SAX : He Has Come a Long Way From That Scatter-Armed Season to Be an All-Star and a Team Leader

Times Staff Writer

Somehow, it will always be just the way it was in his boyhood backyard in Sacramento, when a ground ball past his brother Dave counted for a single, a ball hit from the fence to the tree was a double, from the tree to the street a triple, and into the street a home run.

The uniform will always be just as dirty as it was when his father, John, the truck driver whose route always managed to take him to whatever game his son was playing, would slip into a seat behind the backstop, his son unaware of his presence until that familiar voice boomed: “Go get ‘em, Stephen!”

The kids still sense it, which is why they come to the door of the exclusive Manhattan Beach neighborhood where he now lives, ring the doorbell and ask him to come out and play ball.


They know the child in Stephen Louis Sax will never go away, that he always will be one of them, as guileless and cheerful, as irrepressible and mischievous as the most precocious, runny-nosed squirt in their midst.

The child comes out at the most unexpected times, like when he’s having breakfast at a local coffee shop and a young woman of uncommon height arises from her seat at the next table.

“How tall are you?” Sax blurts out.

Tactless? To be sure.

Cruel? The woman hid her discomfort behind a half-formed smile, recognizing perhaps that the questioner intended no harm in his wonderment. That’s just the way kids are.

But this is La-La Land, not Never-Never Land. And even Steve Sax grows up.

To Rick Monday, it was just yesterday that Sax arrived as a 21-year-old newcomer, “going in 18 directions at once,” a shock to a Dodger ballclub that had veterans at every position.

“It was just like when a new kid moves into the neighborhood,” Monday said. “You’re used to pal-ing around with eight or nine guys, and now there’s a new kid on your block.


“You learn to accept him, but there’s still a period of look-see.”

That was five years ago. Davey Lopes, the man he replaced, is now a Chicago Cub, and Steve Sax, at 26, is a veteran .

“He’s now one of the established nine,” said Monday, a one-time teammate, now a sportscaster. “The neighborhood has changed.”

And so, too, has Sax. The Dodger whose throws were once most likely to show up on radar screens at Edwards Air Force Base has become the most consistent of Dodgers.

“He’s matured so much, I can’t even tell you,” Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said. “He’s more confident, more relaxed, more disciplined at the plate.

“He does the job and he does a good job. He doesn’t do it in a classy fashion, but he gets the job done.”

Sax is a .300 hitter--.333 in April, .315 in May, .319 in June and a team-high .320 starting the weekend against the Cubs. He has been promoted back to leadoff man after languishing in the No. 8 spot. Perhaps more incredibly, he has been the steadiest of Dodger fielders.

“He’s improved more than any player in the league this season,” teammate Bill Madlock said. “You can say it--he’s a good player.”

And after a two-year absence, Sax is an All-Star again, a validation of his climb back from ridicule to respectability.

“It’s not as if I’d like to tell people ‘I told you so,’ ” Sax said. “In baseball, you have to constantly prove yourself.

“All this (the All-Star selection) is a reinforcement. I always believed in myself. This is just a public acknowledgment.”

He’s a psycho. He could live in Bates Motel. He could live next door to Norman.

--BILL MADLOCK, on Steve Sax As long as they tell stories while idling around batting cages and sitting in dugouts, the Sax File will endure, to be passed from one baseball generation to the next.

Truth may be blurred in the passing, but the laughs should remain as loud as ever.

“Did you ever hear the ‘Mota wink’ story?” asked Dodger infielder Dave Anderson, who was more than delighted to share the tale.

It seems that Lasorda, upset at how often Sax failed to pick up the “steal” sign from third-base coach Joe Amalfitano, instructed Amalfitano to flash another sign to Manny Mota, the first base coach. Mota, in turn, would wink at Sax when the steal was on.

Foolproof system? Not quite. Sax got on base, and four times, Lasorda signaled a steal. Sax never made a move.

When Mota got back to the dugout, Lasorda demanded an explanation. “Did you wink at him?” Lasorda asked.

Yes, Mota nodded.

“What did Saxie do?” Lasorda asked.

“He winked back,” Mota said.

Monday tells the story of how Sax used to bound like a pogo stick when taking a lead, and Lasorda put Monday and veteran Mark Belanger in charge of showing Sax how to take a proper walking lead.

So they worked on it all spring, Monday said. Then the season opens, and in a game at San Diego, Sax hits a triple--and takes his lead, bounding up and down just like he used to.

“You better talk to him, Mo,” Lasorda said.

When Sax returned to the dugout, Monday met him at the top step. “What’s the matter, Saxie, did you forget everything we showed you?” Monday asked.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah, Mo,” Sax said. “I’ve got a question.”

Monday figured Sax wanted to know about technique. Instead, he asked: “Do you think the Chicken will be here tonight?”

Monday: “I went to Lasorda and said, ‘Fine me anything you want, but I quit.’ ”

Once, Anderson was waiting to take his turn in the cage when Sax--who was in a slump--stepped out after taking his swings. “I’ve got it,” Sax announced.

“I’m going to concentrate on hitting the ball more up the middle. I’m going to hit it 80% up the middle, 20% to right field and 20% to left field.”

Anderson: “I stepped in the cage, looked back at him and said, ‘No, he didn’t say that.’ ”

The greatest number of stories, of course, concern Sax’s throwing problems in 1983, when he committed a league-leading 30 errors and was, in Monday’s words, “flinging Frisbees” to first base.

There may be a laugh track in the re-telling, but at the time, it was anything but funny.

“I felt sorry for him,” Madlock said. “You could tell he was taking it hard.

“He took so much grief from the fans, teammates, opposing players, it’s nice to see a guy come back and do the stuff he has.”

Sax blames himself for putting Monty Basgall, the Dodger infield coach, into the hospital with a bleeding ulcer.

“I made that old guy go out there every afternoon at 3 o’clock, even in Atlanta, where it was 90 degrees and the humidity was about 85%,” Sax said. “I swear I gave him that ulcer.”

It was just as hard, of course, on Sax himself.

“He went through some tough times,” Lasorda said. “A normal guy might not have withstood it. A lot of guys would have been affected psychologically for the rest of their lives.

“But Saxie showed signs of tough-skinnedess. He kept battling, even though what he went through was very, very traumatic.”

But Lasorda refused to bench him. “We were going to sink or swim together,” Lasorda said. “The worst thing I could have done was take him out of the lineup.”

And Sax’s teammates tried to be tolerant.

“You know he’s getting some attention when 50,000 people are trying to help him throw the ball,” Monday said.

“But we knew one of two things could happen. He could either go into a corner and fade away, or take it by the horns, wrestle it and overcome it. That’s what Saxie did.”

And if he hadn’t overcome it?

“The veterans were going to make sure he didn’t get to the park,” Monday said.

Sax said the experience was as traumatic as it looked.

“At times, I couldn’t understand why I had to go through it,” he said. “I said a lot of prayers. I think God was testing me, to see what kind of person I’d become.

“I was scared. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was just frustrated and mad. Every time a ground ball was hit, you could hear the whole stadium buzz.

“I knew a lot of people were talking about it, a lot of people were laughing about it, some people were sympathetic. What could I do? I even threw one away in the All-Star game, it was really sad.

“But it was like a personal fight within myself, and I wasn’t going to let myself be knocked out. I just kept working at it . . . and I said a lot of prayers.”

I don’t know how a game can captivate somebody’s passion. It’s really funny.

--STEVE SAX The new, improved, more mature Steve Sax is still, as singer Warren Zevon would say, an excitable boy.

“Saxie’s amazing,” Anderson said. “He gets so involved in a game, he forgets everything else.

“Every game is like the World Series for him. He’s up for every game.”

Talk about a natural high. Bill Russell said Sax is transformed by eating a candy bar or drinking a Coke. Madlock says Sax sneaks into the clubhouse to munch on Cracker Jack during the game.

“And we kid him about his doughnuts,” Anderson said. “We say give Saxie a doughnut and he’ll go all day.”

Nothing, however, has the same effect as putting Sax in front of a crowd, whether it’s in the clubhouse doing impersonations for his teammates, or out on a diamond, sliding headfirst into third base.

“He’s a different guy in front of an audience,” Russell said. “He’s a performer. He’s turned on right after the anthem.”

That’s when, according to Madlock, “Saxie’s eyes get big.”

But all parties agree that Sax has calmed down considerably. He doesn’t throw his bat and helmet as much, argues less with umpires and doesn’t treat every at-bat as a medieval trial by fire.

“He still yells and waves his arms,” Russell said, “but not as much. In that respect, he’s calmed down. In the other, he hasn’t.”

Where most second baseman are orchestrated by Strauss, as graceful as a waltz, Sax plays to a disco beat.

“He’s a hardball player,” Madlock said. “He’s not graceful.

“He runs hard, not smooth or anything. But he gets everything done. He’s not Tommy Herr or Johnny Ray, he’s just Saxie.

“That’s the way he plays, and he plays as hard as any of them.”

And now, Monday says, all that intensity is focused.

“He’s a delight to watch,” Monday said, “especially when he channels all that energy in the proper direction, as he has this year.

“It’s scary to see the guy who asked me about the Chicken talk about fundamentals. The same guy has grown up to be one of the leaders of this club.”

“Fantasy? I’m living it right now. I really mean that.”

--STEVE SAX The man who arguably is the Dodgers’ most eligible bachelor lives with his sister, says he never has been to a Hollywood party and at the moment has given his heart to a couple of characters named Sluggo and Holly.

Sluggo’s the one with the floppy ears--a Cocker spaniel. Holly’s the poodle.

“As aggressive as I am on the field, I’m laid back off the field,” Sax said, sinking back into the living-room sofa of his professionally decorated home, which is striking in its total absence of clutter, giving it a hardly lived-in appearance.

“Doesn’t look like my locker, does it?” said Sax, who has a full-time maid. “I like a clean house. My mom’s place was always spotless.”

Upstairs, where Sax keeps his set of drums--he once sat in for a couple of numbers with the Beach Boys--he points to a wall painting done by an artist friend.

“I asked her to do a picture of the Three Stooges for me,” he said, “and she put me in the picture.”

On another wall, there is a photograph of Sax with Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

“What a great hitter,” Sax said. “The guy on the right, I mean.”

Most days when he’s home, Sax said, he works out at a local Nautilus club. For the last five years, he has also practiced karate.

“I don’t do anything dangerous,” Sax said. “Nothing competitive. What I’m doing is almost like dancing.

“I never hit anything hard. I like it. It’s fun. Riding a bike is more dangerous than what I do.”

His karate instructor, Roger, has become a close personal friend--in fact, was staying with Sax for a few days.

“A great guy,” Sax said. “Just like my brother.”

Four or five times a week, Sax said, he speaks by phone to his brother, Dave, who is a year older.

Once, Dave Sax also was in the Dodger system. Now, he’s with Boston’s Triple-A farm club, contemplating a life out of baseball.

“My brother was always a lot better than me,” Steve Sax said. “And I’ve never met a person who didn’t like him.

“People say he and I were so different, but we’re so much alike, deep down inside, that it’s unbelievable.

“I don’t know what I’d do . . . I’d go out of my mind if something ever happened to him.”

If the words are fatalistic, it may be because the fear is real. Sax’s father died at the age of 47 after having five heart attacks. His grandfather, who had seven heart attacks, also was 47 when he died.

“At the end of his life, my dad and I were real close,” Sax said.

“When I grew up, I was a pretty tough kid, and my dad made me that way. He made me have a lot of pride in myself.

“He commanded respect, and he disciplined me a lot. You didn’t dare talk back to my dad. If he said that orange juice was purple and you said it was orange, it was purple.

“My dad was always there for us. He loved to be with his family. And I think he had great foresight in the way he prepared us.”

Sax allowed how, one day, he would like to have a family. And would he be like his father?

“I’d be a little more . . . I think he told me in a roundabout way once, but I never told my dad that I loved him. At his funeral, I did.

“There was a lot of love there, maybe more than in most families, but we didn’t go around saying it. That’s the only thing I really regret.

“I know I can tell my kids I love them. I wish my dad and I could have said that.”

Sax has dabbled with acting in the last year, appearing on an episode of “Who’s the Boss” and also on a cable TV special.

“People think I’m going to try to be an actor when I’m done playing ball,” he said. “No. I just don’t like the field. Maybe once-in-a-while stuff, just for fun, but I wouldn’t want to do it for a living. I might want to do some broadcasting.”

As frenetic as he is on the field, Sax claims to be old-fashioned off of it.

“I’ve never seen drugs in baseball,” he said. “Never. I’ve never been to one party in L.A. since I’ve been here. I’ve been invited to Hollywood parties, but I’ve never set foot in one.

“What am I going to do there? I’m not going to go and talk baseball to a bunch of people getting stoned. That’s not my cup of tea.”

The conversation turned to Sax’s former teammate, Steve Howe, whose Dodger career was destroyed by cocaine.

“I have sympathy for him,” Sax said. “When I was younger, I would have been angry, but now I have sympathy.

“He doesn’t want to be in the position he’s in, he doesn’t want that, but he can’t help himself. Some people say it’s a sickness. Well, it doesn’t start out that way. It starts out as a curiosity, then becomes a sickness, when you can’t control it.

“I’ve always been scared to death of it. When I was in grade school, I used to show my mom the aspirin before I’d take it. It was like a phobia. I was afraid to put anything in my body, like I would get poisoned or something.”

A teammate once joked that as hyper as Sax is, if Sax ever took a greenie (amphetamine), he would jump out of his uniform.

“Sometimes, people don’t understand this, but I value my time alone,” Sax said.

At the moment, he has a girlfriend, “but I don’t want it to seem like I’m getting married. But I also don’t want it to seem like I’m hounding every girl on the street, because I don’t.”

The kind of woman he’d like to marry?

“My idea of a perfect wife would be like my mom,” he said. “I might offend some people if I said . . . I just believe there’s two, you know, two roles in a household. Contemporary society might not like it, but I believe a husband and wife should help and scratch each other’s backs. I don’t think a woman should be out in front of her husband.”

And if he can’t find such a woman?

“Then I won’t,” he said. “I’m happy now.”

Bill Madlock said younger players won’t be as interested in having careers as long as those in Madlock’s generation.

Sax said that doesn’t apply to him. If he could be 45 and still playing like another peripatetic hustler, Pete Rose, would he?

“Oh, would I,” Sax said. “There’s no doubt.

“What else am I going to do? I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.

“It was that way when I was 6 years old, and it’s the same way 20 years later.”