The last time the Los Angeles Dodgers summoned their courage and ventured into the Bronx to play the New York Yankees in the World Series, they were burned by a dragon: Graig Nettles, the Magic Dragon of third basemen.
Tonight, the Dodgers were scorched again.
"I get sick to my stomach watching that guy make those plays against us," said Los Angeles Manager Tommy Lasorda after a pivotal masterpiece of dragonry by Nettles had helped beat his Dodgers in this Series opener, 5-3.
"He looks like he goes to bed hopin' and prayin' he can kill us with that glove," said Lasorda. "The guy's amazing. Does he do that all the time?"
"Yup," said Yankee Manager Bob Lemon. "You'd think they'd stop hitting it down there."
One Dodger who hit it into dragonland was team captain Steve Garvey. As the L.A. muscleman stepped to the plate in the eighth inning, the Dodgers had just done the seemingly impossible. They had scored two runs off the Yankee relief monsters, Ron Davis and Goose Gossage. And they were panting for more.
The Yankees had built what seemed like a huge 5-1 lead, mostly on Bob Watson's three-run, first-inning homer off Dodger loser Jerry Reuss. And they had supported the four-hit, seven-inning pitching of winner Ron Guidry with a half-dozen superb defensive plays. When Lemon summoned his bullpen, it looked as if the closing of the Yankees' small window of vulnerability was imminent.
However, after Davis walked his first two batters, he was hooked. "He had a case of a bad disease," said Lemon. "It's called 'ball four.' "
On came Gossage, to be greeted by Jay Johnstone's loud RBI single and Dusty Baker's sacrifice fly. The Goose was in the heart of the Dodger mulching machine with Garvey, Ron Cey and .300-hitter Pedro Guerrero due up.
That's when Nettles sprang to the rescue. Literally.
Garvey sent a Gossage fast ball on a line toward the left field corner at warp factor 1 speed. No one could catch it.
Perhaps no one else in baseball has reflexes as fast as the dragon's. Reggie Jackson, out of the Yankee lineup tonight with a pulled calf muscle, discovered that last Friday when he got into an argument with Nettles and slapped a beer bottle out of the third baseman's hand. Before the bottle could bounce, Jackson had hit the floor, too, decked by a left hook to the mouth that he never saw.
Yes, it's been a good year all around for Nettles. He's beaten hepatitis. He's rewon his third base job. He's tweaked owner George Steinbrenner's nose a half-dozen more times. He's robbed the Milwaukee Brewers with his glove in the miniseries. He's driven in nine runs in three games against Oakland to be named that playoff's MVP. And, he's TKOed his least-favorite teammate.
The Dodgers barely saw the knockout Nettles dealt them this night, either. Before they could spin their heads in the dugout and say, "Double to left, tying run at second with one out," Nettles had made a fully-extended, diving, web of his glove snag of a ball hit so hard that it jerked him sideways in midair.
"If that guy doesn't make that catch," said Lasorda, refusing to name the perpetrator, "then I promise you this game has a different ending."
Instead, the Dodger flame went dead, extinguished in an instant by a being who swallows fire, rather than breathes it.
Gossage, given a reprieve, retired the last four Dodgers, two on strikes to start the ninth, to complete his two-innings of shutout save.
"I'd rather make a play like that than hit a home run," said Nettles, who has hit more homers than any other AL third baseman in history. "You can almost sense the letdown on the other side after you make a play like that."
The last time the Dodgers were here, they had an equally unpleasant time. They arrived on an unlucky Friday the 13th, leading the '78 Series two games to none. What they encountered was Nettles -- called "Puff" because he materializes at all the right places -- foiling four L.A. runs with two spectacular, bases loaded plays.
After that Series, the Dodgers moaned and wrung their hands about the horrors of New York. Shortstop Bill Russell said, "The people here are obnoxious . . . but you'd expect that in New York. The fans are the worst and the city is the worst."
"A bottle almost hit Dusty Baker in the head tonight in left field," said Lasorda, who complained to umpires. "That amazes the hell out of me. I can't comprehend such a mind."
The sense of deja vu was unmistakeable as the 78th Series began.
The first play of this 11th Series meeting between the Yanks and Dodgers was Davey Lopes' ground smash over the third base bag that should have been a double. Instead, Nettles dove, smothered the ball backhand, plucked it from the dirt and slung it to first to beat the speedy Lopes by perhaps two inches, at most.
In the bottom of that symbolic first inning, before Ruess could get three outs, the Yanks, obviously hitting to the opposite field, had three runs. Jerry Mumphrey singled, Lou Piniella, starting for Jackson, who is still "day-to-day," hit the chalk in right for a double, and Watson stepped up.
"With first base open and a left-handed hitter up next, I didn't think I'd get a strike to hit," said Watson, second-guessing Lasorda for not pitching around him to load the bases with two outs. "The first pitch was down the middle and I was so surprised that I couldn't swing."
So was the fourth pitch. This time Watson, a 17-year big leaguer in his first Series at bat, wasn't so surprised. He crashed a 390-foot fly over the wall in right to give Guidry a three-run cushion. "That's the furthest toward the right field line that I've hit a homer in this park in my two years here," said Watson. "This is like a dream after waiting so long to get in a Series."
The next two New York runs looked like window dressing, but they proved to be crucial. In the third, Reuss was sent packing after Mumphrey singled again, stole second base with disdainful ease, then scored as Reuss threw a horrible, hanging curve that Piniella lined into left for an RBI hit.
Reuss' replacement, young Bobby Castillo, whose primary claim to fame is having taught the screwball to Fernando Vanenzuela, was one of the most nervous, pressure-shocked pitchers in recent Series years. He faced eight men and walked five, including four in the fourth when he forced home Rick Cerone with a bases-loaded walk to Dave Winfield.
The true key to this Yankee victory and the hidden element in this classy team is its inspired defense, symbolized by Nettles, who is probably the most graceful, consummate big-play gloveman in the game today. One of few balls the Yankees couldn't grab was Steve Yeager's lazy fly homer into the first row of the right field bleachers in the fifth.
When it wasn't Nettles, it was Willie Randolph ranging behind second for two flashing, backhand grabs of hard-hit, tough, short hoppers. Or it was Larry Milbourne going in the shortstop hole. Or it was Winfield making an almost impossible dig-and-peg in the left field corner to throw out Cey as he dove head first into second base on what should have been a double but was just an embarrassing leadoff out.
"Everybody knows about our starting pitching and our bullpen," said Watson. "But our extra dimension is our defense. That gets us over the hump."
And, of all those defensive wizards, by far the most elegant, better even that the long-striding, high-leaping Winfield, is Nettles. Of all the defensive players in baseball, he may be the most satisfying to watch, day in and day out, as he grazes around his position smoothing the dirt, combing out pebbles, massaging the leather of his glove, flashing his eyes at every corner of the action, gambling for position far off the line, daring sluggers such as Garvey to try to yank it past him.
Then, in the moment of crisis, when other men still are nailed to the spot, Nettles is already in full flight. Before the eye realizes what has happened, Puff the Magic Dragon has struck.
Ask the Dodgers.
Ask Reggie Jackson.