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Problems Begin With Russell

September 23, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

SAN DIEGO — Dusty Baker was preaching again Monday, talking about passion and nerve while spitting perfect little snuff missiles into a wastebasket, when he paused, lowered his voice.

"Hank Aaron always told me something about pennant races," he said. "He told me, 'Be the puppet, not the puppeteer."'

You try to imagine the other manager in this September knockdown saying the same thing, sitting up there at Dodger Stadium behind that closed door, his team and season falling apart around him.

You cannot.

Maybe one day, maybe next year, but not now, not Bill Russell.

The Dodgers are about one Russell squint from elimination this morning after Baker's San Francisco Giants won another one they shouldn't have, blowing a 5-1 lead before defeating the San Diego Padres, 11-5.

Trailing by 2 1/2 games with less than a week left, the Dodgers must now sweep the Padres in a two-game home series beginning tonight, then win at least three of four in Colorado this weekend to have a reasonable chance.

Which means they reasonably have no chance.

Which makes this as good a time as any to start examining why.

What many are afraid to say, but can no longer be ignored, is that it begins with Russell.

For now, the former Dodger shortstop has been outmanaged by the former Dodger left fielder.

Perhaps even a certain no-excuses Okie in his first full summer as a major league boss would agree.

This is not about leaning out of the dugout and pumping your fist at the crowd every time your pitcher works out of a bases-loaded jam.

Baker does it, Russell doesn't, that's just who they are.

This is not about entertaining the media in your office with wondrous stories of the good old days.

Baker does it, Russell doesn't, nobody cares either way.

This is about those things nobody sees but the players, things felt nowhere but under their shirts.

This is about those things that turn average pitchers into warriors, pinch-hitters into heroes, losers into champions.

Those things do not carry a name.

But come September, it is easy to see who has them.

Baker does. Russell does not.

This could change, probably will change, if Russell works as hard in the dugout as he did in the field.

Baker has had four full years to prepare for this summer. And who can forget his rookie pennant race, the final day, when he threw rookie Salomon Torres against the Dodgers instead of veteran Scott Sanderson, and it only cost him a tie and a playoff?

"My first year in this situation, a lot of things happened that I just, you know . . . " Baker said, throwing up his hands in mock confusion.

Yes, Dodger fans know.

It's about being the boss.

The Giants play as if they know exactly who that is.

The Dodgers play as if they don't have one.

"The most telling thing about last weekend for the Dodgers was that clubhouse meeting called by Otis Nixon," said Mike Krukow, Giant broadcaster and former pitcher. "He's been there, what, two months and he's the one calling the clubhouse meeting?

"That must mean they have no leaders in there. That means their leadership must come from the manager's office."

Like everyone who has watched Russell struggle the past few weeks, Krukow says he has nothing but respect for him.

"As a player, he was always the toughest out on that team, the one guy you never wanted to face," he said. "You have to realize, this is just his first full year as manager, he's been put in a very difficult situation."

It's about being out front.

Baker is right there, aggressive, unafraid to start players because they had a good batting practice, to push for the midseason acquisition of castoffs like catcher Brian Johnson because he is a tough guy.

In Anaheim earlier this year, he started infielder Rich Aurilia against the Angels Allen Watson because they had faced each other in high school. Aurilia, playing in his 12th game of the year, hit a grand slam.

"It's almost like he is still a player," first baseman J.T. Snow said. "He is encouraging you on the bench. Talking about playing hard. Pulling for everybody."

Earlier this summer, Russell was at the same point, particularly when he he was unafraid to shove around Pedro Astacio and Ismael Valdes.

But as the season has progressed, Russell has retreated.

This past week, instead of trying to win games, it has seemed as if he were trying not to lose them.

He does not send in a pinch-runner for Mike Piazza in the 10th inning in San Francisco on Thursday . . . and slow-footed Piazza is stuck on third base in that bases-loaded debacle.

He asked untested Rick Gorecki to pitch in the ninth inning on Friday, as if a one-run deficit were insurmountable . . . and sure enough, the Rockies' Jeff Reed takes the kid deep and the two-run lead is too much.

He asks Darren Lewis to bunt in the ninth inning on Saturday, even though a simple fly ball would tie the game.

The Dodgers blow a lead Sunday night, and simply disappear.

The Giants have done many unusual things in these last few crazy days of blowouts and burnouts and comebacks.

Disappearing is not one of them.

"Dustiny" said Rod Beck.

That is not a typo. Nor an accident.

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