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Dodgers Eck One Out | MIKE DOWNEY

Old Pro Supplies Some New Life

September 16, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

It was old-timers' day Sunday, or at least it seemed that way when Tim Wallach, a third baseman who turned 39 the day before, stepped into the batter's box and dug in against Dennis Eckersley, a 41-year-old relief pitcher, in the heat of a National League pennant race.

These boys of summer, or perhaps we had better call them men, had not encountered one another very often. Wallach vaguely recalled being retired by Eckersley during the 1990 All-Star game, where Eckersley earned a save, but otherwise hadn't faced him since Eck's last days with the Cubs, a full 10 years ago.

Another day, another time, Eckersley might have intentionally walked Wallach in their situation Sunday, with two men on, first base open and two outs. Eck and the St. Louis Cardinals were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium, where the home team had a rested, .348-hitting Mike Piazza on the bench, itching to pinch-hit.

Eckersley, no fool, wasn't about to put Piazza up there with the bases full, having had his fill of pinch-hitters in this stadium, dating back to 1988. Therefore, there was no choice but to pitch to Wallach, who hadn't been swinging well all day and occasionally feels his age.

"I don't move as well as I used to," Wallach freely admits, "and my bat speed isn't what it used to be, and I miss more good pitches than I used to. But I know where to play the hitters in the field, and I know the pitchers pretty well by now, so that makes up for my advanced age a little.

"And besides, I want to win. Don't forget that."

Wallach wants to win because, unlike Eckersley, unlike a lot of baseball stars of Wallach's stature, this well-liked veteran has never been in a World Series, not once. He has been waiting his whole adult life to get into one, and could see the end of his career over the horizon when the Dodgers suddenly salvaged what was left of it.

Needing a third baseman in an emergency, with Mike Blowers blowing out a knee, the Dodgers didn't know where to turn. Should they call up one of their younger, greener infielders from the farm, or give Mike Busch the job teammates once tried to keep from him, or give away valuable pitching in a trade for somebody else's experienced third basemen? They had a serious hole to plug.

Wallach says, "I was basically sitting at home. They picked me up and put me in the pennant race."

Literally, sitting at home when the Dodgers called?

"OK, I was playing golf," Wallach says.

Details, details. Wallach, a meticulous individual himself, smiles and says, "Wherever I was, I certainly didn't expect it. I was ready to call it a career. When Mike [Blowers] got hurt, some guys out there were obviously available and Fred could have gone out and gotten any one of them, or at least I imagine he could have."

Fred is the Dodger wheeler and dealer, Fred Claire, who already had a bad case of summertime blues with his manager and center fielder prostrate in hospital beds. While familiar with Wallach from his stint manning third base in the ravine, Claire also knew that the Angels had parted company with Wallach, clearly believing him to be of no further use.

Of his dates with the Angels, what Wallach simply says is, "I guess they could conclude I didn't help them much."

Maybe not, but he was the smartest move Claire made all season, plugging that hole with one of the National League's handiest plumbers. Wallach is sure-handed and clear-thinking. He was a particular boon to Bill Russell, the new manager who didn't exactly inherit a field full of veterans. And there wasn't one trace of disappointment when Wallach reclaimed his old locker.

Blowers, one cubicle away, says he doesn't know how the Dodgers could have done any better, given their situation. Across the room, first baseman Eric Karros says admiringly of Wallach, an old pro, "We didn't just bring him here to come along on our pennant ride. He's out there making big plays, getting big hits."

In the nick of time Sunday, with Karros on second and Raul Mondesi on third representing the go-ahead runs, Wallach wheeled on an Eckersley delivery and hacked it into the hole between short and third, good for a 6-5 victory that kept the Dodgers in first place.

The old third sacker ain't what he used to be, but, Wallach adds with obvious pride, "Maybe I'm at least a little smarter." Which means you can teach an old Dodger new tricks.

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