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Standout athletes have been stars among stars, creating era-defining, genuine drama in a town that thrives on make-believe.

November 30, 2009|By Mike Penner

In the big inning, there was Koufax.

Baseball cradled in his left hand, his flinty eyes staring down another strikeout victim, he was the quintessential Los Angeles sports superstar of the mid-20th century, a larger-than-life mythic figure to a city reared on the notions of making myths and living large.

Although he didn't much care for the camera's bright glare, Sandy Koufax was the perfect sports hero for Los Angeles in the early 1960s. He was armed with potential so vast, it took him years to harness it. Once he did, he became the must-see marquee draw to a town jaded on Hollywood stardom but new to, and excited about, the concept of professional sports transcendence.

Like many Angelenos of the time, Koufax came here from the East, breaking in with the Dodgers in Brooklyn before the Dodgers broke loose to Southern California.

That was during Los Angeles' years as a gold-rush sporting boomtown. The Rams came first, in 1946, from Cleveland. The Dodgers followed in 1958, with the Lakers not far behind, migrating from Minneapolis in 1960.

Los Angeles became the ultimate tourist destination. When times were tough, the Olympics took a trip out here, to bask in the sun for three weeks in 1932, and liked it enough to return in 1984, when the Games were down on their luck again. Both times, Los Angeles helped regenerate the Olympic movement.

Al Davis was sufficiently intrigued to market-test Los Angeles for about a decade or so, but his rough-hewn Raiders seemed always boomerang-bound for Oakland. Donald Sterling brought his Clippers north from San Diego, although it took Los Angeles a couple of decades to notice.

Even teams unable to physically relocate wanted a piece of L.A. flash.

Hence, Arte Moreno and the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim."

The attractions kept coming, and the parade of sports luminaries that passed through our stadiums and arenas could stock several halls of fame.

The two greatest no-hit pitchers of all-time, Koufax and Nolan Ryan, dominated consecutive decades here. They took turns holding the single-season major-league strikeout record and combined for eight no-hitters while wearing the colors of the Dodgers and the Angels before Buzzie Bavasi, the man who negotiated Koufax's high-profile contracts, moved to Anaheim to commit the biggest miscalculation in Angel history: allowing Ryan to become a free agent in 1980 because Bavasi was smugly sure the team could replace him with two 8-7 pitchers.

Don Drysdale first set the big-league record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched in 1968, then Orel Hershiser broke it 20 years later.

Who fills the No. 5 slot in the all-L.A. starting rotation?

Fernando Valenzuela, who became a baseball and cultural phenomenon, inducing the kind of mania around Chavez Ravine that hadn't been seen since Koufax, while winning the World Series for the Dodgers, all in his rookie season?

Or Don Sutton, who pitched for both local teams, laying his career's Hall of Fame foundation with the Dodgers and then clinching his induction by logging victory No. 300 as a member of the Angels?

And who gets the call and the ball in the ninth inning with a one-run lead to protect?

Eric Gagne, whose sweat-stained Dodger cap became the city's most photographed fashion accessory as it accompanied him to a record 84 consecutive saves?

Or Troy Percival, who saved more than 300 games for the Angels while closing out one of baseball's unlikeliest triumphs yet, the Angels' out-of-nowhere World Series championship in 2002?

Filling out the all-L.A. lineup card, how about Mike Scioscia at catcher?

A rock of granite blocking home plate, a postseason hero for the Dodgers in 1981 and 1988 and the manager who orchestrated that minor miracle in Anaheim in 2002.

The infield? Just repeat what Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda did during the 1970s and early 80s -- jot down the names of Steve Garvey at first base, Davey Lopes at second, Ron Cey at third and Bill Russell at shortstop. That quartet set a big-league record for longevity while winning four pennants and a World Series before its 8 1/2 -season run ended with Garvey's 1983 defection to the San Diego Padres, a move recorded in the book "The Sports Pages of the Los Angeles Times" thusly:

"A noted Los Angeles public figure, Steve Garvey of the Dodgers, caused a flap among the city's baseball fans, especially women, when he refused his team's best offer and fled to San Diego for more money. Raising taxes would have caused less of a fuss."

The outfield?

Do you save a spot for one-season wonder Kirk Gibson, whose limp around the bases after delivering a pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series remains the most indelible goosebump moment in Los Angeles sports history?

Vladimir Guerrero, owner of the ugly pine-tar encrusted batting helmet, whiplash batting stroke and 2004 American League most-valuable-player trophy, deserves a berth.

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