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Zeile, Dodgers Simply Grand

Baseball: His first-inning home run sparks L.A. to third victory in a row over Florida.

September 08, 1997|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pressure of playing in his hometown was getting to Todd Zeile. He found no relief at third base. He found no relief at home plate

But ultimately, he found it in his own home. From his own wife.

Zeile learned to relax and have days such as Sunday, when his first-inning grand slam sent the Dodgers on their way to a 9-5 victory over the Florida Marlins at Dodger Stadium in front of a crowd of 36,757. It was the Dodgers' third consecutive victory over the Marlins and it kept them two games ahead of the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

Yes, it was tough trying to justify the Dodgers' faith in Zeile in signing him to a three-year deal. And yes, it was tough living out the dream of his childhood to play in Dodger Stadium. And yes, it was tough tuning out the well-meaning family and friends and supporters who surrounded Zeile and cheered him and followed his every move.

But you want to talk about pressure. How about leaving home at 12 in order to learn to be a world-class gymnast, qualifying for the Olympic Games only to have the U.S. boycott those games in 1980, and then coming back in the 1984 games with your last shot at glory and winning a gold and two silver medals.

Now that's pressure.

That's what Julianne McNamara had to deal with more than a decade ago. But now, her focus is on baseball. Because her husband is Todd Zeile.

"She is very good to talk to," Zeile said. "She has a unique gift of concentration. To be a world-class athlete, with all the distractions that go along with it, she would have to have that kind of discipline to achieve that kind of success."

For awhile, Zeile was wondering if he would have any success with the Dodgers. He was leading the team in errors. He was struggling to get his average above .150.

"I just had to learn how to say no," Zeile said. "Early on, I felt an obligation to so many people. But she [Julianne] is my biggest supporter and she is very protective of me."

And finally, Zeile learned to turn the decibel level way down on the cheers and focus on the sound of ball hitting bat.

The results of late have been spectacular.

After hitting his first-inning grand slam, his career-high 26th home run of the season, Zeile was intentionally walked in the second, the 11th consecutive time he had reached base. That was three short of the National League record and five short of the major-league mark.

Zeile is hitting a season-high .259 and has driven in 80 runs.

But even with Zeile's first-inning heroics, the Dodgers had to struggle a bit to win.

Heading into the seventh inning, the Dodgers were cruising with a 7-1 lead, veteran knuckleballer Tom Candiotti making the Marlins look silly on some of his tantalizing, but illusive pitches. Candiotti had three speeds Sunday: slow, slower, and slowest.

"I think one pitch I threw might have come in at about 30 mph," Candiotti said.

Marlin outfielder Bobby Bonilla got so frustrated at taking a called third strike in the sixth inning, he simply dropped his bat and batting helmet near home plate and stormed off, conceding, perhaps, that the bat was of little use to him.

With two out in the seventh inning, Candiotti had struck out seven and was seemingly in total command.

But a 14-year veteran like Candiotti knows how quickly the frustration can jump from one dugout to the other.

Sure enough, with two out in the seventh, Florida second baseman Craig Counsell lofted a fly ball into right-center that dropped untouched when no one called for it.

Pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd walked, and Devon White followed with his third home run, hitting the ball over the 360-foot sign in right field.

When Candiotti hit the next batter, Edgar Renteria, he was finished for the day.

But not the Marlins.

Two walks loaded the bases and pinch-hitter Moises Alou singled off Mark Guthrie to drive in a run.

Just like that, it was 7-5.

But unlike Texas, where the Dodger bullpen collapsed last week, this time it hung firm.

The Dodgers added two insurance runs in their half of the seventh and Todd Worrell, who has struggled lately, came on in the ninth to successfully close out the game.

* RANDY HARVEY

The next 12 days will go a long way in determining the Dodgers' fate this season--and postseason. C2

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