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Helene Elliott

These Dodgers Can Learn From a 25-Year-Old Lesson

September 17, 2006|Helene Elliott

For a few moments they were sleek and swift and strong again, their hair untouched by gray and their faces unlined by age as they sprinted toward an unlikely destiny.

The 1981 Dodgers will forever be youthful and triumphant, as they were in the World Series film shown on the DodgerVision display board Saturday before the Dodgers-Padres game to great applause. Reunited for a celebration of their championship, members of the '81 team found themselves easily resuming conversations they had broken off a month or a year or a decade ago, so solid is the bond they forged in a season in which they overcame playoff deficits against the Astros, Expos and Yankees.

"We just found ways to win," said catcher Steve Yeager, now an instructor in the Dodgers' minor league system. "We were down all the time. We came back. And when you come back, good things happen."

The current Dodgers have shown some of that resilience.

After a 1-13 slide dropped them 7 1/2 games out of first in the National League West, they rode a 17-1 surge to the top and have remained there since Aug. 10. However, their lead shrank to half a game Saturday as a result of their shoddy 11-2 loss to the Padres, who strafed starter Chad Billingsley and relievers Eric Stults and Tim Hamulack and drove them out of the game before many late-arriving fans had found their seats.

The Dodgers have two more games against the Padres and two weeks of scoreboard watching left in their season. This patch will determine whether they will have another season to remember, or have years to rue this as a season of lost opportunity.

These Dodgers are fortunate that they play in a weak division, fortunate that youngsters such as Russell Martin and Andre Ethier have been able to leap from the minor leagues to become impact players in their lineup. They've been good enough to live with, if not completely overcome, the inconsistency of their bullpen and their lack of power in the middle of the batting order.

Whether this group will reunite in 25 years at Chavez Ravine -- or wherever the Dodgers may call home -- to celebrate a championship season is impossible to predict. The World Series winners of a quarter-century ago hope that will be so, and they'd like to see a link added to the chain that binds them to the Dodgers champions who went before them.

Several former players said they believe that the current team has some of the elements essential to success.

"We're hoping that this edition of the ballclub is able to catch the lightning in the bottle that we were able to do 25 years ago," said Rick Monday, whose home run against Montreal in the decisive game of the NL championship series put the Dodgers into the World Series.

"This is a club that has realized it has an opportunity to make this a special season, and it's worth battling for. It's worth the dedication and the pain.

"The potential is there and all you can do is think, 'Don't let go. It has been worth hanging onto and reaching out and grabbing. Now, don't let go.' "

Comparing this team with the 1981 team "is kind of apples and oranges," said retired pitcher Jerry Reuss, now a Dodgers broadcaster. The infield for the 1981 team had already been together for eight years -- Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey -- and several other players had been on the 1977 and 1978 Dodgers teams that lost the World Series to the Yankees. The current Dodgers team was assembled in more disparate pieces.

"The dynamics are entirely different," Reuss said, but "the tradition remains the same. The name on the front of the uniform remains the same. Tradition is the common thread."

There are some other similarities. The 1981 Dodgers were powered by veterans but had youth to call upon in Steve Sax and a screwball-throwing rookie left-hander named Fernando Valenzuela. The current Dodgers have Martin and Ethier contributing regularly, with Matt Kemp and James Loney playing minor roles and auditioning for the future.

"The team that's here presently has a good chance of winning a lot of stuff," Yeager said. "There's some talent in this organization. It's a matter of getting them up there and letting them do it.

"Russell Martin, the future is all out there for him. Matt Kemp has all the tools to be a good ballplayer.... There's some talent, some good arms."

Reuss said he doesn't talk to the current Dodgers about the 1981 team's success.

"It takes them away from the work they have to do. Also, it takes them away from their time," he said. "This is their time to establish their future, their legacy."

That legacy will, in part, be determined over the next two weeks. "It's there for them to do with it what they will," Monday said.

The 1981 team showed what can be done with a singleness of purpose and a blend of the right personalities and talents. The current Dodgers can learn from that, or they can waste a chance that might never come their way again.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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