Ogden • The 1968 Ogden Dodgers brawled with opponents, learned baseball from Tommy Lasorda, ate $1.99 buffets before every home game and rallied to win the league championship on the last night of the season.
Fifty years later, having told another round of stories about his summer among the greatest convergence of young talent in Utah pro baseball history, Bobby Valentine concluded, “It was glorious.”
The Affleck Park site is occupied by an auto dealership. The Ogden Raptors play a couple of miles from where the old Dodgers once roamed the field, as they celebrate the reborn franchise’s 25th season – again playing as a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate in the Pioneer League.
The '68 Dodgers remain memorable because of who they became. Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Tom Paciorek and Valentine played a combined 70-plus years in the major leagues. “Find me another rookie-league club that had three eventual big-league stars,” Lasorda once told Baseball America (Paciorek, batting .381, was promoted to Class-A Bakersfield after a month in Ogden).
The Raptors annually feature a few players who will make the big leagues. Many of the Salt Lake Bees' players shuttle between Smith’s Ballpark and the Los Angeles Angels, and some of Salt Lake’s Triple-A rosters of the past included several players who went on to have nice careers in the majors.
Those four notable rookies, managed by Lasorda at age 40, make the '68 Ogden team remarkable. None of them viewed it as extraordinary at the time, though. “Man, it was really obvious that they would make it,” pitcher Richard Watson said of his famous teammates. “But you thought you could make it too.”
The convergence of talent is “harder to understand now than it was then,” Valentine said. “Looking back in that rear-view mirror, it's amazing.”
Their life revolved around the historic Ben Lomond Hotel and Chuck-A-Rama on Washington Boulevard and Affleck Park on Wall Avenue, with bus rides to Salt Lake City and three towns in southern Idaho in the Pioneer League of that era. Lasorda is at the epicenter of nearly every story told about that summer in Ogden, where the Dodgers' 39-25 record was barely good enough for the championship of the five-team league.
The '68 Dodgers are not among the most dominant teams in Pioneer League history. Salt Lake's Edmund Mantie, who posted only one other professional victory, pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against Ogden. The Dodgers lacked great pitching, aside from Sandy Vance (14-3) and Bruce Ellingsen (1.43 ERA). And even future stars needed to develop their skills, such as Garvey, the third baseman. Shortstop Bill Estey laughs about discovering why Garvey “ended up playing first base … awful arm, just awful,” citing his teammate's 23 errors in 61 games.
Trailing the Magic Valley Cowboys by one run in the eighth inning of the final game, the Dodgers rallied with eight runs to win 17-10 and finish a half-game ahead of the Idaho Falls Angels, whose roster included no recognizable names. During a visit to Salt Lake City, Garvey recalled how the Dodgers were down by five runs and won the game with a ninth-inning home run.
That's what happens in 50 years, as the tales are retold. The stories “won't die,” said Zack Minasian, a Californian who spent his high school summers managing Ogden's clubhouse. Gary Pullins, a second baseman who became BYU's longtime baseball coach, said of his featured role in one of Lasorda's stories, “Honestly, I don't really remember that. I'm sure that happened. I'm also sure with Tommy's ability to embellish things, he made it sound better.”
Here's the story: After a loss, Lasorda confided to Dutch Belnap, Ogden's general manager, that he planned to “rip into these guys pretty good.” As he detailed in his autobiography, “The Artful Dodger,” Lasorda went from player to player in Affleck Park's tiny clubhouse, addressing their shortcomings on and off the field. When he came to Pullins, 25, less talented than his younger teammates but exemplary in his attitude and approach, Lasorda ran out of criticism. All he could he say was, “I was just like you when I started out in this game. …. Now look what these [expletive] people have done to me!”
As Pullins said, “Tommy loved getting on us. That was one of his forms of motivation. And it was comical.”
There's much more material where that story came, like the way Lasorda endorsed fighting with opponents – especially Salt Lake, affiliated with the rival San Francisco Giants. By Belnap's account, Lasorda rehearsed the brawls, pretending to hold back players in the dugout, but threatening a $25 fine to the last Dodger who ran onto the field.
Valentine once squared off in a postgame duel with an Idaho Falls player, meeting him on the mound. The opponent tried a karate kick. Valentine, who had turned down a USC football scholarship offer, responded with “the best open-field tackle I could make,” he said, and dominated his rival.
Belnap also remembers Lasorda's tricking pitchers into eating in the bullpen, having Minasian bring them with a bag of peanuts and then catching them in violation of the rule – resulting in $25 fines.
To catch players breaking curfew, Lasorda gave the Ben Lomond's elevator operator a baseball and had him get autographs from players returning after midnight. That's right, more fines. “They never knew how he found out,” Minasian said.
Lasorda excelled in motivation and player development, always willing to help them improve their skills. “Even though Tommy was a self-promoter, he was a hell of a manager,” said Belnap, who later became Utah State’s basketball coach. “Tommy promised them the moon and, hell, they got there. … I learned a lot from him about believing in kids.”
Garvey, Buckner, Valentine and Paciorek would join Davey Lopes, Bill Russell (an Ogden player in 1966) and Lasorda on the 1970 Spokane Triple-A club that went 94-52 as “maybe the best team in minor-league history,” Garvey said in February, when he addressed the University of Utah's baseball banquet.
As for the other '68 Dodgers, “They weren't all big stars,” Minasian said, “but they all had that one experience.”
Estey batted .161 as a 35th-round draft choice, but can always say he started in Ogden's infield, between Garvey at third and Buckner at first. “It's a summer that I certainly will never forget, being able to say you played with some of those people,” said Estey, who became a teacher and principal in New Hampshire.
A giant, black-and-white poster from '68 of Lasorda with Buckner, Garvey and Valentine greets fans entering the Lindquist Field gates. Last September, the Raptors claimed Ogden's first Pioneer League championship since 1969, the year after Lasorda moved on to Spokane. The Raptors have clinched a first-half division title, earning a 2018 playoff berth.
Watson, who has spent nearly 40 years as an insurance agent in Texas, never advanced past Class-A ball. That makes his Pioneer League title meaningful. “I still have that ring,” he said. Garvey's memento, however, belongs to a successful bidder. In a 2013 auction, his rookie ring sold for $10,766 – more than the price for either of his two MVP trophies from Major League All-Star Games.
STARS OF THE 1968 OGDEN DODGERS
Steve Garvey • Drafted out of Michigan State, where he also played football, Garvey hit a rookie-league record 20 homers and drove in 59 runs with a .338 batting average in 62 games for Ogden. Garvey was the 1974 National League MVP and a 10-time All-Star for theLos Angeles Dodgers.
Bill Buckner • A graduate of Napa (Calif.) High School, Buckner batted a league-leading .344 for Ogden in 1968. He spent 22 seasons in the major leagues, compiling more than 2,700 hits in his career and winning the 1980 National League batting title with the Chicago Cubs.
Tom Paciorek • Having led Houston to the 1967 College World Series, Paciorek hit .381 in 29 games for Ogden in 1968, before being promoted to Class-A Bakersfield. He played 18 seasons as an outfielder in the Major Leagues.
Bobby Valentine • Having signed to play football and basketball for USC, the Connecticut prep star accepted the Dodgers' $70,000 bonus as a first-round and reported to Ogden, where he batted .281, and stole 20 bases in 21 attempts in 1968. Valentine played 10 seasons in the majors and managed three teams.
Tommy Lasorda • A former Dodgers scout, he became Ogden’s manager in 1966 and won three consecutive Pioneer League titles. Lasorda took the Los Angeles job in 1977 and won two World Series championship and two other National League pennants in 20 years. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.