Bill Russell, the stoic who suddenly thought it was the mid-1970s again, and he was playing shortstop again, and the hopes of a city were clinging to his stirrups.

Dozens of baserunners have been unable to knock Piazza out from in front of home plate, but Russell did, with one shove, flicking him aside in his attempt to speak to Darling.

His ensuing speech was much more eloquent than the one he gave about three hours earlier about Ozzie Smith.

Throughout this race, the Dodgers have shown brilliant starting pitching, clutch hitting, decent fielding . . . everything but the sort of raw emotion required to bring it all together on some chilly night in late October.

In Darling's call--even though it no more cost them the game than Todd Hollandsworth's questionable baserunning or Greg Gagne's foul-out or Dave Clark's strikeout--the Dodgers finally found that emotion.

The question now is, what will they do with it?

"You can make it work for you," pitcher Tom Candiotti said.

The Dodgers stay fevered, come together, their clubhouse against the world, the mishap as motivation.

"Or," Candiotti said, "you can make it work against you."

The Dodgers spend the rest of the season weeping over the one call that decided the one game that decided the pennant.

And if they take that approach, that one game will indeed decide the pennant.

Russell quickly showed Friday which direction he will lead.

"I will not get into talking about the importance of this one game, no way, I will not do that," he said. "We have lost 60-some games this year, what about those losses? There were things in some of those losses.

"To ever talk again about this one game deciding anything . . . no way. We can't do it."

The rest of the team fell right in line.

"A call is a call, there's nothing you can do about it," Piazza said. 'We've got to move on."

Beginning today at Dodger Stadium with the series finale against the Cardinals at 1 p.m., that road consists of 14 games--seven at home, three in Denver, four in San Diego.

Thanks to Friday night's accidental affront, Dodger fans can be expected to bring their passion to 11 of those 14 games.

Thanks to what could be the best worst call in team history, the Dodgers apparently will show up for all of them.

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