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BASEBALL EXTRA / INTERLEAGUE PLAY | BASEBALL / ROSS
NEWHAN

The Buzz on What's Wrong With the Dodgers

June 15, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

SEATTLE — What to make of the National League West.

What to make of a division in which . . .

* The Colorado Rockies have had the hitting but not the pitching;

* The Dodgers have had the pitching but not the hitting;

* The San Diego Padres have had too many injuries and not enough pitching;

* And the San Francisco Giants have had just enough hitting and pitching to complement all the mirrors.

An analyst named Buzzie Bavasi, former general manager of the Dodgers and Angels, has been keeping track from La Jolla and said:

"There's no doubt in my mind but that the Dodgers are the best club in the division. If they don't win it I don't know the game."

Bavasi goes back to Brooklyn. He knows the game, although his decision to let Nolan Ryan depart the Angels as a free agent still prompts fans of that star-crossed franchise to question what he knows.

Few would debate his view of the Dodgers, however.

Few would disagree with the contention that they have the best overall talent in the division.

But it's not a paper chase.

They have to do it on the field and haven't consistently.

Why?

A complex set of reasons has contributed to an underachieving pattern despite the division title of '95, the wild-card playoff berth of '96 and the club's current position within striking distance of the division lead.

* Obvious is three years of offensive inconsistency stemming from a lack of left-handed power; the irregular availability of Brett Butler and a reliable No. 2 hitter at the top of the lineup; the revolving door at third base, which keeps spinning in the shadow of Todd Zeile; the Henry Rodriguez Syndrome, which (despite those five straight rookies of the year) demands that young players perform immediately and consistently or start checking the lineup card, and puts inordinate pressure on a Billy Ashley or Roger Cedeno or Karim Garcia. All of that, of course, contributes to inordinate pressure for the three right-handed hitters who must carry the load and haven't been as consistent at it this year: Eric Karros, Mike Piazza and Raul Mondesi.

* Obvious, too, is that the global composition of the roster has contributed to the absence of an acknowledged clubhouse leader and positive chemistry. The atmosphere may not stop the Dodgers from winning, but it doesn't contribute to winning. Divided? No. Cohesive? No.

* Then, too, the inconsistent run production tends to frustrate pitchers, erodes their relationship with the hitters and affects their aggressiveness on the mound, leaving them cautious, looking to make the perfect pitch--contributing, perhaps, to a lack of form recently by Hideo Nomo, Pedro Astacio and Ismael Valdes.

Composition and character are critical issues here.

Add to all of that the high expectations of fans and organization and it has been an occasionally volatile and trying time for a manager in his first full season, and Bill Russell's recent confrontations with Astacio and Valdes have contributed to an unfair league perception that it is a team out of control.

If anything, Russell's immediate response to the emotional displays by the two pitchers seemed to demonstrate he's in control.

It also underscored a link in personality and style to Walter Alston, the manager he broke in under and was significantly influenced by.

"No one wants confrontations, but sometimes it's necessary," Russell said. "A manager has a job to do, and sometimes it calls for getting in a player's face. Walt did it to me. Tommy [Lasorda] did it to me. It motivated me and made me a better player.

"I mean, you're not only trying to help the player, but you're sending a message to the other players. You have to be consistent and pick your spots, and the player has to realize it's not personal."

Most of the time, of course, it goes on in the office or clubhouse and no one sees it.

Alston benched Russell for poor play in his rookie season and let him sit.

"I finally realized that I wasn't going to play until I went in and talked to him about it," Russell said. "You grow up in different ways. Walt was saying to me that you have to have the toughness and courage to walk in my office and talk it out." Alston was quiet, direct and physically imposing--a characteristic he often flexed to maintain discipline.

Incidents were dealt with promptly and consistently. No one accepted his challenges.

"I think Russell has a lot of Alston in him," said Bavasi, who was present when the comparatively unknown Alston replaced Charlie Dressen as the Brooklyn manager and was still present when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed the shy Russell off the plains of Kansas.

"I'm not sure Billy is as strong physically [as Alston], but I think he's as tough mentally," Bavasi said. "Of course, it's also a different era. I don't know if some of the things Walt did would work today.

"The average salary for our '55 team was about $22,000. There are at least five players [in baseball] today who make $25,000 every time they go to the plate. The manager's hands are tied. The player says, 'So you're going to fine me $100? So what.' "

The difference in decades is akin to a moon shot, Dodger vice president Fred Claire said, but he credits Russell with the same fairness, directness and mental toughness as Alston, the same inner strength.

"I've never known Bill Russell to run from any issue and he's confronted some that haven't received the publicity that [the Valdes and Astacio incident did]," Claire said.

"I'm sure Walter wouldn't have stood for either of those as well, but if you're measuring dugout and clubhouse altercations, they wouldn't have registered on the Richter scale."

Were they symptomatic of a deeper ill? At this point, a lack of run production would seem to be more the case.

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