The Hot Corner Turns Tepid
This has been the best of years for some third basemen. San Diego's Gary Sheffield, easily baseball's top player this season, has a serious shot at becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Through Sunday he was leading the National League in hitting (.340) and RBIs (84), and with 25 home runs, was two off the league lead. "I look at him. and I swear I'm looking at Willie Mays or Hank Aaron," says Brave manager Bobby Cox. Sheffield's closest competition for the league's MVP award comes from another third baseman, Atlanta's Terry Pendleton, who won it in 1991.
Oddly enough, though, this has also been the worst of years for a number of leading third basemen. The Cardinals' Todd Zeile, who played more innings than any other National League third baseman last year, was sent on Aug. 10 to Triple A Louisville, where he is trying to regain his swing. The Giants' Matt Williams, regarded as the National League's best third baseman last season, has had a miserable year. Through Sunday his .217 average was the second lowest in the league among batting-title qualifiers, and his .282 on-base average was the second worst in the league as well. The Blue Jays' Kelly Gruber has been slowed by injuries, but even worse, he has had his courage questioned in Toronto. And Wade Boggs of the Red Sox was struggling along at .269 at week's end, 76 points below his lifetime average.
After batting .280 with a team-high 11 home runs and 81 RBIs in '91, Zeile was supposed to be a big contributor for St. Louis. When sent to Louisville, he had five homers and 36 RBIs, and after the All-Star break he had hit only .197 with no extra-base hits. "Obviously, we didn't want to send him down," says Cardinal general manager Dal Maxvill. 'it was a last-resort thing."
Zeile was surprised by the demotion but said, "It's not a death sentence. I'm not dreading it by any means. I've been there before." Zeile will almost certainly be recalled when the big league rosters expand on Sept. 1. "It doesn't matter if he goes nothing for four," says Cardinal manager Joe Torre. "It's like spring training. I told him it was not an exile. He was fighting himself. I want him to stop worrying about his batting average or letting the players down. Just go and work it out."
Williams has also been fighting himself. He went into a slump early in the season and has never really come out of it. It got so bad that from June 23 to 25, when the Giants were shut out in three straight games. Williams took extra batting practice but was told not to swing the bat. He just stood there and watched pitches cross the plate.
As for Gruber, he was the best third baseman in the American League in 1990, hitting 31 homers and driving in 118 runs. In 1991 and '92 combined, he hasn't equaled those numbers. Once the Blue Jays' most valuable and most popular player, he is now being booed by the home fans. He says injuries are the biggest reason for his poor production, but he has had so many that his teammates have wondered aloud about how badly he's hurt. Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston is so disgusted, he recently told Toronto writers, "I'm not talking about that——guy anymore. Go ask the trainers."
Last year Gruber played in 113 games. This season, through Sunday, he had played in only 77 of the Jays' 118 "m games. "He's not one who can play through injuries," says Gaston, "and he's been hurt all year."
Gruber had a knee injury earlier this season and now is playing with a neck injury. "You either fold up or play, and I want to play," he says. "If I feel good one day and terrible three days, at least I had that one day."
As for criticism that he won't play hurt. Gruber says, "No one knows how I feel but me. I just think if you have something to say, be man enough to say it to my face."
The struggling Blue Jays must have Gruber at third to win the American League East. His replacement, Jeff Kent, is a second baseman playing out of position. He has been a productive hitter, but his defense has been well below average. Still, it couldn't have been too encouraging for Gruber to hear his teammate Dave Winfield say recently in a taped interview on the video screen at Fenway Park, "Jeff Kent's been playing well, I mean really well. You've heard of that Wally Pipp story. It might be happening again."
The Future Is Now
A few hours before his team's game against Toronto last Friday, Indian general manager John Hart sat in his office at Cleveland Stadium, smiling. "The ticket line is backed up to the street," he said. "Last night [against Boston], we had 20,000 walk-ups. Things are beginning to happen here."
Finally, Cleveland's youth movement is showing some positive signs. Since May 24, when the Indians were 14-30, they had gone 39-35 through Sunday, the fifth-best record in the American League over that span. Their 17-13 record since the All-Star break was the best in the American League East. "I guarantee they won't finish last," said Baltimore manager John Oates on Aug. 9 after the Indians had taken two out of three from the Orioles at Camden Yards.
At week's end the Indians were still in last place, with a 53-65 record, but just barely. They have a chance to finish as high as fourth, ahead of the Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees. "Fourth would be fantastic," says Hart. "We'll blow by 70 wins. That would be a bit of a barometer. But we're still in the growth mode. This isn't just a young ball club; it's a young and talented club."
The Indians don't have a player who is making $1 million, which is the average salary in baseball today. And with an average age of 26.8, they have the youngest team in the majors. Depending on which nine they start, they have one of the youngest lineups in American League history. Second baseman Carlos Baerga (.316 through Sunday) is a future star. Pitcher Charles Nagy (12-8) is an ace. Albert Belle (23 homers) is one of the league's top power hitters. Center-fielder Kenny Lofton is brilliant defensively and has 39 steals.
Hart is the first to admit "we're not out of the woods yet." Indeed, the Indians are certain to extend their major league record of 23 consecutive seasons without a first-division finish, and they're a good bet to extend their 32-year streak of not finishing within 10 games of first. However, with their promising young players, and a new stadium scheduled to be ready by Opening Day 1994, the Indians' future finally looks bright.
The Me Generation
Lance Johnson of the White Sox had his 25-game hitting streak ended last week, but his time in the spotlight showed what a solid player he has become. In roughly one season's time, since the end of August 1991, he has hit over .300 with 41 steals. all the time playing a terrific centerfield.
However, the spotlight's glare revealed an unflattering side of Johnson too. His streak was halted on an intentional walk from Oakland's Dennis Eckersley. Johnson swung and missed at the third pitch of the walk with the score tied 1-1 in the top of the eighth. Johnson claimed that as a lefthanded batter he was a better bet to drive in a runner at third than the right-handed on-deck batter. Said A's manager Tony La Russa, "To me what he was saying is, not only wouldn't he take a walk—which is bad—but he's saying,...'I've got a streak on the line, so I'm going to swing at a bad pitch.' "
With 20 home runs through Sunday, Toronto's Dave Winfield has a shot at becoming the first 40-year-old player to hit 30 home runs in a season. Ted Williams came the closest, with 29 in 1960, the year he turned 42....
When discussing possible Hall of Famers, don't forget Tiger second baseman Lou Whitaker. He recently became the only second baseman other than Joe Morgan to play 2,000 games, hit 200 homers and collect 2,000 hits....
Look for a major shake-up of the Rangers after this season. They tried to win by outslugging everyone, but that didn't work, so they'll retool, going for more pitching and defense....
The Yankees have a stable of young pitchers who could soon make New York a contender. One is righthander Sam Militello, 22, who recently won his first two big league starts in impressive fashion. Militello is reminiscent of a young Mike Boddicker: good control, lots of breaking balls and a big heart.
While Sheffield (opposite, far left) is making a strong bid for the Triple Crown, two other third basemen, Zeile (top) and Gruber (above), are among this season's most notable flops.
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GENE BOYARS/FOCUS ON SPORTS
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¬¨¬®¬¨¬©THE TOPS COMPANY, INC.
August 18, 1967: The promising career of Boston's Tony Conigliaro is shattered when he is struck in the face with a pitch thrown by the Angels' Jack Hamilton.
Between The Lines
A Comedy of Errors
The Dodgers beat the Reds 4-3 last Thursday despite making six errors. Since 1984 L.A. has had two other six-error games, and it won both of those too. L.A. reliever Roger McDowell was asked if he had ever played for a team that made six errors in a game and won. "Seventh grade," he said. "We beat Gilkey Electric 24-16. If I'm not mistaken, we had eight errors in that game."
Where Have You Gone, Ron Hunt?
Oriole catcher Jeff Tackett was hit in the right shoulder when he got his signals crossed with teammate Ben McDonald. "I thought about charging the mound," said Tackett.
Now, That's Discouraging
In the Braves' 15-0 win over the Pirates last Friday, Atlanta's Otis Nixon and Lonnie Smith each had three hits before Pittsburgh's number-7 hitter, Don Slaught, came to bat for the first time.
Met rookie lefthander Eric Hillman is 6'10", the same height as Seattle's Randy Johnson, who previously held the distinction of being the tallest player in history. Last week, in his first big league start, Hillman pitched eight shutout innings in a 2-0 win over Pittsburgh. Says Pirate coach Rich Donnelly, "He's so tall, he doesn't have a pickoff move to second; he just reaches out and tags the runner."
It's a Dirty Business
Blue Jay/ESPN broadcaster Tommy Hutton has no sympathy for the Astros and their 28-day road trip. Hutton says broadcasting duties kept him on the road for 47 straight days, from June 15 to Aug. 1. His travels included 17 airplane flights and covered 19,800 miles. "And I didn't get $150 in laundry money like the Astros," says Hutton.
By the Numbers
•Last Thursday, A's first baseman Mark McGwire hit two homers in a game for the fifth time this year, which gave him 23 multihomer games for his career. The major league record for multihomer games in a career belongs to Babe Ruth with 72. The single-season mark was set by Hank Greenberg, who had 11 in 1938. McGwire has had at least two homers in a game once every 38.8 outings. Ruth did it once every 34.8, Willie Mays once every 47.5 and Henry Aaron once every 53.2.
•On Sunday the Cardinals set a major league record with their 16th straight errorless game. Over that same span of games the Dodgers committed 25 errors.
•Until last week Met outfielder Vince Coleman had six intentional walks in 990 major league games—and only one since 1988. He was then walked intentionally three times in one game against the Pirates.
•Montreal pitcher Mark Gardner tied a major league record by hitting three St. Louis batters in one inning. The last National League pitcher to plunk three batters in a single inning was Dock Ellis in 1974. Incidentally, in 1966, when Sandy Koufax went 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA in 323 innings, he didn't hit one.