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Original Issue

These Dodger Kids Are On The Ball

Slumping or injured veterans laid L.A. low, but now its youngsters are keeping the team afloat in the NL West

Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser IV was three outs away from beating the St. Louis Cardinals 10-0 last Thursday night when he began to lose his composure. "I was almost in tears," the 25-year-old rookie right-hander said later. "I was going crazy thinking about results instead of pitches. What I was accomplishing was starting to hit me."

What Hershiser was doing was reminding Dodger fans of Fernando Valenzuela's fantastic spring of 1981. Hershiser was about to notch his fourth straight win, as well as his third straight shutout, his second straight two-hitter and his 31st straight scoreless inning. Breathing deeply, Hershiser stepped off the mound. Then he went to work and retired the side on just eight pitches, getting Mike Jorgensen on a grounder to short to end the game.

The Dodgers, who won the NL West in 1983 but were in third place—8½ games behind first-place San Diego—at week's end, have been undergoing a facelift all season, and Hershiser is just one of their hopes for the future. Third baseman German Rivera, 24, has stabilized the defense since supplanting Pedro Guerrero, who moved to rightfield on July 3. Dave Anderson, 23, has fielded almost flawlessly since replacing Bill Russell at shortstop. First baseman-outfielder Franklin Stubbs, 23, has delivered three game-winning RBIs. Outfielder R.J. Reynolds, 24, is hitting .271. And Ken Howell, 23, has shown potential in the bullpen. All but Anderson are rookies.

Except for the recent play of their kids, it hasn't been a good year for the Dodgers. During the winter their best reliever, lefthander Steve Howe, was suspended for the entire season for drug abuse. On March 22 utility infielder Bob Bailor dived for a ball with L.A. up nine runs in an exhibition game against Baltimore and dislocated his left shoulder. Between April 27 and July 16, nine more Dodgers, including such 1983 stalwarts as reliever Tom Niedenfuer, starter Jerry Reuss and first baseman-outfielder Mike Marshall, were placed on the disabled list. Manager Tommy Lasorda used 72 batting orders in 99 games, which was enough to make him go on a diet.

The Dodgers also have had some freakish bad luck. Lefthanded starter Rick Honeycutt injured his pitching shoulder on June 9 by tripping while jogging in the Dodger Stadium parking lot. On June 19 Niedenfuer passed out while suffering a kidney-stone attack and swallowed his tongue. No wonder Aphrodite (Mama Tula) Stroumbos, the 89-year-old mother of Dodger vice-president Al Campanis, cooked up her Greek evil-eye antidote, which features a plate, water, oil, a cross and incantations. "She used it, and we ended a seven-game losing streak," says Campanis.

Then there's the matter of what's the matter with Guerrero. Last season he had 32 homers, 103 runs batted in and hit .298. That performance encouraged the Dodgers to sign him to a five-year, $7 million contract. But this season his numbers through Sunday were only 7, 32 and .279. "If I'd known what would happen," Guerrero says, "I never would have signed for all that money."

Perhaps because they remember the wisdom of Branch Rickey, and perhaps because youngsters like Marshall, first baseman Greg Brock and outfielder Candy Maldonado were burning up the minor leagues, the Dodgers have tended to dispose of their stars one year early—not one year late. As a result, Guerrero is the only power hitter remaining from the 1981 team that beat the Yankees in the World Series. Guerrero was co-MVP of that Series with Steve Yeager and Ron Cey. In 1982 Davey Lopes was sent to Oakland, and in 1983 Cey ended up in Chicago and Steve Garvey signed with San Diego. Then last winter the Dodgers released leftfielder Dusty Baker, who now plays for San Francisco. Baker's departure put pressure on Guerrero that he neither expected nor sought. He came to spring training 12 pounds overweight and got off to a bad start. "Sometimes I feel there's something holding back the bat," he says. "I get to the plate, and the bat feels so heavy. I believe people can do bad things to you. And if you saw what I've seen in the Dominican Republic [his native country], you would, too."

What's held back Guerrero, some Dodgers feel, is lackadaisical play. On July 17 Lasorda reportedly blasted unnamed, highly paid Dodgers for not giving it their all. Badly shaken, Guerrero sat down that night, citing a knee injury. He did appear as a pinch hitter, striking out, and did the same the following night, extending his hitless streak to 14 at bats. When he learned the L.A. papers had raked him over the coals, Guerrero threatened 118-pound L.A. Herald Examiner reporter Ken (Mouse) Gurnick, saying, "I'm going to kick your [bleeping] ass." Instead, Guerrero kicked up his heels: He went 2 for 4, stole a base and scored twice in Hershiser's win.

Guerrero's problems have been magnified, too, in the light of several other Dodger flops. Brock was hitting .208 with only nine home runs when he was returned to Albuquerque early this month. Carlos Diaz, the lefthanded reliever who came with Bailor from the Mets in exchange for pitcher Sid Fernandez, was shipped to Albuquerque after one outing in which he gave up seven hits and seven runs in one inning. (Last week Fernandez beat the Astros and the Reds for the first victories by a Met lefthanded starter in two years.)

"The Dodgers will be fine if Jerry Reuss and Bob Welch come back," says Pirate manager Chuck Tanner. But last Wednesday, Reuss, a 12-game winner in '83 who's getting over an elbow injury, made his first start since June 2 and lasted just 18 pitches in a 5-2 loss to the Pirates. And Welch, sent to the bullpen on July 14 after attaining a 6-10, 4.02 record as a starter, continued his sour pitching with an 0-1 record in relief.

So enter the kids. Or in Hershiser's case, almost exit. Hershiser is of German derivation. Orel is an old family name that may have originated in a city in the Soviet Union. And Orel Leonard Hershiser IV isn't your everyday can't-miss pitching prospect. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, N.J. and the Detroit suburb of South-field, Mich., Hershiser was an excellent hockey player; in 1974-75 he skated with the Philadelphia Flyers Junior A team. "Hockey's good for a pitcher's legs," says Orel III, a semiretired part owner of a printing company who has seen his son win his last four games. "He hasn't seen me give up a run yet," says Orel IV, who was the Dodgers' 17th-round draft pick in 1979. He subsequently spent 4½ years in the minors, and even after making the big club this spring he was almost sent back to Albuquerque seven weeks ago.

"I was overawed just being in the big leagues," Hershiser says. "It showed in my pitching. After I lost 8-1 to Atlanta on June 7, [pitching coach Ron] Perranoski told me, 'You're giving big league hitters too much credit. You're trying to strike them out on the first pitch instead of getting two strikes first.' After a lot of tears and frustration and prayers with my wife, Jamie, I started pitching well."

To say the least. In his last four starts Hershiser has struck out 37 batters and walked only four while beating the Cubs 7-1, the Pirates 9-0, the Cubs 8-0 (on a two-hitter with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field) and the Cardinals 10-0. For the season he has a 6-3 record and a 2.82 ERA, but as a starter he's 4-1, 1.52.

"I stopped using my split-fingered fastball, which was ruining my release point and causing me to drop my arm, and started using my [93-mph] sinker and curve—the pitches that got me here," he says. "And from that point, I went at the hitters. When I rub the ball on the mound, all I stare at is the mound and the dirt in front of it. Then I slowly raise my eye level to the grass and home plate until I get to the catcher's glove."

Hershiser specializes in getting batters to hit ground balls, and with Rivera and Anderson behind him, they, in turn, become easy outs. "German reminds me of Clete Boyer and Brooks Robinson," says Lasorda, ever the optimist. "He's quick from the waist up, and that's what a good third baseman needs to be."

Except for a fling as a minor league shortstop in 1981 and '82, Rivera has been a third baseman since his Little League days 14 years ago in Carolina, Puerto Rico—Roberto Clemente's hometown. Fearing that Rivera would be unable to overcome a tendency to overswing at the plate, L.A. left him unprotected in the winter of '82 and lost him to Oakland. When he failed to make the A's, the Dodgers repurchased him for $12,500. Watching Rivera take batting practice one night, Lasorda called out, "Corto, ràpido [short, fast]." That night Rivera hit two doubles and a triple and raised his average from .211 to .237.

Russell raves about Anderson. "He's a natural," says the 16-year veteran who's hitting .293 while training Anderson to take over the position full-time. "He's got everything but experience." Even so, Anderson has learned a lot in parts of two seasons. "First, you have to get over the feeling of being in the big leagues," Anderson says. "Then you have to learn the hitters and how to play aggressively all the time. That can be toughest when you feel good. You often have your best day when you feel awful, because you make yourself concentrate."

When Marshall and Brock were injured in May, Stubbs, who had been called up from Albuquerque on June 22, began winning games with homers or losing them with errors. "I've been called hero, goat—every word you can think of," he says. "It's just a question of doing your job. The pressure can get to a young player; you have to relax and realize it will all even out."

For the record: R.J. Reynolds doesn't smoke, but he wields a smoking bat and plays a matchless centerfield. After coming up last September, he beat the Braves in a key game with a suicide squeeze. "I look at the majors as easier than the minors," he says. "In the minors, you're trying to run up power stats: Production gets you promotion. Here, you just find what you can do and do it. My job is to get on base."

Although he's still fighting the tendency to pitch across his body, Howell showed his potential by striking out three Cubs with the bases loaded on June 30. "I studied special education and child psychology at Tuskegee," he says. "It's helped my pitching. There are guys who worry about how they'll do out there, and some who can't go out there. Life isn't hitting .300 or a 3.00 ERA."

Some Dodger veterans would argue with that. Alejandro Pena (11-4, 2.27 ERA) didn't make the All-Star team but should have; his new palmball is the talk of the league. Marshall is producing runs (17 homers, 47 runs batted in) despite being pitched around. A year after suffering a torn rotator cuff, catcher Mike Scioscia is batting .298. And Valenzuela (8-11, 3.07) might be 15-5 if he had received better support.

There's surely no more fascinating baseball dialogue than a Valenzuela-Scioscia conversation in Spanglish.

Scioscia: "Cuidado para the man on second" ("Be careful of the hombre en segunda").

Valenzuela: "Donde tu quieres this pitch?" ("Where do you want esta bola?")

Naturally, Lasorda sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "I used to take out my anxieties on food," he says, "but this year I'm eating less meat and dieting on fruit and salads. I'm more patient this year. I tell you, these kids really impress me. They're like fine diamonds. When you pull one out of the ground, it's black. You have to clean it and shine it. The main thing is, the kids are getting experience and playing time. We'll win. If not this year, then next."


L.A. hopes this sentiment is widespread.


Lasorda says his kids, like Rivera (left), whom he likens to Clete Boyer and Brooks Robinson, and Anderson, are fine gems.


The Cards' David Green puts a hex on Maldonado (left) and Guerrero.


From left, soph Anderson and rookies Rivera, Stubbs, Reynolds, Howell and Hershiser.


Scioscia made it back from last year's arm injury but couldn't make it home here.


Lasorda is well able to stomach adversity.