DOWN ON THE FARM : Dodger Organization Has Endured Lean Years but It May Be Changing
In the middle of another 105-degree afternoon in an 8,000-seat ballpark last week, Guy Wellman turned from the baseball game in front of him to glare at a Dodger prospect in the stands.
The kid’s biggest problem was, he was also the only person in the stands.
“Be awake up there,” shouted Wellman, the Dodgers’ minor league field coordinator. “It’s your job to pick up the foul balls, and there’s foul balls everywhere!”
It is here, in the isolation of the Arizona Instructional League, that Wellman and his instructors have once again been given the hope of the Dodgers’ future. For the next month, with no fans or newspaper coverage, the Dodger prospects will work on everything from new curveballs to old swings to the proper way to collect foul balls.
For such a high-profile organization, this kind of privacy can be unnerving. But this fall, it is welcome.
Because it is here one notices that although the Dodgers have some of the best prospects in baseball, most of them are not real close to Dodger Stadium.
Most of them, in fact, have just started receiving paychecks. Most of them spent last season in places such as Great Falls, Mont., and Bakersfield, Class A towns. Many will spend next summer in San Antonio, the double-A town. And then there will be a summer in triple-A Albuquerque.
It is here, then, that one realizes the Dodger future is not now, but more like 1992. And it is here that one can plainly see why.
On one mound is 1988’s No. 1 draft pick, Bill Bene, a pitcher working on control that at one point was so poor last year, the only hitter he was allowed to face was a mannequin.
On another mound is 1987’s No. 1 draft pick, Dan Opperman, who because of injuries suffered before the draft has pitched 19 games in three seasons.
Then there’s 1986’s No. 1 draft pick, Mike White. He’s not on any field. After batting .227 for San Antonio this summer, he was not invited.
“He’s sitting home, trying to figure out why he had such a poor year,” Wellman said.
The results of a series of bad and unfortunate drafts have been transferred from here all the way to the big league Dodger lineup card. In a recent September series against Atlanta that featured an average of five Brave prospects on the field per night, the Dodgers had one--shortstop Jose Vizcaino, a non-drafted signee from the Dominican Republic.
“Scouting is just a guessing game,” said Ben Wade, who has been the Dodgers’ scouting director since 1973. “You have to be lucky.”
Baseball people used to say that Dodger scouts weren’t just lucky, but good. In 1968, with many of the same scouts who work today, the Dodgers put together what is generally agreed as the best draft in history. They signed nine players who later made the major leagues, among them Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey.
That picture has changed. Not counting last June’s, it has taken the Dodgers their previous five drafts combined to find nine big league players. And of those nine, only pitcher John Wetteland, drafted in 1985, plays a major part in immediate Dodger plans.
Of the 32 active Dodgers who will end the season, only eight were acquired in the draft. And in the annual September recall of triple-A stars, only five players were recalled.
“They’ve had some seriously lean years over there,” one scout said of the Dodgers. “They always took players nobody else would touch, like they thought they were smarter than everyone else. Lately, they haven’t looked so smart.”
They recovered in last June’s draft to make three first-round picks that became the envy of baseball. Pitchers Kiki Jones and Jamie McAndrew combined to go 19-0 with a 1.62 earned-run average for Great Falls in the Class A Pioneer League, and outfielder teammate Tom Goodwin hit .308 and stole a league-record 60 bases in 63 games.
But even those players know the problems they were hired to solve.
“We know we are coming in to try and rebuild the Dodgers,” Jones said during a break in Arizona. “We know we’ve got the pressure.”
It isn’t that there isn’t talent closer to the big leagues. Albuquerque sent the Dodgers two players who became starting pitchers at midseason--Ramon Martinez and Wetteland. And the Dodgers double-play combination of the future is at Albuquerque (soon-to-be second baseman Vizcaino) and San Antonio (shortstop Jose Offerman).
But considering this is an organization that could use a power hitter, there is little help above Class A Bakersfield.
Only three players at Albuquerque hit double figures in both homers and runs batted in. One, Mike Huff, struggled in limited major league action. Another, Javier Ortiz, was traded and still another, Tracy Woodson, quit the team.
Only one player at San Antonio had double figures in homers and RBIs, Luis Lopez. But even though he was a No. 2 draft pick, his future is not considered bright since he was picked six years ago.
“I’ll be the first to admit, we have had better younger players in the last few years,” said Wade, who was a Dodger scout in the 1968 glory days.
The scouting department’s slump began in 1983, when the Dodgers decided that they needed a left-handed pitcher. So in the first round, they passed on a young right-hander from Texas named Roger Clemens and took Wichita State’s Eric Sonberg. You can reach Sonberg in the office of Beverly Hills agent Dennis Gilbert, where he is embarking on a new career.
“We just had to have that left-hander,” Wade said. “That happens sometimes.”
The next year, their first pick was another left-hander, Oklahoma State’s Dennis Livingston. He has long since been released by this organization, and several others.
In 1985, their first pick was outfielder Chris Gwynn of San Diego State. Because of injuries, he has appeared in only 61 big league games since.
“We’ll never know what kind of pick that was until he stays healthy,” Wade said.
Then came the first of three first-round picks, from which the Dodgers have yet to recover:
--Outfielder Mike White, 1986: He was the Tennessee high school player of the year, a great contact hitter who could run.
“But we were stunned when he was taken in the first round,” said one longtime scout, who said he immediately asked his boss if he should have been checking White out.
“My boss told me no, that he wasn’t even on our organization’s first three-round list,” the scout said. “It was like the Dodgers knew something nobody else knew.”
Said Wade: “It’s easy to second-guess now. But we liked the kid.”
Wade, however, admitted he never saw him.
“No, I never saw him play, but we had enough people who did,” he said. “I guess right now, I’d have to admit it was a bad pick.”
--Pitcher Dan Opperman, 1987: The Las Vegas high school star would have been everyone’s first pick except for a twinge in his right elbow. The Dodgers were the only ones who had the elbow examined.
“We were told he was fine,” Wade said.
Three hours after he reported to Great Falls, while pitching in the bullpen, the elbow collapsed. A couple of weeks later, he had reconstructive surgery.
Last season, in his last simulated game before trying a regular-season comeback, the elbow collapsed again. There was another operation, this time to clean out scar tissue.
Put on a slow rehabilitation schedule that allowed only a couple of innings per start, Opperman finally began pitching this year for Class A Vero Beach. Because he left most of his games before he was eligible for a victory, he went 0-7 despite a 3.54 ERA.
But in his last start, he pitched a strong 5 1/3 innings. And because he is 20, the Dodgers remain hopeful.
“I would take him again,” Wade said. “Nobody in the organization has said a word to me about it, nobody has laid any blame on me, because he can still be a good pick.”
If nothing else, he will be a pick with a motive.
“I’m going to try and stop all this bad talk about me,” Opperman said quietly. “I know it’s put-up or shut-up time for me. And I’d like to shut everybody up.”
--Pitcher Bill Bene, 1988: The scouts knew that this former Cal State Los Angeles outfielder still had an outfielder’s wild arm. The Dodgers, as usual, saw this not as a problem but a challenge.
“Give them credit,” one scout said. “Most of us were afraid to take a first-round chance on taming this guy. If they can do it, it’s a great pick.”
So far, they haven’t done it. In a streak of wildness unmatched this summer in professional baseball, the quiet, polite Bene walked 56 batters in 27 innings at Bakersfield and Class A Salem. He had nearly as many wild pitches, 18, as strikeouts, 24.
He appeared in only 14 games, not because he was injured, but because the Dodgers couldn’t trust him. When he was so wild in one Bakersfield batting practice that he broke the wrist of outfielder Bryan Beals, the Dodgers thought they would try something innovative. They had no idea one little mannequin could cause such a stir.
“I go into the clubhouse after a road trip one day and I see this feminine-looking mannequin at my locker,” Bene said. “They wanted me to pitch to it. I said fine. I would try anything.”
So he put a mustache on the dummy, dressed it up like a Dodger, called it Harold, and pitched to it. But just twice.
“Then a couple of infielders started pitching to it and hit it right across the pelvic area,” he said. “Its arms went one way, its legs went another way, and that was it.”
Said minor league pitching instructor Dave Wallace: “As strange as it may seem, it probably worked.”
The Dodgers hope something will work.
“It was a gamble, and I know if he doesn’t make it, a lot of people are going to take some heat,” Wade said. “But look at all he’s overcome. He’ll be fine.
“I mean, all he’s got to do is throw the ball over the plate.”
“I hope it ends soon,” he said of his wildness problem. “This has been like a joke. This has been the nightmare of my life.”