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Original Issue

A View from the Treetops

Reggie Jackson, in his guise as a television commentator, was observing the American League's leading hitter take his cuts in the batting cage before a game last Friday between the A's and the Orioles. "Look how relaxed he looks," the Mr. October of yesteryear remarked. "He's just letting the river flow, letting the good things happen and hitting his .350." Listening to Jackson carry on, one half expected to espy the incarnation of Ted Williams in that cage. But, no, the hitter was Mike Bordick (below), the Athletics' 26-year-old shortstop.

A second look seemed to restore Jackson to the real world. "Hey, with the breaks, this kid could end up hitting .260," he said. "But I'll say this for him, he's such a good guy, you root for him even if you're playing against him."

He's right about that. Bordick is a good guy—humble about his unexpected success, ultimately just happy to be playing with the big fellas. But through Sunday he was also hitting "his .350" after 49 games and, for the moment at least, leaving all the Boggses, Pucketts, Thomases and Molitors in his unobtrusive wake.

If Oakland shortstop Walt Weiss was healthy—something he hasn't been since he was the 1988 American League Rookie of the Year—Bordick would either be sitting on the bench or trying to dislodge his good friend Lance Blankenship from the second baseman's job. But Weiss, who has missed much of the last three seasons with various maladies, pulled a muscle on the left side of his rib cage during spring training and has been on the disabled list ever since. So Bordick has been Oakland's starting shortstop since Opening Day and has been taking American League pitching apart since.

Bordick certainly was not burdened with great expectations coming into the season. He wasn't even drafted after he hit .365 in his junior season at the University of Maine in 1986, but that may well be because he hit only .201 as a freshman. He was signed as a free agent by the A's in the summer of '86 after scouts spotted him playing in the collegiate Cape Cod League. Predictably the scouts had come to look at someone else.

After two respectable seasons in the low minors, Bordick seemed to hit his stride at Double A Huntsville, Ala., where his manager, Tommie Reynolds, told him he should learn to play more than one position if he ever expected to advance beyond the bushes. "I thought he could make it as a utilityman, because he has good hands," says Reynolds, now an Oakland coach. Bordick hit above .300 for several months before, as Reynolds puts it, "the heat and his own intensity wore him down," and-he finished at .270.

In his next two seasons at Triple A Tacoma, Wash., Bordick slumped to .240 and then .227. But the A's, always in need of infield replacements because of Weiss's fragility, called Bordick up for a short spell in 1990. Then when Weiss tore a ligament in his left ankle on June 6 last year, Oakland had little choice but to finish out the season with Bordick at short. Bordick hit a measly .238 in 90 games.

Early in spring training of this year, A's hitting coach Doug Rader, noticing that Bordick shifted every which way in the batter's box, asked him how he had stood at the plate in his best minor league season. Bordick immediately demonstrated the wide-spread stance he first employed at Huntsville. "Use that one," Rader curtly suggested.

As if on command, the weak-hitting Bordick began spraying line drives all over Arizona and emerged as a front-runner for the second base job left vacant when Mike Gallego signed with the Yankees last winter. Then the valetudinary Weiss went down again. "Suddenly," says Blankenship, who himself was hitting a solid .271 at week's end, "we [he and Bordick] were the only middle infielders around."

How long this tandem will remain intact is hard to say because Weiss should return soon. Then what? Does manager Tony La Russa bench the league's top hitter? Or does he bench Blankenship, who through Sunday had made only one error at second?

Bordick is prepared for any eventuality. But he feels secure enough of his ability that he has just bought a home on 17 acres in rural Maine, where he and his bride-to-be, Monica Perry, will move after their Nov. 28 wedding. Meanwhile, he's savoring each second of his newfound acclaim. "In my wildest dreams I never imagined I'd be leading the league in hitting," he says. "I'm still up there in a tree somewhere. Please don't anyone shake me down."