With the exception of a five-year sabbatical in the American League, Ron Perranoski spans the generation gap of Dodger pitching in Los Angeles.
From the golden age of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, when he was the best relief pitcher in baseball, into the '70s, when he was a minor league instructor, through the dawning of Fernandomania and beyond, which he has overseen as pitching coach, Perranoski has witnessed the greatest stockpiling of arms this side of the Cold War.
So, when Perranoski says that the Dodger staff of '85 with its Four Tops--Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch and Jerry Reuss--and bullpen beboppers Tom Niedenfuer and Ken Howell can match credentials with any previous set of Dodger standard-bearers, one is inclined to listen.
"I'd definitely say yes," Perranoski said when asked whether the current staff could match arms with its forebears.
"And this is a young staff that's already been through it all. They've won pennants, they've gotten beat on the last day of the season, they know what it's about.
"And if they stay healthy, there's no telling what they can do."
Consider for a moment what this group already has accomplished. The Dodger pitchers lead the National League with an earned-run average of 2.88. The Dodgers are the only team in the major leagues under 3.00. Hershiser, Reuss, Valenzuela and Welch have a combined record of 50-21--25-2 in their last 33 starts--with an even shinier ERA of 2.44. With fifth starter Rick Honeycutt, the Dodgers recently went through a stretch of 52 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
Individually, the numbers are just as impressive:
--Valenzuela, after starting the season by pitching 42 innings without allowing an earned run, has won nine straight games and appears headed for the first 20-win season of his career.
Valenzuela leads the league in complete games with 14, is second in shutouts with five, fifth in innings pitched, fourth in strikeouts, and tied for fourth with Hershiser in ERA. He is 24 years old.
--Hershiser has thrown two one-hitters this season and four shutouts. He has yet to lose this season in Dodger Stadium, where his record is 8-0 with a 1.17 ERA. He has thrown only five home run pitches in 174 innings, fewest home runs allowed by any Dodger starter, and has struck out more than twice as many batters as he has walked. He is 26.
--Welch, who pitched just five innings the first two months because of a bad elbow, has the lowest ERA among the starters (2.10). He has two shutouts and six complete games in 15 starts, and had an eight-game winning streak. He is 28.
--Reuss, coming off surgery on both heels and an uncertain elbow, has three shutouts and would have three more were it not for his nettlesome habit of allowing home runs one out away from ending the game. Going into this season, he had the best ERA, 2.87, of any pitcher in the majors over the last five seasons, and his current ERA is a shade lower than that after his last five starts, in which he has allowed a total of five runs. Reuss is 36.
--Niedenfuer and Howell give the Dodgers two 90-m.p.h. fastballers who average a strikeout an inning. Most teams rely on one stopper and one set-up man in the bullpen. Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda has the luxury of alternating stoppers, which is reflected in their save totals. Niedenfuer has 14, Howell 12. Both are relative youngsters. Niedenfuer is 26, Howell 24.
--A sad footnote to this collection of Hollywood success stories is that Alejandro Pena, who last season had the best ERA in the league, hasn't pitched at all in 1985 after undergoing shoulder surgery. The Dodgers, however, still are hopeful that Pena, even though it's unlikely he'll ever cut loose again with a 94-m.p.h. fastball, will return to the mound one day. Pena is 26.
Other coaches of great pitching staffs in the past--Johnny Sain, Ray Miller, Roger Craig, to name a few of recent vintage--have achieved guru status. How often has Perranoski been asked to take a bow for the performance of his charges? Well, in 1983, he was elected to the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.
"My whole career, I didn't have publicity," Perranoski said with no hint of regret. "When you pitch with Koufax and Drysdale, you go through that.
"I'm kind of quiet. I just do what I have to do."
He gets recognition, however, from his pitchers.
"He's not the type of guy who's going to get a lot of credit," said Niedenfuer, who describes his relationship with Perranoski as a father-son one and has often invited the coach to Sunday barbecues at his home.
"His pitching staff speaks for itself," Niedenfuer added.
Hershiser, who began working with Perranoski in the minor leagues in 1979, said: "My biggest compliment to Perry is that he doesn't overcoach.
"He sees when a guy is going well, and sees a guy when he's going bad, and he can tell the guy what's different, what he's doing wrong. He gets you back into your game real quick."
What specific impact has Perranoski made on his pitchers? He sat in the visitors' dugout at Montreal's Olympic Stadium recently and discussed the evolution of this staff:
--Valenzuela. "I had him in the minor leagues. I was there the day (Bobby) Castillo showed him the grip on the screwball. You could see he had outstanding rotation. We let him use it as his changeup.
"I saw him three times in San Antonio in 1980. The second time, he started changing speeds with the screwball and started throwing it pretty hard. He was basically a .500 pitcher then. He didn't really really know how to utilize everything."
Then, Perranoski said, he taught Valenzuela how to warm up, a system that the pitcher abides by to this day.
"He used to throw his fastball wild-high and away to right-handed hitters," Perranoski said. "We started him coming inside with his fastball, and then going in and out. Now, when he warms up, he throws fastballs to the outside of the plate, then to the inside, then the screwball and the curveball."
Hershiser describes Perranoski's system as "muscle memory." He said that for the first 10 minutes he warms up, he throws fastballs away from the plate until it becomes automatic.
"Then, when I move my fastball in, my arm knows what it takes to move the pitch 18 inches," Hershiser said. "Those are fine muscle movements to get a pitch inside or outside. He gives you a focal point. That really helped my control, and my control in the strike zone."
Valenzuela's control tightened considerably, too. He threw 35 straight scoreless innings in the minors, and it was only a matter of time before he received the summons from above.
"He knew how to pitch in '81 and he knows how to pitch in '85," Perranoski said. "And he learns something every time he goes out there. He has a natural baseball sense."
--Welch. Besides the concern over his elbow, the Dodgers were trying to find him a third pitch to complement his rising fastball and hard curve. During spring training, they worked on a changeup.
"It was coming along great, but there was still something in his delivery that hitters could read that was giving it away," Perranoski said.
When Welch returned from a three-week period of rehabilitation in Florida in May, Perranoski suggested he try the split-fingered fastball, a pitch former Dodger Craig had demonstrated to Perranoski.
"It came so naturally," Perranoski said. "He picked it right up, and the bottom just fell out of it."
The expansion of Welch's repertory--Niedenfuer and Howell also throw the pitch--has made a profound difference. "He has confidence in all three pitches," Perranoski said. "And it's made his fastball that much better."
Along with a new pitch, Perranoski said Welch has found new powers of concentration. "Before, that was his biggest problem. He couldn't stay within himself, he'd rush. He let too many things distract him when he was facing the hitter."
--Reuss. Much has been made of how Reuss is undergoing a transition from a power pitcher, but Perranoski believes all Reuss needed to recover his fastball was for his elbow to get stronger after surgery last winter.
"He's finally feeling healthy for the first time in a year, year and a half," Perranoski said. "His ball is starting to pop more when he keeps it down.
"He may changes speeds a little more, but his No. 1 pitch is still his fastball."
--Hershiser. Like Lasorda, Perranoski was convinced that Hershiser had to learn not to be intimidated by opposing hitters, to stop pitching defensively. That battle over, Perranoski now has to remind Hershiser on occasion that it isn't necessary to make a perfect pitch each time.
"He sometimes tries to be too great," Perranoski said. "His ball moves so well, and he has a great curveball. Those low-hit games he throws--when he's on, he's tough.
"But once in a while, he'll start a game off too fine, trying to make the perfect pitch. He's a real competitor inside, and though he doesn't show it, he sometimes gets a little too excited at times."
--Niedenfuer's excitement range exceeded the chair-breaking level when he first came up. "I once smashed Terry Forster's chair after a bad game," Niedenfuer said. "I didn't have one of my own."
Perranoski, as a former reliever, counseled Niedenfuer on the need to maintain an equilibrium, both on and off the mound.
"Now he has confidence in himself," Perranoski said. "When the game is on the line, he knows his butt is going to be in there. Before, he had to prove to everybody and to himself that he was a hell of a relief pitcher."
--Howell. "Larry Sherry and Koufax did a hell of a job with this kid in the minor leagues in a short period of time," Perranoski said. "He had a lot of mechanical problems. He was just a raw kid, and they put together a lot in a short period of time."
When Howell goes through extended periods without much work, he has a tendency to revert to former bad habits, which is one reason he has had bouts of wildness this season, Perranoski said.
Howell, too, had to develop the peculiar temperament of a relief pitcher.
"Everything is so damn magnified in the bullpen," Perranoski said. "You can go four or five games in a row without getting your name in the paper, but you lose one, and your name's in headlines.
"It can look like the easiest thing in the world, but when it doesn't come easy, it can be devastating."
But this season, as in so many before it, the devastation has been wrought on National League hitters by the L.A. Destroyers.