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This Day in Dodgers History: The Perfect Infield Comes Together

Dodgers
Oct 19, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers former player Bill Russell and Ron Cey before game four of the 2016 NLCS playoff baseball series against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s era of unrestricted free agency, the idea of a player spending their entire career with a team has virtually gone extinct. Perhaps even more unlikely is the idea of four players staying together on one team, in the same position, for many years. But from June of 1973 all the way through the 1981 World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers were anchored constantly by an infield of four immensely talented workhorses: Steve Garvey at first base, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at shortstop, and Ron Cey at third.

On this day, 45 years ago exactly, these four men assumed their legendary formation between the bases as starters for the first time. (The actual first occasion they played together was 10 days prior in Philadelphia when Garvey entered the game at first base as a defensive replacement.) Yet it was hardly a master plan that brought them together, but rather an experiment by manager Walter Alston. Lopes, Russell, and Cey were already locked into their respective positions. Russell had settled into shortstop the previous year, while Cey supplanted Ken McMullen at third five games into 1973. Lopes replaced Lee Lacy at second several weeks later.

How They Got There

Garvey, who had originally started with L.A. as an error-prone third baseman, remained an afterthought. Consigned to pinch-hitter status, he had underwhelmed at shortstop and second base as well and seemed destined to ride the bench while the defensively superior Bill Buckner manned first base. But before the second game of a doubleheader at Dodger Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds, Alston penciled Garvey in to start at first. The gamble paid off, going 2 for 4 with a double as the Dodgers rolled to a 5-1 victory.

While the Dodgers beat the Reds in the new infield’s first complete game, it wouldn’t end up indicative of the final standings. Los Angeles went on to win 95 games but still finished second behind Cincinnati. Fortunately, the foundation was laid for 102 wins and a trip to the World Series in 1974, a five-game loss to an Oakland A’s juggernaut that won its third straight title. The intervening years of 1975 and 1976 saw L.A. trail the Big Red Machine in the standings again, during which Tommy Lasorda succeeded Walter Alston as manager. Under their bellicose new skipper, “The Infield” keyed two more pennant winners in 1977 and 1978, but both ended in heartbreaking World Series losses to their old October rivals, the New York Yankees.

After missing the playoffs entirely in 1979 and 1980, however, the tried and true quartet finally reached the culmination of their incredible run in 1981. Despite the truncated regular season brought on by a player’s strike, the Dodgers were galvanized by the pitching of Fernando Valenzuela and returned to the World Series to face the Yankees once again. This time, L.A. triumphed in six for their first title in 16 years. In the deciding sixth game, Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey all managed a hit, run or RBI in front of a stunned New York crowd as the Dodgers rolled to a 9-2 trouncing.

 

That euphoric night at Yankee Stadium made for a perfect finale; as it turned out, it was the very last game they would ever play together. Lopes was the first to go, being traded to the Oakland Athletics before the 1982 season to make room for Steve Sax at second. Garvey departed via free agency after the 1982 season ended, heading two hours south to the San Diego Padres. Cey was traded that same offseason to the Chicago Cubs. (Ironically, Cey’s Cubs and Garvey’s Padres met shortly thereafter in the 1984 NLCS, with San Diego prevailing. Lopes also appeared in one at-bat for the Cubs in the series.) Russell remained a stalwart in Los Angeles until retiring in October 1986, playing more games in an L.A. Dodgers uniform than anyone else. Altogether, “The Infield” spanned eight years, two Hall of Fame managers, four U.S. presidents, more than 1,300 regular season games, 45 postseason games, four World Series and one championship. They combined for 21 All-Star Game appearances as well. Cey even added a rock and roll song to their list of accomplishments, although he admittedly was better off not quitting his day job at the hot corner.

 

What They Represent

From that summer night at Dodger Stadium to the redemptive triumph of October in the Bronx, “The Infield” encapsulated an era of success for the franchise surpassed only by the Koufax/Drysdale teams of the ‘60s. They remain one of the most esteemed player combinations in baseball history, on par with the Tinker/Evers/Chance Cubs infield at the turn of the century and the Hooper/Lewis/Speaker outfield for Boston in the 1910’s. Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey embodied Dodger traditions of stability and superlative play. Given the borderline impossibility of seeing a unit like them in today’s game, they also deserve greater recognition
outside of Dodger fan circles.

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Written by Marshall Garvey

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