Baron von Bloop
Birmingham Baron rightfielder Michael Jordan has found that hitting a baseball isn't a whole lot easier at the Double A level—where the stadium light is usually terrible for night games and the pitchers throw hard but are wild—than in the majors. In Jordan's first official professional game, last Friday against the Chattanooga Lookouts, he went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts. The next night he was hitless in four at bats and struck out three more times. On Sunday he finally got on the board with a pair of bloop singles in four at bats.
"You watch the game, and it looks easy—you don't know that baseball players are athletes," he said. "Going through what I've gone through gives me a different appreciation for the game. Baseball players are athletes even though they have [big] guts."
Jordan developed a greater appreciation for another aspect of baseball on Friday night: the brushback pitch. In the fourth inning, with two outs and a man on third, Chattanooga's John Courtright threw a fastball high and tight that backed a stumbling Jordan off the plate. After a chorus of boos from the crowd, Jordan stepped back in the box and, four pitches later, struck out swinging. "He was trying to get me in an attack mode, get me more aggressive so that I would go after anything from that point on," Jordan said later. "As the rookie I am, I fell for the trick."
For his part, Courtright, 23, was a lot less analytical. "I lost control of it," Court-right said. "He probably thought, What's that young punk trying to do to me?"
While Jordan may not have contributed much to prevent the Barons from getting off to an 0-4 start, he certainly is stimulating fan interest in the Southern League. All games involving the Barons in the league's nine other cities are sure to be sellouts. In fact some fans are buying season tickets to guarantee that they will get a look at Jordan whenever the Barons come to town. According to Greenville (S.C.) Brave general manager Steve DeSalvo, "People are willing to spend $272 per seat just to get three games' worth of tickets. People are just going crazy."
The first batter of 1994, Ray Lankford of the Cardinals, hit a home run. "Maybe that set the tone for the season," says Expo pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Absolutely. Get the record books ready, folks, and bring your glove if you're sitting in the bleachers. This looks like it's going to be an offensive year to surpass 1993, which was one of the best hitting seasons in history. The signs:
•Following a spring training in which home runs were hit at an alarming rate, a total of 186 homers were clubbed in 79 games in the first week of the season. That's 58 more than were hit in the first week (80 games) last year. A 29-year-old rookie, infielder Keith Lockhart of the Padres, even got into the act, hitting two homers in his first major league start.
•At week's end 12 teams had an unsettled situation at closer. On April 4 alone, six leads were blown in the eighth inning or later. The next day the Reds lost bullpen ace Rob Dibble for three months with a rotator cuff injury, and the Giants lost Rod Beck for at least two weeks when he was hit by a grounder that broke a bone in his left foot. And in his debut with the Astros, a 34-pitch, one-inning stint against the Expos, Mitch Williams gave up two runs on two hits and three walks (including two with the bases loaded). One scout says Wild Thing couldn't have been throwing harder than 80 mph—and Williams is supposedly healthy.
•The Rocky pitching staff, which had a major league-high 5.41 ERA last year, now looks even worse. On Opening Day, Colorado blew a 6-4 lead against the Phillies by allowing eight runs on two hits in a 53-pitch eighth inning. In all it took six Rocky relievers to get the final nine outs—during which they gave up 10 runs, walked eight, struck out one and threw a wild pitch. In the three-game series against Philly, Colorado yielded 32 runs and rang up a staff ERA of 8.33.
•The Twins' staff, which had a 4.71 ERA last year, looks as bad as the Rockies'. Seven minutes into the season opener, the fans at the Metrodome were booing as Minnesota fell behind the Angels 2-0 in the first inning. The Twins allowed 55 runs in their first six games.
•In 1993 four pitchers surpassed club records for the highest ERA in a season (150 innings minimum): Jack Morris, 6.19 with the Jays; Rick Sutcliffe, 5.75 with the Orioles; Jaime Navarro, 5.33 with the Brewers; and Tim Pugh, 5.26 with the Reds. Yet this year Morris is the Indians' No. 3 starter, Sutcliffe is the Cardinals'
No. 5, Navarro is Milwaukee's No. 3 and Pugh is Cincinnati's No. 5.
•This year the 28 pitchers who started the season openers had a combined 5.15 ERA in those games. Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, a three-time Cy Young winner, was rocked for eight runs in 4⅖ innings by the Tigers, the most runs he has allowed since May 18, 1991.
•Boston, supposedly a weak-hitting team, opened the season with four straight wins in which it averaged nearly eight runs a game. The Brewers, another team that wasn't supposed to have much punch, scored in double figures in their first two games. Milwaukee didn't score in double digits in back-to-back games all last year.
"A ton of runs are going to be scored this year," said Expo first baseman Randy Milligan.
Make that two tons.
The famous facial contortions of the Rangers' new gung ho first baseman Will Clark have been more prevalent than ever this spring. "That's his [normal] face," says Ranger infielder Bill Ripken. "I've seen that face when he's eating a sandwich."
...All-Released Team from this spring: C, Greg Olson, Mets; 1B, Glenn Davis, Mets; 2B, Torey Lovullo, Angels; 3B, Skeeter Barnes, Tigers; SS, Juan Bell, Brewers; OF, Ron Gant, Braves; OF, Chris Gwynn, Royals; OF, Carlos Quintana, Red Sox; DH, Kevin Maas, Yankees; RHP, Rich DeLucia, Mariners; LHP, Frank Tanana, Angels....
Last Friday marked the 20th anniversary of the night Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth's career record. Former Brave pitcher Tom House, then 26, caught the historic home run ball in the Atlanta bullpen, but how did he come to be in the right spot? Everyone in the bullpen was assigned to a station along the outfield fence that night, starting at the leftfield foul line and moving toward centerfield. The veterans got what were thought to be the prime spots near the leftfield foul pole—because Aaron yanked a lot of homers down that line. "I didn't think I had a chance," says House, who was the last man in the line toward center. "But I didn't even have to move. I just reached up and caught it."
...The Dodgers did not get a 10-strikeout game from a pitcher in 1993, but they got three in a row last week from Ramon Martinez (10), Pedro Astacio (11) and Kevin Gross (11)—and still lost all three games.
Jordan might have felt more at home trying to put a basketball, rather than a batted ball, through the hoop on an outfield billboard.
Clark's new Ranger teammates are getting a good look at his ever-present game face.
Between the Lines
Third World. On April 6 the Tigers' 250-pound first baseman, Cecil Fielder, chugged into third base at Fenway Park for his first triple since Aug. 31, 1990—a streak of 1,909 at bats without a three-bagger. "I was cruising," he said. During the time Fielder was pacing himself between triples, Lance Johnson of the White Sox hit 41 of them.
Wild Blue Yonder. Blue Jay G.M. Pat Gillick, 56, says he's sticking to his plan to retire after this season. "He wants to take flying lessons," Brave manager Bobby Cox, a good friend, says with a laugh. "I can't see him up in a cockpit. In a car he's the worst driver I've ever seen."
Two Of a Kind. A.J. Van Slyke, the 10-year-old son of Pirate centerfielder Andy, says he wants to be an architect but adds, "First, I want to be a baseball player. There's so much time to sit around and play cards."