A LATE BLOOMER
A year ago Billy Taylor was mired in baseball purgatory, a
34-year-old pitcher with the Triple A Edmonton Trappers. Then on
the morning of April 27, after getting word in Salt Lake City
that he had been called up by the Athletics for a game that day
against the Tigers, Taylor flew to Denver and got a connecting
flight to Detroit. Unfortunately his luggage didn't make the
connection. So when Taylor arrived at Tiger Stadium in the
seventh inning of that afternoon's game, he borrowed a glove
from Oakland pitcher Ariel Prieto and reported to the bullpen.
One inning later he was summoned to the mound and got the last
four outs to earn the save. The next afternoon he got another
save. An unlikely closer was born. "Once Billy got his foot in
the door," says A's manager Art Howe, "he pushed his way inside
and slammed the door shut behind him."
Last year Taylor wound up saving 17 games in 19 chances and
allowed only five of 34 inherited runners to score, the best
percentage (14.7%) in the majors. At week's end he already had
five saves in 1997, giving him the American League lead, and had
not yielded a run in seven innings. His first four saves came in
a span of five days. "When you've been down a road as long and
winding as mine, you pitch with abandon," Taylor says, "because
you know at any moment someone can sneak up behind you and take
Taylor's accomplishments are difficult to fathom considering he
played 14 seasons in the minor leagues with five organizations.
A 6'8" righthander with a sidearm delivery, he spent the last
several of those years developing his out pitch--a nasty sinker.
"I don't blow people away like [Rangers closer] John Wetteland,
but that doesn't mean it's fun to hit against me," Taylor says.
"Ask any hitter if he would rather face a 95-mile-an-hour
fastball or an 88-mile-an-hour sinker running down and in on the
hands. He'll choose the straight fastball."
Taylor is one of several early surprises among saves leaders.
The Pirates' John Ericks, a 29-year-old journeyman and former
starter who during his pro career once moonlighted as an
asbestos remover, had closed all four of Pittsburgh's victories
through Sunday. And the Brewers' 39-year-old Doug Jones, who has
pitched for 17 teams in 10 leagues over 19 pro seasons, saved
three games in three days during the first week of this season,
allowing just one base runner in three innings. Jones, a
stand-in for injured closer Mike Fetters, was once released by
Milwaukee because the Brewers believed he could no longer get
hitters out. That was 13 years ago.
If you build it, they will come. That's the reasoning behind the
rush to get new ballparks built in seemingly every major league
city. After all, in 1992 the Orioles sold out 67 of 80 home
games in their first season at Camden Yards. Two years later The
Ballpark in Arlington hosted 21 sellouts in 62 dates after the
Rangers had sold out only 59 games in the previous 22 seasons;
that same year the Indians played to 36 full houses in 51 dates
at Jacobs Field. In '95 the Rockies sold out all but 17 of 72
home games in their inaugural season at Coors Field. However, if
early attendance is any indication, the Braves (one sellout in
the first six games) won't be as successful at filling their new
stadium, Turner Field (chart), despite the added attraction of
fielding a perennial National League East winner.
Atlanta's season-ticket sales actually fell by more than 10% in
the move to the new stadium--team officials blame the drop-off
mostly on the price of going to a ball game. The cost of some
field-level seats increased from $17 at Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium to $30 at Turner Field, and only 1,200 parking spaces
are available each game to the general public at $7. (Private
lots in the area generally are available for $10.)
So as a public service for those Atlanta fans who may have
missed it, you should know that shortstop Jeff Blauser is off to
an uncharacteristically torrid start. Last week against the Cubs
and the Astros he had hits in eight consecutive at bats, two shy
of the National League record. "It's like facing Tony Gwynn
right now," Houston pitcher Mike Hampton said of Blauser. "Maybe
you should throw it down the middle and see if he will get
Says Blauser, "I have never had a streak like this, not even in
Little League. When you haven't been hitting for two straight
years, eight consecutive hits seem like 80."
Blauser, an All-Star in 1993, struggled in '94 and '95,
primarily because of hand and knee injuries. He hit .224 the
last two years while committing 38 errors and assuming the role
of whipping boy for Atlanta fans. But this season he has been a
welcome spark for a sputtering Braves offense. At week's end he
was leading the National League with a .450 average and was
third in doubles, with five. Last Saturday in Chicago, Blauser
cracked a game-winning single in the ninth against Cubs closer
Mel Rojas. "The people who ripped Blauser don't understand the
injuries this guy has played through for this team," says
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "I believe you stick with guys who
help you win ball games, and all Jeff has ever done is win."
After the Phillies' first seven games, ace righthander Curt
Schilling was 2-0 and the rest of the staff was 0-5. Comparisons
began to surface between Schilling and former Philadelphia
lefthander Steve Carlton, who accounted for 27 of the Phillies'
59 victories in 1972--or 45.8%, which remains a major league
Like Carlton and the Blue Jays' Roger Clemens, the 30-year-old
Schilling is a player who yearns to carry his team on his back.
"I want the ball as often as possible, and I expect to win every
time I take the mound," he says. "Nobody expects more from me
than I do."
Says rookie Phillies manager Terry Francona, "When he pitches,
the ball club knows that it's our day to win. He loves the fact
that he's the horse."
Schilling has little choice. Philadelphia opened the season with
three starters on the disabled list, leaving rookie Calvin
Maduro, third-year man Mike Mimbs and journeymen Mark Leiter and
Bobby Munoz to fill the rotation. In the Phillies'
season-opening 3-0 victory over the Dodgers, Schilling allowed
just two infield hits in eight innings and struck out 11. In his
second start, a 3-2 win in San Diego, he yielded one earned run
in eight innings and struck out seven. But last Friday against
the Padres in Philadelphia's home opener, Schilling didn't have
his best fastball and labored through 62/3 erratic innings. In
the top of the seventh, with two outs, the bases loaded and the
Phillies trailing 3-2, Francona let Schilling pitch to
lefthanded hitter Steve Finley. Schilling's 113th pitch was
driven into the gap in right-centerfield for a triple that
cleared the bases and clinched the win for San Diego.
In three games over a span of 11 days, Schilling threw 366
pitches. That's a lot for a pitcher who started last season on
the disabled list after undergoing surgery on his throwing
shoulder. Considering that the Phils are trying to rebuild
around Schilling, who was recently signed to a three-year,
$15.45 million contract, you'd expect them to take better care
of their one golden arm. Look what happened to Ken Howell, the
last starting pitcher Philadelphia signed to a three-year deal,
in 1990: He blew out his arm midseason and won only eight games
over the life of the contract.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON After 14 seasons in the minors, the 6'8" Taylor has become the big man in the Athletics' bullpen. [Billy Taylor pitching]
HOME SWEET HOME?
The Braves, who played their first game at Turner Field on April
4, are the sixth team in this decade to move into a new park.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, its bump in attendance was mild
compared with those enjoyed by the other teams. (Colorado, which
shifted to Coors Field in 1995, had a decrease only because
Coors seats nearly 26,000 fewer than Mile High Stadium.) Here
are the average crowds for the first six home games of teams
with new stadiums during the 1990s, compared with the average
for the first six dates the previous year.
Year Stadium Capacity Attendance Difference
1990 Comiskey Park 43,951 15,313 +105%
1991 New Comiskey Park 44,702 31,367
1991 Memorial Stadium 53,371 29,879 +47%
1992 Camden Yards 48,041 43,885
1993 Arlington Stadium 43,521 25,000 +60%
1994 Ballpark in Arlington 49,292 39,926
1993 Cleveland Stadium 74,483 27,198 +32%
1994 Jacobs Field 42,400 35,988
1994 Mile High Stadium 76,100 54,228 -25%
1995 Coors Field 50,200 40,906
1996 Fulton County Stadium 52,769 33,696 +14%
1997 Turner Field 50,528 38,458
*Source: Elias Sports Bureau