ALAS, THE POOR REDS
Having been outscored by 50 runs and sporting a 7-15 record at
week's end, the Reds are about as close as baseball gets to
tragedy, at least this side of Wrigley Field. So it hardly
seemed out of place last week when Cincinnati manager Ray Knight
suddenly began quoting from Shakespeare. Knight alluded to
Macbeth when he was asked to comment on the Reds' offense: "It's
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
He's right, of course. After splitting a pair of games with the
Phillies over the weekend, the Reds were hitting .244 for the
season. Eight-time All-Star shortstop Barry Larkin had just
three RBIs and was hobbled by a sore Achilles tendon, which will
probably improve only with surgery or a long rest. First baseman
Hal Morris and rightfielder Ruben Sierra had combined for two
homers in 146 at bats. And rightfielder Reggie Sanders, who was
put on the 15-day disabled list last Friday with a bulging disk
in his back, had to wear slippers to the ballpark recently
because he couldn't bend over to tie his shoes.
But Knight invoked Hamlet, declaring, "Ay, there's the rub,"
when he laid most of the blame for his club's bad start on his
pitching staff. The Cincinnati pitchers had a league-worst 6.03
earned run average through Sunday, in large part because they
had yielded 109 walks, 18 more than any other staff. The
starting pitchers had a particularly horrid 7.18 ERA and were
completing fewer than five innings per start. John Smiley, last
year's ace, was 1-4 with a 7.00 ERA.
Knight is convinced that his players are in a rare total team
funk that they're bound to come out of soon. "You look at the
back of their bubblegum cards, and you see what numbers these
guys should produce," Knight says. "I have to have faith that
our time will come, but so far it's been embarrassing. This
isn't managing, it's torture."
"We just stink right now," says Larkin. "We're terrible. This is
a multidimensional slump. It's raining. It's pouring. Is there a
curse on us?"
Last week the team's flagship radio station conducted a
telephone poll on whether Knight should be fired. The vote was
159 to 46 to dump him. "As an organization we are failing from
top to bottom," Reds general manager Jim Bowden says. "You can't
just blame it on the manager. It's the Morrises, Smileys,
Larkins and everyone else who isn't doing his job. Our team has
great chemistry, but you can't afford to let them get too
comfortable. Sometimes you have to trade friends and popular
players to get some attention in the clubhouse."
Sitting in his office last Saturday afternoon, Knight recited a
familiar soliloquy as he talked about his own uncertain future
and the difficulties his club faced in trying to turn it around
after a bad start. "'To be, or not to be: That is the
question,'" the Cincinnati skipper said. "'Whether 'tis nobler
in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous
fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by
opposing end them?'"
It sounded pretty good, until Knight was reluctantly reminded
just how poorly things turned out for Hamlet.
YES, INDEED, I'M WALKIN'
With a runner on second base and two outs in a game against the
Giants on April 15, Phillies righthander Bobby Munoz
intentionally walked Barry Bonds. It was hardly an innovative
approach, pitching around Bonds, except that the game was in the
first inning. "I don't see any reason to pitch to him unless you
have no other choice," said rookie Philadelphia manager Terry
Francona. "My feeling is, let's make somebody else beat us. As a
manager you come to realize that Bonds can break your heart just
as easily in the first inning as the ninth."
Bonds, who set a National League record with 151 walks a year
ago, is seeing even fewer strikes this season as more managers
adopt Francona's strategy. At week's end Bonds had 23
walks--including five intentional passes--after only 21 games.
"I hadn't expected this would happen so early," says Bonds, who
had just three homers and 11 RBIs. "Most of the time, this
happens in the middle of the season or at the end. It's going to
be a tough year, but I haven't gotten frustrated yet."
Much to his dismay, the Marlins' Gary Sheffield, who finished
second to Bonds with 142 walks in '96, was right with him again,
with 24 walks through Sunday. Says Florida manager Jim Leyland,
"They're taking the bat out of Gary's hands even when he's
leading off an inning. That's unbelievable."
Both Bonds and Sheffield are on pace to challenge the major
league record of 170 walks set by Babe Ruth in 1923. The pair
commiserated last week in San Francisco, during a conversation
in which Bonds urged Sheffield to remain patient. "I feel like
I'm just coming into my own, and I'm not getting a chance to
repeat what I did last season," said an anxious Sheffield, who
batted .314 with 42 home runs and 120 RBIs last year but was
hitting .242, with three homers and seven RBIs through Sunday.
"All this is making the game less fun. It is hard to stay
Sheffield had hoped that the acquisition of free agent Bobby
Bonilla to hit behind him in the lineup would provide some
protection and reduce his total of bases on balls in '97. But
Bonilla, who had yet to hit a homer and was batting a tepid .250
with only five RBIs at week's end, was creating no incentive to
pitch to Sheffield.
Out in San Francisco, second baseman Jeff Kent has been more
effective in making opponents pay for walking Bonds; through
Sunday he was hitting .269 with four homers and 20 RBIs. But
even Kent sees the strategic value of pitching around Bonds. "I
don't think it would matter if it was Frank Thomas hitting
behind Barry," says Kent. "Barry walked 150 times with Matt
Williams protecting him last season. Am I going to change that?
Hey, I'd walk him too. I'm not stupid."
On the first pitch the Angels' Jason Dickson threw as a major
leaguer, last Aug. 21 at Yankee Stadium, he gave up a homer to
New York shortstop Derek Jeter. Dickson shrugged off that
inauspicious debut, continued to challenge the hitters and won
the game 7-1. He has been throwing strikes ever since, and it's
paying off. With Anaheim's 8-3 win over Detroit last Friday,
Dickson improved to 4-0 this season.
The 24-year-old Anaheim rookie swears by a simple pitching
philosophy: Let 'em hit the ball. In 35 2/3 innings he had walked
only six batters. "I'd rather give up a solo home run than a
walk," says Dickson, who had, in fact, thrown three gopher
balls. "I like to challenge guys. I get real frustrated when I
walk someone, so I try to avoid it."
Dickson grew up in the New Brunswick town of Chatham (pop.
6,321), about 200 miles northeast of the Maine border. Although
that Canadian province also produced Expos lefthander Rheal
Cormier and A's reserve outfielder Matt Stairs, its most
renowned connection to baseball is the Miramichi River, once a
favorite fishing spot of Ted Williams's.
Dickson chose not to play hockey as a kid because he was a
clumsy skater. He pursued baseball instead and might never have
been discovered in such a remote outpost except that while
pitching for the Canadian junior national team in 1991, he beat
the U.S. in the World Junior Championships in Manitoba. A scout
from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M spotted him there and offered him
a scholarship. Three seasons later the Angels selected him in
the sixth round of the '94 draft.
Dickson finished last year with a 1-4 record and a 4.57 ERA in
seven starts but still qualifies as a rookie this season. He
throws two types of fastballs, neither of them overpowering, a
curveball and a changeup, and he isn't afraid to use any of
those pitches in any situation. "Jason does all the things you
try to teach young pitchers to do," says Anaheim manager Terry
Collins. "When he's making all his pitches, he's tough to hit
because he keeps you off balance and never lets you get
Heading into this week, Dickson was 12th in the league with a
2.78 ERA and had two complete games. Not bad for a guy who
barely made the rotation as the fifth starter. Now he is hearing
some early murmurs about Rookie of the Year honors. "You get in
trouble if you start looking ahead," Dickson says. "If it's
almost October, and people are still talking about it, it will
mean more. I'm going to start 30 to 35 games and I'm going to
get hit, so I can't get cocky."
THE RICH GET RICHER
In 1988 Blue Jays outfielder George Bell signed a contract that
included an incentive clause that would pay him $50,000 for
winning the Comeback Player of the Year award. Trouble was, Bell
had just been named the '87 American League MVP. Bell's deal set
a standard for ludicrous contract incentives, though some
current players have apparently tried to match it.
Marlins closer Robb Nen will receive a $25,000 bonus if The
Sporting News gives him a Silver Slugger award as the
top-hitting pitcher in the National League. Nen has zero hits in
nine career plate appearances.
Rockies first baseman-outfielder John Vander Wal will get
$25,000 for a Gold Glove. At week's end Vander Wal, a career
pinch hitter, had played just two games in the field this season.
Florida's Bonilla will receive $25,000 for a Gold Glove. He has
played leftfield, rightfield, third base and first in the last
few seasons, and not because of his versatility.
Pirates pitcher Paul Wagner will earn $50,000 if he's named
Comeback Player of the Year. Wagner, who started this season on
the DL and has not played in 1997, has a lifetime record of
26-40. Comeback? Was he ever there?
Jim Abbott will get $150,000 if he wins the Cy Young Award.
Abbott was released by the Angels after he had a 13.50 ERA in
spring training. He is currently out of baseball.
Kevin Mitchell of the Indians and Jaime Navarro of the White Sox
are both entitled to $10,000 each time they're named either
Player of the Week or Player of the Month. Unfortunately, they
must be nominated by team management, the same guys who pay out
Padres catcher John Flaherty will get $100,000 for winning the
National League MVP award. San Diego catcher Don Slaught will
get $100,000 if he wins it. Can't you just feel the tension?
Colorado pitcher Jerry DiPoto will receive $50,000 for the Cy
Young. He is a middle reliever. He had a 7.50 ERA through
Sunday. He pitches at Coors Field.
As part of the standard Toronto bonus package, infielder Felipe
Crespo has incentives for becoming an All-Star ($50,000), the
league MVP ($50,000) and a Gold Glover ($50,000). At week's end
Crespo had one at bat this season and has yet to play in the
Phillies pitcher Mark Portugal will receive $50,000 if he is the
World Series MVP. Why not throw in another $50,000 if he's the
next Miss America?
The Rangers' John Wetteland, the Cardinals' Andy Benes and more
than 30 other major league players will receive a bonus if they
are named the MVP in a Division Series. Alas, no such award
exists. Only the leagues' Championship Series have MVP awards.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON A hobbled Larkin is just one reason the Reds have been down and out this season. [Barry Larkin and Rey Ordonez in game]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Dickson has generated the early Rookie of the Year buzz with his scorching 4-0 start for the Angels. [Jason Dickson pitching in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GONZALES/RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES [Larry Walker batting]
APRIL IS THE HOTTEST MONTH
The Rockies' Larry Walker (above) was hitting a robust .469 at
week's end, guaranteeing that, with only three days left in the
month, he would have one of the hottest-hitting Aprils ever. But
before he starts dusting off mantel space for his batting title
trophy, Walker should know that some fast starters have slowed
as the season dragged on. Max Alvis of the Indians, for
instance, hit .444 in April 1966 and ended up hitting .245. Here
are the best April starts since the expansion era began in 1961
and how those seasons played out.
Player, Team Year April Avg. Final Avg.
WILLIE MAYS, Giants 1964 .488 .296
KEN SINGLETON, Orioles 1981 .472 .278
PETE ROSE, Reds 1976 .466 .323
FRANK ROBINSON, Orioles 1966 .463 .316*
GEORGE BRETT, Royals 1983 .460 .310
*Led the league. Source: Elias Sports Bureau