The Diamond Fan

A fan’s take on America’s national pastime.

The Dodgers are in the midst of a nine game road trip against three of the worst teams in the National league, a stretch in which they should have been able to easily salt away the division and start gearing up for the playoffs. Instead they have gone 3-3 against the Nationals and the Pirates, and looking bad in the process. Today they threw away a three run lead in the 9th inning and now have to come back tomorrow to try to clinch the division.

This is easily the best, most talented team the Dodgers have fielded since at least the 1988 World Series champions, probably the best since the 1981 team. But since the All Star break they have not played like a championship team. The fielding is lackadaisical, the hitting inconsistent, and the starting pitching even more up-and-down. They will win the division, but the way this team is playing, unless Joe Torre is able to issue a wake-up call or they can somehow turn on the competitive juices come October it is hard to like their chances in what shapes up as a very competitive N.L. postseason tournament.

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After getting off to a hot start, the Dodgers have been scuffling since the All Star break, having gone 18-18 since then after winning 56 of 88 before the break to build a seven game division lead. There are several reasons for the decline; hitting is weaker overall (.012 worse OPS), let be significant OPS declines by Manny Ramirez, James Loney, Casey Blake and Juan Pierre. The bullpen is showing signs of fatigue. Most importantly, the starting rotation, a strength early on, has been beset by injuries and inconsistency.

That’s why the pitching performances in the last two games against the Cubs has been so encouraging. Randy Wolf has really stepped up in his last two starts, both on the mound and with the bat, and has become (for now) the team’s most reliable starter. And Charlie Haeger has been a revelation in his first two starts with his knuckleball delivery. Now we just need a few things to fall in place:

  • Kuroda to make a complete recovery from his scary injury.
  • Billingsley’s hammy not acting up.
  • Kershaw getting a both of a break (backing off his starts a day of two or skipping a turn) to keep him fresh and able to go deeper into games

If Haeger can keep baffling NL hitters with the knuckler and Padilla at least be effective enough to keep us in the games he starts and eat up some innings, I think the rotation will straighten itself out. The lead has shrunk to the point that we now have a pennant race, but the Dodgers should be able to retain control. And once the playoffs starts, A healthy Billingsley-Kershaw-Wolf-Kuroda rotation looks pretty good.

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Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Dodger manager, was once taped when being interviewed after a Dodger loss in which opposing slugger Dave Kingman hit three home runs to beat the Dodgers. During this interview Lasorda launched into a profanity-laden tirade when asked, “What did you think of Kingman’s performance?” The redacted version of the tape (with the frequent profanity being replaced by bleeps) has become well-known, with a version of it appearing on the CD compilation, Baseball’s Greatest Hits. It has made the rounds on the Internet as well.

The date given for the tirade (on the Greatest Hits CD and elsewhere) is June 4, 1976. If you look at the box score for that date, the Dodgers lost a game to the New York Mets, 11-0, in which Kingman did indeed hit three home runs, the last of which was a three run blast in the top of the seventh giving the Mets a 10-0 lead. In 2006, there was wide reporting on the 30th anniversary of this event, featuring Lasorda’s famous outburst. See, for example this CBS News site and this Sports Illustrated story. All reported the date of the taping as June 4, 1976.

The only problem is that this was almost certainly NOT the date the incident occurred. For one thing, Lasorda wasn’t the Dodgers’ manager at that time; he was the third base coach. I suppose it is possible that the reporter might have interviewed the third base coach about the loss, but more likely he would have wanted to speak to then-manager Walter Alston. More significantly, the Dodgers lost that game by 11 runs and while Kingman’s three home runs contributed mightily to the one-sided game, the Dodgers didn’t score any runs and would have lost the game even without Kingman’s feat. It seems highly unlikely that the team’s third base coach would get so worked up by the home runs in such a circumstance, and at any rate the reporting on the 30th anniversary invariable mention that the Dodgers lost the game in extra innings, not in a one-sided blowout. So the June 4, 1976 game at Dodger Stadium is extremely unlikely to have been the game that caused Tommy to launch into his famous bleeping monologue.

There was another game in which Kingman hit three home runs against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and it more closely matches the game described in the “30th anniversary” coverage in June of 2006. This second three-homer game was played on Sunday, May 14, 1978. Kingman was then playing for the Cubs, and he hit a homer in the sixth inning with one on to cut the Dodgers’ lead to 3-2, another in the top of the ninth with one on and two out to tie the game 7-7, and a third in the top of the 15th with two on and two out to give the Cubs a 10-7 lead that would prove to be the game-winning blow. Kingman single-handedly drove in eight of the Cubs 10 runs, striking a blow to tie the game when the Dodgers were one out away from victory in the ninth and capping it with yet another to win the game in the 15th inning. Now that is a performance that can drive an opposing manager to profanity! And it is almost certainly the game that triggered Lasorda’s famous outburst. The 30th anniversary was marked, with big media hoopla, two years too early.

How did this error happen? Sloppy research. At some point someone had a copy of the tape and wanted to associate a date with it. They did some kind of perfunctory research and found the June 4, 1976 game and, without looking further or deeper into the matter, assumed that this was the date for the famous interview. Once that date got associated with the recording, everyone else (including a lot of people who should have known better) just accepted it without question and without looking into it on their own, even though it would have been very easy to find the discrepancies with a little bit of research. Both Lasorda and the reporter (Paul Olden) were interviewed in the media coverage of the anniversary and neither of them questioned the date either. But anybody who reads Lasorda’s comments could easily see that the game he was remembering couldn’t possibly have been the 1976 game that was being marked:

“I mean, we lose the game in 15 innings, I had to go into my starting pitchers, and it knocked the daylights out of me. Then this guy comes in at the very moment I sat down and asked me `What is your opinion?’ So I proceeded to tell him what my opinion was.” (The pitcher Kingman homered off of in the 15th inning of the 1978 game was Rick Rhoden, normally a Dodger starter.)

There are places that have the correct date. The Wikipedia entry for Dave Kingman gets it right, and an ESPN piece from 2003 correctly notes the date as Mother’s Day 1978. Yet most references to it that you will find refer to the date as June 4, 1976. The lesson to be learned is: do your research well. Because once you’ve introduced an error into the collective consciousness it can be hard to stamp it out.

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Today’s game between Cleveland and New York ended with the Yankees winning 7-4. The biggest thing about the game, though, wasn’t the final score, it was that the game exposed baseball’s new, limited instant replay as a total farce.
With the score 3-2 Indians and one on in the bottom of the 7th, Jorge Posada hit a ball on which Cleveland outfielder Trevor Crowe was prepared to make a leaping catch. Only he didn’t make the catch because a fan (two fans, actually) reached over the fence and deflected the ball before it got to Crowe’s glove.
The ball hit the top of the fence and bounced back into the field of play, but the umpire signalled home run. Ball call, but hey, this is the kind of play for which instant replay was specifically instituted, right? Wrong! Somehow, even after watching the replay, the umpires decided that, no, the fan who had his arm fully extended outward toward the field while standing right at the fence, was NOT interfering with the play. What ?!#?
The only thing I can think is that this was a CYA thing for the umps. Our guy made the call and it would look bad to overrule him, so let’s just pretend that there is not enough “clear and convincing evidence” to overturn. What a joke! If you’re not going to overturn that play, then the whole instant reply idea is a complete waste of time and might as well be ditched.

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Well, I’m a few days late, as the season has been underway since Monday, but at long last here are my predictions for the 2009 MLB season.  Check back in October to see how I did.

American League

East: New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers have brought in the right pieces to buy another AL East title.

Central: Minnesota Twins
This is the hardest division to figure.  Any of the five teams could conceivably win; any of them could also finish last.  I’ going with the Twins just because Ron Gardehire always seems to get the best out of his crew.

West: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels’ pitching is in a bit of disarray to start the season with Lackey and Ervin Santana on the DL, but despite that and the loss of Mark Texieria, the Halos still have enough to win in a relatively weak division.

Wild Card: Boston Red Sox
It won’t be easy holding off the Rays, but Bostons’ pitching depth and balanced lineup will carry the day.

Pennant Winner: Boston Red Sox
While I think the Yankees will have the better record over the course of the long season, I like to Red Sox to prevail in the playoffs with their strong pitching and veteran lineup.

National League

East: New York Mets
Next to the AL Central, this is th hardest division to handicap.  The defening champion Phillies look to be strong again, the Mets have taken steps to address their weaknesses, and Atlanta appears to have improved enough to mount a challenge.  I think the Mets will be hungry for redemption and will ride its youhg stars David Wright and Jose Reyes to a title.

Central: Chicago Cubs
Lou Pinella’s squad has unfinished business after last year’s playoff debacle, and they are clearly the most talented team in the field.

West: Los Angeles Dodgers
If the pitching holds up, they could run away with it.  If the pitching is less than stellar, expect a dogfight with the Dbacks.

Wild Card: Philadelphia Phillies

They’ll be better than you think: Cincinnati Reds
The Reds have a pretty good core of young talent, and if their young Dominican pitchers take another step forward they have the potential to surprise a lot of people.

Pennant Winner: Chicago Cubs

World Series: Cubs over Red Sox in seven
The last of the hexes finally falls.

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