Comeback catcher helps Dodgers keep scooting

For the last four years the line on Los Angeles catcher Steve Yeager, after a combination of injuries plus an experiment with contact lenses, has been that he couldn't hit consistently well anymore.

With bargain-basement batting averages of .193, .216, .211, and .209, Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda had taken to platooning him with Mike Scioscia and Joe Ferguson. Then this season Scioscia won the job outright.

Well, World Series heroes have been forged from less, and one reason New York trails Los Angeles three games to two going into tonight's encounter at Yankee Stadium is Steve's power bat and .333 average. In fact, he has a .327 mark for 15 career World Series games.

Yeager hit the winning home run off Yankee starter Ron Guidry in Game 5 right after Pedro Guerrero had taken Guidry over the wall to tie things at 1-1.

It wasn't exactly like getting beat by a guy you never heard of, for Steve also hit a home run in Game 1 in New York. But the idea in baseball is not to let an irregular, who had only 18 hits and hadn't started three games in a row all season, steal the bread off your table.

The only reason Yeager has caught at all in this Series (except when pitcher Burt Hooton works) is that New York has so many left-handed starting pitchers, and this is one area where Lasorda likes to go by the book.

The theory is that a right-handed batter like Steve has a much better chance of hitting a southpaw pitcher than a left-handed swinger like Scioscia, who must contend with breaking balls that trail away from him.

''Basically, I'm not the kind of player who can sit on the bench for four or five days and then come in cold in a given situation and get a clutch pinch hit, '' Steve explained. ''Timing is so important to my skills that just hitting in the cage before the game or taking extra batting practice on my own doesn't get me ready.

''I've got nothing against the way Lasorda stayed with Scioscia during the regular season. Steve has a lot of talent and did an outstanding job for us. But if the Dodgers aren't going to play me regularly, then I'd like to be traded to a team that will. Look at it this way, the last time I caught as many as 125 games for L.A., I hit close to .260, had 16 homers, and drove in 55 runs. Given the chance, I'm sure I could do that again.''

Yeager, who has a reputation as a fine defensive catcher and has now collected four career World Series home runs (only one fewer than Johnny Bench), hit .368 against the Yankees in the 1977 Series.

Steve was the first catcher to wear a plastic protective flap attached to the front of his mask. The flap was designed to protect his throat after an incident in 1976, when Yeager, standing in the on-deck circle, caught the fragments of a splintered bat in his neck.

Yeager also owns the distinction of getting married on the front steps of the Los Angeles City Hall with Mayor Tom Bradley as his best man and being one of a handful of big-league catchers ever to steal home.

Actually Steve was never really that fast, but his uncle, Chuck Yeager, an Air Force general, was the first man to break the sound barrier, back in 1947.

How well New York's pitching staff handles Steve the rest of the way in this Series will probably determine whether the Dodgers or the Yankess get to wear 1981-dated championsip rings.

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