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Dodgers' best bench player: Gurnick's take

@kengurnick
May 19, 2020

LOS ANGELES -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, this week we asked each of our beat reporters to single out the top bench player in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. Next

LOS ANGELES -- No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, this week we asked each of our beat reporters to single out the top bench player in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. Next week we return to our rankings of the franchise’s top five payers at each position with right-handed starting pitchers.

Before matchups and analytics and widespread platoons were the norm in the Major Leagues, there were bench players, whose utilitarian reputation was elevated by the pinch-hitting prowess of Manny Mota.

A former teammate of legends like Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente, Mota was traded by Montreal with Maury Wills to Los Angeles in 1969 and became a Dodgers institution. He remains in their employ now for a 52nd season, but over the decades has also been elevated to icon status in the Caribbean. Even today’s Latin players, none old enough to have seen Mota’s final at-bat in 1982, revere Manuel Geronimo Mota.

• Dodgers' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF

Mota perfected the pinch-hitting role to the point that he spent the last six full seasons of his 20-year career receiving no more than 57 at-bats a season. From 1974-79, Mota played the field in just 17 games.

“There aren’t many hitters who can do what Manny can do,” Hall of Fame manager Walt Alston once said of Mota. “As long as I have known him, he hits better as a pinch-hitter than as a regular. He thrives on pressure.”

Mota played on three Dodgers pennant winners: 1974, ’77, and ’78. He was 3-for-5 with two doubles across three National League Championship Series. One of the doubles was in Game 3 of the ’77 NLCS, which Mota called in 2006 “the game I’ll never forget.”

The Dodgers were down by two runs with two outs and nobody on in the top of the ninth inning when Vic Davalillo, at age 38, beat out a drag bunt. The 39-year-old Mota stroked a two-strike pinch-hit double over the head and off the glove of left fielder Greg Luzinski for one run and then scored from third base on Davey Lopes’ single to tie the game, 5-5. The Dodgers won it on Bill Russell’s RBI single later that inning.

Los Angeles then won Game 4 to advance to the World Series.

In 1979, a 41-year-old Mota hit .357 and had 15 pinch-hits to pass Smoky Burgess for the Major League record of career pinch-hits, which Mota extended to 150 by the time of his third retirement. Mota was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter to acknowledge the achievement. The record has since been eclipsed by Lenny Harris and Mark Sweeney.

Mota, at the time a Dodgers coach, twice came out of retirement for additional pinch-hitting assignments in pennant stretches: in 1980, when he went 3-for-7 at the age of 42, and again in 1982, when at the age of 44 he had one last at-bat, grounding out against 43-year-old Jim Kaat.

Mota earned such legendary status as a pinch-hitting specialist that he was the subject of a column by the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray.

“He strikes out about three times a month,” Murray wrote. “He could get wood on a bullet. He is no secret to the pitchers around the league. He has hit them so much, they’re beginning to hit him back. Pinch-hitting is a high art like putting out oil well fires or authenticating old masters' paintings. They don’t need you often, but when they do they need you like eyes. Manny’s time comes when the building is burning, the babies are crying, the fort has to be rescued and the wagons are circled.”

Mota was a .304 career hitter, a .300 career pinch-hitter and a .315 hitter over 13 Dodgers seasons. In 1973, he was selected for the National League All-Star team by manager Sparky Anderson, even though he wasn’t a regular on the Dodgers.

“Manny Mota is the best right-handed pinch-hitter in baseball,” Anderson said.

A spray hitter with a compact swing, Mota was adept at slashing pitches to the opposite field when that was a valued skill. From 1979 to 2013, Mota served on the Dodgers coaching staff, where he doubled as a mentor and role model to many of the Latin players who came through the Dodgers’ fertile farm system. After a stint in the Spanish-language broadcast booth, Mota now serves the Dodgers alumni association, working closely with the community relations department.

With wife Margarita, Mota operates a youth baseball league during the offseason in their native Dominican Republic and the Manny Mota International Foundation, a non-profit organization that has raised money to build a medical clinic, baseball fields and a school there. The foundation also awards college scholarships and has hosted an annual golf tournament the last seven years.

Mota has been inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum and received the Dominican Republic Deportista Meritorio, a lifetime achievement award honoring his baseball career and citizenship.

Mota and his wife have eight children. Among them are Jose, a broadcaster with the Angels, and Andy, a player agent, both of whom reached the Major Leagues before retiring into their current careers.

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.