Jason Turbow tells the story of the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers championship team in his new book They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover, $26.00).
The Dodgers were led by their manager, the larger-than-life Tommy Lasorda, whose devotion to the team was unmatched and proclaimed through monologues about bleeding Dodger blue and worshiping the “Big Dodger in the Sky.”
They had a heralded infield, which was anchored by Steve Garvey, the All-American, All-Star first baseman, along with Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey, was aware this was their last chance at a title.
The team also got a spark from one of the greatest phenoms baseball has ever seen, a twenty-year-old lefthanded pitcher named Fernando Valenzuela, who threw a screwball and had a wild delivery in which he would look up at the sky. Fernandomania swept the nation as he went on an incredible run of dominance.
Here is my chat with Jason Turbow about his incredible book:
Jason Schott: I read that you’re a Giant fan. How did you end up writing a book on the Dodgers?
Jason Turbow: In 1981, I was eleven years old and a Dodgers fanatic, and my favorite team was terrible, I mean just terrible. We had no hope at the postseason, we had no hope at anything except for occasionally beating the Dodgers. Even that didn’t happen often, but that was the best thing we had going for us, so I knew all about this team from afar, and as you know, you grow up and you become a sportswriter. There’s no cheering in the press box, the only thing sportswriters really root for are fast games with no late twists. When I sit on my couch or on my stands, I have many rooting interests. When I’m sitting behind my computer, I have no interests other than to root for a great story. This season and this team was chockful of great stories.
JS: One of those was Fernandomania, and your detail on that was incredible. Tell me how the phenomenon encompassed many different levels.
JT: Fernando really did come out of nowhere in 1981. He was a twenty-year-old playing in the dusty plains of Mexico, spoke no English, was a virtual unknown. He pitched a handful of relief innings the previous season as a September call-up, but on Opening Day 1981, he’d never made a big-league start, yet through the vagaries of injury – the top three guys in the rotation came up with minor injuries just before Opening Day and the next two guys had just pitched the exhibition-closing Freeway Series with the then-California Angels – Fernando was the only guy left standing and became the first rookie pitcher in the 98-year history of the franchise to start on Opening Day. Not only that, it was the first start of his career. He goes out and shuts out the class of the National League, the Houston Astros. Before anyone could even really synthesize what was happening, he threw a complete game in his next start. In his third start, he threw another shutout. In his fourth start, he threw another shutout. In his fifth start, he threw another shutout, and, in addition to that, he went 3-for-4 to bring his season batting average up to .438. There was no limit to this guy’s baseball ability. People were going absolutely wild for him in the Southland.
This was obviously important for what it did for the Dodgers on the field. Fernando led them to the hottest start in baseball, but it was even more important for what it did for them off the field. That’s because Dodger Stadium was located in Chavez Ravine, and Chavez Ravine, until relatively recently, was home to a vibrant Mexican community, thousands strong with a couple schools, a church, and a post office. It was only about a mile from downtown, but for decades, the rugged hillsides had kept it kind of off-limits to developers. That changed in 1949 when Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron decided to build a giant housing project there, and he offered local residents first shot at the units as they became available, an offer that most of the residents took him up on, knowing that they would probably be evicted anyway if they didn’t take the offer. Unfortunately for them, after architectural renderings were drawn up, but before ground could be broken, Bowron lost the 1953 Mayoral race to Norris Poulson, a conservative Republican very much in the political era of the time, happy to seize on the Red Scare prevalent to McCarthyist policies. He branded subsidized housing as a Socialist plot and scuttled the project entirely. That left Los Angeles with a bunch of empty acreage, not a lot to do with it until Walter O’Malley decided to move his team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and that’s where they decided to build Dodger Stadium.
So, here’s the thing about that. The Dodgers’ last season in Brooklyn, they sold about a million tickets. Being from Brooklyn, I didn’t know this myself – I was always under the assumption that the Dodgers moved because Ebbets Field was empty and O’Malley couldn’t make anything of it. In the 19 seasons before they left Brooklyn, the Dodgers always finished in the top two in attendance 15 times -15 times in 19 years. They were selling tickets, but Ebbets Field was so small – it was only 34,000 seats – O’Malley wanted more, and he got more in LA. So, the Dodgers’ first four years in LA, they about doubled their attendance in Brooklyn, right, two million seats give or take each season, that was while they played in the Los Angeles Coliseum while Dodger Stadium was being built.
Once Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, they sold two-and-three-quarter million tickets. That was a Major League record, and it was a record they bettered on a fairly regular basis in the coming years. Everyone in LA wanted to come see the Dodgers except the local Mexicans, whose memories were still fresh of eviction and mistreatment. This mattered to the Dodgers because there was a greater concentration of Mexicans in Los Angeles county than anywhere in the world outside of Mexico City. This was a fan base they desperately wanted to reach, and they couldn’t seem to do it. They ran out a handful of Mexican players over the years, none of whom were any good, all of whom failed to inspire the masses.
It wasn’t until Fernando came along that things changed. Al Campanis, the longtime general manager of the Dodgers, talked about how he wanted to find the Mexican Sandy Koufax, someone to activate Mexicans the way that Koufax had activated Jews, and with Fernando, he finally got it. By the time Fernando finished the eighth start of his big-league career, he was 8-0, he had thrown nine innings in every single start, he’d thrown five shutouts, giving up a total of four runs across 72 innings – that’s a 0.5 ERA.
The entire country was going nutty, and someone came up with a name for it, Fernandomania, and especlally in Los Angeles, the Mexicans were going nutty and the grandstand at Dodger Stadium turned into one giant Mariachi party. Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike, everyone bought into it. They were selling merchandise up and down the road leading to Dodger Stadium, all with Fernando’s name on it, pictures, people were recording songs of devotion, it was crazy. In fact, as an aside, one of the buttons read “I live in the San Fernando Valley” with the “San” crossed out, so it just read “Fernando Valley.”
Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers’ longtime Spanish language broadcaster, who early on served as a translator for Fernando, told me that nobody in the history of baseball had single-handedly created more fans than did Fernando Valenzuela that season, and I think that claim is totally believable.
JS: What was Tommy Lasorda like and what did he do to get this team to win from when he took over and led them to the World Series in 1977?
JT: We’ll never see another manager like Tommy Lasorda. He was the game’s most vocal on-field cheerleader from the very beginning. He spent eight years as a minor-league manager in the Dodgers chain; he got more press attention as a minor-league manager than some guys did as major-league managers. He was hooting and hollering, hugging guys after home runs, and constantly talking about the “Big Dodger in the sky” and how he bleeds Dodger blue. All that shtick he came to be known for in Los Angeles was going on since the moment he became a manager. People were saying, ‘well that might work in the minor leagues, but that kind of shtick is never going to fly at the big-league level.’
Sure enough, Lasorda got called up; he became the third-base coach under Walter Alston in Los Angeles, and that gave him even more attention. He would literally shimmy in the third-base coach’s box as he was cheering his players on from the field, and people said, ‘well, that’ll never play in the manager’s office.’ He was literally getting more attention as the third-base coach than Walter Alston was getting as the manager. September 1976, Tommy Lasorda became the Dodger manager, didn’t miss a beat, kept it right up. He took the Dodgers to the World Series in his first two seasons. Clearly, whatever he was doing worked, and part of the reason it worked was because all the key players that got the Dodgers to the World Series in 1977 and 1978, most of them played for Lasorda in the minor leagues and they knew what they were getting when he took over. He did not in any way disappoint.
JS: Did Lasorda keep it up because he knew it worked, like if he changed, their fortunes might have been altered?
JT: I think he was just being unique to himself. He didn’t do it out of some strategy to get players to win. This was who he was, and this is how he did things. In researching this book, that’s actually one of my takeaways, is that this team had such a low degree of pretension on it. You’ve got some big characters with some pretty sizable character flaws, but none of them attempted to be anything other than who they were. They was no fronting, there was no publicity machine working here in any way, but that was genuine to the guys behind it.
JS: One of those selfless groups had to be the infield of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, and Davey Lopes, the most durable infield in history. How did they stick together for so long and what was their motivation heading into 1981?
JT: They spent eight-and-a-half years together, which is about twice as long as the next-most durable infield, and nobody’s ever come close. They had all come up together through the minor leagues and they all played for Lasorda at various minor-league levels. It’s remarkable that they spent so much time with each other playing so well, 1981 was their fourth World Series in eight years, and yet they really didn’t like each other off the field. Various members of them feuded with each other fairly prolifically.
That started with Steve Garvey, who has this reputation as Mr. Clean and a kind of Captain America, greet all the nuns, kiss all the babies, sign all the autographs, not going to drink, not going to smoke. Not only does he not curse, he doesn’t even tell dirty jokes. He had that rep, and a lot of people on the outside think that’s some sort of PR persona that he concocted to get contracts or win magazine covers because he had political ambitions after his career, but that’s actually how he was. He was that way off the field, and he was that way in the minor leagues, and he was that way in college, and that was him.
Where he ran into trouble was the attention he paid to getting that magazine cover, the fact that he made himself utterly available to the press, especially if it was national sporting press who would give him lots of publicity, and that rankled his teammates. The fact that he would kind of disdain those who drank and cursed; the fact that he sat on the bus with the press and the coaches rather than the bus his teammates – all served to kind of distance him from the rest of the team.
When it came to the other players, all of whom were All-Stars in their own right, I mean Ron Cey was one of the sport’s best third baseman for the duration of his career, he was annually overshadowed by Garvey and he resented that. Like, these guys wanted their due. I don’t think any of them wanted any more than their due, but they wanted their due, and Garvey stole that spotlight whole. Davey Lopes was as outspoken a player as could be found during his era. He had no concern about making friends. These guys definitely had their issues, but once they got on the field, they played pretty darn well together.
JS: One reason the 1981 season has always been such a fascinating one is the strike in the middle of it. How did that affect the Dodgers and, if that didn’t happen, could they still have won it all?
JT: I don’t think anyone on the Dodgers was excited about the strike, I don’t think any of the players were. Free agency was still a recent concept in baseball, it had come on in the mid-’70s and the Commissioner’s office was trying to find ways to mitigate its impact. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had tremendous fears that free agency would lead to explosive salary growth, which would decimate ownership ranks. Explosive salary growth happened; the decimation never did. He proposed a system wherein a team that lost a free agent could subsequently pluck a player off the major league roster of the team to which they lost the free agent. The players’ union recognized that for what it was, which every free agent deal would turn into a player swap, and they were not about to abide that, and so they walked. They went out on strike.
The strike ended up lasting about 50 days. Ownership essentially caved on almost every front, as ownership did on many of the labor issues during the ’70s and ’80s. The Major League Baseball Players’ Union is easily the most powerful union in sports, thanks to Marvin Miller – you want to talk about guys who should be in the Hall of Fame, he’s the number one guy on the list of who should be there, but isn’t.
For the Dodgers, it made a huge difference because they got off to this great start thanks to Fernando Valenzuela. By late May, they cooled considerably, and by early June, the six-and-a-half game lead they held over Cincinnati was disappearing at almost a game-by-day clip. They lost two of three in St. Louis in early-to-mid June, and their lead was down to a half-game. It is not a stretch to think that, had the strike occurred one day later, that the Reds would have caught the Dodgers. They were even in the loss column, and had there not been a rain out of a game in which Cincinnati was led the Giants 6-0, they would have finished with identical records.
So, the strike hits and the Dodgers have a half-game lead, and nobody at that time knows how the strike is going to play out, how long the strike is going to be, or anything. 50 games were missed, most of June, all of July, first part of August, and rather than just pick up the schedule where it left off in terms of standings, which would have been patently unfair in terms of equity of schedule, Baseball decided to crown first-half champions and second-half champions. That gave us our first-ever Divisional playoffs, and it also locked the Dodgers into them. So, if LA did not hold that half-game lead, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all because they didn’t win the second-half championship.
Ron Cey had his arm broken by a pitch from San Francisco’s Tom Griffin with about three weeks left in the season, and what was a four-game divisional lead at that point turned into a four-game deficit by season’s end. The Dodgers completely crumbled without Cey, and realizing that they don’t need to win baseball games to make the playoffs because they already were locked in, started playing backups and giving starting pitching assignments to guys who wouldn’t ordinarily get them, so after they lost Cey, they actually were on a 100-loss pace. They kind of staggered into the postseason, but it didn’t matter because they were in. The Reds finished with the best overall record in the National League West; they didn’t make the playoffs at all because they won neither the first- nor the second-half championships. The Dodgers made the most of their opportunities. They took it to the Astros, and the Expos, and the Yankees.