They Should Have Taken the Bat Out of Clark's Hands

He should not have pitched to him. That is all there is to it. He should have walked Jack Clark, or hit Jack Clark in the ribs with a change-up, or offered Jack Clark several billion dollars to leave the bat on his shoulder. Anything but pitch to him.

But when Manager Tom Lasorda told Tom Niedenfuer to go ahead and throw the baseball over the plate, the Dodger season went up in a puff of smoke. Jack Clark beat the Tom-Toms with his stick. His ninth-inning home run went higher, higher, higher, until, as Niedenfuer himself said later, "That thing would have had to hit the blimp to keep it in the ballpark."

Bye-bye, baby; baby, bye-bye. See you next season. The Dodgers lost to Clark and the Cardinals, 7-5, because Lasorda made a decision that blew up in his face like an exploding cigar. He pitched to Jack Clark--playoff batting average .381. Rather than pitch to Andy Van Slyke--playoff average .091. Or rather than bring in Jerry Reuss to pitch to Brian Harper--playoff average .000.

Bad, bad, bad, bad call. The manager has made his share of good ones, but this is one he will regret until he is old and grayer. Because, instead of meeting St. Louis today for an engraved invitation to the World Series, the Dodgers will be dropping into Chavez Ravine to empty their lockers.

They will gather up their personal belongings and go home. Tom Niedenfuer, a nice young man predetermined by fate to be the goat of this playoff series--the poor guy's birthplace is St. Louis Park, Minn., for goodness sake--must go to his cubicle and collect the twin-horned buffalo hunter's hat from the top shelf and perhaps the comic strip taped just beneath it.

In the cartoon, a pitcher with an obviously dead arm is approached by a manager, who says: "I know it's your 150th relief appearance, but we really need this one."

The name of the comic strip is, "It's Just a Game."

Try telling Niedenfuer that now. Try telling any of the Dodgers. The last time Enos Cabell lost a playoff series, it was 1980, and he was with Houston.

"I said I wasn't gonna cry, but I cried harder than anybody else," he said. This time, he was keeping his upper lip stiff, but he has had easier tasks.

Niedenfuer, too, was toughing it out. Somebody up there obviously didn't like him anymore. He lost the last game of the regular season on a home run by Dave Parker and lost Monday's back-breaking Game 5 on a home run by Ozzie Smith. The guy they call "Buff"--short for Buffalo, because of his size--took his loss like a man, giving all the credit to Clark, saying of his home run: "It must have gone 500 feet," and "I thought it might hit the roof."

The truth hurts, but not so much if you say it quickly. With that in mind, let it be said once more that Lasorda made the wrong decision to pitch to Jack Clark. You do not let the great hitters beat you. You do not pitch to George Brett or Eddie Murray or Dale Murphy with a game on the line. You work around them.

Lasorda knows this is how it goes. But he knows you have to play your hunches sometimes and live with them.

"The easiest thing in the world is to second-guess," he did say. "But I'm the manager. I have to accept responsibility for my actions. The guy makes an out, I look good. But the guy hits a home run, and even my wife knows I should have walked him."

Niedenfuer was diplomatic: "I don't get paid to make those decisions."

Cabell was realistic: "I was hoping they would pitch around him. Jack's a home-run hitter, and he can hit 'em out of Yellowstone."

Darrell Porter of the Cardinals was sympathetic. "I'm just glad I'm not a manager."

Teammate Tommy Herr was ecstatic: "I couldn't figure it out. Jack Clark's the kind of guy that can hurt you, and the next guy (Van Slyke) hasn't been having a good series. I felt great when I saw they were pitching to Jack."

Why did the Dodgers do such a dangerous thing? They did it because Clark had struck out against Niedenfuer his last time up, because since Aug. 16 Clark had hit only one home run, and mostly because they did not have a genuine left-handed relief pitcher. Not since Steve Howe took a powder.

Had Lasorda walked Clark and brought in Reuss, Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog intended to bat Harper for Van Slyke. Harper batted once during the series and 52 times during the season. Harper has 337 lifetime major league at-bats. Clark has 4,173.

The Dodgers did walk Clark intentionally in the seventh inning of Game 5 and in the fourth and sixth innings of Game 3. They should have asked Niedenfuer to put salt on the ball and swallow it before throwing it anywhere near the plate with Clark standing next to it.

So now, poor Buff has to sit home this winter, sticking pins in an Ozzie Smith doll and living with visions of Clark's homer heading toward the Goodyear blimp.

He will remember trying to sneak a fastball by Clark on the first pitch, figuring the guy would be looking for another of those sliders that struck him out in the seventh. It was his bread and butter, that fastball. "I can say I got beat with my best pitch," Niedenfuer said, seeing some sort of silver lining. "I can't say I got beat by throwing a knuckleball or anything."

He needs help in the bullpen--left-handed help, the kind Howe was supposed to supply, the kind Jeff Lahti and Todd Worrell get in St. Louis.

"They have a Ken Dayley, we don't. It's that simple," Cabell said.

Steve Sax stood nearby as Niedenfuer summed things up by saying, "I felt lucky to be the guy out there pitching, because at least it showed their faith in me."

"Right," Sax interjected.

"I mean, they must think a lot of me to at least leave me out there in that situation," Niedenfuer said.

"That's right," Sax said.

What happened is not to Niedenfuer's discredit. Giving up home runs to Jack Clark is no disgrace. But giving up homers to Clark when you could have thrown four pitches 40 feet wide of home plate, that is the memory the Dodgers must live with.

In their dreams they will see Clark coming to bat, and they will yell out over and over and over again: Walk him! Walk him! Walk him!

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