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Original Issue

Leaning to The Lefties


There are but two certainties in the National League East in 1993. One, when you call for "Oz" in the clubhouse of the ST. LOUIS CARDINALS, someone is sure to answer. (But who? Ozzie Smith? Ozzie Canseco? Tom Pagnozzi? Donovan Osborne?). And two, some team will answer the call of the mild and win this tepid division. (But which one? Any club is capable, save for Florida's Men of Teal.)

"The top three teams in the West might have a better record than the winner in the East," says Pittsburgh Pirate center-fielder Andy Van Slyke. "If nothing else, parity could make the East the most exciting division to watch. There could be five or six teams contending in September. So what if we all end up around 85 wins? The Kentucky Derby is a race whether the track is wet or dry."

Thus St. Louis can win this divisional derby without improving dramatically upon its 83-79 record of a year ago. Which isn't to say the Cards aren't improved. Centerfielder Ray Lankford is an MVP waiting to happen. He hit .293 with 20 home runs, 86 RBIs and 42 stolen bases last year, which was only his second full season in the majors. Imagine his RBI numbers this season when he moves to the cleanup spot, batting behind newly acquired first baseman Gregg Jefferies.

The Cards will win because of their lefty-intensive rotation, as well. Like Lankford, it goes deep. After righthander Bob Tewksbury (16-5, 2.16 ERA in 1992) comes lefthander Rheal Cormier (7-2 after Aug. 1), followed by lefty Joe Magrane (apparently recovered from elbow and shoulder woes) and then another lefty, Osborne, who was the winningest rookie (11-9, 3.77) in the National League last year. And Lee Smith still closes like a hyperactive real estate agent. On the sodden track of this division, that's enough: The Budweiser Clydesdales can win pulling Ed McMahon in a hansom cab.

Last winter centerfielder Marquis Grissom lost his hearing—his arbitration hearing, thankfully—and said afterward of Montreal, "I was thinking about wanting to play all of my baseball there. But not now." So while they still have Grissom in the lineup with Larry Walker and Moises Alou, fans of the MONTREAL EXPOS should savor this superlatively Stoogean triumvirate: Larry, Mo and Surly constitute the best outfield in the National League. Alas, it is the Expo infield that may leak like the Nixon White House. Platoon third basemen Sean Berry and Frank Bolick, platoon first baseman Greg Colbrunn and shortstop Wil Cordero have a mere 160 games of combined major league experience.

Beyond Dennis Martinez and Ken Hill, the pitching staff is also pockmarked with question marks, which is why Montreal's spring training was a kind of baseball Bas-kin-Robbins, with 31 pitchers in camp.

On the other hand, manager Felipe Alou points out that players finally want to play in Quebec, Grissom's comment notwithstanding. One possible explanation: This young team will contend for years. Another explanation: "I remember when we couldn't wait to go back to the U.S. to go to McDonald's," says the elder Alou. "Now Montreal is full of McDonald's." So which will be a bigger concern for the next commissioner: Collusion or coronary occlusions?

The spring training clubhouse of the PITTSBURGH PIRATES was broken into and plundered on the night of March 7, and the thieves absconded with uniforms and equipment. As players took inventory at their lockers the next morning, catcher Mike LaValliere announced that (sigh) he hadn't lost any weight in the break-in.

Like the barrel around a naked man, Spanky's spare tire is about all the Pirates have left. Division champs for three years running, they've had their roster ransacked the last two winters, and about the only recognizable faces that remain belong to manager Jim Leyland, LaValliere and Andy Van Slyke.

Where have all the powers gone? Barry Bonds is in San Francisco, Doug Drabek is in Houston, and Van Slyke is in discomfort after arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in March. What's less, Gold Glove second baseman Jose Lind is in Kansas City; free-agent signee Alejandro Pena is out for the season after elbow surgery, a $1.35 million bust in the bullpen; and lefthander Zane Smith is recovering from rotator-cuff surgery. That means knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (8-1, 2.15 ERA), who made his major league debut last July 31, is the Pirates' new ace.

Will Wakefield's knuckler bamboozle opponents on his second tour around the league? Wakefield points out that he doesn't know what the pitch will do on any given day, so how will hitters? "It doesn't do the same thing twice," says Wakefield. "I don't know if seeing me more times would help. [Knuckleballer] Charlie Hough's been around for 20 years now."

Or about as long as the entire Pirate roster. There is a rookie at first (Kevin Young), at second (Carlos Garcia) and in leftfield (Al Martin). Martin, the nephew of ex-Oakland Raider Rod Martin, is muscle-bound; alas, he is not playoff-bound. Pittsburgh cannot four-peat. "Garcia, Young and Martin are the future, like Barry and Bobby [Bonilla] and I were once," notes Van Slyke. "But you have to remember, in Barry's first year he hit .223."

The only furor surrounding the NEW YORK METS this spring came over the dismissal of a Port St. Lucie peanut vendor who allegedly fired a bag of nuts that bounced off a customer and then struck a woman in the chest. "I lived for the games," vendor Sean Ostman said later in pleading his case to reporters. Alas, there was incriminating evidence against him: Police recovered the spent shells.

The Mets are still a bit shell-shocked from last season, which began with rape allegations against some players in spring training and ended with a 72-90 record. "We still carry the scars," says manager Jeff Torborg, who isn't carrying much else. He lost 30 pounds in the off-season, as did now wraithlike rightfielder Bobby Bonilla, whose problems last season were too myriad to enumerate here.

"We'll have a good team if we stay healthy," says Torborg. "No team in history had the number of injuries we had last year." Bonilla, outfielders Vince Coleman and Howard Johnson, pitcher Bret Saberhagen and reliever John Franco were all injured in '92. The Mets' annual HoJo-a-Go-Go has Johnson moving back to third base this season, where he says he is more comfortable. That man to his left is shortstop Tony Fernandez, acquired in the San Diego Padres' fire sale.

"This year we have something to prove," says Johnson. "We have to show that we're much better than the way things turned out last year." Which, in a nutshell, is the Mets' problem: They aren't any better than that.

Jim Lefebvre is baseball's first New Age manager. The CHICAGO CUBS do not have coaches, they have hitting and pitching coordinators. After losing Cy Young winner Greg Maddux and the 90 RBIs of Andre Dawson to free agency in the off-season, Lefebvre is not only in deep doo-doo, but in deep denial as well. "Not signing Maddux and Dawson was actually a blessing," he says.

Why? Because it made the Cubs solvent enough to sign Willie Wilson and Candy Maldonado. Lefebvre had better hope that each of those outfielders finds his own inner child, because the outer men will be a combined 71 years old at season's end. But not to worry. "Our team," says Lefebvre, "is solid in so many ways."

Let us count Lefebvre's "blessings": Second baseman Ryne Sandberg missed most of spring training with a broken hand, and Rey Sanchez will start the season at shortstop in place of Shawon Dunston, whose bum back is still bothersome.

Sure, Chicago sutured up its atrocious bullpen by signing lefthanded free-agent relievers Randy Myers and Dan Plesac. And the Cubs added starting pitchers Greg Hibbard and Jose Guzman to a staff that already included the capable Mike Morgan. But the Cubs, who finished 10th in the league in runs scored last season, are overly optimistic to think that a healthy Sammy Sosa, recovered from a broken ankle, will be able to replace Dawson, the club's RBI leader in each of the last three years.

"We had three players last year—Sandberg, Dawson and [first baseman Mark] Grace—so we went out to build a ball club" says Lefebvre. "We got experienced players to go with the talent we've already got." What they got is not a lot.

"A lot of us were embarrassed last year," says first baseman John Kruk of the PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES. "We embarrassed ourselves, the organization and everybody else." And it takes a team as pungent as the '92 Phils to embarrass not only the players and organization, but...everybody else as well.

At first blush the temptation is not to ask how the Phillies finished sixth last season, but to ask how they failed to win the division: Kruk hit .323; catcher Darren Daulton led the league with 109 RBIs; third baseman Dave Hollins hit .270 with 27 homers and 93 RBIs; and starting pitchers Terry Mulholland and Curt Schilling won 13 and 14 games, respectively.

Manager Jim Fregosi's lineup, however, was never etched in stone. "The only three regular players we had were Kruk, Hollins and Daulton," says Mulholland. "Other than that it was a crapshoot."

Injury magnet Lenny Dykstra has said that he will win the National League batting title this season. (He will have to play the full season to do so; Dykstra has played in only 148 games the last two years combined, and none of them in September.) Mulholland, likewise, has high hopes. "I'd like to win two ball games," he says. "Two World Series games."

The reason that won't happen is that the Phils have largely the same roster as they had last season, and last season they won only 70 games even with what may have been career years from several players. Philadelphia's off-season acquisitions—pitcher Danny Jackson, rightfielder Pete Incaviglia—were not only insufficient; they were also infinitesimal. Inky? Dinky.

The FLORIDA MARLINS will be terrible, but also terribly entertaining when you consider that manager Rene Lachemann wears a nicotine patch on his rear end, giving new meaning to the term "cigarette butt"; and that there is a Japanese rock group named for first baseman Orestes Destrade, who played last season for the Seibu Lions; and that centerfielder Chuck Carr referred to his third base coach as Cocoa this spring, even though the Marlins trained in Cocoa and the coach is named Cookie; and that catcher Benito Santiago wears uniform number 09, much like Cincinnati's mascot is Schottzie 02; and that the Marlin mascot, meanwhile, is a furry fillet that walks upright; and that last month on the Marlins' first road trip they shared a hotel with a convention of bagpipers; and that No. 1 starter Charlie Hough took his physical and was told that he was in great shape for a man in his 50's, though Hough is 45; and that TV announcer Joe Angel described one of Hough's more animated knuckle-balls this spring by saying, "The pitch from Hough is high and low."









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