LOS ANGELES -- How long has it been since the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the Major Leagues in stolen bases?
Here's a hint: Some of the No. 1 songs on the Billboard Top 100 charts down the home stretch of that baseball season were Diana Ross's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "War" by Edwin Starr. The President of the United States was one Richard Millhouse Nixon, and the Dodgers' top base-stealing crook was one Maury Wills.
Yes, it was 1970, and the Dodgers were looking in the rearview mirror at the salad days of the 1960s, with two World Series titles and three pennants in the past 10 seasons. Los Angeles would not win another World Series for 11 years, and Davey Lopes would not make his Major League Debut for another two and a half seasons. Still, though, Lopes – the owner of 557 career stolen bases – remembers those heady days of pernicious pilfering, days that are once again coming to Chavez Ravine, as the Dodgers once again lead the big leagues in swipes, with 76.
"That's a good thing, because that means we're versatile," says Chone Figgins, who's possessed of a lengthy rap sheet, as well, when it comes to stealing bags, having Shanghaied 341 sacks. "Obviously, there are a couple things we can do better, as far as getting on base, but as far as the running aspect, that's big."
Yes, it's only the middle of June, but the fact that the Dodgers have stolen 22 more bases than the Cincinnati Reds – the second-most-prolific purloiners in the bigs – begs the question: Can Los Angeles stand atop the league's stolen base heap for the first time in 44 years? To put that gap into perspective, the Dodgers have to go all the way back to when the Brooklyn Superbas stole 273 bases in 1903, and then didn't lead the Majors in stolen bases again until after two name changes, two World Wars and 43 years. The team is currently in the midst of the longest drought in franchise history, when it comes to leading the league in stolen bases.
This comes from a franchise that led the bigs in bases swiped each year from 1962 to 1965, and had led the league 12 times between 1946 and 1970, and led the Majors three times in its first 13 years of existence. Once ‘The Dodger Way' included base burglary as a cornerstone, and now, it's making a comeback.
"It's not as lost [an art] as it has been," says Lopes. "It's coming back. More teams are utilizing it, because I think they realize that, if you have a base-stealing threat, say, like a Dee Gordon, what a tremendous asset that is to have, if you have a player of that caliber."
LOPES TEAMED WITH base-stealer extraordinaire Wills during the latter's final season in baseball, and while he did not play alongside the Go, Maury, Go! vintage of Wills, he knows plenty about speed. When he looks at Major League stolen base leader and Dodgers second baseman (another position Lopes knows a little about) Dee Gordon, that's all he sees.
"You've got to want to run," Lopes says. "That's all he wants to do, is run. Nobody wants to run, and score runs, as much as Dee Gordon. Hanley [Ramirez] may run, but not like Dee. Carl Crawford, when he's healthy, he's another guy, Matt [Kemp], when he's healthy, but they pick their spots more than they did when they were in the early stages of their careers, whereas Dee, you're seeing one of the more prolific base-stealers in the game right now, on a daily basis. That's Dee Gordon."
When Gordon hears such lofty praise, I ask him if he feels proud, embarrassed, humbled or something else. Lopes, from the top of the clubhouse tunnel, barks, "You better be humble."
After an self-conscious titter, Gordon looks down, smiles and answers, "That."
As for no one wanting to run – and score – more than him?
"That is officially accurate. That is 100 percent accurate," Gordon smiles.
Speed, in fact, is all Wills saw in the youngster, all the way back in 2008. After stealing just 18 bases in 60 games with Rookie-level Ogden, Wills – a regular instructor at Dodgers Spring Training -- chastised Gordon, who had stolen as many as 50 bases in college at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., for squandering his gift.
"The first day he saw me (in 2008), he talked to me about it," Gordon says. "My rookie ball, I had 17 [sic], which wasn't a lot, to be honest. He wasn't too cool with that. He said, ‘I have to teach you.'"
What did Willis teach Gordon?
"What to look for, little things, nothing major, and nothing I can really talk about, just little things," Gordon says. "He helped train my eye to help me get better jumps."
Willis preaches not only bunting during his annual trips to spring training, but, with Gordon and Figgins, he has his own gospel choir for the Church of Speed.
"He talks about bunting first, and then, he goes from bunting and says, ‘Guess what? Bunting turns into you stealing more bases, which turns into scoring more runs,'" says Figgins. "That's one of the great, historical players we're able to work with."
TOM "FLASH" GORDON – DEE'S FATHER – WAS THE FIRST in the family to earn the nickname Flash, thanks in part to his blazing, 96 mph fastball, and in part to the 1930s comic strip-turned-1970s cult action film Flash Gordon (Savior of the Universe – you know you were thinking it).
The younger Gordon's twitter handle is, appropriately enough, @FlashGJr.
"I've seen the movie, he played for the New York Jets, all that," Gordon recites. "All that. I've seen the movie I was a kid, it was on TV or something."
Dee, though, prefers another Flash.
"My dad was more Flash Gordon; I'm more The Flash," says Gordon, who's Twitter profile background picture is the lightning logo of DC Comics' Scarlett Speedster. "I don't know which one my dad was going for, to be honest, because he was pretty fast, himself."
Gordon lights up when he talks about the new The Flash television series premiering this fall on the CW Network.
"Oh, man, I'm going to tune in, for sure," he grins. "I read comics a little bit, growing up. I read Superman and Flash. I just know he runs, and runs fast."
"He's got world-class speed, to me," says Figgins of Gordon, who has more than a few admirers in the clubhouse. Slugger Adrian Gonzalez recently bought Gordon a child's costume Superman cape. Faster than a speeding bullet?
"Not tonight," Gordon demures, after getting thrown out on his only steal attempt on Monday in the bottom of the first, following a leadoff single.
Gordon does have some superhero complex in him. He's not the quipping, wise-cracking Wally West, but rather the more introspective Barry Allen. He isn't shy about admitting that, yes, he does feel pressure to perform, particularly when the Dodgers are in second place, 6.0 games behind the rival Giants.
"I shouldn't," Gordon says. "But I'm a human being, and I do. We've got so many guys that I just want to be on base and score all the runs, every time. That's just how I think. We've got such great guys that they can do it without me, most days, so I've got to be able to help them, whenever."
"His success ratio is pushing 90 percent," Lopes says. "How many things can you count on, 90 percent, in this game? Not very many. It certainly adds excitement to the game."
ON MONDAY, THAT'S EXATLY WHAT GORDON DID. In the bottom of the third, he cracked a 93 mph fastball from Colorado Rockies lefty Tyler Matzek down the left field line. The ball rocketed down the line and into the corner, bouncing up against an ad for Choco-Pie.
As left fielder Charlie Blackmon struggled with picking up the ball, Gordon rounded second. The crowd slowly rose to its feet, gaining altitude as their cheers gained volume, and as Gordon gained speed.
"I saw the ball kind of bobble, and I looked at Lo (Lopes) for confirmation, and that's when I went," Gordon says.
Gordon rounded third as Tim Wallach's left arm did its best impression of a Hollywood hurricane machine. The Dodgers' third base coach heel-clicked his way three quarters of the way down the line from third to home, staying with Gordon all the way until the fourth-year second baseman hit the deck with a just-short-of-gratuitous slide into home, holding his helmet on his head as he scored the first run of the game.
"They say speed doesn't go into a slump, and with Dee, when we get him on, it causes a little bit of havoc," says manager Don Mattingly. "It was obviously big because it's a run, and that obviously got us going … It's one of those things we talk about. We knew Dee was going to hit and inside-the-parker -- they're not calling it that – but it's going to be on that kind of ball. It's going to be one of those in the corner that you try to stop it and it gets rolling on you. It's trouble, at that point, because it's three (bases) right away, if it gets by, and if it gets any kind of roll to it, then it's going to be an inside-the-parker. There'll be another one of those."
The play was ruled as a triple and an error, as Blackmon had bobbled the ball three times, each time, looking over his shoulder, watching as Gordon pounded scorch marks into the Dodger Stadium infield. There are only two men in Major League Baseball who could have recovered after one bobble, or even two, in time to get Gordon out, and one of them -- Yasiel Puig -- was standing on the top step of the Dodgers dugout.
"I thought it was an inside-the-parker, to be honest with you," Gordon said after the game. "I didn't think he touched it. I thought it scooted away from him, but it is what it is, and I'm alright with what I got."
THIS SEASON, GORDON HAS SWIPED 36 BASES IN 42 TRIES, 11 more thefts than Billy "Oh, the center fielder can't make the catch, so I'll run out from shortstop to take care of it" Hamilton. He's on pace to steal 88 bases this season, which would be the highest total by a Dodger since Wills stole 94 in 1965. After Wills' decade of dominance, it was Lopes who stepped to the fore, leading Los Angeles in stolen bases every year from 1973 to 1979, peaking with 77 in 1975. No other Dodger since Lopes has eclipsed the 60-steals mark, save for Juan Pierre in 2007.
Pierre, incidentally, came up with another infamous thief in the Dodgers clubhouse: Figgins, who just so happened to be Gordon's locker mate during the spring.
"I've heard so much from Juan, from when Juan was here, and now that I'm in the National League […] the American League is different," Figgins says. "It's totally different. But, here, it's like, ‘We want you to keep going. We want you to keep running.' It's ‘Run, run, run,' whereas, in the American League, it's different."
Fun fact: The last time Los Angeles led the majors in stolen bases was eight years before Figgins was born. While Figgins has only contributed four stolen bases in five chances this season, he still has some get-up-and-go left in his 36-year old legs.
"He still can, if they let him go," Gordon says.
Figgins has stolen two of his four bases in the last five games, and in the past – as recently as back-to-back 42-steal seasons in 2009 and 2010 – he's shown to be a viable threat on the bases. With more chances out there for him, the load of the team stolen base crown won't sit squarely on Gordon's brow.
"I've been running lately," Figgins smiles.
THE DODGERS ARE ON PACE FOR 173 STOLEN BASES this season, the most by any Dodgers team since they stole 198 in 1962, led by 102 from Wills, who had more stolen bases by himself than any whole team in either league.
"Speed is more athletic, and puts pressure on a lot of different people," says Mattingly. "I think we've been exaggerated a little bit with that, just because Dee's doing most of that damage. Although we've got some guys that can run, Dee pretty much contributes most of that, so I don't look at us as a big stolen-base club, at this point. We have some guys that can steal, when they give it to us, but we're still […] we can get better."
Figgins is the proud owner of seven seasons of at least 34 steals over the course of his 12-year big league career. Of course, there are others on the Dodgers roster with plenty of speed, including Matt Kemp (40 steals in 2011), Hanley Ramirez (9 steals in 2014, seven straight seasons of 20 or more from 2006-2012) and right fielder Yasiel Puig (7 in 2014, 11 in 104 games in 2013).
"It only helps if you can get on," Lopes says. "That's the key. You have to get on. For anybody who's a good base-stealer, you have to have the ability to get on base, and the higher your on-base percentage is, [the better off you are]."
That point is the intersection between new-age sabermetrics, Moneyball philosophy and old-school small ball: You can't score unless you get men on, and your chances improve if the runners get into scoring position. They get there with speed.
"I've obviously gotten to play with some good guys, and some fast guys, but watching him, it's world-class," Figgins says. "I think the most exciting part is, he's getting on base and he's getting himself more opportunities to steal more bases. I think that's the key to it."
Gordon had had a rough go of things over the past two seasons at the plate, hitting .228 in 2011 and .234 in 2012, with on-base percentages of .280 and .314, but this season, his on-base percentage has crept up to .331 (thanks to getting on base in all five plate appearances on Monday), and his batting average is up to .285 from .271, thanks to his 4-for-4 day.
"That's my job: Play second base and get on base," Gordon says. "That's it. When I can do it at a good rate, that's awesome. It's just about getting on base for me."
"He's playing more, and we've been talking about being a great leadoff hitter, becoming a great leadoff hitter, and that's going to help him become a great leadoff hitter," says Figgins. "He has the tools, more than anybody in the game."
FIGGINS, WHILE CERTAINLY FLEET OF FOOT like his good friend Pierre, is a different kind of player than his fellow former Rockies farmhand, and he's taken it upon himself to drop some knowledge on Gordon.
While Pierre had a .295 career batting average and a .343 on-base percentage, he drew 464 walks and struck out 479 times in 14 seasons, averaging just 38 free passes per every 162 games. Figgins has a career batting average of .276, but a career on-base percentage of .349, averaging 68 walks per 162 games in 12 seasons.
"I didn't talk to him about ability," Figgins says of his first spring with the Dodgers, when he set up shop in the locker next to Gordon in the corner of the Camelback Ranch clubhouse. "I've never been a guy that talks about hitting. My thing is plate discipline: What is it going to take for me to get on base, so I can steal, and score a lot of runs? It's whatever it takes. You can be a guy like Juan Pierre, who just got all kinds of hits for years. That might be you. I'm a different case. I see a lot of pitches. I walk. That's my way. How do you find what's going to help you steal bases and score runs? Even though our games (Figgins's and Pierre's) ultimately get the same result, it's a totally different game. I see a lot more pitches. I wish I could do what he did, because he had a lot of hits, and I don't have a lot of hits, because I walk so much, but I knew that, being a switch hitter. His swing gets him out of the box faster, like Dee. His swing gets him out of the box faster, and I couldn't do that, and as a result, that's cut back a lot of hits. I had to find another way to get on base so I could steal and score runs, and that was it: Take a walk."
Gordon is still working on that part of his game. He's walked 18 times in 66 games, but has struck out 38 times.
"It's getting better, every day," says Gordon. "It's going to be a grind, every day, because guys don't want me on. They're definitely not trying to have me on base."
Gordon has worked on plate discipline, and has set to working on his eye by himself.
"It's weird; I had to teach myself, like, ‘Alright, you hit better later in the count,'" says Gordon. "I realized I was getting outs, early [in the count]. It ain't my game. Over winter ball and last spring training, that's when I started. I was getting probably two or three pitches in an at-bat, and now, it's closer to three or four. It helps. It gets me something I can hit."
When he does get on, there is tangible pressure felt, as there was on Monday night.
"I think it's more the pitching is effected," Figgins says. "They know we have a hitter at the plate who can hit, but then, we're able to steal a base, so it puts a lot of pressure on the pitcher and the catcher. Then, if you throw a strike, the guy can hit, so I think that's a game-changer.
In the bottom of the sixth, following a single up the middle and a balk, Gordon was standing on second base for Hanley Ramirez. Gordon got a good jump on reliever Chris Martin towards third, but no sooner did he take three steps did he hear the crack of Ramirez's bat, sending a ground ball single through the vacated left side, and allowing Gordon to score easily.
"I saw it out of the corner of my eye, just saw the ball, and I watched it go past me and ran in, because I knew the third baseman was covering," Gordon says. "I heard the crack, and I just happened to look out of the corner of my eye. I saw it go past me, and I just kept going."
If Gordon keeps on going much longer, he may just wind up being the hero that the Dodgers need. After all, three of the last six times the Dodgers have led the majors in stolen bases, they've won the World Series.
"Stealing bases," says Figgins, "is a game-changer. It may not be as big as a home run, but you hear the crowds when somebody steals, that quick rush, it's a game-changer. It's huge."
Back in a Flash
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