BREAK UP THE EXPOS
One month into the season the Montreal Expos, a bunch of young,
hungry overachievers, have the look of a playoff contender
instead of a club that was picked by most prognosticators to
finish last in the National League East. "We don't have big
names, any $5 million guys," says Montreal outfielder Henry
Rodriguez, who at week's end was leading the league in RBIs,
with 27. "We're guys who are finally getting a chance and
showing that we can play."
Through Sunday, Les Expos had won nine out of their last 10 and,
at 17-8, had the best record in baseball. They had gotten solid
hitting (a .306 team average, best in the league) and terrific
defense, anchored by the brilliant double-play combo of second
baseman Mike Lansing and shortstop Mark Grudzielanek, who were
also hitting .388 and .361, respectively.
The man making all this work was Felipe Alou, the team's
unflappable manager, who never complained when the '94 Expos,
with the best record in baseball that year, were torn apart to
cut the payroll to its current level of $15.4 million, lowest in
the game. Instead, he has gotten the most out of the players he
has been left with.
A case in point is Rodriguez, 28, who was born in the Dominican
Republic, grew up playing basketball and did not take up
baseball until he was 14. By the time he was 17, though, he was
good enough to be signed by the Dodgers. But after watching him
progress through their organization, the Dodgers decided
Rodriguez would be, at best, a platoon player--even though he hit
four homers in one spring training game in 1995. "The Dodgers
put a tag on him," says teammate Pedro Martinez, another former
Dodger. "It's hard to get rid of that tag." Yet Rodriguez still
cried the day he was traded to the Expos in May 1995. "I loved
the Dodgers," he says. "I never wanted to leave." Now he's
thrilled to be in Montreal.
Last winter he lifted weights and gained 10 pounds--"It's all
muscle,'' he says--up to 215. It showed on April 8, when he
clubbed a 468-foot home run against the Cardinals. Rodriguez,
who started the season platooning with Sherman Obando, had
flashed that kind of power before, but it wasn't until April 20,
when Alou made him the No. 3 hitter in the lineup and gave him a
chance to play every day, that he proved he could hit big league
pitching on a regular basis.
Grudzielanek, 25, is another player who has benefited from
Alou's confidence. When the manager moved sore-armed Wil Cordero
(since traded to the Red Sox) to the outfield last August and
made Grudzielanek his shortstop, the Expos' infield play
improved dramatically. Like Rodriguez, Grudzielanek displayed an
early interest in basketball; he was all-state in high school in
El Paso and was offered a basketball scholarship at UTEP, but he
turned it down.
The most distressing thing about the Expos' improvement is that
most fans in Montreal haven't taken notice. The Expos drew
barely more than 10,000 per game during a recent 8-2 home stand.
But there is hope for this small-market franchise: It turned a
small profit of $40,000 in 1995, and with a $4 million payment
expected this year from baseball's new revenue-sharing plan,
which is awaiting final approval, there is talk that next
season's payroll may rise as high as $25 million. There is even
talk that ace lefthander Jeff Fassero, who will make $2.8
million this year and was rumored to be the next veteran shipped
out, won't be traded after all. "If we keep winning," he says,
"they're not going to get rid of me."
Fans love high-scoring games, but when they occur every night,
it's like watching slo-pitch softball. The quality of pitching
and defense in the Twins' 24-11 win over the Tigers on April 24
was so bad that Minnesota manager Tom Kelly apologized to the
fans for "that so-called exhibition of major league baseball."
That game came five days after the Rangers had beaten the
Orioles, 26-7. From 1955 to '77, not a single team scored 24
runs in a game, yet it has happened three times since last
August, when the Cubs scored 26 in Colorado. And if all that
weren't enough, on Sunday Montreal beat Colorado 21-9, Cleveland
crushed Toronto 17-3, and Milwaukee topped Seattle 16-9. "After
you've thrown a couple of touchdowns, the fans start to ask,
'What is this?'" says Angels pitcher Chuck Finley. "And it'll be
worse when the weather gets hot."
Pitching has been horribly diluted by expansion, hitters are
bigger and stronger than ever, and the new ballparks mostly
favor the hitters. The only way to help pitchers--and they
desperately need help--is to enlarge the strike zone, or at least
call the strike zone as it's defined. "Call a strike from the
armpits to the bottom of the knees," says Brewers reliever Mike
Fetters. "That's what it says in the rule book."
Says Angels pitcher Scott Sanderson, whose big league career
began in '78, "The strike zone is the smallest I've seen since
I've been pitching. The only way to get a handle on runs scored
is to reconsider the strike zone." Baseball officials did that
this spring, when they redefined the low end of the strike
zone--from the top of the knee to the bottom of it. But it has
produced no change because umpires have not adjusted their calls
accordingly. "We got a pamphlet this spring about the new strike
zone," says Finley. "After four days of the season, we wadded it
up and threw it in the trash can. It was a waste of paper." Even
if umpires had begun calling the low strike, it probably
wouldn't have saved the pitchers, since so many of today's
batters are good low-ball hitters.
When former umpire Steve Palermo was asked to make
recommendations to baseball officials last year on ways to speed
up the game, he told them one thing umps could do was start
calling the high strike. That advice was inexplicably ignored.
Check out a World Series film from the mid-'60s and watch Sandy
Koufax get called strikes on pitches at the letters. Umpires
have to start calling the high strike again. "Until then," says
White Sox pitcher Kevin Tapani, "we'll be outscoring NFL games."
Lee Smith, baseball's alltime save leader, will be the Angels'
closer as long as he's healthy--at least according to Lee Smith.
It doesn't matter that he is no longer the best closer on the
team; that distinction belongs to unhittable Troy Percival, who
at week's end was 8 for 8 in save tries and had yet to give up a
run in 10 innings this year.
Smith, who pitched in relief in the Angels' first two games, but
was put on the disabled list April 4 with fluid in his right
knee, which had been surgically repaired last November, says if
he can't be the closer, he won't pitch at all. He says he will
retire, or ask to be traded or released. "It's a matter of
pride," he says. "It would be like asking [cleanup man] Chili
Davis to hit ninth. Do you think he'd do that?" Smith went on a
rehabilitation assignment to Class A Lake Elsinore, Calif., on
April 19, pitched one apathetic inning, then refused to make a
second rehab outing two days later. He rejoined the Angels on
April 23 and walked one and struck out one in his only inning of
work last week.
Smith has been a premier closer for 14 years, a Hall of
Fame-caliber pitcher, but his actions here are inexcusable. He
has won no friends in the organization with this attitude. His
age (38), wobbly knee and high salary ($2.1 million) make him
virtually untradable. He has been perhaps the most protected of
all the pampered closers in today's era: Smith inherited only 44
runners in 156 appearances over the last three years; a busy
middle-reliever might inherit that many in half a season.
California manager Marcel Lachemann has indicated that he will
go with Smith as the closer even though Percival, 26, might be
more effective. It's lucky for Lachemann that Percival, unlike
Smith, will do whatever he's asked. "I'm a closer," says
Percival. "I'm just not the closer on this team."
He should be.
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA With a league-best 27 RBIs at week's end, Rodriguez has given Montreal its own splendid splinter. [Henry Rodriguez]
COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT [Barry Bonds sliding into base]
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN [Barry Bonds hitting baseball]
WELCOME TO THE CLUB
Last Saturday the Giants' Barry Bonds (at left and below) became
only the fourth player to hit 300 homers and steal 300 bases in
his career. Here's a look at the membership of one of baseball's
most exclusive clubs, which includes Barry's father, Bobby, and
at how long it took each member to achieve his milestones.
Games Needed Games Needed
to Reach to Reach
Players HRs SBs 300 HRs 300 SBs
Willie Mays 660 338 1,295 2,448
Bobby Bonds 332 461 1,594 1,175
Andre Dawson* 436 314 1,768 2,008
Barry Bonds* 301 347 1,449 1,267
*Through April 28