Los Angeles — Before the start of the 1980 baseball season, someone important in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization told me that the Dodgers could not win the National League pennant without a healthy Reggie Smith in their lineup.
He was referring to the Reggie of 1977-78, whose combined seasons produced 61 homers, 180 runs driven in, and a .301 batting average. In fact, he probably should have been named the league's most valuable player in at least one of those years.
When Smith's season ended this year with shoulder surgery after only 92 games (with many of those limited to a single appearance as a pinch-hitter), it did indeed seem like a logical time to write off the Dodgers.
When LA's starting shortstop, Bill Russell, later broke his hand and outfielder Pedro Guerrero, who was just starting to come into his own as hitter, had his leg placed in a cast for more than a month, the Dodgers were now without three regulars.
Already in a three-way fight with Houston and Cincinnati for first place in the National League West, Los Angeles now had an additional adversary -- extra pressure caused by injuries to several key players.
"You want to know what pressure is?" exclaimed the Dodger manager, Tommy Lasorda. "I'll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is the fear of failing and it's something you do to yourself, only we're not going to let it happen here."
"For years I've been hearing about team efforts whenever a club in trouble won a pennant," Lasorda continued. "Well, in my opinion we've had the best team effort of all time this year and it happened because I've had to use everybody on my roster.
"I started with a rookie [Rudy Law] in centerfield, and when he cooled off I used another young guy [Guerrero] in his place. I've used a rookie catcher [ Mike Scioscia], and my best relief pitcher has also been a rookie [Steve Howe]. Without them and Derrel Thomas, who has filled in at five different positions, we wouldn't have been part of one of the tightest division races in years."
Going into the 1980 season, the Dodgers looked like a team that had moved wisely over the winter to plug most of last year's weak spots.
For example, at a cost of several million dollars Los Angeles had signed two veteran free-agent pitchers -- Don Stanhouse of the Baltimore Orioles and Dave Goltz of the Minnesota Twins.
Stanhouse, who had 21 saves last year with Baltimore, would anchor the Dodger bullpen. He would have help from Terry Forster and Bobby Castillo, plus Howe, who won himself a job in spring training with a series of phenomenal relief performances.
Goltz was a veteran who knew how to pitch, had won 14 games last year with a team (Minnesota) that barely played .500 baseball, and could fantasize about notching 18 to 20 victories with all the runs the Dodgers figured to get him. As a kind of afterthought, Los Angeles also signed free-agent outfielder Jay Johnstone, who had often had a blazing bat for short periods as a spot player before flaming out, and who could also pinch-hit.
The way things turned out, Johnstone (at a reported $120,000 a year, vs. million-dollar contracts to Stanhouse and Goltz) has been a bargain.
Subbing for Smith in the outfield, Jay has stayed right around .300. And while he doesn't get to a lot of balls that Reggie would catch in his hip pocket , he has thrown runners out at the plate and on the bases in key situations.
Stanhouse has been a huge disappointment all season. Goltz, who started slower than slow, has been better lately, but still has a ZIP-code earned run average. On the plus side, though, Jerry Reuss has rebounded from a 7-14 record to a team-leading 17-6 mark, while longtime Ace Don Sutton has come back from his worst year ever to post a 13-5 won-lost slate and a league-leading 2.28 ERA.
Two other things that hurt LA this year have been an inability to play .500 ball on the road, plus a leaky infield.
Although LA has had stretches when its infielders performed without mistakes, too often it has failed to play the sort of fundamental baseball that invariably means so much in pressure situations. Offensively it is one of the best infields in baseball, but defensively it still consists of four converted outfielders.
Lasorda, of course, is not without his critics. He has not exactly been getting rave notices lately for his choice of relief pitchers, batting lineups, pinch-hitters, starting catchers, and late-inning defensive replacements.
In Tommy's defense, however, he is always stuck with making the first guess, leaving the beauty and the infallibility of hindsight to the rest of us.