Aside from their pitching staff, which was superb in both National League play-offs, the one constant the Los Angeles Dodgers have going for them against the New York Yankees in the 1981 World Series is their first baseman, Steve Garvey.
A slump for Garvey is four at-bats without a hit; two days without either a homer or run batted in; or nine innings when he doesn't save at least one L.A. infielder an error, usually by digging an impossible throw out of the dirt. He led all Dodgers in this year's playoffs with a .328 batting average, 13 hits, three homers, and six RBIs.
The last time Steve missed a regular-season game was Sept. 2, 1975. Since then his name has appeared on 945 consecutive lineup cards, fifth on baseball's all-time Ironman list behind Lou Gehrig (2,130 consecutive games), Everett Scott , Billy Williams, and Joe Sewell. Only Gehrig's figure seems beyond him.
One thing New York pitchers will try to do in this series is keep the hitters who are batting ahead of Garvey off the bases in case Steve's in the kind of groove that can put a ball into orbit.
In a city where theatrical and athletic images often fluctuate between bad and worse, Garvey could sell his pet parrot (if he had one) to the town gossip and never have to worry. A few years ago a county in central California even named a junior high school after him.
Steve is always at the park at least three hours before game time; he'll answer any reporter's questions concerning baseball (although he won't discuss his personal life); and he has a pleasant disposition that never seems to change.
Part of this may stem from the fact that as a boy he acquired an unusual sense of values from having to take care of an invalid grandmother while his mother worked. This included cleaning, food shopping, and often preparing dinner.
The one thing you cannot afford to do against Garvey if you are a pitcher is give hime a ball waist-high that he can reach out and drive into the stands.
In Game 4 of the National League Championship series against Montreal, the one the Dodgers had to win or try again nest year, Expo pitcher Bill Gullickson had been frustrating L.A. hitters all afternoon, especially with men on base.
But with Dusty Baker aboard in the eithth and one man out, Garvey homered so convincingly into the stands that Time Raines, the Montreal left-fielder, didn't even bother to turn his head to see where the ball was going. While some people may think a more important home run was Rick Monday's winning clout in Game 5, which put the Dodgers into the World Series, without Garvey's homer Rick might never have had the chance to be the hero.
"The secret of good hitting is to be able to adjust to every pitcher and sometimes with every pitch," Garvey explained. "Most new players wto make the majors come in as good fastball hitters, but the only ones who stay are those who learn to hit the curveball, because after a while they don't see the fastball that often.
"I don't think a hitter can say he's attained the kind of success he wants until the defense is forced to play him straight away and pitchers realize they can't get him out the same way all the time. Sometimes if I see the opposing third baseman playing too far back, and I'm in a slump, I'll bunt just to get the hit that may get me going again."
When Garvey first joined L.A., the Dodgers didn't know where to play him. They tried him in the outfield and at third base and wondered how a man with so many skills at the plate could have so much trouble keeping his throws to first in the park.
Steve used to lift weights regularly when he was a starting defensive back at Michigan State, which may have helped him as a football player but left him so heavily muscled through the shoulders that the only infield position he could play and not have to throw that much was first base.
Garvey is not a tall man. At a blocky 5 ft., 10 in. and 190 pounds, he is built more like a tank than a sports car. His strike zone isn't all that big, either, and when he jumps on a pitch it is with a short, powerful stroke that seems to jerk the ball out of sight.
The scouting report Yankee pitchers have on Garvey cautions them to throw him breaking balls low and away and never get a pitch up high against him. It also makes them aware that Steve almost never goes to the plate looking for a walk and that his personal strike zone is wider than most hitters'.
Occasionally, of course, Garvey can be made to look bad, particularly when he strikes out. But the man who handled pressure so well for Los Angeles in this year's National League playoffs against Houston and Montreal is probably going to get his hits no matter how New York pitches him. Either that or the Dodgers will go home early.