"The best hitter God has made in a long time."
THE ERA IN DODGER
HISTORY framed by Tommy Lasorda's two World Championships
belonged to two players, Pedro Guerrero and Fernando Valenzuela. Coming into their
own in 1981, the duo provided the missing ingredients to help the boys in blue
conquer the Yankee menace. Throughout most of the decade, the team's fortunes
mirrored their own; an injury to either one doomed them to fall from contention.
Both were part of the Dodger blueprints for 1988, but got lost along the way,
forcing the team to retool on the fly and setting the stage for some unlikely
heroes in their championship run.
Fernando, of course,
was the team's pitching sensation, bursting on the scene like no other pitcher
before him. Pedro, on the other hand, gradually inherited the mantle of offensive
responsibility from the team's aging core. As the infield of Steve Garvey, Davey
Lopes, Ron Cey and Bill Russell, intact from 1973-1981, was dismantled, it sometimes
seemed as though Guerrero were the only weapon the Dodgers had.
But what a weapon.
At the height of Guerrero's prowess, writer Bill James called him "the best
hitter God has made in a long time." Excepting only the '86 season in which
he was limited to 31 games, Guerrero batted over .300 six times and .298
once in an 8 year span. During this time the Dodgers shuttled him from
first base to the outfield, to the infield, to the outfield and back to
third, and he fought off major injuries several times. Despite this, Guerrero
found a way not just to hit but to carry the team, averaging just under
30 HRs per 162 games when that figure meant something, especially in a
pitcher's park such as Dodger Stadium. He was murder in odd-numbered years World
Series co-MVP in '81, an All-Star in '83, '85, '87, and '89. He tied a
major league record with 15 home runs in June 1985, carrying the Dodgers
to the NL West crown that year.
skills were special. His defense was another story. Bill James described Pedro's
tenure in the infield as "Guerrero's long war with third base." Though versatile
and athletic enough, his throws were erratic. This fit right in with Steve Sax,
who suffered an extended lapse in his own ability to make the routine throw from
second base. A popular story has Lasorda quizzing Guerrero on his thinking in
a late-inning defensive situation:
Lasorda said, "the tying run's on, one out in the ninth. What are you thinking?"
thinking, don't hit the ball to me," Guerrero said.
"C'mon, Pete," Lasorda chided, "what else are you thinking?"
"You really want to know?"
"I'm thinking," Guerrero said, "don't hit the ball to Sax either."
Cohen, El Punto de Béisbol)
The defensive problems
they could overcome, but it was Pedro's difficulty in remaining healthy (nine
trips to the DL) which limited him and the Dodgers. Despite a .303 average in
1984, shoulder problems curtailed his power and the team finished four games below
.500. A knee injury cost him (and the Dodgers) the 1986 season, and most of his
speed as well. After another trip to the DL in 1988, Guerrero was traded to St.
Louis in August of '88.
The trade brought
the Dodgers pitcher John Tudor, who won four games down the stretch but was tagged
hard in his postseason appearances. It's tough to quibble with the season's outcome,
in which a scrappy Dodger bunch, led by pitching sensation Orel Hershiser (and
one very timely swing by Kirk Gibson), upset the heavily favored Oakland A's in
the World Series. But for those of us who lived and died with Guerrero's every
harrowing play at third, every mighty month of carrying the entire team on his
back, and every trip to the DL, the championship would have been all the sweeter
had he been a part of it.
Pedro was done
at 36, after one good year in St. Louis and a few mediocre ones. He
ran into trouble off the field, and at last report had been acquitted of drug
conspiracy charges because his attorney argued that Guerrero's low IQ prevented
him from understanding that he had agreed to a drug deal.
But man, could
that guy hit. If ever one needed the proof to Professer Yogi Berra's theorem,
"You can't hit and think at the same time," Pedro was the guy.