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Flying into First
Gerry Callahan
September 08, 1997
The addition of speedsters Eric Young and Otis Nixon has helped L.A. surge to the top of the NL West
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September 08, 1997

Flying Into First

The addition of speedsters Eric Young and Otis Nixon has helped L.A. surge to the top of the NL West

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Setting the Table
Since Otis Nixon and Eric Young (right) arrived in Los Angeles on Aug. 12 and Aug. 18, respectively, they have done exactly what they were brought in to do: score runs. Here's how their numbers stacked up at week's end:

PLAYER

AB

H

BA

BB

RUNS

SB

CS

ERIC YOUNG

58

19

.328

5

16

7

o

OTIS NIXON

76

18

.237

7

10

5

2

TOTAL

134

37

.276

12

26

12

2

Rupert Murdoch is not going to like this. When the Australian media mogul and owner of the Fox television network first expressed interest in buying the Los Angeles Dodgers in the spring, he probably thought he was going to add another screwy sitcom to his stable. At the time, the Dodgers' family was more dysfunctional than the Bundys', and there seemed to be as many self-centered prima donnas in the L.A. clubhouse as on the set of Beverly Hills 90210.

The team's manager was fighting with his pitchers, the pitchers were feuding with the hitters, and the general manager was sitting idly by, watching numbly as the most talented team in the National League West went down in flames. The diverse languages and cultural backgrounds of the players made the clubhouse appear about as peaceful as a congested Los Angeles freeway. If you were a sports columnist, talk-show host or San Francisco Giants fan, it was a beautiful thing. Murdoch must have thought that all the Dodgers needed was a wacky neighbor and a little cleavage, and his network would have another quirky ratings winner on its hands.

Well, bad news for Rupert: While he is moving forward with his plan to purchase the team from the O'Malley family (the two parses are expected to agree on a price any day now), he should be warned that it's not quite the same club whose tires he kicked way lack when. On the contrary, the Dodgers of late are getting along like the cast of Barney and Friends and performing like Olivier. At week's end they had won 10 of their last 12 games, boosting their record since July 1 from two games under .500 to 21 over and pushing their lead over San Francisco to 2½ games. In doing so, Los Angeles displayed remarkable balance on the field and off, reserving its wrath for opposing pitchers and spreading more love and optimism in the clubhouse than you find at a Promise Keepers meeting. "When I was with Colorado, all we heard was how this team didn't get along and everyone was out for himself," says second baseman Eric Young, who was acquired from the Rockies on Aug. 18. "Then I got here and I couldn't understand it. It's exactly the opposite. As far as I can tell, everyone gets along. Everyone is trying to help each other out."

The scene was a little different in early June, when L.A. fell five games behind the Giants. Manager Bill Russell found himself in mid-game shouting matches with two starting pitchers, Ismael Valdes and Pedro Astacio. Both confrontations, naturally, were caught on camera and replayed on the evening news as often as the Bronco chase. Valdes was involved in another early-season incident when he and first baseman Eric Karros had to be separated by teammates in the clubhouse after a loss to the Marlins in Florida. "Sure, we had fights, just like brothers and sisters have fights," says Russell. "It's a long season, and every team has its problems. [Sieve] Garvey and [Don] Sutton fought when I played [for the Dodgers], and we still won. The important thing is we came through it, and we're a better team because of it. You walk in the clubhouse now, and you can just feel the energy, the enthusiasm."

There are a number of reasons for Los Angeles's dramatic turnaround, but as usual, it starts at the top. A handful of bold moves by general manager Fred Claire has injected speed and excitement into the Dodgers' lineup. Many observers thought L.A.'s most urgent need was for a lefthanded power hitter, but the record does not bear them out: Los Angeles has had more success against righthanded starters (54-39 through Sunday) than lefties (24-21). Claire decided that the team's real need was for pesky table-setters, so he backed up the truck and loaded up. He acquired veteran centerfielder Otis Nixon, who at the time was second in the American League with 47 stolen bases, from the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league catcher Bobby Cripps on Aug. 12, sent Astacio to Colorado for Young six days later and then, as if trying to complete a relay team, got fleet leftfielder Darren Lewis from the Chicago White Sox last week for utilityman Chad Fonville. Lewis, who holds a couple of major league records for outfielders (most consecutive chances without an error and most consecutive errorless games), will likely share left-field with a slumping Brett Butler (1 for 19 at week's end). Just like that, the L.A. lineup is as quick and disruptive as a brushfire. For once, catcher Mike Piazza—baseball's most eligible bachelor, according to a recent poll—finds himself surrounded by as many fast men as fast women.

"It seemed as if I used to go weeks on end without batting with guys in scoring position," says Piazza. "But that's changed. The guys at the top of the order are doing their job, and we're scoring runs."

In a game against the Pirates in Pittsburgh last week, Young and Nixon combined for nine hits in 12 at bats. The next day, at Dodger Stadium against the Oakland As, Los Angeles stole a season-high seven bases, including three by Nixon and a career-high two by Piazza. Young, who began his career with L.A. before going to the Rockies in the '92 expansion draft, was 19 for 58 (.328) in his first two weeks back with his old team. Every time the Dodgers put a rally together, the new guys seemed to be in the middle of it.

At home against the Seattle Mariners last Saturday, Piazza came to the plate with runnel's on base four times in the first six innings. He struck out in the first, grounded out in the second and popped out in the fourth, but with Lewis and Nixon on base in the sixth, he lashed a three-run homer to rightfield, his 32nd home run of the year. "I think the trades sent a message to the players," says Russell. "They know-that Fred is committed to winning this year."

So far Piazza has shown his appreciation with an offensive outburst that, coming from a catcher, seems almost unfair. Through Sunday, Piazza had hit in 15 of his last 17 games and had seven homers and 19 RBIs in his last 61 at bats. He led the National League in home runs (16) and RBIs (46) since the All-Star break and became the first Dodger to hit 30 home runs in three straight seasons since the team moved to Los Angeles. And unlike in seasons past, he seems to be getting stronger as the summer wears on. Maybe someone should tell Colorado's Larry Walker not to clear off shelf space for that MVP award just yet. Piazza, who finished second to the San Diego Padres' Ken Caminiti last year, appears to have made it a race.

"To me, the way you figure out the MVP is, you ask yourself, How would the team do if you took that guy away?" says Young. "If the Rockies lost Walker, where would they be? Probably not much worse than they are now [in third place). He missed almost half the year last season, and we finished third. But without Piazza, where would the Dodgers be? In first place? I doubt it."

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