There's a new baseball fever: don't catch it. Or, to put it another way, if to err is human, then there are some beautiful human beings in the majors this year. One of them is Mark Lewis, the Cleveland Indians' second-year shortstop, who had 13 errors as of Sunday, giving him three more than all the Toronto Blue Jays combined and putting him on a pace for 64 miscues this season. That would easily surpass the 44 that shortstop Robin Yount had for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1975, which, in turn, was the most by any player since '51. Philadelphia Phillie rookie shortstop Kim Batiste made four errors in a game on April 17, which was two less than Larry Bowa made all season when he was the Phillies' shortstop in 79.
The blunderful play of Batiste and Lewis can be explained away by their relative inexperience, but what about the 10 errors by the California Angels' third baseman, 12-year veteran Gary Gaetti? Even the great Ozzie Smith seems to have the bug; with four errors at week's end, the St. Louis Cardinals' shortstop had already used up half of his 1991 quota.
But at least the aforementioned guys had kept their fielding percentage above .800. With four errors in eight chances, Boston Red Sox starter Matt Young had a fielding percentage that made any ball hit to him a 50-50 proposition. If Young keeps this up, the post-1900 record for errors by a pitcher, 17 by Eustace J. (Doc) Newton in 1901, will be in jeopardy, as will the fans sitting along the first base line in Fenway Park. Also making erroneous assaults on the record book this season (chart, page 50) have been San Diego Padres catcher Benito Santiago (six errors) and Montreal Expo second baseman Delino DeShields (eight).
And these are not just isolated cases of flubitis; whole teams have succumbed. The club playing with the greatest of E's has been the Indians, who had 37 in 33 games. The Tribe could become the first club to average more than one error a game since the 1986 Los Angeles Dodgers had 181. But right behind the Indians, matching them gaffe for gaffe, have been the Kansas City Royals (35 in 30 games) and the Angels (33 in 31 games). If those totals aren't scary enough, just think about this: Next year we'll be watching the bobble-handed dolls of the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins.
Jeff Schaefer, shortstop for the Seattle Mariners, has detected definite defensive slippage. "There are so many errors this season it's amazing," he says. "Maybe the baseball gods don't want defense this year. Cal Ripken making two errors in one game? Ozzie Smith has four? Give me a break." Or give him a bigger glove. Schaefer, who had six errors last season, already had five this year.
Davey Nelson, the Indians' outfield coach, has also noticed a difference this year. "The first thing I look for in the box scores are the errors, and to me there seem to be more."
There are. As of Sunday there were 642 errors in 398 games, or 1.61 a game. Through the same point last season there were 593 errors in 402 games (1.48 a game), which means that errors were up 8.3% this year; in the last 10 seasons error totals have never changed by more than 5% from one year to the next.
And this has occurred despite what are generally agreed to be the lax standards of most official scorers nowadays. Says broadcaster Tony Kubek, a former New York Yankee shortstop, "Scoring is much more generous than it was in my day. If there's any question, it's usually scored a hit. That's what makes all these errors so frightening."
How do they flub D? Let us count the ways. Here's a sampling from last week:
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Monday, May 4, the Royals beat the Indians 11-6 despite giving away four runs on a misplayed bunt, a passed ball by catcher Mike Macfarlane and a ground ball that went off the glove of third baseman Greg Jefferies‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üand was rather leniently scored a hit.
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Tuesday both the New York Mets and Yankees lost, and each team gave up four unearned runs.
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Wednesday the Atlanta Braves were on the verge of beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 3-2 in the 13th inning when second baseman Mark Lemke and rightfielder Dave Justice let a routine fly ball for the third out fall between them. (When Lemke tried to rehash the mistake in the dugout after the inning, television cameras looked in as a petulant Justice performed a mime entitled Man with an Attitude.) The Pirates eventually won 4-3 in the 16th after Braves leftfielder Ron Gant misplayed a single into a triple.
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Thursday the Indians went around the horn as first baseman Paul Sorrento (missed ground ball), second baseman Carlos Baerga (missed pop-up), shortstop Lewis (dropped throw) and third baseman Brook Jacoby (missed grounder) made errors in an 8-7 win over the Texas Rangers.
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Friday the Royals beat the Red Sox 2-1 despite the sixth error of the season by Jefferies and the fifth by second baseman Keith Miller. But then, both of the Kansas City runs came as a direct result of Boston errors.
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Saturday Los Angeles Dodger second baseman Lenny Harris hobbled a two-out grounder with the score tied 2-2 in the ninth inning of a game with the Mets. The next batter, Dave Magadan, hit a decisive three-run homer.
‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨¬¢On Sunday the Chicago Cubs made three errors in a 6-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, two of them by third baseman Doug Strange, who has made four errors in nine games since being called up on April 29. That's right: Strange glove.
If any one play has come to symbolize fielding ineptitude this season, it would be the one made in the eighth inning of the Royals' game with the Blue Jays on April 24. With two outs, Toronto's Roberto Alomar on second and the score tied 3-3, Kansas City reliever Rusty Meacham struck out Dave Winfield. However, Macfarlane let the pitch get away from him, and when Winfield ran to first, Macfarlane threw the ball into rightfield. As Winfield tried for second, rightfielder Jim Eisenreich's throw hit him in the back and bounced into shallow left center, allowing the strikeout victim to go to third. In the meantime Alomar had scored what proved to be the winning run.
So why this Field of Nightmares? Schaefer can't figure it. "I see I've made five errors already, and I know that's not me," he says. "Heck, my mom calls and wants me to explain the errors."
As a belated Mother's Day present for Schaefer's mom, we have assembled a variety of explanations, some of which actually make sense. There is no definitive answer for the increase, so feel free to pick the ones you like. Just pick 'em better than the fielders do.
Astrological. "If there are more errors," says Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, "it's because Mars is aligned with Saturn."
Meteorological. "Cold weather has had a lot to do with it," says Pirate infielder instructor Tommy Sandt. "I think it's been colder than usual this year. Players don't move as well in the cold and don't concentrate as well, and defense is 95 percent concentration."
Psychological. According to Reds general manager Bob Quinn. the proliferation of highlight tapes has given fielders a subconscious fear: "Players have seen the replays of that collision in Baltimore and Ozzie Guillen getting hurt and Barry Larkin running into Glenn Braggs. When you see enough players run into each other on pop flies, you start thinking, This can be hazardous to your health." Go ahead, blame it on Baseball Tonight.
Sociological. Cub coach and former Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn has this theory: "We live in a careless society. We are not as thorough, as detail-oriented as we used to be. There is an acceptance of mistakes now. It's the feeling that. Hey, everybody makes mistakes. It's hard to take baseball out of the context of the time frame in which we live. It's all part of our socioeconomic structure." Detroit Tiger manager Sparky Anderson says much the same thing.
Physiological. Says Seattle first baseman Pete O'Brien, "With a hundred-some-odd guys out with injuries, there are lots of players playing out of position.' " Example: On April 26, because of injuries to five players, the Mets had to start catcher Mackey Sasser in left, third baseman Chris Donnels at second and second baseman Junior Noboa at shortstop (and Junior, quite frankly, is NoBowa at short).
Illogical. Cardinals manager Joe Torre surmises, "Maybe they're using those Gold Gloves that Rawlings hands out. I won the Gold Glove as a catcher one year, and I used it the next year. I had 11 passed balls and 12 errors. Too many coats of gold paint on them, I guess."
Need more reasons? Consider these:
The Best Offense. Branch Rickey believed in putting the best possible athletes out on the field, regardless of position, and the Dodgers have always followed that tenet. Because the Dodgers win, other teams have subscribed to Rickeyism. The Mets last year had Howard Johnson, previously a third baseman, at shortstop. Greg Jefferies (third baseman) at second base and Vince Coleman (leftfielder) in center, and the results of having three fish out of water in three up-the-middle positions were disastrous. The Royals traded for three Mets in the off-season‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√ÜJefferies, second baseman Miller and leftfielder Kevin McReynolds‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üand also acquired the Mets' defensive disregard. They put Miller in left and McReynolds in right, and only lately have they restored these players to their more natural positions. Similarly, the Expos wanted to get second baseman Bret Barberie, a promising hitter, into their lineup, but instead of leaving Tim Wallach at third, where he had won three Gold Gloves, and giving first base to Barberie, they made Wallach a first baseman and Barberie a third baseman. That explains the butchery of Barberie, who had eight errors in his first 24 games. On the other hand, this theory does not explain why Craig Biggio, moved from catcher to second base by the Houston Astros, had only two errors.
Hurry, Hurry. Bill Doran, the Reds' second baseman, attributes the rash of errors to the dash of runners: "Look at the lineups nowadays, and there's more team speed. I think that puts a lot more pressure on an infielder to hurry. If I had to come up with one thing, I'd say speed has people rushing."
Money, Money, Money. Harold Reynolds, the Mariners' second baseman, says, "You are picked for the All-Star Game because you're hitting .300. You get a million-dollar raise because you hit 20 home runs. Guys know if they hit, they are going to make a lot of money.' " The Mets' Howard Johnson, who has had almost as many positions as his namesake has flavors, says, "The older guys take defense more seriously. The new guys just want to hit." Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly puts it another way: "It probably starts in Little League, the emphasis on offensive stats. Guys will take a half hour of batting practice, but how many times will they take a half hour of extra ground balls? Players look at defense the same way basketball players in the NBA do‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üit's something you do after you score."
Errant Boys. Players are being brought up to the bigs much sooner than they used to be, either to save money or to juice up offense. "Too many guys are learning to play the game at the major league level," says Expo special consultant Jim Fanning. "They don't have enough games in the minor leagues or get enough hands-on instruction in college to be fundamentally sound." There is a preponderance of young shortstops: Lewis, Batiste, the Angels' Gary DiSarcina, the Astros' Andujar Cedeno, the San Francisco Giants" Royce Clayton and the Dodgers' Jose Offerman, of whom it has been said, "That's Offerman with two F's and about 40 E's." Either they'll settle down, or they'll give way to a new generation. Be on the lookout‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üespecially if you're sitting along the first base line‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üfor Mariano Dotel, a shortstop in the Blue Jays' organization. He had 60 errors in 122 games last year in Class A ball.
The Curse of Genius. Managers try to outsmart each other with lefty-righty matchups and double switches and end up outsmarting themselves by putting a bad defensive team on the field. "Managers change lineups so often," says Reynolds. "They look at the stats and see a certain guy is hitting such and such against a certain pitcher, and the last thing they think about is defense."
There's no one answer, of course, as to why baseball seems to be embarking on an era of the error. But there is one lesson in all this, and you would have thought by now that teams would have learned it. Baseball's biggest turnarounds in recent years‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üthe 1989 Orioles and the 1991 Braves and Minnesota Twins‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üwere predicated on improved defense. The four division leaders as of Sunday, the Pirates, the Reds, the Blue Jays and the Oakland Athletics, are all considered sound deefensive teems.
Uh-oh. It's catching.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Centerfielder Johnson is one of many major leaguers trying to grasp a new position.
RONALD C. MODRA
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RONALD C. MODRA
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Offerman‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Üwith an E‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö√Ülaunched a seat-seeking missile that L.A. first baseman Eric Karros could only watch fly by.
DAVID LIAM KYLE
Lewis (right) has erred often (13 E's), but catcher turned second baseman Biggio has fared better (only two).
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