A Dodger leads the National League in hitting. (Take one of these every three hours and come back Friday.) After having tried 42 third basemen in 15 years Los Angeles finally has found the right one. (If that is being written, then the wire services must have a dreamer covering the games.) Don Sutton, one of the top pitchers in baseball, threw five home-run balls in one game this year in Chavez Ravine. (That white car outside with the lamp on its roof is holding space for you, baby.) Sparky Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, claims the Dodgers are a contender in the National League West. (Yeah, and Dick Nixon is going to invite Abbie Hoffman to the White House for Christmas dinner.) Los Angeles has a catcher who plays the outfield when he isn't catching, and he is just behind Johnny Bench in ribbies. (Take 12 of these every half hour and don't come back at all.)
O.K., Doc, but it's true. In the month of May no team in baseball played better than the Dodgers. During one stretch this spring they won 15 of 20 games, a rate that, were they in the American League's East Division, would permit them to start printing playoff and World Series tickets. Following their sorriest start since moving West in 1958, the Dodgers have suddenly begun leaping and prancing around as if they intend to do many interesting things during a season in which most people had them projected as little more than a .500 outfit.
"In recent years," says Manager Walt Alston, "there may have been a tendency to overrate us, just as there may be a tendency to underrate us this time."
Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Since 1969 the Dodgers have generally shown early foot, only to prove inconsistent in the final months of the chase. Only once in those four seasons did they truly menace the ultimate division winner. Los Angeles has also had something of a split personality—twice going for power (with Dick Allen in 1971, Frank Robinson in 1972), and at other times reasserting its traditional speed-and-pitching game (the return of Maury Wills in 1969, the trade for Andy Messersmith for 1973).
Major league rule of thumb holds that any contending team that can feed one minor-leaguer into its lineup per season is doing a fine job. At present the Dodgers have three, and each is off to a flamboyant start. Joe Ferguson is running up RBI numbers that Dodger fans have not seen from a catcher since Roy Campanula. Second Baseman Dave Lopes (rhymes with copes) was leading the league in batting at .364 as the week was ending, and Third Baseman Ron Cey was chasing .300 and employing a glove that did not go clang in the night.
The Los Angeles' Third Base Problem is legend in baseball. Alphabetically, the list of failed aspirants runs from Alcarez to Zimmer. Cey is the 43rd to be offered in sacrifice to the position. In his first 43 games Cey made only six errors. For those unfamiliar with the Dodger TBP, consider this: In 155 games last year the committee that functioned at third made 53 errors—in a town well known for liberal scoring interpretations.
Called Penguin because of his stocky build (5'10", 185 pounds) and his waddle, Cey is doing the job most of his predecessors found impossible. He got the position when Ken McMullen, the third baseman Los Angeles obtained from California last winter, injured his back. Cey is not only fielding well, he is hitting with power—something the Dodgers have lacked at that corner for years. In his last two seasons in Triple A ball he knocked in 226 runs and had 55 homers. "I don't want to sound cocky," says Cey, who is 25, "but in my mind there is no question about my ability to hit. It's something I have always been able to do. The more I see of big-league pitching the more confident I am that I will hit with power here."
For years the gospel as preached by the National League contained two tenets concerning the Dodgers. The first said, "Beware, for they defeat not themselves." The second said, "He who visits Dodger Stadium shall risk grief." From the time the team moved into the stadium in 1962 until three seasons ago both precepts held true. Los Angeles teams knew the nuances of defense, and the Dodgers used their stadium well. In good years and bad they won only three more games on the road (326-323) than they lost, but at home they won 381 and lost 269.
However, pennants that were supposed to fly above Chavez Ravine ended up instead at minor-league ball parks in Spokane, Albuquerque and Bakersfield. And the Dodger organization, acutely aware that the star system titillates Los Angeles, built up fledgling players beyond reason. Eventually, the risk of grief in Dodger Stadium seemed diminished to visiting foes.
One reason was that the Dodgers have had to juggle their catchers constantly. Those who hit could not throw and those capable of catching and throwing could not hit. Joe Ferguson, 26, may lay that problem to rest. At 6'2" and 200 pounds he is of the generous dimensions of Bench, Carlton Fisk, Ray Fosse and Bill Freehan. On the days when Ferguson is not catching, Alston puts him in right or left field to get both his bat and arm into the lineup. Only once this season has Ferguson failed to start a game.
"Originally I was an outfielder," Ferguson says. "The organization suggested that I try catching. I agreed and talked to Del Crandall about it. Del had been a fine catcher himself, of course, and was with the Dodgers then. He asked if I was really interested. When I told him I was, he said, 'Let's get going.' I had to learn to throw differently, block balls and handle the gear and the pitchers. One day in spring training I caught three games.
"When you are behind the plate, all your thoughts are concentrated on not allowing the batter to hit. Then you have to go up and try to hit. It's hard to do that. You have to free yourself mentally to be able to change from defense to offense. I think I've learned."
No job is harder for a catcher than taking command of a veteran pitching staff, which is what the Dodgers have. But the Dodger pitchers approve of the way Ferguson handles them. "They like to have their games called for them," says Joe. "They have enough to worry about."
Maybe the Dodgers will prove again to be little more than a spring mirage. But their pitching is starting to come around, and that means trouble for the enemy. And if those youngsters can....
Dave Lopes says, "There's no pressure about leading the league in hitting because I don't expect to be doing it in September. I'm just having my fun now. This is the time of the year when guys like me lead the league." But he has stolen 17 bases in 18 major league tries, and that kind of speed will be around in September, even if his batting average dwindles off to a more reasonable .250 or so.
And the man who manages these newcomers has won with good teams as well as not-so-good ones, old clubs and young. So if you don't mind, Doc, hold off on those wake-up pills for awhile. Let's go right on dreaming.
JOE FERGUSON, A SURPRISE AS AN RBI MAN, TAKES A STRONG CUT AGAINST ATLANTA