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He Is Hotter Than Heat Wave in June : With Guerrero Back in Center Field, His Bat Is the Center of Attention

Times Staff Writer

He’ll be the next Willie Mays. --Manager TOM LASORDA, after Pedro Guerrero’s center-field debut, Aug. 15, 1980.

Pete’s an outstanding player , and he’s going to be an outstanding third baseman. I have no doubts about him. Pete, I believe in you the way I believe I’m breathing. --LASORDA, after switching Guerrero from the outfield to third base, April 10, 1983.

Pete’s done a very good job at third base, but we need his bat desperately. --LASORDA, after switching Guerrero back to the outfield, June 1, 1985.

Necessity is the mother of invention, or so the saying goes. But even necessity can spawn some illegitimate offspring.

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Take, for example, the grand notion that the Dodgers would be better off with Pedro Guerrero playing third base--where he’d take the place of the traded Ron Cey--than in the outfield, where he was only supposed to be the second coming of Willie Mays.

Initially, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Guerrero, after all, hit his usual .300, with his usual 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in 1983, the first year he took up residence at third base.

But he also made a league-leading 30 errors, the first indication that if Guerrero was going to be the next Mike Schmidt, as Dodger Vice President Al Campanis once boldly predicted, it was going to take some work.

Instead, it turns out, things didn’t work out at all, even after the Dodgers enriched Guerrero that winter with a five-year, $7-million contract. Guerrero reported to camp in the spring of 1984 out of shape, his bat was slow to come around and his glove continued to clank more often than it clicked. In a word, Guerrero was miserable.

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“If I’d known what would have happened, I never would have signed for all that money,” Guerrero said on one especially low day last summer.

Before Guerrero started to give some of it back, though, Lasorda did the humane thing: He put Guerrero back in the outfield, where he responded with a .398 September that brought his average over .300 (.303) for the season.

“I want to be the Dodger center fielder next season,” Guerrero said.

He might as well have wished for world peace. The Dodgers still needed a third baseman, and in their minds they had no alternative but Guerrero. And for a while, they had everybody convinced, including Guerrero, that he would find happiness as a “born-again” third baseman.

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“Pete wants to play third very badly,” said Campanis, the truest of the believers, not surprising since it was his idea in the first place. “He wants to show everybody he can do it. . . . He’s done a 180 degree turn.”

This was one conversion, however, that didn’t stick. Not for a lack of faith, but for a lack of hitting.

Someone had turned out the lights on the Dodger offense, and it didn’t take the electric company to discover the cause of the blackout. The Dodger power supply had been cut off at its source, Guerrero, who generated only four home runs and 16 RBIs in the season’s first two months.

There were no concession speeches, but on the first of June, there was an 8 written next to Guerrero’s name on the Dodger lineup card: center field. That night, Guerrero hit a home run in the 11th inning off Montreal relief ace Jeff Reardon, who hadn’t given up a home run all season.

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Three nights later, he hit one off Dwight Gooden, and he hasn’t gone more than 13 at-bats since without hitting another. Fourteen homers for the month, the greatest display of slugging in L.A. Dodger history, and only three home runs shy of the NL record set in August, 1965, by . . . Willie Mays. What do you know about that.

“If they want to put me back at third base, I’d go,” Guerrero said the other day.

Not on your life.

I like it out there. It gives me a chance to practice my stance. --PEDRO GUERRERO, contented outfielder, June 3, 1985.

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Is the explanation really as simple as that, a switch in position?

“I think the position change has a lot to do with it,” Bill Russell said. “I think he’s more relaxed at his natural position than he was in the infield.

“You’re going to be keyed up if you’re worried about messing up in the field all the time. And Pete’s not trying to carry the team anymore. He’s relaxed.”

Russell started in the Dodger organization as an outfielder before Walter Alston made him into a shortstop. But no, Russell quickly interjected with a laugh, that didn’t rob him of his power. You have to have some, he said, to start with.

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Steve Garvey, who shared with Frank Howard the previous L.A. Dodger record for most home runs in a month when he hit a dozen in June, 1977, said it’s common knowledge that the Dodgers have been playing people out of position, including Guerrero.

“Most of us know that’s been one of their problems and it still is,” Garvey said. “You have to look at who your key people are and play them at the best position where they’re going to be a total asset. If Pete doesn’t hit, the Dodgers aren’t going to win. He’s the aorta of that offense,” meaning the heart.

“He’s probably much more relaxed mentally,” Garvey said. “Obviously, there’s a stronger demand on your concentration in the infield. He’s more comfortable in the outfield, and that is related to his hitting.”

Ben Hines, one of the Dodgers’ two batting instructors, said it’s only human nature that Guerrero would long for a return to the outfield, even if he didn’t express it.

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“All of us like to do something we know we can do well,” Hines said. “Pete’s a very unselfish player who’ll do what’s best for the team. He’s that kind of guy. If Tommy (Lasorda) tells him it’s best for him to play third, he’ll do it.

“But whatever profession you’re in, most of us feel comfortable if we know we’re good at what we’re doing.”

The home runs are just coming. All I’m doing is swinging . . . My bat doesn’t know what month it is. --PEDRO GUERRERO, on his record month of June.

The “book” on how to pitch Guerrero, according to Dodger “Eye-in-the-Sky” Joe Ferguson, “is to keep the ball up and in, throw him a lot of off-speed pitches.”

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The way Guerrero is swinging, that book is about as timely as last year’s calendar.

“When a guy is that hot, it seems like you can’t make a good pitch to him,” Ferguson said. “Maybe a pitcher tries too hard.”

Guerrero said he made a adjustment at the plate, dropping his hands a little at the suggestion of batting coach Manny Mota. It gave him more lift on the ball.

“That’s the day it really started,” Guerrero said. “All I do is listen to Manny Mota. Nobody but him. He’s the best, you know.”

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Mota said: “Pete had too much movement. His hands came down and then he swung. Why do that when you can start here and be quicker. It helped to make his swing short and quick.”

Mota, no doubt, is deserving of a bow, but most hitters tinker with their stances all the time. Technical explanations alone won’t suffice here. There’s almost a mystical quality to a hitter on a roll, especially if it’s a slugger who can bring ‘em out of their seats with one swing.

“You know what happens?” Padre batting coach Deacon Jones said, his eyes widening. “The ball gets that big.” He spreads his arms.

“The confidence just oozes out of you. You have good tunnel vision on the ball. By contrast, when you’re in a slump, the ball looks like an aspirin.”

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Guerrero, asked if the ball looked any bigger to him, shrugged. “It’s the same ball,” he said.

But Garvey says it’s not an optical illusion when Chub Feeney’s autograph between the seams suddenly looks as big as the print on a billboard.

“Optically, you seem to pick the ball up better,” Garvey said. “Obviously, your eyes are the window for the rest of your reflexes. The quicker you’re able to pick the ball up, the quicker the message is sent to the brain so the rest of your body can react.”

Hines said he watched Dickie Thon, the Houston Astro shortstop who was beaned last season and suffered a loss of vision in his left eye as a result, on TV monitors at a recent game.

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“He has a real nice swing,” Hines said, “the barrel was coming over the ball, but he wasn’t seeing the ball good. It seemed like he was having a tough time picking up the rotation.

“And that’s hard, because you’re so reliant on your eyes at the plate. The stimulus-motor response has to be so fast.”

It excites people. It’s still exciting for me. It’s quite an accomplishment to hit a ball that far, whether it’s 330 feet or 410 feet. --STEVE GARVEY, on the joy of hitting a home run.

Most players acknowledge the short-lived quality of streaks such as Guerrero’s and take pains to observe certain rituals to ensure that they continue.

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“There are a lot of different superstitions,” Jones said, “although some players won’t readily admit it. They’ll put their bat in a certain spot all the time, or have a certain batboy hand it to them.

“They might wear the same T-shirt, eat certain foods, scratch out the batter’s box or take the same route to the stadium every day.”

If Guerrero is observing any rites, he’s keeping them to himself.

“I haven’t seen any idiosyncrasies at all in Pete,” Hines said.

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Guerrero does acknowledge each of his home runs the same way. En route to the dugout after hitting one out, he crooks his index finger and waves it at his wife, Denise, sitting behind the plate at Dodger Stadium. Or, if the Dodgers are on the road, he does the same thing in the direction of the nearest TV camera.

Guerrero says he would like to break the L.A. Dodger club record for home runs in a season set by Garvey in 1977, when he hit 33. That’s well within reach.

“I respect Garvey not only as a hitter, but as a person,” Guerrero said. “He’s one of the great guys I’ve gotten to play with. I think I could hit 35 or 40 home runs.”

That he quite possibly may. But what happens when he stops hitting home runs almost every day he shows up in uniform?

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“I think he’s accepting the pleasures of the streak,” Hines said, “but he’s experienced enough to understand it’s a cyclish game, which will make it easier for him to him to accept the low spots. He knows the hot cycle will come back again.”

Ferguson, too, dismisses the suggestion that Guerrero will get down on himself when the home runs come less frequently.

“Pete has the advantage of having played with a real good ballclub,” said Ferguson, alluding to the Dodger team that won a world championship in 1981.

“He got a lot of good advice and he had the advantage of watching some real good hitters. He can see he’s going to have some ups and downs.

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“A guy with a big swing, when his timing is good it’s better than anybody else’s. But when his timing is bad, it goes the other way.

“If Pete goes into a slump--I hope he doesn’t tail off but he probably will--he’ll handle that.”

Guerrero will handle it, Jones said, because of not only what he has seen but also what he is.

“It takes a special person,” Jones said. “He has that mental toughness--as opposed to a young man like (Greg) Brock, who’s struggling to settle down.

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“When you’re young, you listen to people, your friends or family telling you what to do because of what they saw on TV. When you’re young, you tend to doubt your own ability.

“But you eventually get through it.”

And some get through it better than others. Jones puts Guerrero in that class.

“Like Pete Rose--mentally tough,” Jones said. “Why aren’t all of us like that?”

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Probably for the same reason we all can’t hit a ball out of sight. But it’s still a sight we all can behold with wonder--and delight. And for the span of at least one month, all eyes have been on Guerrero.

PEDRO GUERRERO’S HOME RUNS IN JUNE

DATE TEAM INNING MEN ON PITCHER DODGER BASE RESULT June 1 Montreal 11th 0 Jeff Reardon W, 4-2 June 4 New York 6th 0 Dwight Gooden L, 4-1 June 7 at Atlanta 8th 0 Dave Schuler W, 7-2 June 8 at Atlanta 1st 1 Rick Mahler L, 7-3 June 10 at Cincinnati 4th 0 John Stuper W, 7-4 June 14 at Houston 5th 0 Joe Niekro W,10-2 June 14 at Houston 7th 0 Julio Solano June 15 at Houston 6th 0 Bob Knepper W, 3-0 June 16 at Houston 5th 1 Mike Scott W, 9-0 June 19 San Diego 7th 0 Andy Hawkins W, 5-1 June 21 Houston 5th 0 Bill Dawley W, 7-2 June 23 Houston 3rd 1 Ron Mathis W, 6-2 June 24 Houston 9th 0 Joe Niekro L, 8-4 June 26 at San Diego 4th 0 LaMarr Hoyt L,10-4

HOME RUN RECORDS, ONE MONTH LOS ANGELES DODGERS: 14, Pedro Guerrero, June, 1985. (Previous record, 12, Frank Howard, July, 1962). DODGERS: 15, Duke Snider, August, 1953. JUNE: American League, 15, Babe Ruth, New York Yankees, 1930; Robert Johnson, Philadelphia Athletics, 1934; Roger Maris, New York Yankees, 1961; National League, 14, Ralph Kiner, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1947; Mike Schmidt, Philadelphia Phillies, 1977; Pedro Guerrero, Dodgers, 1985. NATIONAL LEAGUE: 17, Willie Mays, S.F. Giants, August, 1965. MAJOR LEAGUE: 18, Rudy York, Detroit Tigers, August, 1937.

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