Baseball in 2018 at times seems harder to enjoy than ever. Bigoted social media posts resurfacing to haunt star players, anemic attendance, multiple clubs following the Cubs/Astros tanking model, absurd takes on how to quickly “save the game” when it doesn’t need saving, and so on. One of the less urgent, yet still salient, grievances about the state of baseball is…well, listening to old announcers vent their grievances about the state of baseball. (Looking in your general direction, John Smoltz.) While fans and commentators lamenting baseball “not being what it used to be” is nothing new, it’s groan-inducing to listen to certain individuals refuse to embrace the game being played differently in certain ways than before. After all, part of the beauty of the sport is how steadily it evolves. The Dodgers may be the perfect example of this.
Yet there is one old-fashioned facet of the game that truly has gone by the wayside: bunting. Chalk it up to the growth of the home run, juiced ball and all, but there is an empirically evident decline in hitters opting for one of baseball’s intrinsic fundamentals. It’s a disappearance worth lamenting, as it’s a tactic that, when done correctly, embodies the nuanced beauty of hitting. With their unparalleled track record of player development, it’s no surprise the Dodgers have an extensive history of skillful bunting and executing “small ball.” 35 years ago today, one of their greatest moments came on the most thrilling iteration of the play possible: the suicide squeeze.
It was September 11, 1983. The Dodgers and Atlanta Braves were in the second iteration of an intra-divisional rivalry that commenced the year before. In 1982, Los Angeles was the defending World Series champions but found themselves trailing Atlanta throughout the season. In September, the Braves went into a slump, while L.A. and San Francisco surged back into the race. By the final day of the season, the Dodgers had eliminated their hated rivals, and a Braves loss to the Padres gave them a chance to force a one-game playoff with Atlanta by beating the Giants one more time.
The 1982 N.L. West race, however, ended in ignominious fashion for the Boys in Blue. In the final game of the season at Candlestick Park, Joe Morgan launched a three-run homer off reliever Terry Forster for a 5-3 Giants victory. The images of Morgan swiftly raising his hand in the air, Rick Monday helplessly watching the ball land beyond the right field fence, and a sullen Tommy Lasorda haunted Dodgers fans in a manner akin to 1962.
1983 witnessed the Dodgers and Braves in a similarly neck-and-neck race, albeit with San Francisco out of the picture. Atlanta came to Dodger Stadium for a weekend series, with the Dodgers taking the first game 3-2. However, Atlanta answered the next day with a 6-3 win to trim L.A.’s division lead to two games. In the third game on Sunday the 11, the Braves quickly staked a 6-2 lead, thanks in part to a three-run homer by slugger Dale Murphy off starter Rick Honeycutt. Any further damage was prevented by the bullpen, including an inning-ending pop out with the bases loaded induced by a young pitcher named Orel Hershiser (in only his third major league game no less). In another surreal twist, the Braves turned to none other than Terry Forster out of their bullpen in the bottom of the sixth.
These moments, however, were just a prelude to the high octane drama that unfolded in the bottom of the ninth. With Atlanta now leading 6-3, it seemed all but certain they would trim L.A.’s divisional lead to just one game. But after a pinch-hit double by Jose Morales, the Dodgers loaded the bases. Pedro Guerrero drew a walk that forced in a run, followed by a game-tying double by Mike Marshall.
Up stepped outfielder R.J. Reynolds, a mere ten days removed from his major league debut as a September call-up. A native of Sacramento, CA, Reynolds was a highly touted prospect who was discovered by esteemed scout Ron King. (Coincidentally, he hailed from the same city as Steve and Dave Sax, who were also scouted by King.) Already, he had a chance to etch his name in Dodgers lore with a dramatic walk-off hit or, most ideally, a grand slam.
The first pitch from reliever Gene Garber landed outside for ball one. Reynolds brought the bat off his shoulder on the next pitch…albeit held at a slight downward angle for a bunt, seamlessly adjusting it in time to a straight line to make contact. The execution was impeccable, for while the ball steadily rolled down the first base side, Garber’s follow-through naturally took him to the third base side. He desperately tried to make the play but to no avail. “THE SQUEEZE! And here comes the run!” Vin Scully emphatically yelled as Guerrero darted across home. The Dodgers poured out of the dugout for one of the most jubilant celebrations Chavez Ravine, with Lasorda putting Reynolds in a congratulatory near-headlock.
“The Squeeze” turned out to be the final word in the divisional race. It put the Dodgers ahead of the Braves by three games, and they won the N.L. West by that exact margin. Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t extend into October, where Los Angeles was dismissed in a four-game NLCS by the Phillies. Reynolds continued to suit up for the Dodgers until late 1985, when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for slugger Bill Madlock. He enjoyed postseason play with Pittsburgh in 1990, starting all six games of the NLCS against Cincinnati before opting to play in Japan the rest of his career.
In the bigger picture of Dodger history, Reynolds’ suicide squeeze may not seem quite as worthy of note as Kirk Gibson’s limp-off, Justin Turner’s blast last year or even Steven Finley’s Giant-killing grand slam in 2004. Aesthetically, a walk-off bunt doesn’t stir the imagination quite like a walk-off home run sailing into the outstretched arms of jubilant fans, or a well-placed hit into the outfield punctuating the suspense. Yet it’s precisely because of the play’s sound fundamentals, as well as its swift and surprising execution, that make it a treasure. In a moment where most would hope for a long-ball or clutch hit, Reynolds proved that the most basic play is all you need to win the game.
If anything, it’s a moment whose efficiency is especially appreciable right now, towards the end
of a Dodgers season marked by a historically un-clutch offense. As fun as Max Muncy’s bat drops and eighth inning moon shots from Turner and Kemp are, the 2018 Dodgers desperately
need to improve their approach at generating runs. Next time they load the bases in a crucial
spot, they might do well by following the example set by the rookie from Sacramento 35 years
Author’s Note: Reynolds, along with other Dodger players like Steve Sax and Dusty Baker, is profiled in my forthcoming book, The Hidden History of Sacramento Baseball. My father, a history teacher for many years in Sacramento, even had the privilege of meeting him a few years ago!
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