Baseball's Best Building Block
The argument has been fought in ballparks, barbershops and bars since the days of the Babe. If you were starting a baseball team, who's the first player you would take? We posed the question to baseball's general managers and got an astonishingly consistent response. We heard from 11 American League teams and 11 National League teams but got 26 votes because four general managers couldn't pick just one player. The runaway winner was Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who was named on nine ballots. He was followed by Mariners centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who got five votes, and Pirate outfielder Barry Bonds and Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett, who both got two.
Larkin, 27, did especially well with the people who see him play the most. He was the selection of seven National League general managers. Said one, "There are two or three positions that you think of primarily: shortstop, catcher and maybe centerfield. Having said that, and considering youth and performance, it's Larkin. And he just keeps getting better." At week's end Larkin was batting .300 with 17 homers, 51 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.
Said another National League voter, "Larkin is a great fielder, a great hitter and has speed. I don't think you could go wrong with him. So much happens in the middle of the diamond, shortstop is a good place to start. It would be difficult to select a pitcher because he only goes every four or five days."
Said one American League general manager about Griffey, "He can run and throw, hit, and hit for power, and he's also still young. And the fact that he gets voted onto the All-Star team from Seattle is astounding."
But Griffey, 21, has his detractors. One American League manager marveled at his ability, but said, "I hate him. If he did some of the things he does 20 years ago, he would have been hit in the head five times by now." The manager added that Griffey is too much of a hot dog and doesn't always run hard on routine groundouts. A columnist for the Seattle Times alluded to those charges in a piece he wrote during the All-Star break and challenged Griffey to be the best player he can be. Since then Griffey has been a terror, hitting .413 with four homers and 24 RBIs to raise his season totals to .309, 13 and 60.
Among those who got one vote were the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez, 21, whose supporter said, "He looks like he's made the adjustments in his first year and will only get better. He's hitting the breaking ball the second time around. He has power, he'll start stealing bases, and his defense will only get better. He'll be like [teammate Ruben] Sierra, only better."
Texas catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, who has been in the major leagues for only six weeks, also got one vote, from an American League general manager, who said, "You need strength up the middle, and good catchers are more difficult to find than any other position. And he's only 19."
The same logic applied to Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., 25, who was picked by a National Leaguer, who said, "If you're building a franchise, what better place to start than with the best all-around young catcher in the game? He has a reputation as being a leader. He has power potential, and he can shut down the running game."
Relievers in Need of Relief
Last season was the year of the closer. This one has been the year of the clobbered closer. In 1990 teams came from behind to win 98 games in their final at bat, in the bottom of the eighth or later. At week's end, teams had already won 87 such games, and, as a result, a lot of closers have lost their jobs. The Cubs' Dave Smith has been replaced by Paul Assenmacher, the Reds' Randy Myers by Rob Dibble, the Expos' Tim Burke by Barry Jones and the Indians' Doug Jones by Shawn Hillegas. Two weeks ago Jones, who had saved 112 games in the three previous seasons while blowing only 23 save opportunities, was demoted to Triple A Colorado Springs. He was 1-7 with a 7.47 ERA and had blown five of 11 opportunities.
Red Sox closer Jeff Reardon, whose 25 saves through Sunday make him the only pitcher ever to save 20 games in 10 straight years, defends his bullpen brethren. "Guys are getting more chances for saves, so they're getting more blown saves," he says. "Everyone's trying to get 40 to 50 saves, as [Dennis] Eckersley and [Bobby] Thigpen did last year. But what Eck did last year with two blown saves [out of 50] is unheard of. We won't see that again. I remember when three out of four was good, but saving 30 out of 40 wasn't considered good last year. If you go back four years, there was no such thing as a blown save. Or, you were never reminded of it. But now you always hear about it."
Three days after saying that, Reardon gave up a game-tying ninth-inning homer to Robin Ventura in a 14-inning 10-8 loss to the White Sox. At week's end Thipgen and Eckersley had both allowed eight late inning home runs. In 1990 Eckersley permitted only nine runs. Equally remarkable, Eck has blown three saves this year against the Indians, the worst team in baseball.
Woes of the O's
Baltimore has a lot of unhappy people in its organization, and not just because the team was 16½ games out of first place at week's end. The unrest can be blamed mostly on owner Eli Jacobs, whose cold, impersonal manner and stringent cost-cutting measures have had a demoralizing effect. Lack of communication has hurt too. When Jacobs leaked a story to the press that he intended to sell the team, he hadn't yet told club president Larry Lucchino, who owns a small percentage of the Orioles.
Associates say Jacobs's primary reason for buying the O's in 1989 was to make money—which he has, thanks to Baltimore's loyal fans. Now Jacobs wants to sell, and he should make a financial haul because the team's value will increase when it moves into a new stadium in 1992.
The front office is in confusion, however, with one general manager and two other hopeful general managers. It's puzzling why G.M. Roland Hemond, 61, was suddenly given a two-year extension in June when few believe he's the man who can turn the team around. Assistant general manager Doug Melvin, 39, groomed as Hemond's successor for three years, now will have to wait two more years, and club sources say he's tired of waiting. Melvin is a candidate for the general manager job with the expansion Florida Marlins. Then there's Frank Robinson, who was kicked upstairs to become the team's second assistant G.M. after being fired as manager on May 23. He, too, wants to be the general manager. Robinson is one of the Orioles' top talent evaluators, but with Hemond and Melvin around, the office is already a little crowded.
One of the most powerful people in baseball is agent Scott Boras. Boras, 39, represents 57 players, 35 of them major leaguers, including Sandy Alomar Jr., Benito Santiago, Ben McDonald, Jay Bell, Ivan Rodriguez and Bernie Williams. Boras has proved himself to be a tough negotiator and has altered the way baseball's top draft picks are compensated.
As a result he's not well liked among major league general managers. This summer Boras is advising the first four pitchers selected in the June amateur draft: Brien Taylor (the first pick overall, Yankees), Kenny Henderson (fifth pick, Brewers), John Burke (sixth, Astros) and Joey Hamilton (eighth, Padres). None has signed, and the Yankees' negotiations with Taylor have become acrimonious.
Boras has advised or represented three of the last four No. 1 draft choices, all of whom are pitchers: San Diego's Andy Benes (1988), Baltimore's Ben McDonald ('89) and Taylor. Boras helped McDonald obtain the largest signing bonus—$350,000 of a $1.1 million deal over three years—ever given to a draft pick. The agent then topped that feat last year when he helped Todd Van Poppel sign a $1.2 million, three-year deal (including a $500,000 bonus) with Oakland. Boras thinks Taylor is worth a similar amount.
Says Boras, "In today's world, when you're paying $2 million a year to Tim Leary or $2.5 million to Mike Witt, you're telling me you can't risk $1.4 million or $1.2 million for the No. 1 draft pick in the nation over a three-year period? Can you turn down a talent that could be a franchise player?"
Boras says the Yankees and Taylor's mother, Bettie, are talking by phone but that New York's best offer is a $650,000, one-year deal. The Yankees, who may be feeling pressure from other teams to hold firm, claim Van Poppel's contract was unique because he had said that he intended to go to the University of Texas. Should Taylor not sign, he will go to Louisburg (N.C.) College.
Who is the hardest thrower in baseball? Most agree it's Cincinnati's Rob Dibble, who is regularly clocked in the mid to upper 90's. However, after watching Houston reliever Dwayne Henry strike out six batters in two innings on July 26, Pittsburgh shortstop Jay Bell said Henry "throws as hard as Dibble, maybe harder." The other Pirates within earshot agreed. Henry, 29, signed with the Astros as a free agent last winter. Injuries and uninspired pitching had made him a big disappointment to the Rangers, who drafted him in 1980. "Now I'm getting a chance to pitch," says Henry, who was 2-0 with a 2.95 ERA through Sunday.
There are whispers in the Boston clubhouse about hitting coach Richie Hebner not being a strong, positive communicator. A few players have said they wished the team had hired Terry Crowley, who was the club's roving minor league hitting instructor for two years. Crowley left the Red Sox at the end of last season to become the batting coach in Minnesota, which has gone from being a mediocre hitting team in 1990 to the one with the highest average (.281 through Sunday) in the majors....
Assuming they use him correctly, the Dodgers made a terrific deal when they picked up reliever Roger McDowell from the Phillies just before the July 31 trading deadline. McDowell, 30, is very effective against righthanded hitters but struggles against lefthanders. For some reason, though, Philadelphia brought him in to face lefthanded hitters 13 times this year. McDowell also gives L.A. some insurance if Jay Howell leaves as a free agent after the season....
The Dodgers promoted Pedro Martinez, the younger brother of L.A. star pitcher Ramon Martinez, from Double A San Antonio to Triple A Albuquerque. He started the season in A ball at Bakersfield.
BETWEEN THE LINES
•Summit of Stars
Pitchers Dave Stewart of the A's and Roger Clemens of the Red Sox have sparred verbally a number of times in the last few years, often over who was more deserving of the Cy Young Award. Last week the two were interviewed together before a game at Fenway Park by a Boston TV station. Afterward, they sat in the stands and talked for 20 minutes. "We talked about baseball, conditioning, community, family," said Stewart. "I had never really talked to him before. It was great. We're a lot alike. It was one of the more exciting moments I've had since I started playing."
•One Valle That's Low
There's a bar in Seattle called Swannies. Every Tuesday night, from 7:00 till midnight, some drinks sell for whatever Mariners catcher Dave Valle is hitting that day. The prices are right because, through Sunday, Valle was batting. 154 and threatening to become only the second player this century to hit less than .150 in 300 or more at bats. (Brooklyn Dodger catcher Bill Bergen hit .139 in 1909.) "We're just doing it to kick him in the butt and make him do a better job," says Robert Howery, a bartender at Swannies. "It's in fun. Dave knows the owner. In the last week, his average has gone up a couple of points, hasn't it?"
The Red Sox were considering trading first baseman Carlos Quintana to the Mariners for reliever Mike Jackson but reconsidered last week after Quintana became the first American League player to drive in six runs in an inning since the Washington Senators' Jim Lemon did it in 1959. The key blow for Quintana was a grand slam off Oil Can Boyd, who spent eight stormy years in Boston before signing with Montreal in 1989 and then getting traded to Texas two weeks ago. After losing to his former teammates for the second time in a week, Boyd said, "For me to get traded and have to make my first two starts against the Boston Red Sox, God must hate me."
•But How Would He Do Against the Whammer?
Lefthanded pitcher Chris Pollack, a Double A All-Star for the Expos' farm team in Harrisburg, Pa., is the nephew of director Sydney Pollack and the son of Bernie Pollack, a well-known Hollywood costume designer. Over the years Chris has been on the set for the shooting of a number of movies, including The Natural. Robert Redford, a close friend of the family's for 15 years, gave Chris the Wonderboy bat from the movie. Says Pollack, "It's signed, 'To Chris, this bat is impervious to your pitching—Robert Redford/Roy Hobbs.' "
•Cooperstown Is Out, Mayberry Is In
In a pregame ceremony at the Astrodome on July 26, Houston pitcher Jim Deshaies was made an honorary citizen of Mayberry, Texas, by a local chapter of fans of the o\d Andy Griffith Show. Deshaies is from Massena, N.Y., the same hometown as Hal Smith, who played the town drunk, Otis Campbell, on the show. Deshaies, who has autographed pictures of Otis in his locker, said a Barney Fife look-alike was on hand for the ceremony, wearing his full deputy's uniform, and added, "I even got one of Aunt Bee's cookbooks. It was a special night."
•By the Numbers
•The Cardinals have eight players with 10 or more stolen bases, and two others with five or more. The last team that had nine players with 10 or more steals was the 1917 White Sox.