Billy Russell is standing alone in a Dodger Stadium hallway, finally off-duty for a few moments after another hard day at the yard. The last thing Russell needs is for some TV cameraman with an itchy trigger finger to point a lens his way and illuminate a bright light, like “60 Minutes” following a crime suspect. This is today’s last straw.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the Dodger manager snaps.
“Sorry,” the cameraman says, flipping off his light.
“That’s a horse . . . thing to do,” Russell says.
Cooling off in his clubhouse office, Russell gets a minute’s peace before the post-game hassles begin anew. His team has just lost for the ninth time in a dozen games. Pedro Astacio, winless since May 1, has blown a fuse, pitching a fit harder than he pitched the baseball. It is the second time in four days that a Dodger pitcher has gotten in the skipper’s face.
Russell stands firm, with his back to a Duke Wayne commemorative photo and postage stamp, framed on the office wall. There are days when the third Dodger manager in 45 seasons must feel like looking up Tom Lasorda to say, “Here, take your desk back. You can have it.” But things are bound to get better. And, when they do, Russell’s memory will remind him which people stood loyally by his side, as well as which ones were a pain in his rear.
Until then, he waits.
“One day, it’s going to turn around for us,” Russell says, in a room full of people seeking answers.
Bright lights are back in his eyes.
“And believe me, I’m going to remember these questions.”
The kettle is bubbling. Astacio and another pitcher, Ismael Valdes, have won six times this season in 24 starts. Russell had to forcibly evict Valdes from the dugout last time out. Astacio also created a scene Sunday, flinging his glove and kicking a pail. Russell had just been out to the mound, where he gave a good talking-to to Astacio without removing him from the game.
Mike Piazza was a witness. According to the Dodger catcher, “Bill just tried to calm him down. He told him to dig down deeper.”
Astacio had already given up nine hits among the first 16 St. Louis Cardinal batters. He was on his way to a 9-3 defeat, the pitcher’s fifth consecutive loss. And his frustration spilled over to the dugout, where Dodger coaches stepped in to stop Astacio from making things worse, 63-year-old Joey Amalfitano among them.
After the game, Ramon Martinez, charting pitches for tonight’s start, simply threw his clipboard to the dugout floor and left it there, one of the visiting Cardinals said later.
About all Astacio would say was, “I got frustrated. It happens.”
Russell accepted the pitcher’s apology:
“In the heat of battle, things are said, things are done. Pedro wasn’t happy with his performance. I wasn’t either. Something unfortunately happened. You saw it. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t want him to sit there, not doing anything. I just hope Pedro responds to this, learns from it.”
Someone asked the manager, “What did you say to him?”
“If I wanted you to know,” Russell replied, “I’d tell you.”
Answers are what he needs, not questions. There are 14 teams in the National League, and his Dodgers began the day Sunday next-to-last in runs scored, runs batted in, walks, doubles and on-base percentage. They ranked 12th in hits and stolen bases, 11th in batting average, dead last in sacrifice flies. If anybody on this team is illegally corking his bat, he isn’t corking it enough.
Adding insult anyway, Delino DeShields, now a St. Louis second baseman, insinuated that other Dodgers have corked their bats, rookie Wilton Guerrero being the only one who got caught. His former teammates were offended, and Dodger fans booed him, but DeShields had the last laugh, homering off Todd Worrell. Then he slapped palms with the Cardinals as though they had just won the pennant.
So ended another long day in the ravine.
The pitching was the one thing Russell could count on, most of this spring. Now a couple of his pitchers are coming unraveled at the seams.
“Was Astacio mad at you or at himself?” the manager was asked.
“Both,” he said.
Now he appreciates that it wasn’t just Italian food that gave Lasorda heartburn. Russell doesn’t mind a little heat. He had better get it from his pitchers on the mound, however, not in the dugout.