Mike Grace, the Phillies' 25-year-old Rookie of the Year
candidate, had a no-hitter going through five innings against
the Reds on April 26. He went into the clubhouse after pitching
the top of the fifth and asked Philadelphia equipment manager
Frank Coppenbarger, "Do you have any bananas?"
"Can you believe that? He's got a no-hitter going, and he goes
into the clubhouse looking for bananas," says Larry Andersen,
pitching coach for the Phillies' Double A farm team in Reading,
Pa., who was at the game to see how his former pupil was doing.
"He was hungry. Nothing fazes him."
Grace, a 6'4" righthander, didn't complete the no-hitter--he
ended up surrendering three hits and no runs in eight innings of
a 2-0 Philadelphia victory--but his breakthrough this season is
nonetheless remarkable. Between 1991 and '93 his pitching arm
was operated on four times. Unable to pitch in '93 because of a
bone spur in his elbow, and realizing that his career might be
at an end, Grace enrolled at Joliet (Ill.) College for training
as an electronics technician. "I'll never say I gave up on
baseball, but no matter how positive you stay, you've got to be
realistic," he says. "As long as the Phillies never gave up on
me, I wasn't giving up on myself. But my head was definitely on
the chopping block."
To make it to the majors Grace worked as hard as anyone
Andersen, a big league pitcher for 17 years and a minor league
pitching coach for two, has seen. Grace spent most of last
season at Reading, going 13-6 with a 3.54 ERA, then went to
Clearwater, Fla., at his own expense to take part in the winter
instructional league. Injuries to two Phillies starters landed
Grace in the rotation this spring, and through Sunday he had
responded with a 6-1 record and a 2.89 ERA. He had walked only
nine batters in 62 1/3 innings. One of his strongest outings had
been a 6-0 shutout of Atlanta on May 12 in which he beat Greg
Hitters around the league are impressed. "We heard he throws 86
miles per hour, but he throws 90," says Astros second baseman
Craig Biggio. Grace, however, is determined to keep his success
in perspective. "To me, it's a couple of starts," he says. "Talk
to me at the end of the season."
OUT OF WHACK
Braves rightfielder David Justice is out for the year after
dislocating his right shoulder while taking a hard swing at a
pitch last week against the Pirates. Justice was hitting .321,
with six homers and 25 RBIs, and the Braves will miss him--but
not much. "They're so good, they could win with eight players,"
says Pirates coach Rich Donnelly. As long as Atlanta has its Big
Four starting pitchers and its good bullpen, it can survive the
loss of any player. Veterans Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith will
platoon in Justice's spot. If they fall short, rookie Jermaine
Dye, who had an impressive spring, will get a look; on May 17,
he became the first Atlanta Brave to hit a home run in his
initial major league at bat. If neither option works, the Braves
will trade for a good-hitting outfielder. Unlike most teams,
they have the money and the prospects to make such a deal.
Because no one knows how quickly or completely Justice will
recover--he's expected to undergo surgery Thursday--the Braves
will have difficulty trading him before next season as they had
wanted to. Pitchers John Smoltz and Steve Avery can become free
agents next winter, and Atlanta has every intention of
re-signing them. The Braves had planned on freeing up some money
by dealing Justice, who is signed through 1997.
THE SURVEY SAYS
Who are the most-underrated every-day players in the National
and American leagues? In an informal SI survey that 84 managers,
coaches and players in each league responded to, Astros
rightfielder Derek Bell and A's shortstop Mike Bordick were the
In the National League 39 players received at least one vote,
led by Bell, who got 10. At week's end Bell, 27, was hitting
.303 with 38 RBIs. Since the start of the 1994 season, he has
batted .319, belted 28 homers, driven in 178 runs and stolen 59
bases. But he is rarely mentioned in discussions about the
game's best outfielders, and he has never even made an All-Star
team. Last season he was leading the league in RBIs at the
All-Star break, but he finished 22nd in the fan voting. "It was
a like a slap in the face," Bell says. "How many cleanup hitters
do you know who can get a base hit off a top closer in the
ninth, drive in a key run, steal second and, if you don't watch
out, steal third, or, if you throw a pitch in the wrong spot,
hit a home run?"
Expos manager Felipe Alou voted for Bell. "I've heard stories
that some people still call him Eric Bell," says Alou, referring
to an undistinguished lefthander who pitched mostly in the late
'80's for the Orioles. Rockies manager Don Baylor, who also
voted for Bell, says, "I used to think he was kind of moody, but
this kid can play. "He can hit, and he got screwed out of being
on the All-Star team last season. And he's doing it all again
Moody? The Blue Jays pinned that label on Bell, once one of the
prizes of their farm system. They traded him and outfielder
Stoney Briggs to the Padres in March 1993 for outfielder Darrin
Jackson, who now plays in Japan. "They felt I wasn't serious
enough," says Bell. "That's not my nature. I'm not a serious
person. But when I get between those lines, let's go."
Few play harder than Bell. For two seasons the Padres watched
him slam into walls and break up double plays by steamrolling
middle infielders. Bell has played just as aggressively for the
Astros, who acquired him along with Doug Brocail, Ricky
Gutierrez, Pedro Martinez, Phil Plantier and Craig Shipley in
December 1994, in exchange for Caminiti, Andujar Cedeno, Steve
Finley, Roberto Petagine, Brian Williams and Sean Fesh.
Bell may not be moody, but he is just a little odd. His unusual
dressing habits include wearing his uniform pants baggy one day
and tight the next. "You never know what to expect from Derek,"
says Biggio with a smile. "But we don't care if he wears his
pants inside out, as long as he keeps driving in runs."
Bell is a confessed video-game freak who has spent hours playing
a legends-of-baseball game. It has helped him learn the history
of his sport. Bell recalls that while growing up in Tampa he
didn't follow major league baseball. "When I was 11, I didn't
know who Willie Mays was," he says, "or Hank Aaron or Steve
Carlton." When Bell pretended to be someone else, he was Tampa
phenom Dwight Gooden, who is only four years older than he is.
Bell's Tampa team had played in the Little League World Series
in 1980 and '81, losing the championship game each time to
Taiwan. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who owns a home in
Tampa, invited Bell's team to the Yankees clubhouse in '81.
"Dave Winfield was there, Bucky Dent, Willie Randolph, Graig
Nettles...they were all there," Bell says. "And I had no idea
who any of them were." Fifteen years later, Bell knows all the
names--but too few fans know his.
Bordick, 30, was one of 29 American League players to receive at
least one vote, topping the poll with 12. He is a brilliant
defensive shortstop (he had only 10 errors on 593 chances last
season) with a decent bat (he's a career .262 hitter with 17
lifetime home runs), but what he does best is play the game hard
and properly. "He's my favorite player that I've ever managed,"
says Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, who managed Bordick for
six years in Oakland. "Day in and day out, he did more to make
himself an outstanding player than anyone I've been around. He's
the best defensive shortstop in the league."
Bordick grew up in Maine, where, he says, "you learn to
persevere. That's the frozen tundra up there." He played
baseball for three years at the University of Maine, which
toughened him as a player. "We played a lot of games with snow
coming down," he says.
Bordick was not drafted. But in the summer of 1986, when A's
scouting director Dick Bogard and scout J.P. Ricciardi went to
the Cape Cod League in hopes of signing shortstop Ken Bowen,
Oakland's seventh-round choice from Oregon State, they saw
Bordick, liked him better and signed him for $25,000 (they never
signed Bowen). That began a slow rise through the A's chain.
"Like everyone who played pro ball, I thought I had the talent
to play in the major leagues, but I was so naive, being from
Maine," Bordick says. "I had an awakening at spring training in
'87, when I saw about 800 guys wearing the same uniform as mine,
and all with the same look in their eyes--[a hunger] to get to
the big leagues. I knew it would be a lot harder than I thought."
Bordick made it by "trying harder than everyone else," says A's
G.M. Sandy Alderson. Early in Bordick's first season as a major
leaguer, in 1990, he got taken out hard at second base by
Boston's Dwight Evans, who was trying to break up a double play.
"The next inning he was in the same position on the double play,
and he didn't back off," La Russa says. "That showed me a lot."
Players recognize it. "He has one of the most outstanding gloves
I've seen in a long time," says Yankees reliever John Wetteland.
"When I was in the National League, I used to love to go to
Cincinnati so I could watch Barry Larkin. I feel the same way
about Bordick, and he's someone you never really hear about."
Bases loaded, two outs, your team's last at bat, down by three
runs, 3-2 count. Only in your dreams do you hit a game-winning
homer in that situation, but for Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles
the dream came true on May 17. His grand slam off Seattle's Norm
Charlton gave Baltimore a 14-13 win. According to the Society
for American Baseball Research Inc. (SABR), Hoiles became only
the fourth player in history to hit a grand slam in such a
situation, joining the Braves' Del Crandall (Sept. 11, 1955),
the Cardinals' Roger Freed (May 1, 1979) and the Tigers' Alan
Trammell (June 21, 1988)....Through Sunday 57 players had hit
two home runs in a game; the major league record is 136, set in
the juiced-ball year of 1987, according to David Vincent,
coeditor of SABR's Home Run Encyclopedia. This is the first
season in which three players have each hit two home runs in an
inning. Pittsburgh's Jeff King did it on April 30. On May 16
Sammy Sosa became the first Cub to hit two in an inning, and on
the next night Dave Nilsson became the first Brewer to do so.
Never before had the feat been accomplished on consecutive days.
Here are the most-underrated players, according to an SI survey
of 84 coaches, general managers and players, and the votes the
top five in each league received.
1. Mike Bordick A's 12
2. Kevin Seitzer Brewers 9
3. Gary DiSarcina Angels 8
4. Tim Salmon Angels 6
5. Dan Wilson Mariners 4
Edgar Martinez Mariners 4
Tony Phillips White Sox 4
Twenty-two other players received at least one vote.
1. Derek Bell Astros 10
2. Ken Caminiti Padres 9
3. Bernard Gilkey Mets 7
4. Jeff King Pirates 4
Ray Lankford Cardinals 4
Thirty-four other players received at least one vote.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Even after four arm operations, the unshakable Grace has displayed 90 mph heat and sharp control. [Mike Grace pitching]