No Babe in the Woods
The impending strike by major league players comes at an especially bad time for several teams, including Kansas City. The Royals had won 14 of their last 16 at week's end, but they insist that they won't lose their momentum even in the event of a long stoppage. "The strike might come at a good time for us," said Royal DH Bob Hamelin last week. "We might be in first place on August 12."
On July 23 that was unthinkable. The Royals were 49-47, 9½ games behind the White Sox in the American League Central and far removed from the wild-card race. But their 14-game winning streak, which ended last Saturday night in an 11-2 loss to Seattle, moved them to within a game of first. The Royals now have the best bullpen in the league (led by closer Jeff Montgomery), they have perhaps the league's best one-two starting-pitching punch (David Cone and Kevin Appier), they have a terrific defense, and they have finally started to hit.
One major contributor to that trend is Hamelin, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. As the successor to George Brett, who retired after last season, Hamelin was hitting .281, with 24 homers (a Royal rookie record) and 64 RBIs through Sunday. Hamelin had the biggest hit of the Royals' season, a three-run homer off the White Sox' Roberto Hernandez in the 12th inning on July 25, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 win. "A homer can give a team an emotional lift," says Hamelin. "It's not just a win; it pumps everyone up. And it can take the steam out of the other team for the rest of a series."
Royal manager Hal McRae says that if his team had lost that game to Chicago, "they would have put toe tags on us." It would have dropped the Royals back to 9½ behind the White Sox: instead, it started a four-game sweep of Chicago and put the winning streak into high gear.
Hamelin, 26, almost missed the start of spring training after injuring his right arm in an arm-wrestling contest in Las Vegas in January. His nickname is the Hammer, but Royal catcher Brent Mayne calls him the Babe because he's 6 feet, weighs 235 and wears number 3. The resemblance was never more striking than on Aug. 3, the night Hamelin broke the club's rookie homer record; wearing a baggy replica of the Kansas City Monarch uniform in honor of the famous Negro leagues team, Hamelin looked positively Ruthian. "How can you not pick number 3 if it's available?" he says. "With a body like this, there's not much of a choice."
Though Hamelin actually has decent speed and is an extremely smart baserunner, the fans love to watch him chug around the bases. "They'd rather see me run than hit," says Hamelin, laughing. "I've got bad running form. I never knew how bad it was until I saw it on the tape. I just try to get all my weight going in one direction."
Hamelin is a baseball junkie. If he isn't playing, he'll go to a high school field and watch a game. He never cared much for football, but his friends played in high school, so he played too—and was offered a full ride to play linebacker at Notre Dame. But he chose baseball, went to UCLA in 1986 and played one season, then went to Rancho Santiago Junior College, in Santa Ana, Calif. The Royals took him in the second round of the June 1988 draft, but it wasn't until Brett retired that Hamelin got his chance.
"He loves baseball," says Mayne. "He loves to hit, and he loves to eat."
Paying the Price
Everyone in baseball has something at stake in a strike, but the following have the most to lose:
•White Sox DH Julio Franco and Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly have played the most games among active players who have never appeared in a postseason game (1,655 and 1,653, respectively, as of Sunday). Now that they finally have a chance to go to the playoffs, it would be a shame if there were no playoffs.
•Astro first baseman Jeff Bagwell, White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas and Indian outfielder Albert Belle all have a shot at the Triple Crown, which no player has won since 1967.
•According to the tentative 1995 schedule, Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken is on track to break Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games during a home stand at Camden Yards next June (appropriately, against Gehrig's former team, the Yankees), but the strike will wreak havoc with those plans, perhaps putting his record-breaking game on the road.
•The Expos and the Rangers have never been to a World Series, and the Indians haven't finished first since 1954. The Rangers and the Indians are selling out almost every night at their new parks, and in the past two weeks Expo fans have finally gotten excited.
•Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn was hitting .392 through Sunday. He has never been this close to the .400 mark so late in the season.
•Managers on the hot seat, including Boston's Butch Hobson and Baltimore's Johnny Oates, need a scorching finish to keep their jobs. There have even been whispers that Tiger skipper Sparky Anderson isn't on safe footing.
•This could be the last year for three future Hall of Famers, Red Sox DH-outfielder Andre Dawson, Twin DH-outfielder Dave Winfield and Tiger shortstop Alan Trammell; if that's so, a strike makes a lousy farewell tour.
•Giant third baseman Matt Williams, with 42 homers at week's end, will not only be denied a shot at Roger Maris's single-season home run record but also might not pass Mike Schmidt's National League record for most homers by a third baseman (48, in 1980).
Catcher Mike Scioscia, attempting a comeback in the Rangers' farm system, retired on Aug. 2 after a long and unsuccessful attempt to rehabilitate his injured right shoulder. Scioscia left with three claims to fame: He blocked the plate better than anyone, he never struck out three times in a game, and he played more games for one, and only one, manager than any other player in history (1,441, for the Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda)....
The stock of Mariner outfielder Eric Anthony, once one of the top young power-hitting prospects in baseball, continues to fall. His .227 average and reduced role are due in part to his recent trouble in hitting the fastball, which is one thing he had always been able to do....
Look for the Orioles to let outfielder Mike Devereaux go to free agency a Her the season. A 107-RBI man in 1992, Devereaux has been reduced to a platoon player, thanks to his .205 average....
The Mariners sent 19-year-old shortstop Alex Rodriguez to Triple A Calgary, partly so he could keep playing during the strike, but also because he wasn't ready to hit in the big leagues. He played well defensively (his range was noticeably better than that of Seattle's other shortstop, Felix Fermin), but he had trouble hitting the breaking ball....
Juiced Ball Note of the Week: As of Sunday, among the 131 players with 10 or more homers this season were 42 players who had already established or equaled career homer highs.
Hamelin's appetite for the long ball has made him a fan favorite in Kansas City.
Strike victims: Mattingly (above) could miss the playoffs; Ripken's record might not happen at home.
[See caption above.]
Between the Lines
Farewell to Falstaff. Twin first baseman Kent Hrbek, 34, announced on Aug. 4 that he would retire after the season. Few players have been more of an everyman than Hrbek, a couch potato who loves to eat and has grown plump doing so but who had hit 293 career homers through Sunday and might be the greatest defensive first baseman never to win a Gold Glove. He will be missed.
Exposed. Last Friday, while a pitch from the Reds' John Smiley was on its way to the plate, catcher Brian Dorsett's mask was slipping, so he pulled it off his head, leaving his face unprotected. "It was like Russian roulette," Dorsett said. "As the pitch was coming, I thought, Please hit it. Then I thought, Please hit it fair." The pitch was in the dirt, and Dorsett snagged it. "When I saw it wasn't in the zone, I thought, I've got to block this ball," Dorsett said. "My instincts took over. It was strange. But I'm alive."
Winning Ugly. On Aug. 2 Padre rookie pitcher Bryce Florie attempted to intentionally walk the Dodgers' Tim Wallach, but on his first pitch he accidentally threw a strike. Wallach, who was stunned, didn't swing. San Diego manager Jim Riggleman, a smile on his face, went out and talked with Florie, then decided not to walk Wallach, who proceeded to ground out. "This is Padres baseball," said San Diego hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "We mentally vapor-locked a smart hitter. We can do that."