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Q&A with author of '88 Dodgers book

4/22/2013

There have been better weeks to be a Dodger fan. The team lost all but one game last week, has seen its starting pitchers go down one after the next and has generally looked anemic when at bat. The cloud of a record payroll isn’t making expectations any easier.

If you need a reminder that hope is far from lost, you can pick up Josh Suchon’s new book, “Miracle Men: Hershiser, Gibson and the Improbable 1988 Dodgers,” which is trickling into stores now. It shows how teams can endure an endless string of adversity and still reach, and win, the World Series. Most people didn’t think that team was very good going into the season and most people didn’t think it stood a chance going into the World Series against the Oakland A’s.

Suchon, a radio co-host of postgame Dodger Talk from 2008 to 2011, is now the play-by-play voice of the Albuquerqe Isotopes, the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. He’s also a former newspaper reporter and longtime friend. He and I worked together at the Oakland Tribune for about 10 years.

I caught up with Suchon by phone to talk about the book:

Q. So, you grew up three BART stops from the Oakland Coliseum and worshipped the A’s. How did you bring yourself to write this book and how did it come about?

A. I had the idea during the 2009 playoffs when I was flying on the Dodgers charter flights. I was reading Joe Posnanski’s book about the 1975 Cincinnati Red, which I loved. I wanted to write a book about a team that won the World Series. My first thought was to do the ’81 Dodgers, but there were already a number of books on that team. I assumed there had been a half-dozen books on the ’88 team, too, but to my surprise, nothing had really been written. It was a perfect opportunity.

Q. Did you find it bittersweet or therapeutic?

A. I was hoping it would be therapeutic. Writing the off-season chapter, the spring training chapter, all the Orel Hershiser chapters, the NLCS chapter, those were all really fun. But there were times writing the World Series chapters when the 39-year-old Josh turned into the 15-year-old Josh and I got angry. I watched all five games again and, a few times, it was very distressing the way they A’s didn’t play the way they had all year. I’m over it. I really am.

Q. Who was the first person you interviewed and how did you piece a 25-year-old narrative back together?

A. The first person was [ex-GM] Fred Claire. Without his help and his candid way, the book wouldn’t have been as good as it is. It was pure luck I happened to talk to Fred first, but because I did it helped me ask better questions later and bring stories alive. My favorite interviews were probably Steve Sax and Tim Belcher. They had great memories, great stories and were very enthusiastic. I talked to probably two-thirds of the players from that team, plus broadcasters Vin Scully and Jaime Jarrin. The key guys, like Orel and Kirk Gibson, Mike Scioscia and Mike Marshall, were all very helpful.

Q. One of the things that struck me was how honest the players were to the newspaper reporters back then. Just during spring training, you detail several team feuds and you cite newspaper clippings in which players publicly blast each other or management. How different was that world from the media world we live in now?

A. That was one of the bigger surprises. In some ways, it was a wakeup call about how baseball gets reported now. Because ESPN wasn’t in 24-hour news cycle, there wasn’t the dot-com presence, obviously things were still very much driven by newspapers. The quotes were fantastic. Guys ripped each other on the record every day, it seemed like. Maybe it’s because they didn’t have the Internet, so people didn’t see every quote and they didn’t get in trouble for it. They didn’t have their guards up as much.

Q. Did writing this book shed any light on why the Dodgers haven’t been back to the World Series since?

A. I tried not to delve into that, because I wanted the focus on ’88. Going into that year, they were struggling. They had had back-to-back losing seasons, attendance was down, the Lakers had taken over as the most important team in town. They had lost their way, which is why nobody expected much in 1988. Most of the media predicted they’d be in third or fourth place. Everything came together just right for them. They needed contributions from everyone on the roster. Obviously, Hershiser and Gibson saw most of the headlines, but a lot of guys did great things and had career years. They kind of went against the Dodger Way and signed free agents. Fred Claire got ripped for his trades, but those trades and the farm system were what got them through.

Q. We all have a conception of Orel Hershiser as “the Bulldog,” many people remember the scoreless-innings streak and hear him a lot broadcasting games nowadays. He writes the foreword for your book. Give us some insights we might not have.

A. Going back to Posnanski’s book, what struck me most when I read it is how much better I appreciated Pete Rose afterward. He showed just how intense he was as a player and how much he hated losing. I wanted people to really understand Orel Hershiser. He was not drafted very highly, he was mostly a middle reliever in the minor leagues. Because he was tall and skinny and wore glasses and was a Christian, a lot of people had doubts about whether he had the toughness to be a big-game pitcher. I think that drove him more than he admits to this day. Also, I don’t think people appreciate the 59-inning scoreless streak enough. It was overshadowed by the Olympics, by the start of the NFL season, with two teams in L.A. and USC and UCLA both having top 10 football teams. Four of the six starts were on the road.

Plus, it was mathematically impossible. He went into the last game of the season needing 10 scoreless innings, which meant not only did he have to throw a shutout, but the other guy did as well. It was Andy Hawkins of all people. Sure enough, it happened. Every Dodger hitter I interviewed for the book, I asked, “Were you trying to score?” They all said, “Yeah.” Just an unbelievable accomplishment.

Q. How much time did you spend researching Game 1 and all the intricacies of Gibson’s home run off Dennis Eckersley?

A. That was the challenge, because it’s the game everyone remembers and I wanted to bring it to life without boring people who already know the details. I have a page or two about the 3-and-2 backdoor slider, which has been talked about for years and years, but what is rarely mentioned is how often Eckersley went to that pitch against left-handed batters. Tim Leary showed me the scouting report from that game and I saw where it said he was going to throw that against lefties. But he only got to 3-and-2 to left-handed batters that year eight times. Four of them were in May, so the Dodgers based this entire scouting report on four pitches in the last four months of the season. Talk about a small sample size. Dennis always said it was a stupid pitch. [Catcher] Ron Hassey said no way, it was his best pitch to a lefty.

One of the best stories is from Vin Scully, who told me it was the only time in his life after a game that he couldn’t sit down, he couldn’t get in his car and go home. He had all this energy in his body. He was pacing around the O’Malleys’ suite. To hear Vin Scully say something like that is remarkable. He’s the picture of calm and he couldn’t sit down.

Q. What else stands out about that post-season?

A. I’ve always thought bulletin board material was overrated. If you need that to motivate you, you probably won’t win the series. But there was a ton of that stuff in those series and the players still talk about it. David Cone had ghost written a story in one of the New York tabloids and said a bunch of stuff about Jay Howell. Before the World Series, Don Baylor said the A’s wanted to play the Mets, because they were the best team in the National League and they wanted a challenge. That had an impact. Guys read the paper. Tommy Lasorda used that stuff to fire up the team.

Oh, and Hershiser wasn’t the original World Series MVP. They told someone else he was the MVP and he was walking to the stage to do an interview, when they told him they’d made a mistake. People have to buy the book to find out who it is.

Q. Nice tease. Any other cool tidbits?

A. The reactions I got about the Pedro Guerrero-for-John Tudor trade in August were interesting in how mixed they were, even to this day. Some guys said they were sorry to see Pedro go, but when John Tudor walked in the door, it gave them a lot of confidence. Other guys said they still don’t know why they made that trade.

Q. How do the Isotopes look so far?

A. Well, the Dodgers have already taken our three best pitchers, our Opening Day starter [Steven Fife] and our two best relievers, Shawn Tolleson and Josh Wall. We had Tim Federowicz and then the Dodgers took him back four days later. On behalf of the Isotopes, I’d love it if the Dodgers could stay healthy the rest of the year.