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Roger Dodger – ‘They Bled Blue’

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Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball is entangled with its history. Even as we witness magnificent feats in the present, our eyes turn ever toward the past. Whether it is through statistics or stories, baseball fans love to look back.

Author Jason Turbow has a knack for transporting us to times gone by and thoroughly revisiting players and teams from the game’s history. We’re not talking about grainy black-and-white history, however – these are teams whose memories are still vivid in the minds of fans of a certain age.

His latest is “They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). That mouthful of a title looks back nearly 40 years, digging into the particulars of an iconic franchise during one of the strangest seasons baseball had ever seen.

Seriously – the sport had never seen anything quite like the 1981 Dodgers. From the full-on phenomenon that was Fernando Valenzuela to the era-ending turn from one of the game’s longest-serving infields, from a season split in two by labor strife to the strangest postseason set-up ever, it was a time of turmoil and triumph.

Tommy Lasorda was at the helm of that team, still in the early stages of a managerial career that would land him in the Hall of Fame. He was the most ebullient, effusive skipper in the history of the Dodgers franchise – heck, probably in the history of professional baseball. His seemingly boundless devotion to the Dodgers served as the inspiration for this book’s title – Lasorda would tell anyone who would listen (and plenty who wouldn’t) that he bled Dodger blue.

This was the man in charge going into the 1981 season. The Dodgers were in the midst of a run of almost-greatness, having won the NL pennant a couple of times in the late 1970s, only to lose both times to the hated Yankees. After a couple of down years, it was starting to look as though the championship window might be closing.

That’s because the iconic Dodgers infield of first baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Davey Lopes, shortstop Bill Russell and third baseman Ron Cey – a group that had been together and producing at a high level for nearly a decade, was beginning to show signs of age. Guys like Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith were starting to get a little grayer as well. These men, who had given their all, were getting a little long in the tooth. If they were going to get that elusive title, the clock was ticking.

On the other side of the aging curve was a young pitcher, not even old enough to drink, whose emergence onto the scene would become one of the biggest stories of the season. Sports have always featured their phenoms, young players who appear and take the field or court or ice by storm. Every sport – at every level – has youngsters who turn up and set the imaginations of fans ablaze.

But we had never seen anything quite like Fernando Valenzuela.

The young pitcher, with just a handful of big-league innings under his belt, began 1981 with an historic run of dominance. He started 8-0, hurling five shutouts and putting up a miniscule 0.50 ERA. The left-hander threw a screwball that proved nigh-impossible for even major league hitters to handle. And while the dominance itself was story enough, the fact that he was Mexican helped the Dodgers fully tap in to the sizeable Hispanic population that had yet to truly adopt the team as their own.

And of course, in the middle of it all, the strike, the first work stoppage since 1972 and the longest the game would see until 1994. Over a third of the season was lost, with the players striking on June 12 and not returning until a delayed All-Star Game on August 9. This led to an odd split-season playoff situation, with MLB crowning first-half and second-half winners that would then face off to determine division crowns before moving on to the Championship Series.

It was a season for the ages – one that helped the Dodgers reestablish themselves as one of the top-tier organizations in baseball. And hey – weird season or not, flags fly forever.

What Turbow does so well with “They Bled Blue” is capture the spirit of the moment. The game wasn’t yet the multi-billion-dollar industry it is today, though it was on its way. Free agency was still in its infancy, with the truly massive paydays still a decade or more in the future. Still, the game was in flux, as demonstrated by the willingness of the players to walk away in an effort to get what they felt was fair treatment.

The Dodgers roster was populated by characters. Yes, there was Fernando, though he was more exciting on the field than off. Guys like the squeaky-clean Garvey, who wasn’t as pure as fans might have believed. Speedster Lopes was fighting off the up-and-coming star Steve Sax. Ditto catcher Steve Yeager, who had Mike Scioscia in his rearview. Russell and Smith struggled with injuries, while the talented Pedro Guerrero was on the upswing.

And in the middle of it all, a perpetual motion machine powered by passion and profanity, was Tommy Lasorda, saying and doing whatever it took to keep the eyes of his squad on the prize – a World Series title.

“They Bled Blue” encapsulates the unique time and place in which this team existed. There was never a season quite like 1981, and there was never a team quite like the Dodgers. Lucky for us, we have someone like Jason Turbow ready to lay it all out for us. It is a delightful and detailed exploration of the game as it once was, an ideal summer read for any baseball fan interested in the stories of the sport.

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