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Dodgers, once home-grown, now a product of change But will tranplanted veterans pull together down the stretch?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA -- As they walk into the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse, out of uniform, you wonder what they are doing there. Did they make a wrong turn at the stadium entrance? Take a flight to the wrong city? Are they just visiting until game time?

There is Brett Butler talking to Darryl Strawberry. Here comes Gary Carter and John Candelaria. Oh, did we forget to mention Bob Ojeda and Kevin Gross? And let us not overlook those longtime Dodgers, Eddie Murray, Mike Morgan and Juan Samuel.

It used to be that the career path of a Dodger was pretty much the same: They signed fresh out of high school or college, climbed together from Vero Beach all the way to Chavez Ravine, won a few championships, got hugged by Tom Lasorda and walked off into the sunset, or at least to San Diego.

"Baseball has changed, and the Dodgers have changed their philosophy," said catcher Mike Scioscia, who, in his 12th season with the team, is one of a scant few raised on what has been called The Dodger Way.

Some of the constants do remain. Good pitching, which goes back in the team's history longer than the manager, is led by 23-year-old phenom Ramon Martinez. Good hitting, with or without Strawberry, prevails. And, of course, there are those good, good, good vibrations from Lasorda, who still works a clubhouse like his buddy Sinatra works a stage.

But after a blazing start, which gave them the best record (49-31) in baseball at the All-Star break, the Dodgers recently have lost their way. They dropped seven straight before splitting a four-game weekend series with the New York Mets. And some outsiders quietly are See DODGERS, 3C, Col. 4DODGERS, from 1Cbeginning to question whether the moves this team made during the off-season have backfired.

"We've just got to get them on the right track," Lasorda said Tuesday night in Philadelphia, when the team's losing streak had reached six after Carter's line shot in the ninth, which looked like a game-tying home run in the making, failed to reach the left-field seats of Veterans Stadium. "We can't let them get down on themselves and just hope we come out of it as soon as possible. It's my job to get them back on the right course."

Long ago, when he was managing a Dodgers farm team in Spokane, Wash., an eight-game losing streak had forced Lasorda to desperate measures. He told a bunch of young players named Lopes and Cey about the 1927 Yankees. He told them that it was voted the greatest team of all time, and even that team once had lost nine straight.

"I got to my car and I told my wife what I had said," Lasorda recalled. "She said, 'Is that true?' I told her, 'How the hell should I know, I wasn't born until September of that year.' But they believed it, and they came out of it."

What probably would work better for this Dodgers team was if Lasorda could get Strawberry mad and Scioscia healthy, while rejuvenating the right arm of former Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser. Strawberry went from being an angry young man with 37 home runs last year in New York to a born-again Christian with only 10 this season. Scioscia, feeling the effects of countless collisions, has spent more time in the whirlpool this year than behind home plate. Hershiser, following arm surgery last year, isn't even doing a good Tommy John imitation these days.

But in what is fast becoming the second-worst division in baseball -- the American League East is holding steadfastly to that dubious underachievement -- the Dodgers barely have been threatened during this horrendous stretch. The Cincinnati Reds, defending world champions, matched them loss for agonizing loss. At 51-40, they led the Atlanta Braves by three games.

"The best thing is to win," said Lasorda, whose team last won everything when it upset the Mets and Oakland Athletics en route to a world championship in 1988. "The second-best thing is to lose and not lose any ground."

When the Dodgers finished second, five games behind the Reds last season in the National League West, several holes needed to be patched. The starting rotation had question marks about Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, the team's prematurely fading legend. The outfield defense was shoddy. The bullpen, with an oft-injured Jay Howell, was thin. Except for Murray and Kal Daniels, as well as a soon-to-be-traded Hubie Brooks, the power was minimal.

So in came Ojeda, in a trade for Brooks, to fill a spot in the rotation. In came Butler, a free agent, to give the Dodgers a dependable leadoff hitter and a capable defensive center fielder. In came relief pitcher Gross. And Strawberry, who along with a revived Murray was expected to provided the best 3-4 combination in baseball.

The biggest question Lasorda had about the players acquired through trades and free agency last winter wasn't whether they were going to help the Dodgers. It was whether they were going to be Dodgers. "You don't know what you're getting what you bring in new people," said Lasorda. "You can tell what they're like on the field. But you don't know what they're like when they go home. I was concerned with whether they were going to fit in."

Those coming to the Dodgers had little concern. Carter and Candelaria, a pair of 37-year-old veterans who were invited to spring training, were thankful to have jobs. Strawberry, whose career in New York had been filled with controversy, was happy with a change in scenery. Carter, Strawberry, Butler, Ojeda and Gross all grew up in California; Candelaria, who had hated the Dodgers as a kid in Brooklyn, had a house in California from his years in Anaheim. He played for the Angels from 1985-87.

"The Dodgers are looked at by most players in baseball as a glamorous team," said Carter, who has done an admirable job filling in for Scioscia. "How could I feel any apprehension coming here? That isn't the way this ballclub is. They always go out with a lot of confidence, to go along with that Dodger tradition. For myself, I'm just thrilled to be here. I don't think it's any different than I thought it would be."

Neither does Butler, who as the leadoff hitter had been credited with the team's fast start. But after playing in places such as Atlanta and Cleveland, as well as as for the Giants, Butler knew what was in store when he signed as a free agent last December. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been Lasorda, who never was one of Butler's favorite people the past three years.

"My perception of Tommy, with all that stuff about the Dodger Way and bleeding Dodger blue, was that I thought to a degree it was not authentic," said Butler, who leads the National League with 67 runs scored. "But it is. Tommy absolutely lives it."

Said Lasorda: "Everyone has a different style of managing. My style is that I try to bring a family type of attitude. I want the players when they're at home to look at the clock and say, 'It's a quarter to three. I have 15 minutes and I can't wait to leave for the ballpark.' I want them to be proud to be Dodgers."

It all worked so nicely for the first three months of the season. Even as Strawberry struggled, and Murray showed signs that couldn't reproduce last year's .330, 26-home run performance, even as Hershiser took two steps back for every step forward, the Dodgers were winning. Until last week.

"Everything went right for them," one National League general manager said last week. "But the key to any team's season is how they stay together when things go wrong. A lot of these guys haven't been teammates for a long time, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of effect that will have."

Lasorda worked the clubhouse in Philadelphia and in New York, looking for answers, for clues, for anything to turn his team around. Would Butler be the catalyst for a turnaround? Would Hershiser's fastball return?

One more thing: Are these guys staying for good, or are they just visiting?

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