The Dodger infield leaves a record for baseball annals

They don't have a catchy nickname and no one is likely to write a poem about their defensive heroics, but the four men who play the infield for the Los Angeles Dodgers have their own unique distinction - they have endured longer as a unit than any other such quartet in baseball history.

Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey have all been with the Dodgers for a decade or more and have formed the regular infield cordon since 1973 - a fact that is all the more amazing because only one is actually playing his original position.

Fans who have watched them through all these seasons and in four World Series including the 1981 classic may not realize it, but Lopes and Russell both started out as centerfielders only to be converted in the minor leagues to their current second base and shortstop posts. Garvey, meanwhile, played almost exclusively at third base in his first three years at L.A., but when Cey arrived as a promising rookie in 1973, Steve was switched to first base as a means of keeping both in the lineup. Thus was created the setup that has existed ever since, or nine years altogether.

That's already five years longer than the so-called $100,000 infield (those were pre-inflation days) of Connie Mack's 1911-1914 Philadelphia Athletics - Stuffy McGinnis, Eddie Collins, Jack Barry, and Home Run Baker. And as far as baseball historians have been able to figure out, it is also longer than the tenure of any the other such foursome, the closest contender being the Ernie Banks-Glenn Beckert-Ron Santo-Don Kessinger infield that played together for seven years for the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s.

There was, of course, a trio of Cub infielders from an earlier era who played together longer and who will always be remembered because of the famous ''Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance'' poem, but that's only three-fourths of an infield.

''I can't tell you how proud I am of these guys,'' said Manager Tommy Lasorda of his own quartet. ''That's a great record - for four guys to stay together so long.''

Lasorda, who was involved directly or indirectly in all of the position switches, said Lopes was toughest to convince.

''He said, 'No way,' '' Tommy recalled of the scrappy, speedy little Rhode Islander's original reaction to the idea. ''But he came around eventually. As for Russell, he could see it would give him a better chance to play, considering all the outfielders we had in the organization then and the need for infielders. And the Garvey switch just seemed like a natural move considering the personnel we had at that time.''

From the beginning, the quartet gave Los Angeles as much offensive production as any team could hope for from its infield. Russell, already in his third full season, played every game in 1973 and hit a solid .265; Garvey, also already more or less a regular, hit .304; and rookies Cey (15 homers, 80 RBIs) and Lopes (.275 with 36 stolen bases) contributed their share. And so it has continued.

Garvey, of course, has evolved as the most famous of the four - a perennial All-Star; an MVP at various times of the All-Star Game, the playoffs, and the National League; a feared batsman who has collected 200 or more hits on six occasions; a defensive star who has also won four Gold Gloves; and an ''iron man'' whose 945 consecutive games already put him sixth on the all-time list, with a chance to catch all those ahead of him except Lou Gehrig's phenomenal total of 2,130. Steve has also gained due recognition over the years for his ability to come through in the clutch. In previous postseason appearances, for instance, he has hit .367 in the playoffs and .319 in the World Series - and this year he has once again been a big hitter in these important contests.

Cey, a squat, powerfully built 5 ft. 9 in., 180-pounder nicknamed ''The Penguin'' because of the way he sometimes seems to waddle, is also a frequent All-Star selection and a feared slugger. Lopes is the speedster who triggers the attack, is a great base stealer who is seldom caught (his .831 percentage is the best in major league history), and has exceptional power for a leadoff man. And Russell is the steady man who has played a lot of games year-in and year-out despite frequent injuries, and who, according to Lasorda, is one of the toughest clutch hitters around.

''In a really tight spot, he's a guy you love to see up there,'' Tommy said. ''He's got a lot of big hits for us.''

The fact that all four of these men have hit .300 or better for their careers in the playoffs attests to their ability to rise to the occasion, and they've done it again this fall in postseason action. Garvey, of course, hit well consistently, while Cey was the big man both at bat and in the field in Game 3, blasting a three-run homer and making a diving catch to turn a bunt into a double play in a 5-4 L.A. victory. Lopes stole three bases in the first five games, and Russell also chipped in a couple of key hits in Games 3 and 4.

Defensively, it's always been another story with this infield, and in fact it has frequently been criticized for its shortcomings in the field. Lopes, in particular, has looked bad at some key moments - especially this year with five errors in the first five games. But even Davey has one Gold Glove in his trophy case, and over the years the quartet has at least been adequate in the field - especially considering all the runs it has produced at the plate.

This may be the swan song for the unit, though, with Lopes the most likely candidate for departure. At 35, he is the oldest, and in Steve Sax the Dodgers have a good-looking replacement whom they have been grooming for four years.

The other three seem relatively secure, with the only major question mark revolving around Garvey because his contract will be up next year, and in this day and age that always raises the prospect of free agency. If anyone ever seemed a candidate to stay with a club, though, it is Steve, who has been a ''Dodger'' since he was a little boy and his father drove the team bus in spring training. He says he hopes to sign a new contract, too, which seems likely in the end.

The infield as a quartet, though, may well have played its last season - but if so it has certainly left quite a record for any other unit to try to match.

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