Los Angeles — Until this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers had gone to the post for nine consecutive years with the same starting infield (Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey), a major league record.
It wasn't a great infield defensively, but it did contribute heavily to four National League pennants and one world championship. In fact, during that stretch Garvey, Cey, and Lopes all had individual years in which they hit 28 or mead-libmore home runs, while Russell also hit well in the clutch.
The kid who broke the Dodger infield mold this season is rookie second baseman Steve Sax, the same young man who replaced the injured Lopes last August and hit .277 in 119 at bats and showed tremendous range in the field. The Dodgers liked what they saw enough that they traded Lopes to Oakland during the off-season.
Sax, just 22, still doesn't have a lock on all the mental things an infielder has to know to handle a multi-talented position like second base. But physically he covers as much ground as anyone in the league, and he also does something you can't teach - he hits the breaking ball well.
If Steve has any serious interests other than baseball (he does play the drums), nobody seems to know what they are. This kid is more like the underpaid rookies of the 1940s and '50s, who were willing to do anything to get ahead. He is totally unlike most of today's first-year players, who are often more worried about the condition of their hair dryers than their batting averages.
Last winter Sax worked out eight hours a day, five days a week. He did things like running, skipping rope, lifting weights, hitting a punching bag, throwing a tennis ball against a wall every morning and taking batting practice in the afternoon. If his hustle reminds you of Pete Rose, it's because Steve planned it that way.
''When the Dodgers brought Sax up from San Antonio late last season, he was not what you would call a polished second baseman,'' explained L. A. infield coach Monty Basgall. ''He was a little tight with his hands; he needed to increase his pivot speed on the double play; and he shared a problem common to all rookie infielders--he didn't know where to position himself for opposing hitters.''
''But basically those were just normal things that any kid his age has to cope with, and we were positive they would disappear with experience,'' Basgall continued. ''Well, most of them already have and a lot faster than I thought they would. I don't mean the kid is never going to make another mental or physical mistake, but nobody has to wonder about him anymore, and he also has become a good leadoff hitter.''
While the right-handed Sax is going to occasionally pop a home run, he is mostly a line-drive hitter who knows the strike zone and goes with the pitch. Since the beginning of the season he has led the Dodgers in bases on balls.
Steve is not Lopes. He is never going to have Dave's power at the plate or his abilty to consistently steal 30 or more bases a season. He's also different from Lopes in two other ways--he plays a deeper second base and stands at least a step or more closer to the first-base foul line.
''Lopes was a converted minor league outfielder who made the switch to the infield only after he'd been around for a while, and it was tough on him,'' Basgall said. ''But I never had a more willing pupil than Davey, and he made himself do the job. Even though he was never what you'd call smooth, by the time we'd had him a couple of years his range was nearly as good as anyone's.
''The thing with Sax is that he has better natural equipment for the position ,'' Monty added. ''I don't think there is a second baseman in the league who can go further for a popup and not drop the ball after he gets his hands on it than Steve. He has also gone to his left this year to field balls that Lopes wouldn't have reached. And I'm not putting Davey down when I say that, because he is actually still a little better going to his right than Sax. But give Steve another year and he'll have that down too.''
Ask what he considers the toughest thing he had to learn after joining the Dodgers, Sax replied: ''At first I felt some pressure from not knowing where to play opposing hitters. Even though Basgall helped me adjust by moving me around a lot in the field, I was still afraid of making mistakes. But now I feel a lot more comfortable.''
''I also worried about my hitting.'' he continued. ''The pitchers up here are so fine around the plate with their off-speed stuff that there were a lot of balls I swung at that I probably should have ignored. I'm stilled concerned with the breaking ball, which I know you have to hit to stay in the big leagues, but at least I feel I'm getting better at it.''