For a team that presently has the second-best record in the major leagues, the Los Angeles Dodgers have been a considerable mystery this season.
The Blue Bloods of Tommy Lasorda are the only club in baseball without a single weakness. They lead the National League in hitting (.262), pitching (3.17 earned-run average), homers (11.3), runs scored (4.6 per game) and attendance (more than 40,000 a game at Chavez Ravine).
The spiffy Angelenos have six quality starting pitchers - one more than they can use. Three relievers have ERAs under 2.70.
Every Dodger regular is a bonafide standout. Five starters have hit more than 30 homers in a season. Another speedster Dave Lopes has the highest stolen base percentage in history (.817). The other two, shortstop Bill Russell and catcher Steve Yeager, combine steady bats and excellent gloves.
The Dodger bench, once slim, is now the best in the league with long-time Oakland star Billy North the fourth outfielder while Lee Lacy (.309), Vic Davalillo (.305) and Manny Mota (.280) supplying the pinch hitting.
Lordy, the Dodgers are even four deep in proven catchers, with Joe Ferguson, Johnny Oates and Jerry Grote all scrambling to take the place of the often injured Yeager.
So how come the Dodgers have had to win nine of their last 11 games just to nose into first place in the NL West Divison.
Even Dodger drive-shaft Reggie Smith looks at the remainder of the Los Angeles schedule - five games against Philadephia, six with Cincinnati, four with San Francisco and six with hot San Diego - and says, "No one will win our division by more than two or three games. It's going down to the wire."
An axiom in sports says that every professional team from Los Angeles needs a battery of psychiatrists. Just ask George Allen.
New Dodger North looks around him and says, "What a country club. The Dodgers really make life sweet."
And when Lasorda arrived as manager last spring, he gave the Dodgers a double dose of pride and killer-instinct. Lasorda told every player he was prince of his position - none better.
But when the prides of Hollywood lost the last World Series to the Bronx Bickerers, some of that Lasorda schmaltz began to look treadbare."Maybe we're not as invincible as Uncle Tommy says." thought those Dodgers so long accustomed to being humiliated by the Reds.
That, at any case, is one version of the reason why L.A. has played stop-an-start ball, losing every time it needed to keep the West wellbunched.
One the other hand, L.A. has had injuries: Smith (shoulder) has missed 20 games, Monday 35 and Yeager 50. But North (19 steals) has plugged for blue Monday, and no team could better withstand losing a catcher than L.A.
In addition, free-agent Terry Forster (14 saves, 44, 2.63 ERA) has answered Lasorda's prayer to the Big Dodger in the Sky Box (Walter O'Malley) for an old-fashioned, 210-pound hunk of smoke-throwing reliever.
The Dodgers, built to peak in the '70s, were cosntructed long ago and far, far away in the Spare-no-expense L.A. farm system. Of the 17 most important Dodgers, 13 are in the prime baseball age period of 28 to 33. Prime veterans, they're called. And they don't stay that way long. The Dodgers probably have to now gun for World Series titles, then rebuild slightly in the early '80s.
But it begins to appear that the Dodgers of Lasorda stand for uniform excellence which may be just shy of greatness.
The Dodgers have speed, but only Lopes (32 for 35 stealing) is frightening.
L.A. has power, but not one in this Chavez Ravine murderers' row has hit more than 33 homers in a season. And only Smith has hit 30 or more than once. He's done it twice.
Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Dusty Baker, who hit 93 homers among them last year, have 40 so far this year.
The Dodgers have six fine starters. But among them, only two have had 20-game seasons. Seldom-publicized Fergy Jenkins of Texas has seven by himself.
Once again this season, Tommy John, Don Sutton, Doug Rau and Burt Hooton all have 12 or 13 wins. But on L.A. hurler is going to win 20 this year, and perhaps not 18.
In fact, 21-year-old rookie Bob Welch (5-0, 1.83) may be the best of the Dodger bunch before his career is over.
Sutton already says, "To compare Welch to me is too much of a compliment . . . to me."
Perhaps the Dodgers, so glamorous out West that they are a cinch to become the first team to draw 3 million fans, already are playing as well as they can.
When the Reds take the field, they often have five probable future Hall of Famers out there at once. Among the Dodgers, who will make the hall? Garvey, probably. Sutton, maybe, despite only one 20-win year. Anybody else? Doubtful.
Lasorda is wise to invoke his heavenly Dodger connections. Sound and pleasing as his Blueclads are, they can use all the help they can get.