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BASEBALL

He'll Watch, and Knuckle Down Later

June 26, 1998|ROSS NEWHAN

Charlie Hough didn't return to Dodger Stadium to pitch, although he's only 50 and was still throwing his knuckleball to major league hitters four years ago.

He returned Thursday as part of the Wednesday night coaching shakeup--what, you've become immune to the tremors?--to see if he can get a grip, knuckle or otherwise, on the pitching inconsistency as successor to the ousted Glenn Gregson.

"I don't think there's any quick fixes," Hough said. "Hideo Nomo went to the Mets, and they said his problem was that he had been tipping his pitches. Well, he's still struggling. I mean, there's no way I can walk in and tell Rocket [Ismael Valdes] that he's lost a couple games because he didn't do this or didn't do that.

"In this first stretch of time I have to be a little bit of a fan and sit back and watch them do their thing and see if there's something that jumps out at me.

"I can't expect to make an [immediate] impact. If there's an impact, it will be because we get a couple guys healthy and a couple guys rolling."

Aside from an occasional glimpse on "SportsCenter," Hough hasn't seen the Dodger staff because he has been traveling the freeways as pitching coach of the San Bernardino Stampede, the Dodgers' Class-A affiliate in the California League. If they hadn't been recalled, Hough and Mickey Hatcher, who managed the Stampede, would have been in Lake Elsinore on Thursday night for a game against the Angel affiliate. Instead, as Hough put it at Dodger Stadium, "we're here to face the real Angels."

Plus, a real challenge.

With Nomo in New York, Randy Johnson in Seattle and Ramon Martinez out for the season, Dodger starters were 25-29 with a 4.26 earned-run average before Thursday night. Relievers were 12-11 with a 3.39 ERA, 17 saves (12th among National League teams) and the escalating feeling that they are being made the scapegoats for the Dodger struggle.

"Every time one of us comes out of the bullpen now," said Jim Bruske, "it's with a feeling that everyone is saying, 'Oh, no, what's he going to do this time?' One of our supposed leaders was quoted in a story the other day as saying that nothing takes the wind out of a team's sails more than to keep losing games in the late innings. If he's going to say that, why doesn't he use his name? I mean, when the pitchers were doing well and the hitters weren't hitting, none of us said that nothing takes the wind out of a team's sails more than to not get any runs. Why not do a story on that?"

Hard to squeeze in, of course, amid the daily upheavals.

Wednesday, for instance, saw the dismissal of Gregson, Mark Cresse and Reggie Smith, with a combined total of almost 50 years in the organization.

New Manager Glenn Hoffman was said to have made the decision, although General Manager Tom Lasorda certainly had some input--if not more.

Hoffman, who had been the Dodgers' minor league field coordinator before becoming Albuquerque manager in 1997, was asked about Hough's strengths and said: communication, knowledge and major league experience.

That latter attribute may have been a Gregson handicap.

He was in his first season as the successor to respected Dave Wallace after spending 10 years as the club's roving minor league instructor.

A Dodger starter said: "He didn't have any major league experience and never got a handle on the staff."

Bruske, however, said of Gregson, "He was always upbeat and a great communicator. I don't fault him for anything. He simply took the blame for all of us struggling. Maybe we're the ones who should have been fired."

Maybe, said Hough, no one is to blame. Maybe a combination of factors eroded expectations, contributing to inevitable changes.

The voice of experience.

Twenty-four major league seasons defying logic and greedy major league hitters with his elusive knuckler.

Eighteen of those seasons after Lasorda and the Dodgers decided he could no longer close consistently and sold him to the Texas Rangers in July 1980, after which he soon became a starter and recorded six seasons of 15 or more wins. He retired in 1994, had a hip replacement in '95 and became the San Bernardino pitching coach in '96.

How does a knuckleballer instruct conventional pitchers?

"I had to learn to pitch if I had any chance to compete because I didn't have the talent," Hough said. "I paid attention, had good teachers and was a teammate of some great pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Ferguson Jenkins and Tommy John. I watched how they went about their business and applied what they knew to get someone out. I haven't invented anything, but I've been a closer, an opening-day starter and a bum who pitched with his team 12 runs down in the rain and prayed that the game would be called. I've done a little of everything, and I hope they'll have some confidence in me."

Hough had a meeting with his pitchers before the game and said he told them, "bear with me, I'll probably louse up some names right now, but let me watch and see how you go about it."

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