ODE TO DEFENSE
The Orioles did something on June 5 that no team had done before. They made the first pick in the amateur draft while they were in first place. Ask almost anyone in baseball what the biggest factor is in Baltimore's turnaround this season, and you get the same answer: defense.
"Last year Joe Orsulak was our best defensive outfielder," says the Orioles assistant general manager, Doug Melvin. "This year he's our fifth best." Instead of having Larry Sheets and Jim Traber wallowing around after fly balls, as they did last year, the Orioles now have one of the premier outfields in the American League. Centerfielder Brady Anderson, acquired from Boston in a trade last season, is a maniac, diving for balls and crashing into fences. Rookie Steve Finley brings range and an outstanding arm to rightfield. And leftfielder Phil Bradley, who came in a December trade with Philadelphia, plays with rare intelligence.
Third baseman Craig Worthington, in his first full season, has been a big improvement over Rene Gonzales and Rick Schu, while the Brothers Ripken—Cal Jr. at short and Bill at second—have been playing better together than ever. The Orioles had 29% fewer errors than the next-best AL club through last weekend and are on a pace to break the league record for fewest errors in a season.
"Defense has always been the most underrated aspect in the game." says Yankee general manager Syd Thrift. "It's tough to build any consistency without it." When Thrift was G.M. in Pittsburgh, for three years through last season, he emphasized defense, and the Pirates have what may be the best overall defensive team in the National League. Although injuries to centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and catcher Mike LaValliere slowed the Pirates' start this season, they have begun to revive lately, with Van Slyke back in center—flanked by Barry Bonds in left and Glenn Wilson in right—and with magical Jose Lind at second and Rey Quinones at short.
"Positioning the defense can be worth five or 10 games a year," says St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog. But some teams like the Red Sox continue to ignore defensive charts. "That's one reason they don't play as well as they should," one scout says of Boston. Poor defense has been a major factor in the slow starts of the Brewers and the Blue Jays, while the weak defense of the White Sox has made their pitching shortage seem even more acute.
Before the season, Gary Sheffield of Milwaukee and Gregg Jefferies of the Mets were the odds-on favorites to be the year's best rookies. But as June rolled around, both were struggling. Sheffield, a shortstop, was hitting .256 with just 16 RBIs through Sunday and, more important, he was playing lethargically in the field. He recently blasted the Brewers' pitchers for not protecting him by retaliating after he had been knocked down at the plate, and he said he would like to be traded, although he rescinded that request after meeting with manager Tom Trebelhorn and G.M. Harry Dalton. Trebelhorn has been mystified by Sheffield's sometimes nonchalant style, which is the opposite of the hard-nosed way he played in the minors. "Some things are eating away at Gary, and we're not sure what they are," says Dalton. "He is a quiet kid, something of a loner. The thing with the pitchers upset him, and he has a point in that we don't come inside as a staff. He seems to feel insecure about [reserve] Billy Spiers looking over his shoulder at short."
Jefferies, a third baseman who is playing second for the first time in his career, has hit under .200 so far. Some players whisper that Jefferies is torn between the advice he's getting from his father, Rich—who watches every Mets game via satellite at home in Millbrae, Calif.—and hitting instructor Bill Robinson. Robinson has said, "I don't get the feeling Gregg listens to me." So when the Mets were in San Francisco last week, Robinson had dinner with the elder Jefferies in Millbrae. "I told Gregg's dad there can be only one hitting coach," said Robinson. The two stayed up until 3 a.m. watching tapes of Jefferies. They seemed to have had a good time, but it is unclear whether anything was resolved.
There is a war raging between professional and college baseball, and it is reaching its peak this week, as the College World Series—which has mushroomed in popularity—concludes in Omaha. The professional draft, in which teams claim amateur players also sought by the colleges, began on Monday, the fourth day of the world series. Last year, the University of Miami was able to hold on to the Brewers' No. 1 pick, pitcher Alex Fernandez. On the other hand, Mississippi State failed to keep the Expos from luring pitcher Reid Cornelius—an 11th-round pick—with a bonus of more than $200,000.
"Until people in pro ball consider us equals in terms of developing players, there will always be hard feelings." says Mike Roberts, the baseball coach at North Carolina. "Because pro teams have gotten so good at signing high school players from the fifth to the tenth rounds, the level of play in college baseball is not what it was five years ago."
Pro people think too many college coaches emphasize winning instead of the players' development. Pitchers are overused, for example, and small players with no power may spend their college careers as outfielders, a position they will never play in the big leagues.
Partly as a result, few college coaches receive serious consideration from the pros as potential managers. One exception is Long Beach State's Dave Snow, who says he has had talks with a few major league teams. Snow turned around Loyola Mary-mount from 23 victories in 1984 to 50 in '86. He took the Long Beach job last June, and the 49ers, who won 14 games a year ago, have won 50 and were among the eight teams that made the College World Series. "He's the best on the West Coast—maybe in the entire country," says one pro scouting director. "Most college coaches don't develop players. Snow does."
GASTON AT LAST
Blue Jay players strongly applauded the selection of Cito Gaston as Toronto's manager last week. "One way to go is to bring in someone who would rant and rave, another is to try to work with what we have," says pitcher Mike Flanagan. In other words, Gaston will try to manage around the lack of fundamentals that many Toronto players brought with them to the majors.
Gaston was not the first choice of club management, of course. He may not even have been the second or third. The Blue Jays failed to persuade the Yankees to release Lou Piniella from his contract, and they met similar difficulties when they approached other candidates. At least two other teams wouldn't let the Jays talk to members of their coaching staffs during the season.
Such resistance is becoming common. After the Mariners fired Dick Williams last year, they wanted to talk to then A's hitting coach Jim Lefebvre, but the A's denied them permission and Seattle had to wait until after the season ended to hire him....
The reconstruction of the Phillies continued when they shipped Chris James to the Padres on June 2 for John Kruk and Randy Ready, giving the Padres much-needed help at third base. The Phillies have let it be known that they will trade anyone, including rightfielder Von Hayes (who can become a free agent at the end of the year) and centerfielder Juan Samuel. "They don't want to trade Steve Bedrosian," says one G.M. "But he's wilting away there [seven save opportunities in two months], he's their most marketable player and come July he could mean the pennant for the Giants, Royals, Expos or Angels."...
Texas outfielder/DH Scott Bryant was voted the college player of the year by the American Baseball Coaches Association after knocking in 107 runs in 68 games, but his future may be as a pitcher. "He's got a dominant closer's arm," says one scout. "He could make it quick as a pitcher." Bobby Thigpen was a slugging outfielder (in the shadow of Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro) at Mississippi State but was drafted in 1985 solely as a pitcher....
When it was suggested that the Phillies might sign third baseman Chris (D.L.) Brown, who had been released by the Tigers, to replace the retired Mike Schmidt, Philadelphia coach Larry Bowa—who managed Brown in San Diego—said, "If they do, I'm leaving." Happily for Bowa, Brown was subsequently picked up by Pittsburgh, who assigned him to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons.
Bruce Dal Canton says my fastball has good movement and philosophy."
•When Trader Jack McKeon, the Padres manager, came back from the hospital after visiting his daughter-in-law's new baby girl last week, he was asked by Padres players about his granddaughter's name. "They haven't named her yet," said McKeon. "She's the baby to be named later."
THE GEORGE PRINCIPLE
On May 21 the Yankees fired manager Mark Weidemaier of their Class A Prince William club and replaced him with Stump Merrill. Weidemaier is a Billy Martin look-alike, and the joke making the rounds among Carolina League officials was probably inevitable: With Dallas Green entrenched for now, George had to do something....
•At the Florida High School all-star game last month, 5'11" pitcher Kiki Jones of Tampa's Hillsborough High School, which produced the Mets' Dwight Gooden, registered 98 mph with his fastball and between 83 and 87 mph with his hard curveball. "He's got a better arm than Gooden," says Seattle scout George Zuraw. "But Dwight uses his height to great advantage."
•Red Sox players criticize manager Joe Morgan for complaining about them to the media before talking to the players concerned. Morgan does a radio commercial for the New England Jeep-Eagle dealers in which he says, "And you don't have to stroke it like a player."
•AT & T donates $100 to charity for each Giants stolen base. Only the Dodgers have fewer steals than the Giants.
•Atlanta's Gerald Perry went 132 at bats without an RBI, from April 23 through Sunday.
•White Sox pitching is so bad that opponents are hitting .276, slugging .445 and reaching base at a .350 percentage against them.
•Pitchers Danny Jackson and Tom Browning of the Reds, Frank Viola of the Twins and David Cone of the Mets were 85-23 last year; through Sunday they were 16-24 for '89.
•Seattle's starting pitching has been so unsettled that in eight games, from May 24 through May 31, the Mariners used eight different starting pitchers.