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Dodgers’ infield of the 1970s had a lasting impact

The infielders trotted gingerly onto the diamond, Dodger Stadium suddenly taking on a 1970s vibe.

Steve Garvey stood at first base, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at shortstop and Ron Cey at third — as if they’d never left.

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A Dodgers infield that played together for more than eight seasons — a major league record — reunited for an inning during a recent old-timers game.

On June 13, 1973, Garvey entered a game at Philadelphia as a defensive replacement at first base. It marked the first time the quartet played collectively at the positions that would define them.

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Ten days later, 40 years ago Sunday, in the second game of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium, they all started.

By the time the Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the 1981 World Series at Yankee Stadium, the foursome had combined for 21 All-Star game appearances, four National League pennants and a World Series championship.

It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but the disco-era Dodgers infield endured like no other in baseball history.

Free agency and the sport’s evolving financial structure make it improbable that any group will equal its longevity.

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“I wouldn’t think,” former manager Tom Lasorda said, “it could ever happen again.”

The shortstop

Lopes, Garvey and Cey were college players when the Dodgers drafted them in 1968. But it was Russell, drafted as a high school player two years earlier, who reached the major leagues first.

He debuted in 1969 and played mainly as an outfielder and second baseman during his first three major league seasons. But with shortstop Maury Wills approaching the end of his career, Russell also spent winters in the Instructional League working on infield skills with Lasorda and the late Monty Basgall, a longtime Dodgers coach.

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When he replaced Wills in 1972, Russell played one of the game’s most demanding positions while essentially learning on the job. Manager Walter Alston and Lasorda, who succeeded Alston with four games left in the 1976 season, showed patience.

Others did not.

“I made a lot of mistakes and the press and fans let me know it,” said Russell, 64. “But becoming conditioned to that was a big thing — to show them I could play at this position.”

Jerry Reuss, who pitched for three teams against the Dodgers before joining them in 1979, saw Russell as “a center fielder playing shortstop,” a defender not as flashy as others but, like all of his infield teammates, savvy about the game’s nuances.

“They knew when to position themselves a little step this way or a step back or a step in,” Reuss said. “And more times than not their intuition was correct.”

Russell played his entire 18-year career with the Dodgers and was a three-time All-Star. Also a former Dodgers manager and coach, he now works for the commissioner’s office, observing umpires mainly at Dodgers and Angels games.

It’s been a long, rewarding journey for the Kansas boy, who had never flown on an airplane before being drafted by the Dodgers.

“We accomplished more,” he said of the enduring infield, “than we ever dreamed of.”

Corner to corner

Last month, Garvey stood with his son near the visitors’ dugout at Dodger Stadium, the teen sporting a Bryce Harper jersey.

Garvey, 64, coached Harper on a Palm Desert-based travel ball team several years ago. He had come out to the stadium to say hello to the young Washington Nationals star.

Garvey’s rise to stardom was not nearly as quick as Harper’s.

Garvey broke into the majors as a third baseman, but a shoulder injury during his football-playing days at Michigan State affected his throwing. In 1972, his second full season, he committed 28 errors in 85 games.

“Some of those throws were a little wide or a little low,” Garvey said. “It was almost divined that I ended up at first base.”

In the first few months of the 1973 season, Garvey was used mainly as a pinch-hitter and late-inning outfield replacement. But injuries to other outfielders forced Alston to make a move.

Lasorda said he proposed that Bill Buckner move from first base to the outfield — as did Buckner.

“We were having trouble scoring runs,” Buckner said. “I told Alston, ‘You know, Garvey can play first base. I’ll move to the outfield.’ I just wanted to win.”

On June 23, after the Reds beat the Dodgers in the first game of a doubleheader, Garvey started at first in place of Buckner. He produced two hits while batting fifth in a lineup that included Lopes in the leadoff spot, Cey hitting fourth and Russell seventh.

Garvey eventually became a fixture. In 1974 he was the National League most valuable player and helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series against the Oakland A’s. On Sept. 3, 1975, he played in the first of 1,207 consecutive games, the fourth-longest streak in major league history.

Garvey signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres after the 1982 season and helped them reach the 1984 World Series.

But he regards the Dodgers’ 1981 World Series victory as the team’s crowning moment.

“To stay together long enough to accomplish the ultimate in a team sport,” Garvey says, “and to be part of arguably the best infield in history puts it in quotes.”

Safe at third

Cey was a fixture at third base for the Dodgers, a power hitter who in 1977 helped make baseball history — he, Garvey and outfielders Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker each hit at least 30 home runs, the first time four teammates had done that in the same season.

Cey, however, was not immune from Dodgers experimentation before he rose to the major leagues for brief stints in 1971 and 1972.

During the winter Instructional League, Cey saw spot duty at second base and was even asked about catching.

“The catching thing was definitely not one I wanted to do at all,” Cey recalled, laughing.

One day, while playing left field, he chased down a ball hit into the corner, picked it up and threw a strike to second base, nailing a runner.

“I’m walking back to my position and I’m saying, ‘You’re an idiot. They’re actually going to think you can play left field if you do that,’” Cey said.

Instead, he became a cornerstone at third base.

Cey, 65, was traded to the Chicago Cubs after the 1982 season and played five more seasons, finishing his career with Oakland in 1987. He has worked for the Dodgers in marketing and community relations for nearly two decades.

The Dodgers’ long-standing infield endured, he said, because of winning individual and team performances, durability and the closeness in age of the four players.

“There were a lot of things,” he said, “working in our favor.”

Middle management

Davey Lopes didn’t want to do it.

Lasorda asked him about moving from center field to second base at triple-A Spokane, saying it would be a good move for Lopes and the Dodgers. Lopes, in his mid-20s at the time, wanted no part of it.

“I thought he was crazy,” Lopes said.

In his first game at his new position, he said, the first three batters hit him ground balls. Lopes also recalled a play in which he went after a ball hit up the middle and stepped on his glove, rolling to the ground.

Lasorda, however, recalled Lopes making a sensational play behind second base, prompting him to call then-general manager Al Campanis with the good news.

“Tommy was full of enthusiasm,” said Lopes, 68. “A big motivator.”

With the help of Basgall and Lasorda, Lopes sharpened his infield skills, broke into the majors in 1972 and became a starter in ’73. He twice led the National League in stolen bases, won a Gold Glove in 1978 and slugged 28 home runs in 1979.

A few months after the 1981 World Series, Lopes was traded to the A’s as the Dodgers made way for second baseman Steve Sax.

“I always felt I’d be the first guy to leave,” he said.

Lopes also played for the Cubs and Houston Astros before retiring after the 1987 season. He managed the Milwaukee Brewers for two-plus seasons and coached with five teams before rejoining the Dodgers as a coach in 2011.

“I had a great, great teacher in Monty Basgall,” Lopes said, reflecting on the position switch that changed his career. “It all worked out.”

Close encounters

Russell described the Dodgers infield as a “band of brothers.”

But brothers, even when successful, don’t always get along.

The A’s of the early 1970s and the New York Yankees of the Bronx Zoo years later in the decade proved that talent and acrimony were not necessarily a poisonous mix. So did the Dodgers.

“There were times,” former Dodger Mickey Hatcher said of the fabled infield, “when those guys hated each other. But when they got on the field they played together. They pulled for each other.”

Garvey, who scuffled with pitcher Don Sutton in the Shea Stadium locker room in 1978, says the four infielders developed a “professional friendship” and that “probably the best thing is not to be too close.”

Lopes, citing Lakers championship teams that featured feuding stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, said pro athletes don’t have to like each other. But they must be able to put aside whatever is bothering them about a teammate and perform.

“I’m sure I was an ass,” Lopes said, laughing. “I’m sure they were asses too, at times. But when push comes to shove and someone knocks them or something happens during a game, we were right there.”

Cey said the infield was “probably close,” but after spending months together in the clubhouse, on the field, on airplanes and in hotels, players were naturally happy to get a break from one another each winter.

“We respected each other and knew each other’s ability,” Russell said. “You knew all the intimate stuff — some of the stuff you probably shouldn’t know.”

Today, the former teammates occasionally see each other at the stadium. They get together one or two times a year as a group to sign autographs at memorabilia shows.

All said they’ve grown to better appreciate their collective feat as they have aged.

“I’m extremely proud of what they brought into my life and, hopefully, I’ve brought something into their lives,” Lopes said. “And that we can say, as a group, we lasted and accomplished something that no one in the game has come close to accomplishing again.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein


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