Dodgers Astros Showdown

“For you guys who don’t think we can win four in a row, do us a favor. Don’t get dressed.”

So read the sign in the Dodgers clubhouse on Friday, October 3rd. L.A trailed the Astros by three games with three remaining in the season. Anything less than a four-game sweep would end their year.

Game 1 – October 3rd, 1980

Despite the inspiration, the Dodgers were in trouble late in Friday’s opener. Alan Ashby’s 8th inning sacrifice fly gave the Astros a 2-1 lead and L.A. had just two at-bats left to save their season.

Houston starter Ken Forsch, whose 2nd inning single off Don Sutton gave the Astros a 1-0 lead, set L.A. down in order in the bottom of the 8th and was scheduled to lead off the top of the 9th. Astros manager Bill Virdon opted to let Forsch hit for himself against Valenzuela, who had still not yielded a run on the season and Forsch lined out to 2nd baseman Davey Lopes.

 

Forsch got Jay Johnstone to ground out to open the 9th, but a Rick Monday single was followed by an error on Rafael Landestoy. Two batters later, Ron Cey singled to left field to tie the game.

Valenzuela again set the Astros down in order in the top of the 10th inning and Virdon again sent Forsch out in the bottom half of the frame. Former Astro catcher Joe Ferguson sent Forsch’s first pitch into the stands over a leaping Cesar Cedeno in left-center field for a walk-off homer, giving the Dodgers new life. Ferguson celebrated his game winning homer by throwing his batting helmet into the air as he rounded 3rd base and, after crossing home plate, picked up Lasorda in a bear hug before mobbed by his teammates and blowing kisses to the fans.

“Sometimes we don’t look pretty out there,” said Ferguson, “but this team has shown more heart than any team I’ve ever played on.”

Game 2 – October 4th, 1980

The two teams squared off the following afternoon with L.A.’s Jerry Reuss against Houston’s Nolan Ryan. L.A. took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second when Derrel Thomas singled to left to score Steve Garvey. Art Howe’s RBI single in the 4th tied the game at one, but Garvey led off the top of the 5th with a home run, his 26th, and Reuss shut out the Astros the rest of the way for his 18th win.

“I’ve never seen him more aggressive,” Lasorda said of his starter. “I’ve seen him throw better, but he went after every batter today.”

The win meant Houston’s lead was down to just a single game with one game remaining. A Dodger win on Sunday afternoon would force a one-game playoff in Los Angeles, while a Houston win wrap secure the division title.

“The fact is this: We can win it tomorrow. They can’t,” said Morgan. “We win tomorrow and it’s all over. The percentages are in our favor. The Dodgers haven’t beaten us four straight all year and I don’t see them doing it.”

Game 3 – October 5th, 1980

For game three of the series, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda started 14-game winner Burt Hooton, while Houston skipper Bill Virdon went with Vern Ruhle, who was dealing with a finger injury he suffered when he cut his right index finger on a nail in the dugout on Friday. The wound required two stitches to close and left Ruhle unsure how long he could go in the season’s final game.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a factor, but I’m going to let the trainer work on it,” Ruhle said. “Obviously I can’t pitch with a Band-Aid on, but I think I’ll be all right. If I can’t (pitch) I’m sure Joaquin will be ready.”

In addition to Ruhle, Joe Morgan injured himself in Friday’s game sliding back into 1st base on a pickoff attempt. The Dodgers weren’t faring much better though as Davey Lopes was battling a sore neck and both Ron Cey and Dusty Baker were dealing with hamstring pulls. But minor injuries wouldn’t keep anyone out of game of this magnitude.

It didn’t take long for the Astros to get to Hooton or to practice a little gamesmanship. Cesar Cedeno led off the top of the 2nd inning by testing Ron Cey’s sore hamstring with a bunt down the 3rd base line that turned into an infield single. A stolen base and a Hooton error put runners on the corners with no one out. Alan Ashby singled to center to score Cedeno and Craig Reynolds singled to right to give Houston a 2-0 lead and chase Hooton from the game.

Ruhle wasn’t around much longer than Hooton but it wasn’t the Dodgers that knocked him out of the game, it was his finger. The stitches opened up early and by the third inning he had to come out of the game.

“I went as far as I could as hard as I could,” he said afterwards. “It started breaking by the first inning, but it didn’t start bleeding. It just started tearing downward and by the last two pitches I made, I just didn’t see any point in going on. I would have been hurting the team.”

Houston increased their lead to 3-0 in the top of the 4th but the Dodgers got one back in the bottom of the 5th on a Davey Lopes single off Joaquin Andujar. Down 3-1, Lasorda once again called on Fernando Valenzuela to keep his team in the game and once again, the rookie delivered, throwing two scoreless innings. When he was due to hit in the bottom of the 7th with two men on base, the 19-year-old Valenzuela was replaced by 42-year-old Manny Mota, whom the Dodgers activated as a pinch-hitter in September. This presented a slight problem as Mota was also the Dodgers’ 1st base coach. Ever the strategist, Lasorda sent pitcher Don Sutton to take Mota’s place in the coach’s box while Mota took Valenzuela’s place at the plate against Joe Sambito.

The two had faced each other on September 10th and Sambito had induced Mota to ground into a double play in the 9th inning of a 6-5 Houston victory. This time, Mota stroked an RBI single to right field to cut the lead to 3-2 and end Sambito’s afternoon. Houston manager Bill Virdon summoned Frank LaCorte from the bullpen, who retired Lopes and Dusty Baker to escape the inning.

Steve Garvey to hit a ground ball to 3rd baseman Enos Cabell to open the 8th inning, but Cabell couldn’t handle it and Garvey was safe at 1st base to bring up Cey. Conventional wisdom called for Cey to bunt, especially since he was nursing a sore hamstring, which not only prevented him from running well but also sapped a lot of his power. Cey squared around to bunt twice, but couldn’t get it down. He then worked the count full and when LaCorte delivered his next pitch Cey drove it straight into his left ankle. Now both legs were hurting, but the count was still full and Cey looked to put a ball in the gap.

He fouled off two more pitches before LaCorte delivered a fastball that caught too much of the plate and Cey pounced on it, sending the ball deep to left field. “You gotta be kidding me,” Sambito thought as the ball sailed into the left field seats.

The two run homer, Cey’s 28th of the season, gave L.A. a 4-3 lead, but there was plenty of drama left. Houston put two on in the top of the 9th, which brought Lasorda out of the Dodgers dugout and drew a round of boos at the prospect of his removing Steve Howe from the game, who had replaced Valenzuela in the 8th. But the boos turned to cheers when starter and ersatz 1st base coach Don Sutton emerged from the Dodger bullpen and trotted to the mound. Two pitches later, Sutton got Denny Walling to bounce out to Lopes to end the game and force a one Monday afternoon playoff at Dodger Stadium.

“This team’s going to grow up a lot tomorrow,” said Morgan, “or it’ll die. It’ll be strong, I’ll tell you that, one way or another, or it’ll die.”

Game 4 – October 6th, 1980

The man charged with staving off the Astros’ death was knuckleballer Joe Niekro. In 14 big league seasons, Niekro had thrown more than 2,100 innings and not one of them had come in the postseason. Whether or not that streak continued was up to him, but his two previous outings against L.A. had not gone well.

“The challenge is out there, and I’ve got to go out and get it,” Niekro said. “I accept it. If we had to have a playoff game, I wanted to pitch it.”

Niekro was gunning for his 2nd straight 20-win season while the Dodgers starter, Dave Goltz, was trying to redeem himself after not living up to the free-agent deal he signed at the beginning of the season.

“I’m excited about being given the chance to win it,” Goltz said. “I’ve never been in a situation where a game meant so much. I’m really looking forward to this.”

Astros General Manager Tal Smith got caught up in the excitement as well, but he also could have lived without it. “It’s just like a World Series,” he said. “Three of the most exciting game you’ll ever see, especially if you’re an impartial observer, which I’m not.” Few of the 51,000 fans people who showed up for the playoff game were impartial, either and there was another biased observer sitting on the Dodgers bench.

Ron Cey woke up on Monday morning with a badly swollen ankle, the result of the previous day’s foul ball, and was in enough pain that Lasorda had no choice to remove him from the lineup. For a team already missing Reggie Smith and Bill Russell it was a big blow and the first sign of trouble for the Dodgers.

The next sign came when Terry Puhl led off the game with a ground ball to Lopes, who had the ball pop out of his glove for an error. Enos Cabell then singled to center and stole 2nd. After two batters, Houston had runners on 2nd and 3rd with no one out and the Dodger bullpen began to stir. Two batters later, Jose Cruz hit a ground ball to Mickey Hatcher, who had taken Cey’s place at 3rd base. Hatcher came home with the throw but Joe Ferguson couldn’t hold onto it after Puhl collided with him. Cesar Cedeno’s groundout gave the Astros a 2-0 lead despite their only having one hit.

While Goltz and the Dodgers looked a bit shaky in the early going, Niekro was anything but, retiring the first six batters he faced on the strength of an active and unpredictable knuckleball. In the top of the 3rd, Art Howe faced Goltz with two out and a man on and deposited Goltz’s offering into the left field seats to give his team a 4-0 lead. For Howe, it was his 10 home run of the season and the 33rd, and most important of his career.

Houston added three more the following inning and Niekro handled the rest. When Jack Perconte came up with two outs in the 9th inning and his team down 7-1, the Dodger Stadium organist broke into the inspirational World War II tune, “We did it before and we can do it again.” But there was no miracle comeback this time. Perconte popped out to Dave Bergman at 1st base and the Astros, for the first time in their 19-year existence, were headed to the playoffs.

“No team beats us four in a row,” said Joe Morgan. “No team does that to us. Our pitching is too good. The Dodgers learned that today, no matter what kind of momentum they thought they had.”

 

Joe Morgan’s Mysterious Dodgers Connection

Joe Morgan made a career out of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The damage varied from beating L.A. in the regular season to knocking them out of the playoffs. Over a nine year span, Morgan’s teams ended the Dodgers season five times, including two defeats on final day of the season. But one thing many don’t know is that Joe Morgan nearly became a Dodger. Twice.

Mr. Red

Joe MorganDuring his eight seasons as a member of the Cincinnati Reds Morgan was one of the top players in the game. From 1972 through 1976 he was dominant. During that time he hit 108 homers, drove in more than 400 and drew nearly 600 walks while stealing 310 bases. After Morgan won his second consecutive MVP award in 1976, Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray called him, “pound for pound the best player ever to play baseball.”

“What other guy 5 feet 6 inches, 150 pounds in any sport dominates the way Joe Morgan does?” Murray wrote in an October 1976 column. “It’s like a 4-9 guard in basketball throwing in 50 points a game.”

But by 1979 it was obvious his time in Cincinnati was over. Injuries and age limited him to just a .236 batting average in 1978. In 1979 his home run total slipped from a high of 27 to just nine. He also wanted out of Cincinnati. In his 1993 autobiography, Joe Morgan, A Life in Baseball he cited the Reds firing Sparky Anderson after 1978 as a tipping point for him.

“With Tony, Pete and now Sparky gone, the heart of the Big Red Machine had all but ceased. It was… before the 1979 season was even under way that I decided to play out my contract and move on.”

Free Agency

Morgan entered the 1980 Free Agent Draft and was selected by the Rangers, Giants, Padres and the Dodgers. Morgan wanted to go to a winner and the Dodgers were at the top of his list. L.A. was set at 2nd base with Davey Lopes, who hit .265 with 28 homers the year before, but they weren’t set in center field. Derrel Thomas was the incumbent but the Dodgers weren’t sold on him offensively.

Signing Morgan would allow Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda to move Lopes to the outfield and plug a future Hall of Famer into one of the best infields in the major leagues. There was just one small snag.

Morgan’s signing was predicated on Lopes agreeing to move to center field. But Lopes balked and Morgan didn’t want to be the reason for a fracture on a pennant-contending club.

“I don’t want to be used as a scapegoat,” Lopes told the L.A. Times. “But I don’t want to throw all that work out the window.”

Joe MorganIt was clear the Dodgers longed to add Morgan to their lineup but not at the risk of upsetting Lopes and Morgan knew it. His agent, Tom Reich, did his best not to upset anyone by saying there were “no villains in  this matter, certainly not Davey Lopes. He’s the best second baseman in the league. Joe knows that.”

Morgan signed with the Houston Astros and beat the Dodgers in the N.L. West in a one game playoff.  In 1982, as a San Francisco Giant, Joe Morgan’s homer off Terry Forster on the final day of the season knocked L.A. out of the playoff hunt.

1983

The following year, Morgan moved to Philadelphia. Reunited with Pete Rose and Tony Perez Morgan did what he did best: beat the Dodgers. The “Wheeze Kids” beat L.A. in the NLCS before losing to Baltimore in the World Series.

At the conclusion of the ’83 season, Lasorda decided he was due a raise. He was fresh off leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win since 1965 along with back-to-back playoff appearances and he wanted to get paid.

In his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, Fred Claire described what happened next.

“Tommy and I met for breakfast at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I made my best pitch… Still Tommy knew Peter (O’Malley) was going to have the final say when it came to the manager of the Dodgers.”

The two returned to Dodger Stadium where Lasorda met with O’Malley. According to Claire the meeting didn’t last long and when it was over he went to O’Malley’s office while Lasorda headed to his office to make some phone calls.

When Claire arrived he was informed it was time to search for a new manager. In the room was Claire, O’Malley, G.M. Al Campanis and Scouting director Ben Wade. Claire suggested Morgan and there was soon consensus.

Morgan was still technically a member of the Phillies, so Claire called Phillies owner Bill Giles to request permission to speak to Morgan.

No sooner did O’Malley hang up with Giles did the phone ring again. It was Lasorda calling from his office asking if O’Malley’s previous offer was still on the table. Informed it was, Lasorda took it.

Joe Morgan spent 1984 with the Oakland A’s and then retired. According to Claire, he never realized how close he came to becoming Lasorda’s replacement.

 

April Crossword Puzzle

How much do you remember about the 1980 baseball season?

April Crossword

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April, 1980

Down Goes Lasorda!

 

On February 17th, 1980 two separate interviews at a local television station turned into an impromptu Los Angeles Dodgers fight night.

Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda, was at KNBC recording an interview when he bumped into Jim Lefebvre.

LasordaPoster
Lefebvre fights Lasorda

 

Bad blood existed between the two after Lasorda had fired Lefebvre as hitting and first base coach after the 1979 season. Lefebvre won Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1965 and parlayed his time in L.A. into some acting gigs, including playing one of The Riddler’s henchmen on the Batman TV series.

 

The henchman experience proved handy when the two squared off in Burbank. Both men claimed the other started the fight but there was little doubt who finished it. L.A. sportscaster Steve Sommers reported “Lasorda left with blood on his face and Lefebvre left with a smile on his.”