In 1987, when the Minnesota Twins won the World Series, their core of talent was one of the most impressive in baseball. But since then the Minnesota front office has made one ill-fated move after another and turned the club into a second-rate power. On Monday the Twins' "brain" trust made matters even worse by trading 1988 Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola to the Mets in a deal involving pitchers Rick Aguilera, David West and Kevin Tapani. Why?
The Twins' decline began last year when they dealt rightfielder Tom Brunansky—an integral part of the championship team—to the Cardinals for second baseman Tommy Herr, who never performed up to his capabilities in Minnesota and ended up being traded to the Phillies for journeyman pitcher Shane Rawley. Then, instead of adding quality pitching in the off-season, the Twins unloaded 38-year-old righthander Bert Blyleven, who was 10-17 with a 5.43 ERA in '88, in a multiplayer deal with the Angels. At week's end, Blyleven was 10-2 with a 2.45 ERA.
The importance of Blyleven to the Twins cannot be measured by numbers alone. He was the clown prince of the clubhouse, the guy who, along with third baseman Gary Gaetti and first baseman Kent Hrbek, kept the team loose. Now Gaetti has become a born-again Christian and has cast off the leader's mantle. So despite the best efforts of Hrbek and such vocal players as center-fielder Kirby Puckett and utilityman Al Newman, the Twins' clubhouse is much more subdued.
Does the Viola trade make sense? Not really. Even though Viola has an 8-12 record this season, he has one of the best deliveries in baseball and, as a result, has never had arm trouble. He is a workhorse who has pitched at least five innings in 97 of his last 101 starts, and he hasn't missed a start since April 1983. Most important, he has proved that he can win under pressure. "Every one of the pitchers the Mets offered [for Viola] has big questions," says one general manager. "Aguilera has a history of arm problems. West has an attitude problem, and Tapani is a gun pitcher—his fastball is better on radar than it is to the hitter. But a pitcher like Viola comes along only once in 20 years."
Although the Tigers have received offers for several veterans, including shortstop Alan Trammell, general manager Bill Lajoie hasn't made any calls of his own and insists that he's "not holding a fire sale." Instead, he plans to: 1) get pitchers Jack Morris and Jeff Robinson healthy again; 2) keep righthander Doyle Alexander, who has a new knuckler, and lefthander Frank Tanana, who Lajoie claims "might have five more good years"; 3) use newly acquired role players Tracy Jones and Kenny Williams to fortify the bench; and 4) find, in the off-season, some power at first base and at one outfield position....
After Cleveland's big trade in December, which sent second baseman Julio Franco to Texas, everyone thought that second baseman Jerry Browne was just a throw-in by the Rangers to go with first baseman Pete O'Brien and outfielder Oddibe McDowell. But Browne has been a major factor in the Indians' recent surge. Says one American League advance scout, "He is hitting over .300, he is getting on base nearly 40 percent of the time, he can run, and he is at least an average defensive second baseman. He could be a fine player for 10 years." In addition, nearly every manager in the American League East agrees that if lefthander Greg Swindell bounces back from his current elbow stiffness, Cleveland will have the best rotation in the division....
Another team on the move in the AL East is Toronto, which was only four games out of first at week's end. The biggest reason for the Blue Jays' charge is their bullpen, which has flourished under new manager Cito Gaston. His predecessor, Jimy Williams, used to make relievers jump up and down like puppets, but Gaston, who took over on May 15, has been more careful with his pitchers. Under Williams the Toronto bullpen was 4-12, with a 4.65 ERA and four saves in 36 games. With Gaston at the helm, its record has climbed to 14-5, with a 3.42 ERA and 18 saves in 68 games.
Last Saturday the Rangers traded shortstop Scott Fletcher, outfielder Sammy Sosa and pitcher Wilson Alvarez to the White Sox for designated hitter Harold Baines and infielder Fred Manrique. Some observers feel that the deal gives the Rangers an outside shot at the division title, even though they were seven games out of first place at the time of the deal. "It's a great trade, because Baines is one of the top five clutch producers in the league, and while Sosa and Alvarez are prospects, there's no guarantee on either one," says one American League general manager. "If the Rangers' pitching holds up and Jeff Kunkel can replace Fletcher at shortstop, they still have a chance because now the middle of their lineup [Baines, outfielder Ruben Sierra and second baseman Julio Franco] is as good as any in baseball."
When an outfielder makes a sliding catch, it often looks dramatic. But don't be fooled. The sliding catch is the lazy man's way out, a gimmick that makes outfielders like Yankee master-slider Jesse Barfield look good without extending themselves. On July 26 the Yankees blew a game against the Indians when leftfielder Luis Polonia, tried—and missed—a sliding catch on a fly ball by Pete O'Brien in the eighth inning. What should have been a routine out turned into a two-run double. The Yankees were ahead 7-6 at the time, but with the help of Polonia, the Indians went on to win 9-7. Some announcer probably called Polonia's lackadaisical stab a "great try."
DOWN ON THE FARM
The Expos have traded a dozen young players in eight months, but their farm system is still filled with prospects, especially at shortstop. Before being called up from Indianapolis on July 17, Jeff Huson was one of the top shortstops in the American Association. Behind Huson, the Expos have the highly touted Delino DeShields, who is starting at short in Indianapolis, and 17-year-old Wilfredo Cordero, who is in Double A and has so much power he may soon be moved to third base. When the Twins and Mariners were scouting other clubs for quality young pitchers, both teams narrowed the field down to the Expos, Mets and Blue Jays. Before lefthander Mark Langston was traded to the Expos by Seattle, Toronto could have had him for pitchers Todd Stottlemyre, Alex Sanchez and Al Leiter.
NOTHING TO HIDE
Houston righthander Mike Scott, the favorite to win this season's NL Cy Young Award, wasn't too pleased when last year's winner, Dodger ace Orel Hershiser, publicly accused him of doctoring the ball. "He cheats up a storm," said Hershiser. "He's got sandpaper on the inside of his glove, and he takes the ball and hits it in the glove to scuff it. It's not fair when the opposing teams, the National League office, even his teammates know it, and nobody does anything about it." Scott's reaction? "Tell him to go climb a mountain."
...Now that Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. is on the disabled list with a broken bone in his right hand, the other sensational rookie in the Mariners' outfield-, Greg (Pee Wee) Briley, might get some attention. Briley, who admits that he's 5'7½" tall, not the 5'9" listed in the press guide, had eight homers, 25 extra-base hits, seven steals and 33 RBIs in his first 201 plate appearances. Says manager Jim Lefebvre, "He's the best fastball hitter on the club, a potential star who can hit .300, belt 20 homers and steal 30-plus bases."...
The Astros have grown weary of trying to make a major deal for a power hitter and have called up 21-year-old outfielder Eric Anthony, who had 28 homers in Double A this season. "It's hard to find guys who can hit homers in the Astrodome, but this kid is the real thing," says Tiger scout and former Astro pitching coach Jerry Walker. "When he gets hold of the ball [Anthony struck out 127 times in 403 at bats with Columbus], he can hit it as far as anyone." An Astro official said, "We might as well gamble. Other than [Glenn] Davis, the every-day players who have carried us most consistently have been [catcher] Craig Biggio and [third baseman] Ken Caminiti." What was Anthony's first hit as a major leaguer? A two-run homer, natch....
When former Yankee third baseman Mike Pagliarulo joined the Padres two weeks ago. San Diego manager Jack McKeon had to ask the press how to spell his name. That's O.K. Pags admitted that he didn't know where the other NL West teams stood, except for the Giants and Astros. "The key to the trade for the Padres will be getting Pags to relax," says a former Yankee coach. "He's a hypertense person by nature, and the Yankee-Steinbrenner business ate away at him until he wasn't the same player."
FOCUS ON SPORTS
Getting rid of Viola doesn't make sense, despite his 8-12 record.
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Happy 62nd to an old tobacco jaw.
Is Sammy Doll the Sox' secret weapon?
BETWEEN THE LINES
OH, WHAT A DOLL!
Who says superstitions are bunk? Not the White Sox. Chicago pitcher Jerry Reuss bought a bobbing-head White Sox doll during the All-Star break and brought it to the second-half opener against the Brewers. Chicago won that game 5-4 and proceeded to go on an 11-1 tear. Now the toy, which Reuss dubbed Sammy Doll after pitching coach Sammy Ellis, whose neck twitches involuntarily when he gets excited, has become the White Sox' lucky totem. While the national anthem is being played at White Sox games, Sammy Doll is placed on the top step of the dugout, between Reuss and manager Jeff Torborg, and then is moved to an appropriate vantage point in the dugout for the game. On July 21, a batboy knocked Sammy Doll off a railing and broke its neck early on in a game in Fenway Park. Soon after the accident, the White Sox fell behind 6-4. But after Sammy returned from emergency surgery in the seventh, first baseman Ivan Calderon hit a three-run homer that clinched the game for Chicago, 10-6.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
For five years Toronto radio station CJCL has been running a promotion, sponsored by Miracle Food Mart stores, in which a selected listener wins money if a Blue Jay player hits a grand slam in a designated inning. In 1987 the prize was $10,000, and in '88, $25,000, but no one won in either year. So in '89 the station increased the booty to $50,000, and what happened? Three players—Lloyd Moseby, Pat Borders and Junior Felix—have hit homers with the bags full in the right innings. That's $150,000—a lot of groceries.
On July 26, Phillie first baseman Von Hayes came up in the ninth with his team trailing the Expos 3-2 and hit a towering fly to right. Outfielder Hubie Brooks went back, back, back to the wall, leapt into the air and...the ball vanished. Brooks checked his glove. It wasn't there. He checked the stands. It wasn't there, either. The umpire told him that if he couldn't find the ball, it must be a homer. But Brooks wasn't satisfied. Finally, he ripped down the sign on the rightfield fence that celebrated the Expos' 1981 National League East title, and the ball popped out—ground rule double. The Phillies went on to win, 4-3.
TORONTO'S K POWER
Though 18 Blue Jay batters struck out, Toronto still beat Texas 4-0 on July 25. In the first inning, outfielder George Bell whiffed, but the ball got away from Rangers catcher Chad Kreuter and Junior Felix scored from third. After the victory, Toronto pitcher Mike Flanagan said, "Our problem has been that we haven't been striking out enough. We've obviously been making too much contact. The strikeout RBI is something we've been working on."
How far have the Yankees fallen? Well, last week they couldn't get a hotel room in downtown Cleveland and were forced to stay at the Westlake Holiday Inn, 12 miles from Cleveland Stadium. Quipped pitcher Dave LaPoint, "One of the guys got in a cab and said, 'Take me to the ballpark.' And the cabbie said, 'Which one? Pittsburgh, Detroit or Cleveland? They're all the same distance.' "
IT'S A PRETTY GOOD BET
When reporters asked pitcher Walt Terrell how he felt about being traded from the Padres to the Yankees last week after only four months with San Diego, he replied, "My family just got here, and we'd only been to Sea World. The kids are pretty upset. We never had a chance to go anywhere else, like the San Diego Zoo. Maybe now we can go to the Bronx Zoo."
•San Francisco slugger Kevin Mitchell, who leads the majors in home runs with 33, hit one homer per 16 at bats in April, one per 10.89 in May, one per 8.9 in June and one per 8.88 in July.
•Shortstop Juan Bell, who came over to the Orioles from L.A. in the Eddie Murray trade, has 30 errors for Rochester, one fewer than the entire Baltimore infield of first basemen Jim Traber (1) and Randy Milligan (2), second baseman Bill Ripken (8), shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. (6) and third baseman Craig Worthington (14).