SOME KIDS MAKE A SAD MAN HAPPY - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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After the disastrous 1968 season Los Angeles' 57-year-old manager, Walt Alston, vowed to find some hitters. He did, and his wolf pack of postteeners has transformed the Dodgers

The game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs had moved into the 12th inning at Wrigley Field in Chicago last week and once again the Dodgers had the go-ahead run at second base. Inning after inning it had seemed that the Dodgers were about to score, but again and again they had failed. The young man leading off second was Ted Sizemore, a 24-year-old with less than one month of active duty on a major league team and fewer than 300 games behind him in the minors. Sizemore had reached second base by means of his third hit of the day, a single, and by a sacrifice bunt. But with two outs he knew one thing—he was going to go home on any ball hit through the infield.

Sizemore looked in toward the batter's box at Willie Crawford, a 22-year-old left-handed hitter who had been given $100,000 of Walter O'Malley's money five years before in hopes that someday he would become a Dodger hitter strong enough to propel a pitched baseball beyond the limits of the infield. Crawford swung. He punched a line drive to left field and Sizemore took off as fast as his churning legs could carry him. He flew around third and came to the plate in a long slide, beating the throw from the outfield. Having gone across home plate once and been ruled safe by the umpire, Sizemore rose and went back and touched home plate again. "I was going to try to score," Sizemore said, "even if I was thrown out by 100 miles, and I went back to touch the plate just to make sure that there wouldn't be any doubt about it."

On the cover of this week's issue Ted Sizemore is the young man on the immediate right of Walter Alston, the manager of the Dodgers. The smile on Alston's face has been put there not only by Sizemore but by Bill Sudakis (far left), Bill Grabarkewitz (right, and pronounced gruh-bark-uh-witz) and a group of other young Dodgers who have helped to make the race in the National League's Western Division currently more exciting than any of the other three divisions in baseball. At the end of last week the Dodgers, predicted to finish the season in the low-rent districts, were making like a contending team. Seldom in recent seasons has Alston's smile been as wide.

The entire Dodger team was doing weird things. One day Alston sat down with his lineup card and a ballpoint pen and wrote the names of five youngsters in starting positions. Sizemore, Sudakis and Grabarkewitz played second, third and short, Bill Russell played right field and John Miller played first. Their average age was 23, and even at the end of a season it is rare that five rookies appear in a big-league lineup at the same time.

In one inning Los Angeles scored nine runs against the Pittsburgh Pirates, something no Dodger club has done in 14 years. "Has anyone checked," asked Pittsburgh Manager Larry Shepard, "to see if water is still going over Niagara Falls?" Los Angeles was even hitting home runs and had more than San Francisco and Atlanta, supposedly the power teams in the Western Division. Normally the Dodgers survive on nothing stronger than flower power, but five of them—Sizemore, Russell, Wes Parker, Andy Kosco and Tom Haller—were hitting between .280 and .310, and L.A. fans of long standing were wondering just what this young and strange team is all about.

The Dodgers had barely been heard from since the Baltimore Orioles swept them aside in the 1966 World Series. During the past two seasons they finished a total of 49½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, and attendance in Chavez Ravine tumbled more than a million after Sandy Koufax retired and Maury Wills was dispatched to Montreal by way of Pittsburgh. The only Dodger left from the days of Brooklyn was Don Drysdale, who gave the team its few hours in the sun last year when he pitched 58‚Öî consecutive innings without giving up a run.

But while almost nobody noticed it, the current success of the Dodgers started to take hold in the dying days of the 1968 season after Drysdale had been hurt. Following his brilliant spurt, a shoulder injury put him on the disabled list for the final six weeks of the season. Los Angeles was in 10th place with 30 games remaining and everything seemed futile. But some of the younger Los Angeles pitchers got a chance to work and they immediately began to prove that they could throw both hard and well. Bill Singer, only 25, Don Sutton, 24, and Alan Foster, 22, pitched brilliantly during the final month. Singer and Sutton won nine games and lost only three while Foster compiled an earned run average of 1.69. Equally as important was the arrival of Sudakis from the farm team in Albuquerque, where for two years he had shown excellent power.

Like Jim Lefebvre, Wes Parker and Paul Popovich, Sudakis was a switch hitter, and Walter Alston loves switch hitters. In fact his grandson Robin (for Roberts) Dean (for Dizzy) Ogle, a high school sophomore in Ohio, also switch-hits, thanks to Alston's instruction. Sudakis began to hit as soon as he wiggled into a Los Angeles uniform and, combined with the pitching of Singer, Sutton and Foster, the Dodgers won 20 of their final 30 games to finish the year in seventh place. When the season ended, though; Alston counted up the total number of runs his club had scored during the year and was amazed. The Dodgers had managed to touch home plate only 470 times, and Alston knew that when the spring of 1969 arrived he was going to have to find some hitting somewhere.

With one-sixth of this season completed, Los Angeles has already scored 140 times—almost twice as often as in 1968—and much of the credit for this can be attributed to a crash course during spring training. When the Dodgers went to Vero Beach they did so with an approach totally different from past springs. The emphasis was placed on hitting, and Dixie Walker was hired as a batting instructor. He spent hours in the cages with both young and older players. "Never before," says Wes Parker, "had there been so much lime spent on hitting. We would hit until blisters developed on our hands. Dixie talked to us in his own quiet way about what to do with each pitch."

Like several other teams, Los Angeles purchased one of the new pitching machines that can deliver curveballs, but unlike the rest, the Dodgers used the machine in games. A pitcher would take the mound and go through his entire motion—but the machine did the pitching. Its dials would be set to throw right-handed curves for five or six innings and then left-handed curves for five or six more. Under this system the pitching staff was not worn out by throwing too much batting practice, and the hitters got as much hitting as is possible in games of 10 and 12 innings.

The day the season began, it looked as though the Dodgers were heading for a quick disaster. The first two men to face Drysdale in Cincinnati, Pete Rose and Bob Tolan, homered. But Los Angeles rallied to win the game 3-2 and odd, un-Dodger-like things have been happening ever since. When the team got home to Dodger Stadium it scored 23 runs in the first two games while yielding but one. That was news. The Dodgers followed these unexpected performances by winning three games in their last times at bat and people began to wonder what on earth Los Angeles was doing. What the Dodgers were doing, of course, was hitting. Stranger yet, the hitters were mostly new and young.

"My first day at Vero Beach this spring," says Drysdale, "I started to put on my uniform and look around. I had to get a stool and sit down because I never felt so old in my life. Here were all these kids and most of them I had never seen before. Lord! Were they ever young-looking!"

Sizemore was one of the first to catch Drysdale's eye. Only 5'10", he did not hit for power but he hit the ball almost every time he stepped into the batter's box. His limited experience in the minor leagues had covered only 270 games, but he had caught at Spokane and played the outfield, and his adaptability and versatility promptly convinced the Dodgers that they should send him to the Arizona Instructional League to learn to play second base. He adapted to that, too, which meant that last week he was switched to shortstop. What would you expect of a minor league catcher-outfielder-second baseman at major league shortstop? Why, that he would handle 11 chances without an error in a game against the Cubs, which is what Size-more did last week. Although he failed to get a hit in his first two games as a Dodger, he broke open the third game with four runs batted in. Until this season the only two major league ball parks he had ever seen were Tiger Stadium in Detroit, where he went to Pershing High School, and Crosley Field in Cincinnati, and he only saw Crosley Field when he passed by it in a car.

Russell, at 20 the youngest of the Dodgers new or old, is a fine defensive outfielder who spent last season at Bakersfield in the Class A California League. Not too many people thought he would stay with the Dodgers this year. "He is a remarkable kid," says Alston, "one you don't see come along very often. He learns fast and doesn't make the same mistake twice. I realize it's a long jump for him but I gave him a chance to play himself off the team and he did just the opposite." Russell hit 17 homers at Bakersfield and he also stole 23 bases. He was off nobody's team.

Grabarkewitz was born in Lockhart, Texas and now lives in San Antonio, where he spent the past winter working as a reporter in the sports department of the San Antonio Light. At Alamo Heights he lettered in baseball, basketball, football, track and golf. Even by Texas standards that is pretty much. Although Grabarkewitz is currently suffering from an ankle injury, Alston uses him as a pinch runner because he has stolen 91 bases in three minor league seasons—and one of those was not a complete season. Grabarkewitz has big league speed.

Alston realizes he is putting a lot of pressure on these youngsters but, as always, he is a realist. "You never really know what will happen to youngsters when you put a major league uniform on them," he says. "Some respond to it in a way you would never expect and do more than you might think possible of them. Certainly they are going to make mistakes and our rookies already have, but you have to face up to the fact that we finished in the second division for two straight seasons and things had to change after that."

Before they knew what the youngsters might produce this season, the Dodgers traded with the Yankees for Andy Kosco, a powerful right-handed hitter who was second on the New York team last season in runs batted in with 59. With home plate at Dodger Stadium moved out 10 feet toward the fences, Kosco's power is more of a factor than the club thought it had bargained for. In his first game there Kosco hit a grand-slam homer. He has already hit three of his total of six in that park; in all of 1968 no Dodger hit more than four.

This week the Dodgers return home for a nine-game stand against Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis, and during this period the rest of baseball will be watching both the young Dodgers and Drysdale, who at 32 is the longest-surviving member of the team that moved out of Ebbetts Field 11 years ago. Drysdale, his shoulder hurt again, currently is on the disabled list. He blew way up in weight but recently has been reducing. Soon he will begin throwing, hopefully in the old way, attempting to come back to the greatness that has marked him for the past dozen seasons as one of the finest pitchers and toughest competitors in the game. Drysdale has won more games than any Dodger in history (205) but, as he says, "I just won't go out and embarrass myself or the ball club when I'm not 100%. It is now between my arm and medical science. If I could come back and help this team win, I would rate it as one of the finest things that ever happened to me."

Who, almost any old Brooklyn fan might ask, can replace a Don Drysdale? Well, there is another boy of 22, in the minor leagues at Spokane, who has an earned run average of 1.93. People on Bedford Avenue should sit down and cry about this for awhile; his name is Sandy Vance.

If lightning ever strikes in the same place twice, the Brooklyn-L.A. Dodgers are in.






OLDEST REGULAR DODGER and Only survivor of Brooklyn days is Don Drysdale.


YOUNGEST IRREGULAR DODGER is Bill Russell, an outfielder and only 20 years old.