Publish date:

Three Men on a Roll

After years of corkscrew inconsistency, three erratic National League players have straightened out their games for the best seasons of their careers. One is a switch-hitter with a restaurant for a name who is sparking the Mets into contention. Another is an aspiring screenwriter plotting some respectability for the Phillies. The third is a hard-nosed street kid who is leading the Giants toward a possible pennant. Here they are:


When your name is Howard Johnson, life is likely to be as much Rocky Road as it is Cookies & Cream. If you're a third baseman, they call you HoJo and think you'll melt at the hot corner. Detroit's Sparky Anderson, Johnson's first manager, had so little confidence in him after three seasons that he held him out of the 1984 playoffs and batted him only once in the World Series. To be sure, HoJo did play third base like a busboy.

So in '84 the Tigers traded him to the Mets, where he improved: He played like a short-order cook. Platooned with Ray Knight for two years, he stumbled, sputtered and fumbled in the field. At the plate he was a switch-hitter who couldn't hit breaking stuff from either side, or much of anything from the right.

But last November free-agent Knight turned down the Mets' offer of $800,000, only to wind up signing for $500,000 with the Orioles. And now HoJo, 26, playing every day for the first time in his career, is hitting .273 with 77 RBIs. As a righty he has 12 homers and is batting .312.

HoJo already has 28 dingers this year, just seven shy of the league record by a switch-hitter (set by Ripper Collins in 1934). He rockets balls out of Shea Stadium into flight paths of planes from La Guardia. He has hit so far so often that opposing managers have accused him of secreting an illicit material in his bat. They've even persuaded the umpires to take X-rays. So far all they've seen is white ash. Teammate Tim Teufel has given Johnson the nickname Norman—more for Norman Bates, the Psycho psycho, than bat-corker Norm Cash. "He's so totally different from last year," says Teufel. "But it hasn't gotten to the point where I won't go in a shower with him."

HoJo has already broken the club's single-season record for homers by a third baseman, and is on the verge of eclipsing the RBI mark. "Hoj has become one of the better players on the team this year," says second baseman Wally Backman, "if not the most consistent." Johnson is making people forget the Mets' other third basemen, which is not hard considering third at Shea has been occupied almost as often as a room in a HoJo motor lodge. Eighty-one third basemen have checked in during the Mets' 26-year history. Don Zimmer was one of nine to play third for the original Mets. After he broke an 0-for-34 slump in 1962 with a couple of hits, manager Casey Stengel said, "We gotta trade him while he's still hot." A few days later he was part of a deal with the Reds for Cliff Cook, who turned out to have one deficiency: He couldn't bend over to field grounders. Since then third has harbored such fugitive immortals as Tucker Ashford, Rich Puig and Sammy Drake.

"HoJo's got the best arm, the best speed and the best power of any third baseman the Mets have ever had," says former Mets shortstop and current coach Bud Harrelson. But Hojo still has dubious hands, and he is in danger of becoming the majors' first triple-30 player: 30 homers, 30 stolen bases and 30 errors.

Being named Howard Johnson has had its advantages. Every Sunday after church, when HoJo was growing up in Clearwater, Fla., the family went to a Howard Johnson's. Young Howard would get a free ice-cream cone because of his name. "I never fessed up I was named for my grandfather," he says. HoJo's father, Bill, had him switch-hitting at four and made him throw with his right hand, although he was a natural lefty, because he thought there were more positions open for righthanders. "Dad taught me more about hitting than fielding," says HoJo. It shows.

Detroit drafted Johnson as a shortstop and turned him into a third baseman in Class A ball. He was 21 when he came up in 1982, but Anderson wouldn't bat him against southpaws. "Sparky was scared I'd make mistakes," Hojo says. So scared that he kept Johnson out of postseason play in '84. "I finally got up enough courage to go into his office and talk to him," Johnson recalls. "He made me feel like I shouldn't have been in there. I'll never forget that."

The Tigers traded him after the 1984 Series. Anderson said Johnson couldn't field or handle pressure. "I feel like I've spent these last few seasons living down those statements," says HoJo with a trace of bitterness. "Of course, until this year, I hadn't done anything to disprove that stuff." Last year Johnson started once in 13 playoff games, and went hitless in five Series at bats.

The secret of HoJo's new success may be his off-season weight program, or the hours he spent hitting off a batting tee at an indoor tennis complex on Long Island. Or it may be as simple as iced tea. Johnson drinks two gallons of it every game. He keeps it on the bench in a Thermos inscribed: HOJO"S ICED TEA CUP. "HoJo's so hooked to tea that his next sport may be cricket," says Teufel. "I doubt if it's his true sport, though. He's doing too good a job with this one."


Everyone wants to write the great American screenplay. Cabbies, waiters, ex-cops, ex-cons, FBI agents, sportswriters, presidential aspirants—all have 100-page scripts in the closet, everything from Rocky XII to a rewrite of the yellow pages.

Shane Rawley has two: a Miami Vice TV episode and a third installment of the Indiana Jones saga. "All it takes is a word processor and a legal pad," says Rawley, who has both. He also has an educated fastball, a hard-to-read changeup and a 15-5 record with the Phillies. Rawley couldn't be having a better season if he had written it himself. The team stopper—he has halted three losing streaks of three games and two of six games—Rawley is on pace to become Philly's first 20-game winner (besides Steve Carlton since 1966. "When it comes to screenwriting, though," says the 32-year-old veteran of 10 big league campaigns, "I'm still in the minors."

That's precisely where his Vice script begins. The protagonist is Rex Daniels, a young outfielder playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic who has lost heavily at the gaming tables. He's sweating it out in a dingy cantina with a couple of drug dealers. They ask Daniels to run a little errand. They want him to take half a dozen specially prepared bats back to spring training in Florida. You've heard of corked bats. Well, these are coked bats.

"You're crazy!" says Daniels edgily. "If I get caught, my career will be over."

"You don't have a choice, Señor Daniels," says one druggie. "Either bring the bats...or we kill you."

Rawley sends Daniels off into a maze of Miami vicissitudes that leaves the ballplayer dead. But Rawley rescues his hero by revealing in the end that it has all been a Pam Ewingesque dream.

Rawley would cast teammate Glenn Wilson as Daniels and Mike Schmidt as Mike Schmidt, who has the nasty job of cradling the bullet-riddled rookie as he expires. Rawley wrote the script last summer when he was on the disabled list. He had somehow broken a bone in his left shoulder while pitching. The injury didn't keep him from writing down dialogue, though.

Whether at the legal pad or on the mound, Rawley delivers his best stuff the same way: with an easy and self-confident drive. "He's a cagey guy who always finds a way to win," says Schmidt. "I equate him with Bret Maverick." Each pitch looks identical, regardless of what it is, where it's going or how hard it's thrown. "Ever heard of Ferris Bueller?" asks pitcher Kevin Gross. "That's Shane."

Everybody compares Rawley to screen characters, even his parents. Bill and Pat, who named their son after the gunslinger played by Alan Ladd in the classic 1953 Western. This later proved useful to fans in the bleachers when Rawley faltered as a reliever. "Come back, Shane. Come back, Shane," they chanted.

Rawley, who grew up in Racine, Wis., spent the first four years of his pro career connecting the dots on a map of the bush leagues. He pitched in Sarasota, Fla.; Kinston, N.C.; West Palm Beach; Quebec City; Denver; and Indianapolis before making his big-time debut in 1978 with Seattle.

In four seasons as a Mariner reliever he was 20-31 with 36 saves. The Yankees traded for Rawley in 1982 because they needed a lefthander to set up Goose Gossage. As the Yanks' middle-innings man, Rawley failed to please George Steinbrenner, the pugnacious critic, who later called the deal "the worst trade we've made this year."

Still, Yankee pitching coach Clyde King made Rawley a starter. He noted that Rawley was slow to warm up and rarely had an opportunity to use his changeup. Rawley reveled in his new role, winning seven games in the second half of '82 and then 14 in 1983. But he was sidelined the following spring with a sore arm. Steinbrenner, irritated at how long Rawley was taking to regain his form, diagnosed the problem as sinuses and consigned him to the disabled list. "How can you put someone on the DL for bad sinuses?" Rawley asks. "That's a joke, an absolute joke. The truth is, the team didn't want anyone to know my arm was tender." When Rawley returned, Steinbrenner suggested that Columbus would be a great place to recuperate from a runny nose. Rawley balked and was traded to Philadelphia. The Boss thought Rawley had an attitude problem.

In Philly, they were wary, too. "When Shane first got here he was much too casual," says Claude Osteen, the Phils' pitching coach. "He'd pitch a super game against Dwight Gooden or Fernando Valenzuela, but next time out, the enthusiasm just wasn't there." Rawley attributes this seeming insouciance to years of playing on mediocre clubs. In his first eight seasons, he played on only two teams with a winning record. "It's easy to get pumped up for Gooden," he says. "The hard part is staying in the right frame of mind when your club is going nowhere." Rawley credits his renewed concentration and strength to the martial arts and conditioning program of team strength and flexibility instructor Gus Hoefling.

Hoefling's kung fu techniques inspired Rawley's Indiana Jones script, a swashbuckling epic that has booby-trapped tombs and New Guinea cannibals, opium dens and a 2,500-year-old demon, a treacherous archeologist named Chen Lau (not the famed Mandarin batting coach) and an ending straight out of Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

Rawley also has two works in progress. One is a sports complex back home in Racine. The other is a Great American Novel about a couple of "Route 66 types" who barnstorm around Europe and North Africa before and after World War I. But Schmidt does not think Rawley will give up pitching anytime soon. "Not with major league salaries what they are," he says. "You can't really make this kind of money at anything else, including writing screenplays."


In your face is not a phrase usually associated with baseball, but that's how Jeffrey Leonard plays the game. "I come to the plate wanting to knock the pitcher's butt out," says San Francisco's 6'4", 205-pound leftfielder. Leonard lives by paybacks. He regards good fielding plays against him as personal affronts that require retribution. If a pitcher knocks him down, he feels obliged to hit a home run. Sometimes he does, then slowly struts from third to home. Any kibitzing catcher who tries to break Leonard's concentration at the plate gets a bat shoved in his face. Leonard likes to scratch out the signature on the barrel of his bat and write an unprintable directive in Magic Marker in its place. When a catcher tries to chat, Leonard waves that greeting under his nose. "Baseball is war," he says. "W-A-R. The other team's out there trying to beat you....

To me anger is power and strength. I try to enter a game already teed off. The anger comes from frustration: not making teams, being sent down to the minors, seeing my skills deteriorate from drug dependency, not getting what I deserve." Now in his 15th pro season, the 31-year-old first-time All-Star may finally be getting his due. He's batting .290 and is among the league leaders in doubles and hits. His strong, precise arm and instinctive sense of which base to throw to have made him one of the game's most respected leftfielders. Giants pitcher Mike Krukow calls him "the telephone pole that stirs the drink."

Leonard's stony stare once prompted teammates to dub him Penitentiary Face, though a certain mellowing has led wags to soften the moniker to Correctional Institution Face. Leonard prefers Hac or Hac-Man.

"You're never sure if Hac's serious or not," says catcher Bob Brenly. "He has no close friends, but a lot of people think they're his close friends." Those who have managed to chip through Leonard's rock-hard exterior find a butter-cream center. He spins out a West Philadelphia street rap that can rival Run-D.M.C, lacing conversations with expletives and sound effects. His voice swells and singsongs; it has its own cadences, its own velocity.

Leonard has a certain finicky neatness. His locker looks as if it were arranged by IBM. He demands a new pair of spikes every week, a new jockstrap every day. Leonard switches batting stances as often as jocks. He calls them the Flip 'Em, the Power, the Emergency, the Power Crouch and the Do Whatever You Can, and all are accompanied by a chilling glower. "Hac is every timid white boy's nightmare," offers Krukow. "A big, angry black man from the inner city, brandishing a club."

As a youngster on Felton Street in West Philly, Leonard developed his arm by tossing "flat metamorphic rocks." His targets were trolleys, cars, trucks, "anything that moved." He was occasionally reprimanded by his father, Wilson, a furniture store manager who had played semipro ball with black teams in the '40s and '50s. But the old man mostly disciplined Jeffrey by teaching him baseball. Jeffrey would come home from Little League and want to wash his uniform. "Leave it dirty," said Dad. "Look mean and rough."

Signed by Los Angeles in 1973 as a 17-year-old free agent, Leonard reached the majors four years later. But the Dodgers had more outfielders than they could use, and traded him to Houston. By mid-1979 he was the Astros' starting centerfielder, batting .290 with 47 RBIs. The next spring he clashed with manager Bill Virdon, who wanted him to be the fourth outfielder, and spent much of the year on the bench. He went to the Giants in 1981, but was sent to Phoenix for another dash of seasoning. Impulsive and impatient, Leonard hacked at anything thrown between the coaching boxes, thereby earning the nickname Hac-Man. He also batted .401 with Phoenix and earned a ticket to San Francisco, where he did as much cocaine as hitting.

Leonard broke his coke habit in the winter of 1982, just before his first full campaign with the Giants. In '83 he hit 21 homers, drove in 87 runs and stole 26 bases, and followed that with 21 homers, 86 RBIs and a .302 average. But the team waddled around the cellar, and Leonard drifted, too. Though moody and broody, he was named team captain in 1985. Beset by rib and wrist injuries, Leonard hit just .241 with 62 RBIs. He briefly resigned his captaincy after scuffling with centerfielder Dan Gladden, who found his needling a bit too pointed. The Giants lost 100 games in '85.

Roger Craig took over as skipper before the next season and installed a little discipline. He told Leonard to turn his cap around and can his Dead End Kid image. Leonard protested that wearing his cap backward was his trademark on bubble-gum cards. But he gave in and now calls Craig a "motivational genius."

Last year Leonard was one of the league's top hitters until early May, when he ruptured a tendon in his right wrist on a hard checked swing. "I've never seen anyone play with that much pain," says Mark Letendre, the Giants' trainer. When Leonard finally gave up in late July, the Giants were 1½ games out of first. They finished third, 13 back. But Leonard knew he would return. Before one game in late September, he stormed through the clubhouse shouting, "I'm going to be the starting left-fielder next season, and nobody can take that away from me."

Last season Leonard had operations on his wrist and left shoulder, and changed his number to 00. "One zero for each operation," he quipped. He didn't know he would have two more operations, on his knees, over the winter. "If I get hurt this season, nobody's going to know. I ain't saying nothing."

And he hasn't, though fluid has twice been drained from the wrist. "Some guys get a hangnail and ask to sit out," says Craig. "Jeffrey would play with a broken leg." Craig finds in Leonard's scowling stoicism a hint of Jackie Robinson.

"It took me a long time to get to know Hac," says Krukow, "but now I don't think there's a more professional player in the game. If I ever go to war, I want him on my side."



Though HoJo has stumbled from time to time in his career, lately he is up and running.



It may be the weights, the batting tee, even iced tea—whatever, HoJo has hit 28 homers.



Despite understandable suspicion, X-rays revealed that Johnson's bat is solid wood.



Johnson still has some shaky moments in the field, and he's keeping up his 30-error pace.



Rawley draws on baseball in his writing, which includes a script for "Miami Vice."



Rawley (left) takes a kung fu stance to face his teammate Don Carman.



Years of frustration have made it easy for Leonard to be aggressive in all his games.