Dodgers can take heart in magic of past teams
Los Angeles clubs in 1963 and '88 overcame long odds to win World Series
The high-profile, high-payroll Dodgers are down, and their fans are out of sorts, if not hope. Perhaps they can take heart in history. There is this fascinating quarter-century anniversary matter that mystics, numerologists and eternal optimistics in the crowd should find illuminating.
Fifty years ago today, Dodgers fans were as miserable as they are now. There was the lingering misery of the 1962 season, when a four-game National League lead on Sept. 17 dissolved. The Giants caught the Dodgers on the final day of the regular season and prevailed in a three-game playoff, taking the finale, 6-4, on Oct. 3 with a four-run ninth inning as Dodger Stadium fell stone silent.
Then came the misery of a dismal start to the 1963 campaign. The Dodgers were 14-14 on May 8, needing back-to-back wins in St. Louis to get to .500. The offense was sluggish, and the pitching -- even with Sandy Koufax back after missing two critical months in 1962 -- was erratic.
What Dodgers fans couldn't have known was they were about to be taken on a ride as exhilarating as any they'd have found at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.
The Dodgers took flight. The run-and-stun offense led by the incomparable Maury Wills produced just enough offense to support a magnificent pitching staff featuring Koufax and Don Drysdale. Ron Perranoski, a southpaw who appeared not to have a care in the world, was a peerless closer long before the term existed.
From May 8 through the end of that season, the Dodgers won 85 of 134 games.
"We didn't think anybody could beat us," said Wills, the team's captain and emotional leader. "We had so much confidence."
Carrying that momentum into the World Series, they swept the vaunted Yankees, taking the first two at Yankee Stadium before completing the job with a classic 2-1 conquest in Game 4 claimed by Koufax over Whitey Ford at Dodger Stadium.
Cases can be made that there have been better teams than the 1963 Dodgers, but you'd get a stiff argument from anyone who was around to watch manager Walter Alston's outfit perform after it got its act together in May.
A similar brand of magic came along 25 years later, with a colorful 1988 Dodgers troupe that simply defied logic and reason in winning a World Series championship. Doesn't that make it plausible, at least, that 2013, as bleak as it seems now, can be as wondrous as '63 and '88? It is, after all, 25 years since that most recent title in Chavez Ravine.
If this sounds like pure fantasy, when your team is as disappointing as these Dodgers have been over the first month of the season, you grab hold of anything you can.
"Any time you have talent," said Wills, a special instructor with the Dodgers these days, "you have the opportunity to do something great. We had tremendous talent and desire on our teams in the '60s. This team has exceptional talent, too. There's no question about that."
One common element found in the World Series championships of 1963 and '88 was the indispensable nature of excellent pitching. From Koufax, Drysdale, Johnny Podres, Bob Miller and Perranoski in '63 to Orel Hershiser, Tim Leary, Tim Belcher, Jay Howell, Alejandro Pena, Brian Holton and the late Tim Crews in '88, quality arms cleared the path to greatness. Both of those teams led the league in ERA by substantial margins.
In Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers have top-shelf starters capable of reeling off winning streaks. Brandon League and Kenley Jansen head a bullpen that is deep enough to hold leads.
The loss of Greinke to a broken left collarbone in a melee in San Diego was a blow. He figures to be back in about a month. When he returns to form, the Dodgers will have, with Kershaw and Greinke, a one-two punchout tandem along the famous lines of Koufax and Drysdale. Ryu's talent is real. The rest of the staff has the tools to elevate its performance level.
The Dodgers are 11th in team ERA in the NL. Manager Don Mattingly has been forced to use more pitchers (19) and more starters (nine) than any other skipper in the league. That instability can be smoothed over in large measure by the return of Greinke. One dominant starter can make an enormous difference.
In 1988, the Dodgers could have considered themselves done when Fernando Valenzuela went to the shelf after a start on July 31. At 27, and having averaged 266 innings the previous five seasons, the great lefty simply broke down. Another franchise great, Don Sutton, made it to the post 16 times at age 43 before being released on Aug. 10.
In their absences, Leary (17-11, 2.91), Belcher (12-6, 2.91) and John Tudor -- acquired at midseason from the Cardinals for Pedro Guerrero -- delivered behind the ace, Hershiser, who was 23-8, 2.26 in claiming the NL Cy Young Award. Orel continued to perform precise surgery on the heavily favored Mets and Athletics in a postseason that made franchise legends of Hershiser and -- with one monumental World Series swing -- Kirk Gibson.
Neither the 1963 Dodgers nor the '88 champions generated fear with offensive muscle. The '88 Dodgers averaged 3.8 runs per game, the league average. They didn't have much power (99 homers), but they had guys who could run (Steve Sax, Gibson, John Shelby) and force mistakes. The '63 Dodgers were sixth in the 10-team NL in runs scored, but they led the league in steals with the explosive speed of Wills, Willie Davis, NL batting champion Tommy Davis and Jim Gilliam.
Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez (when he comes off the DL) and Dee Gordon are capable of manufacturing runs with speed. While waiting for Kemp and Co. to unload, the Dodgers, who rank 14th in the NL homers, haven't pressed the issue enough on the bases to take advantage of the second-highest team on-base percentage in the NL -- the one strength of a disappointing attack.
Pushing the tempo always increases a team's energy flow.
Long before Gibson went deep against Dennis Eckersley at Dodger Stadium, he had a profound impact on the Dodgers with an intense, unyielding nature now evident as he manages the D-backs. The former Michigan State football star was intimidating without saying a word. For balance, the Dodgers had the irrepressible Sax. The second baseman majored in good times and never met a person he couldn't charm.
Here, in Gibson and Sax, was the yin-yang every good team needs: tough-minded and committed, yet sufficiently loose and carefree to maintain a necessary balance over the long season.
Mike Scioscia, the veteran catcher in 1988 who "called every pitch," according to Hershiser, fell somewhere between Gibson and Sax in personality. Scioscia brought his own form of street-smart leadership that would make him a highly successful manager with the Angels.
"I think we had more talent than people gave us credit for," Scioscia said. "We had pieces that all fit together. Our on-field chemistry was outstanding, and we had a great clubhouse, too. There was a lot of positive energy on that team; guys had a lot of fun, but we were all business on the field."
Like the 1988 Dodgers, the '63 edition had hard-edged field leaders in Wills and catcher John Roseboro, who cracked a whip. Free spirits Drysdale, Perranoski, Podres, Frank Howard and the Davises created a lively clubhouse vibe.
As fierce a competitor as contemporary Bob Gibson, Drysdale was known to let his hair down behind closed doors.
"Don would participate in pillow fights, water fights, hot feet, card games -- the antics that are part of baseball," Wills said. "Sandy didn't do any of that stuff. He was a no-nonsense person who led by example."
It takes time for a team to feel like a team. These Dodgers, thrown together over the past two seasons, appear to get along well. But growing together, getting comfortable with one another, always is an easier process in good times. Expectation levels inflated by payroll have created extraordinary pressures, and the overall performance level hasn't come close to measuring up -- yet.
"One hundred percent chemistry," Skip Schumaker, a current Dodgers role player, said in describing the improbable 2011 World Series title run by his Cardinals. "A lot of our guys would hang out after games. It's easier to win when you like each other."
As unifying forces go, there never has been a stronger presence than Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the famous face of the Guggenheim Partners' ownership group. Maybe the "Showtime" master of Lakers lore should consider being fitted for an XXXXL Dodger Blue uniform, grabbing a bat and taking a few hacks one afternoon in early batting practice with his team, to lighten and brighten the mood.
E.J. the DJ, they called him on the campus at Michigan State. When he wasn't spinning moves on the court, Earvin liked to spin R&B discs. The magic he has made in his life has its source in his relentlessly upbeat attitude. It couldn't hurt if his new team took his secret and ran with it.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.