Wearing My Dodger Blues, Part II

Round one of the long-awaited interleague series between the Dodgers and the Yankees went to the boys in red, white and Dodger blue, 6-3. Former Yankee Jeff Weaver looked shaky, giving up three runs in the third inning and exhibiting the same pouty body language — like a two-year-old with a full diaper — that made him so unpopular in the Bronx. But he gave up no runs and only three hits in the five other innings he pitched before turning it over to a stellar bullpen capped by last year’s Cy Young winner, Eric Gagne, who converted his 80th straight save.

Yankee starter Javier Vazquez, who’s pitched great lately, had a horrible night, looking completely out of sync with catcher Jorge Posada, throwing three wild pitches and failing to pick up a shoddy Yankee defense. Jason Giambi botched a 3-6-3 double-play in the fourth which led to the Dodgers tying the score. Vazquez threw two of his wild pitches in the sixth and then making a throwing error, leading to two more runs, and the Dodgers added an insurance run in the seventh off of Felix Heredia. All in all, it was as bad a game as the Yanks have played in quite awhile.

What with my history of rooting for both of these teams, watching the game was a unique experience. I was rooting for the Dodgers — while my girlfriend Andra pulled for the Yanks — but it was hard to muster the kind of antipathy for the Yankees which came so easily to me during those three World Series of my youth. I also had an especially difficult time pulling for Weaver, who disappointed me and every other Yankee fan so many times I lost count, and I recognize the nuances of the current Yank squad much better than those of the Dodgers. Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t having a ball. I got a huge charge out of watching Fernando Valenzuela throw out the ceremonial first pitch, savored the intercut highlights of the ’81 World Series, and feasted my eyes on the beauty of Dodger Stadium, which I usually see only on a highlight or via a tiny, pixelated feed via MLB.tv. On the other hand, I was frustrated by how little the Yankee announcers seemed to know about the Dodgers. At one point, when reliever Guillermo Mota came on to pitch the eighth for the Dodgers, Jim Kaat noted that Mota hails from the shortstop factory of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic without recognizing that Mota spent six years playing short in the Mets chain before converting to pitching. It was nice, however, to see Kaat’s own Dodger-entiwined history celebrated; as the ace of the Minnesota Twins, Kitty started Games Two, Five and Seven of the 1965 World Series, all against Sandy Koufax, beating the great lefty once but losing the finale 2-0.

As I mentioned in my previous piece, on the eve of the series, its significance was decidedly downplayed here in New York City, with the Times and Daily News devoting one article apiece and the Post ignoring it completely. In the Times, Murray Chass recalled the last time these two teams met during the ’81 World Series. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner made a complete ass of himself, first by allegedly engaging in a fight with two Dodger fans in an L.A. hotel elevator and then by publicly apologizing to Yankee fans for the team’s defeat in the Series. Of the “fight,” Chass wrote:

After the Yankees had lost their third straight game in Los Angeles, they stayed there overnight, their flight home scheduled to depart the next morning. Steinbrenner was to have dinner with his wife and associates that evening and, as he rode an elevator to the lobby, he said, he encountered two young men who recognized him.

They were drunk and profanely abusive, Steinbrenner related at the time, adding that they talked about the “chokers” who played for the Yankees and the “animals” who lived in New York. Steinbrenner most likely thought his players had choked, and he had not always spoken in glowing terms about every aspect of New York, but they were his players and his city. These brash young men, one of whom wore a Dodgers cap, had no business bad-mouthing his players and his people.

Steinbrenner said he responded with an obscenity, whereupon one of the men hit him on the side of the head with a beer bottle he was holding. Steinbrenner, 51 years old at the time, said that in rapid succession he threw three punches — two rights and a left. Down went the first miscreant; down went the second.

Muhammad Ali? He might have stung like a bee, but Steinbrenner said he swung a sledgehammer.

“I clocked them,” Steinbrenner told reporters just before midnight in a news conference he called in his hotel suite. “There are two guys in this town looking for their teeth and two guys who will probably sue me.”

Not too surprisingly, no one ever came forward to verify Steinbrenner’s story. As Chass put it, “Somewhere today, if the fight really occurred, there are two men, perhaps in their mid-40’s, who have a unique story to tell… Despite a variety of injuries – a cast-covered left hand, scraped knuckles on his right hand, a bump on his head, a bloody lip – Steinbrenner failed to convince everyone that he really had engaged in a fight.”

Chass also wrote about the key moment of that ’81 World Series, in Game Six when Yankee manager Bob Lemon chose to pinch hit for starter Tommy John in the fourth inning of a 1-1 tie, with two on and two out:

John had shut out the Dodgers for seven innings in Game 2 and was doing fine in Game 6. Nevertheless, Bobby Murcer batted for John and flied out. The Dodgers proceeded to break the game open, and clinch the series, by scoring seven runs in the next two innings against Yankees relievers.

Why did Lemon bat for John? All indications point to Steinbrenner as the reason. In the days and months after the game, players said they heard that Steinbrenner had called the dugout and told Lemon that the Yankees had to score runs that night and that the manager shouldn’t miss any chances to score.

Classic meddling George. In the Daily News, current Yankee bench coach Willie Randolph, who played second for the Bombers in ’81, recounts his less than pleasant memories of that Series which centered around the Yankee owner:

It was a weird series,” Randolph said. “It was drawn out, a lot of mumbo jumbo. That was a strike year and a bad year overall. We let the series slip away. We should’ve closed the deal and we let them creep back in and before you knew it, it was all over.

“There were so many obstacles, so much in the way, a lot of distractions. It wasn’t all about playing the game. It wasn’t like we played the series freely and it went smooth. There were a lot of detours and snags.”

…Randolph laughed when asked about the supposed fight. “All I know is there was really tight security in the hotel and it would’ve been hard for me to believe that he would be in the elevator with someone like that by himself like that,” Randolph said. “There was a lot of security, people around. I wasn’t with him, so I don’t know, but I just thought it was something else to talk about.

“Is this an attempt to spur us on, give us some fight? We didn’t need that. I just got a chuckle out of it. I thought it was par for the course with the Bronx Zoo kind of thing.”

So was the notorious apology, Randolph said. In addition to apologizing for the team’s play in the series, Steinbrenner added that the Yanks would “be at work immediately to prepare for 1982.”

As you could probably tell by the scene at Dodger Stadium last night, where a record crowd of 55,207 packed Dodger Stadium from the first inning through the ninth (a rarity in Chavez Ravine) and serenaded the New York nine with what seemed like a continuous chant of “Yankees Suck!” there was no downlplay of the series on the West Coast. Both the L.A. Times and the Daily News devoted several articles to the matchup in Friday’s paper. In the Times, Bill Shanklin points out that a key strategic move in the ’81 Series was before Game Four when Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda dropped Dusty Baker from third to fifth in the batting order, leaving Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey, and Ron Cey — the Longest Running Infield — in the top four slots. It would be the last time the quartet, who played together for nine seasons and four World Series, would appear in the same lineup, as Lopes was shipped to Oakland over the winter. Shanklin notes the group’s unlikely origins:

This was not an infield of dreams. At first, this was not even an infield.

Lopes and Russell were center fielders, but the Dodgers converted Lopes to second base and Russell to shortstop. Cey and Garvey were third basemen, and Garvey got to the majors first, but the Dodgers moved him across the diamond because he couldn’t throw across the diamond.

On June 13, 1973, in an otherwise forgettable 16-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Garvey replaced Willie Davis in the fourth inning, Tom Paciorek moved from first base to center field, and the infield quartet played together for the first time.

By the time the Dodgers broke them up — after a record run of 8 1/2 years — Garvey was an All-Star eight times, Cey six, Lopes four, Russell three

… The eight-year run of the Dodger infielders might endure alongside Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak and Cal Ripken’s consecutive-game streak. The odds are long indeed that four infielders could come up at the same time and remain productive and injury-free — and, in this era of free agency, cost-effective.

The most interesting Daily News article, sure to stir up debate among fans of both sides, is “10 greatest moments in Dodgers-Yankees history”. Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game tops the list, followed by Sandy Koufax’s 15-strikeout game to open the ’63 Series, which the Dodgers swept. Johnny Podres’ seventh-game win in the ’55 Series, the year “Next Year” finally arrived for the Dodgers, is relegated to fifth, a spot with which many True Blue fans might beg to differ. One of my personal favorites, Bob Welch striking out Reggie Jackson to end Game Two of the ’78 Series, comes in seventh; the moment prompted a rewrite of “Casey at the Bat,” the original clipping of which still remains on my childhood bedroom wall. The bane of my childhood existence, Graig Nettles’ defensive performance in the next game, credited with preventing five Dodger runs and turning the tide of the Series, rounds out the list at number 10. Elsewhere, Tom Jackson checks in with Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully, who has clocked in a remarkable — in both length and quality– 55 seasons with the franchise. Scully, who according to the article was once offfered a job to replace another golden voice, Yankee broadcaster Mel Allen, is uniquely positioned to evaluate the rivalry’s change since the Dodgers’ westward move in 1958:

“They’re two of the most successful franchises in the history of the game,” Scully said. “The Yankees have been absolutely monumental in their stature and winning. You think of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, and it’s a great franchise, period. Brooklyn grew from a troubled franchise, one step ahead of the mortgage bankers, and eventually rose to prominence.

“The Los Angeles Dodgers are not the Brooklyn Dodgers. Willard Mullin, a great artist, always drew the Dodger as a bum, but nobody would think of the Los Angeles Dodger franchise as a bum because it has been very successful and well established. Now what you have is two titans meeting as opposed to David and Goliath.”

It’s debatable whether a team which hasn’t won a postseason game since 1988 can be considered a titan alongside a team with four World Series rings and six pennants over the past eight years, but there’s no question that this is as rich a rivarly as baseball has to offer.

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