Now coming in to pitch for the Dodgers: No. 6, Ron Fairly."
Big John Ramsey, the boon fellow who moonlights as public-address announcer in Dodger Stadium, has a voice that is mellifluous and a catness that is cool. You could tell him you had a dead horse in the bathtub and it's 7 to 5 he would smile and say, "All right. What color is it?" It is, however, 9 to 5 that Big John is going to blow that announcement about Fairly—if Catcher John Roseboro of the Dodgers can sell Manager Walter Alston his Idea, an idea audacious enough to win a World Series.
And much too audacious for Alston, who, if he ever sat in the flaky poker game that goes on in the pressroom at Vero Beach, Fla. each spring, might check a full house. Unless, of course, the Baltimore Orioles place him in that inevitable, if infrequent, situation in which he has learned (as he has patiently learned and painfully learned about baseball and about Walter Alston) that "the unorthodox is the percentage play."
Bringing left-handed Right Fielder Fairly in to pitch to one batter and making Pitcher Don Drysdale a right fielder for that one play occurred to Roseboro in an idle moment. He was idle because a pitch from Drysdale did not get past Willie McCovey—again. It got past Fairly on a screaming line, and Roseboro, who thinks about things, thought about how bad McCovey can look against a left-hander with a breaking pitch. Any left-hander. And he thought about how McCovey makes a large share of his bread off Drysdale.
It is a base canard to say that Don Drysdale cannot get Willie McCovey out. The most consecutive hits McCovey ever had off him is five. True, McCovey has hit Drysdale for .533 (8 for 15) this year, but Don can say, with the overmatched mouse who explained he had been sick, that he hasn't had a real good year. McCovey is actually only .360 (35 for 97) off Drysdale lifetime.
"But let's face it," says Roseboro. "He does hit him. Perranoski is the best left-handed reliever there is, but if you bring him in you have to take Drysdale out of the game. I've caught Fairly on the sidelines, and he has good stuff. I think he has a big-league curve."
"But," Alston points out, with that don't-you-see smile that has infuriated almost three generations (a baseball generation being approximately five years) of artless Dodgers, "Fairly is not a pitcher. I know he has a breaking pitch, but he is less likely to get a pitch where he wants it than Drysdale is. Throwing on the sidelines and pitching on the mound are not the same."
"Alston do a thing like that?" one can almost hear Johnny Podres saying. "You got to be out of your mind. He don't think that fast."
"I can't tell you I'd never do it," Alston says. "I wouldn't say that about anything. But you can say it's highly improbable." But let's suppose it's the seventh game. Let's suppose the hitter is Boog Powell, a big window-breaking left-hander. Let's suppose Drysdale is the pitcher, because Alston has decided that asking Sandy Koufax to pitch a "must" game with two days' rest for the second time in 15 days is neither fair, which Alston always is, nor percentage, which he must always play. And let's suppose Drysdale is pitching well, and Alston doesn't want to take him out of the game. Out comes No. 24 to the mound, and a buzz of curiosity rises from the multitude of 54,000 (27,000 of whom wouldn't even understand an orthodox move because they haven't been to a game all year). In comes No. 6 from right field, passing No. 53 on the way and making a remark that will be precious, because Fairly rises to occasions. Ramsey, the announcer, fighting to keep his cool, knowing in his heart that he must be wrong, takes a grip on himself and his muffled mike and prepares to tell Jerry Lewis and his friends just what the hell is going on.
Yet such a wild move would not be unprecedented. In the early 1950s, when he was managing the White Sox, Paul Richards made a momentary third baseman of Pitcher Harry Dorish while left-hander Billy Pierce pitched to Ted Williams. And one of the things about Alston is that he will listen to your idea. If you're just the barber, he will listen, and he will try your idea if it fits the pattern of percentage which is his way of life—in pool, bridge, baseball and even in his monastic dedication to his family. Because he consults his coaches, his players (too often a majority of them) snicker after curfew about the fact that he cannot make a decision, which of course is not a fact. Alston realizes now that he consulted his coaches too much in his first frightening days in Brooklyn. He knows that a third generation of spoiled kids who are paid to play a game are perpetuating the myth of his indecisiveness. He knows it, he thinks it's too bad, and he lives with it.
And he still consults his coaches, because he knows that he doesn't know it all, because nobody does. "If he wanted nothing but fungo hitters, he could get coaches a lot cheaper," says Jim Gilliam, the greatest mediocrity in baseball history. Gilliam has been with Alston since 1951 at Montreal, longer consecutively than anyone except Alston's wife, Lela, who knows about the snickers because she knows everything Walter knows, except baseball, which she leaves to him because she knows he'll be all right. She knows he always has been all right. She has seen him defeat the monster of rage that dwells within him. Nobody could impress Lela by killing a dragon.
Walter Emmons Alston is alleged to have said of a certain ballplayer that if he went out to fight a bear with his hands Alston would bet on the man. If he did say that, he was wrong, because the ballplayer turned out to be a paper tiger. But if the man were Walter Alston, the bear would be in trouble. He can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him. But he could also tell Jackie Robinson that he would meet him any time he wanted to, and anywhere—in here, in front of the other players, or outside where it would be just you and me. Robinson, a man of fierce pride, hates Alston to this day, so vehemently that he can barely disguise his feelings when he is being paid important money by a national television network to be objective at a microphone. Part of the reason for Robinson's hatred is that Alston, in front of other men, invited him outside and he didn't go. A man with no guts can forget a thing like that, but Robinson had guts.
Walter Alston can curse like a poet and tremble in quiet rage at the mention of one player who denounced him to the press—after he had been discharged from Alston's command and was a discreet distance away. Alston had given the player his patience and, in fact, his pity, and had stretched a point of his immaculate ethics to keep him in the game he loved (and once cried softly about in a bar one night when he was drunk and desperate). In Brooklyn, in 1954, Alston was scared, and he's man enough to admit that, too. He was scared mostly of the big newspapers and their little men, because he thought he was just a big hick. He had put his teaching degree aside, after his one-strikeout career in the big league ("I swung"), and left Darrtown, Ohio, to go manage in the tank towns because he loved the game, too. So much that if the player had asked him, instead of ridiculing him in the night, "that goddam schoolteacher" could have taught him a dignified way to love baseball and a dignified way to fail at it. "If you see him," Alston said recently, his blacksmith forearms trembling on the breakfast table, "tell him what I said. Will you please do that for me? Because I can't. If I ever talk to that man, you'll know I'm sick."
The man cried because he had an arm that hurt so badly he couldn't comb his hair, but he was no more a physical coward than Alston. He cried from fear: fear that they wouldn't let him play any more, fear of facing the fact that while he had the tools for better jobs than baseball, he hadn't learned to use them and now it might be too late. Alston doesn't go into bars ("I just don't like the taste of the stuff, and you can't tell me you liked your first one, anymore than I liked the first one of these cigarettes"), but if he had been there that night he could have helped the man. And he would have, because he has known fear, too
Alston was not near the bullpen in whatever bush town it was on the trip north from his first Dodger spring training camp in 1954, so he didn't hear Robinson tell Roy Campanella (or was it the other way around?) that, "We'll just have to carry him on our shoulders to a pennant." But he knew the players were talking and laughing at his conservative ways. The press corps laughed with the players when Alston said things like, "It's too early to tell." They're still laughing. Not so many of them, though, as in 1957, the year Alston began to feel secure.
One day that year he made a move in a late inning and it won the game, or seemed to. Now the Press came to salute him. He could have sat quietly and become a genius in the papers that had made a fool of him, but he could not. "I'd like to take credit," he said, "but I have to tell you that wasn't the reason I made the move." Sure he had to. The real Walter Alston was standing up. It is the only posture in which he can feel comfortable.
"Percentage is my game," he says, while the news wires hum with nonsense about the go-to-hell style of the dashing Dodgers, a reckless abandon that survives critical analysis only because there is precious little critical analysis in Baseball Journalism, U.S.A. "I make an unorthodox move only when it seems percentage to be unorthodox. It's like setting up a hitter: if you've given him just enough fast balls, the changeup is percentage."
They laugh at his percentage. Once in Brooklyn, with Willie Mays at bat and the game on the bases, he relieved the young Drysdale with the veteran Clem Labine, but experience wasn't the only reason. In those beautiful, dead days Allan Roth was the Dodger statistician, and he knew all things. Mays, he reported, was something like .585 off Drysdale and only .562 off Labine. Percentage. It fractured everyone in the press box when Willie hit a screamer that almost turned the second baseman around, and the inning was over. Percentage had prevailed again.
Even Alston allowed himself a laugh when he was told the comparative figures, which, of course, he already knew. He won the game, by the way, 4-3. He's still playing his hand the same funny way, and he's still winning.
"I know Roseboro's idea," he says. "There might come a time to use it, but I doubt it. It's not percentage."
"If I managed," says Roseboro, who might manage, "they'd probably run me off the first day. If there was a chance, I'd have to take it, every time. I still don't agree with Alston's methods, but I've been with him a long time, and I accept them. And we win."
Shaw said a reasonable man adapts himself to his environment, so the adjustment was not as hard for Roseboro as for, say, Podres. John never really tried to adjust, but Roseboro did, for a reason. He was sitting in the bullpen in Chicago one day late in September because a left-hander was going for the Cubs and Alston had the right-handed-hitting Jeff Torborg (.237) catching instead of the left-handed-hitting Roseboro (.282). "If you're asking me about him as a man," Roseboro said, "I don't think there is any more man than he is. He's all you can ask a man to be." Roseboro was one of those players who needed time to develop as a big-leaguer. Alston gave it to him, and he remembers that. Roseboro is one of the grateful Dodgers, and he says behold the man.
A big, strong, honest man, but there are other parts to a man. You can see them in the way he handles his ball club. Lou Johnson, the elf of the Dodgers, can make you cry because he's beautiful. Fouled up like an unscheduled fire drill, but beautiful. "Spark plug, hell," Alston said to him one day as Johnson girded for battle despite a case of hemorrhoids that would have kept a bank teller in bed. "Are you the spark of this club or the plug? You bust your tail on the field every day, but I have to kick it to get you out of here. You're the last s.o.b. to get dressed every day."
"Hey, Skip," said Johnson, with that incandescent smile, "would you like me to hustle at 12:15, or after the bell rings?"
"I give up," Alston said. "There isn't any way to top that."
Lou Johnson in his life has had troubles. Not bad troubles, but constant troubles, and he'll have more because he's trouble-prone. In a dark hotel corridor in Philadelphia recently a friend of his, a white man, said, kiddingly, "You're so black I couldn't see you," and then realized he had crossed that unwritten line of overfamiliarity that must separate white and black friends for another couple of centuries. He apologized.
"I know you, man," Johnson said, "so I know it was supposed to be funny. And I know you got troubles so it didn't come out funny. I know about troubles." Johnson does not have the Willy Loman trouble about being well liked, because if you don't like Lou Johnson you don't like people and you have the trouble, man. Johnson never had that, but he did have the trouble of believing that he was well liked. And he doesn't have that anymore because Tommy Davis broke an ankle, and now Lou Johnson plays for Walter Alston, the man. "The man likes me," says Lou Johnson, and you see what happiness is.
JOHN ROSEBORO OFFERS COMMENT TO ALSTON WHO, AS ALWAYS, LISTENS