If Ken Griffey Jr. is universally known as Junior, then perhaps
the Mariners' new leftfielder, Jose Cruz Jr., should be called
Junior Jr. Cruz is a mini version of Griffey: a graceful
outfielder with exceptional power and speed. He even has a
celebrated baseball father.
Jose Jr., 23, is the son of Jose Cruz, who played for the
Cardinals, the Astros and the Yankees from 1970 to '88. The
elder Cruz, now Houston's first base coach, holds Astros records
for games (1,870), hits (1,937) and runs batted in (942). Of
Jose Jr., he says, "People expect a lot from him because he's my
son, but I don't think it has ever bothered him because, like
Ken Griffey Jr., he grew up in big league clubhouses."
Griffey's advice to Jose Jr. was to not worry about living up to
his father's accomplishments and simply to win the starting job
in leftfield, where he clearly would not be replacing a legend.
In fact Cruz is the 48th leftfielder to play alongside Griffey
in Seattle over the last nine seasons. Says manager Lou
Piniella, "Jose Cruz is our future."
Cruz, a three-time All-America at Rice, where he set 15 school
records, was selected third in the June 1995 draft. He played
just one full minor league season, hitting .293 with 15 homers
and 89 RBIs, at three levels in '96. He also had 17 outfield
assists. Cruz expected to start in left for Seattle on Opening
Day this year, but despite hitting .339 with four home runs and
12 RBIs during spring training, he was one of the final cuts
when the Mariners broke camp.
Seattle sent him down because it feared that the switch-hitting
Cruz might struggle as a rookie and get discouraged over
bouncing between Triple A and the majors. What they didn't
bargain on was that Cruz would bristle at his demotion and go
into a funk in Triple A. Tacoma manager Dave Myers became so
frustrated with Cruz that he considered benching his best
prospect. Cruz's wake-up call came on May 3 when the Mariners
needed a reserve outfielder and called up Rob Ducey instead of
Cruz. "When Rob was promoted, a light went on in my head, and I
realized I had to work harder and take responsibility for my
actions," says Cruz.
Then, in mid-May, Cruz met a power-of-positive-thinking guru,
Rafael Colon, through the family he lived with in Olympia, Wash.
"A lot of negative thoughts were bearing down on me, and I
wasn't handling them well," Cruz says. "I met Rafael, and we
just started talking. I spilled my guts, and that really helped."
He buckled down, started playing better and was called up by
Seattle on May 31, after a total of only 210 minor league games.
He started his major league career 0 for 7, but since then has
gone 17 for 65 through Sunday. He has also cracked four home
runs, three more than all other Mariners leftfielders combined.
Cruz has also made several Griffeyesque catches.
"It's a great situation for me," Cruz says. "We have so many
franchise players on this team that I think I could have a real
good year and nobody will even notice."
TEPID TABLE SETTERS
The Brewers have already auditioned five players in the leadoff
spot this season, and the HELP WANTED sign is still posted. The
Phillies have also used five different hitters in the top spot;
through last Sunday they had scored a run in only 27 of
Philadelphia's 71 games. Tigers leadoff man Brian Hunter was
recently demoted to the ninth spot in the order because he had
an on-base percentage of only .287, the 10th worst in the
league. Hunter was reinstated two days later when Detroit
realized it had no better option.
The archetypal leadoff hitter--a scrapper who will drop a bunt
or take a walk to reach first--is a dying breed. While a .400
on-base percentage has long been the benchmark for a quality
number-1 hitter (chart), through last weekend only eight leadoff
men with at least 100 plate appearances had achieved that
percentage this season, and they included 40-year-old Brett
Butler, 38-year-olds Tony Phillips (page 64) and Rickey
Henderson, and 37-year-old Tim Raines.
Among the few consummate leadoff men still in their prime is the
Twins' Chuck Knoblauch, who despite a sputtering start this
season was hitting .287 at week's end, with a .416 on-base
percentage. Knoblauch was also third in the league in stolen
bases, with 29, and second in runs, with 57; in the latter
category he was the only every-day leadoff man among the
league's top 10. "I try to model my style on Pete Rose's,
because he would do whatever it took to get to first," Knoblauch
says. "I'll work the count, and I don't care if I get a hit, a
walk or get hit by a pitch, as long as I'm on base. I guess you
don't see that approach much anymore."
The recent trend among leadoff hitters has been for number 1 to
look out for No. 1. That mind-set was eloquently expressed on
May 16 by Chuckie Carr, a sometime leadoff man batting eighth
that night for the Brewers. He was hitting .133 as he led off
the eighth inning, but he still ignored a take sign with a 2-0
count and popped out with the Brewers trailing 4-1. Said Carr of
the take sign, "That ain't Chuckie's game. Chuckie hacks on
2-0." Chuckie was released soon after that and is currently
hacking in the Astros' minor league system.
The Mets' Lance Johnson also hacks a lot on 2-0, yet these days
he is considered an effective leadoff hitter. Last season he had
a .333 batting average but a meager .362 on-base percentage. He
collected only 32 walks; however, he also had 28 doubles, 20
triples, 50 steals and 112 runs while leading off. "Everybody
wants a leadoff guy who gets on base at least 40% of the time,"
says New York manager Bobby Valentine. "But the ultimate goal is
to score a run, so maybe it's O.K. to have a guy who reaches
base 36% but with lots of extra-base hits [and steals] that put
him in scoring position."
Henderson, the best leadoff man in the history of baseball,
who's still effective at the top of the Padres' order, is also
the best at explaining the value of a good number-1 man. "I've
always thought the leadoff hitter sets the tone," he says. "If
the starting pitcher comes out and gets the leadoff man on one
pitch, it's bad. The leadoff hitter should work the count, make
the pitcher know this isn't going to be easy. If the leadoff man
looks at six or seven pitches, it gives everyone a chance to see
what the pitcher has: velocity, break, what pitches are working
and which aren't. That's one thing almost no one understands
Henderson believes that the real reason for the change in
leadoff hitting is economics. He cites a salary arbitration case
that he lost against the A's in 1984 because, Henderson says,
Oakland's reps shifted the focus away from his leadoff skills
and compared his power statistics to those of other outfielders.
"The game has a different theory lately," Henderson says. "The
important numbers are batting average, home runs and RBIs. Those
numbers are how value is computed, so everyone goes for the
numbers that pay."
AN ANGEL FINDS PEACE
Sometimes it's easy to look at baseball players as just names
and numbers in a box score. But during the last two months in
Anaheim there has been a wrenching reminder that players are
human beings whose lives off the field can significantly affect
their performance on it.
During lunch one day about two months ago, Angels rightfielder
Tim Salmon noticed that his wife, Marci, had a swollen neck.
Marci consulted a doctor, and on May 20 she underwent a biopsy.
A day later the Salmons were told that she had thyroid cancer.
"As soon as they said cancer, it rocked my world," Tim says. "It
was a shocking revelation."
In 19 games from May 12 to June 3, Salmon suffered the worst
slump of his career, hitting .203 with one home run and 17
strikeouts. "Mentally I felt I was separating [my wife's illness
and my playing], but my performance sure didn't show it," he
says. "My swing was terrible, and subconsciously I was letting
the situation get to me." Throughout that difficult period,
Salmon spoke regularly to Anaheim hitting instructor Rod Carew,
who just over a year ago lost his daughter Michelle to leukemia.
In a four-hour operation on June 2, Marci's thyroid was removed.
She is expected to make a full recovery. In the first 18 games
after the surgery, a relieved Salmon hit .419 with five home
runs and 19 RBIs. "It makes you realize how meaningless a
batting slump is compared to the possibility of losing a
spouse," Salmon says. "I think I'm a little more mellow now and
funneling my intensity better. It definitely puts things in
A FAREWELL IN PHILLY
When Dave Montgomery began working for the Phillies' sales
department in 1971, he was handed a list of season-ticket leads
to follow up. He dialed the first number on the page, and a
voice on the other end answered, "West Laurel Hill Cemetery." If
Montgomery thought selling tickets to a graveyard was difficult,
26 years later he's really got a tough job: Last Friday he was
promoted to president and chief executive officer of the worst
team in the big leagues.
Montgomery took over the day-to-day operation of the Phils from
longtime managing general partner Bill Giles, who announced that
he wanted to concentrate on getting a new baseball stadium built
in Philadelphia. Coworkers described Giles as having been
increasingly distraught in recent weeks over the Phillies, who
had lost eight straight games through Sunday. (In fact
Philadelphia was on pace to lose more games than any team since
the 1965 Mets.) Giles was also dismayed about the Phillies'
attendance--the lowest in the National League--which had
decreased by an average of more than 22,000 fans per game from
the '94 season. While there was speculation that Giles had been
forced out, he apparently fled on his own. Said one Philadelphia
executive, "I don't think there was pressure from the partners.
I think there was pressure from the fans."
Giles has been the scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong
with the injury-ravaged Phillies. He has often been accused of
being cheap, but three current Phillies (Darren Daulton, Len
Dykstra and Gregg Jefferies) are making at least $5 million a
year and pitcher Curt Schilling will reach that level next year.
The truth may be that, except for Schilling, Giles has exercised
lousy judgment in spending his money. Former All-Star catcher
Daulton is valiantly trying to play rightfield after missing all
but five games last season because of his bad right knee.
Injured centerfielder Dykstra hasn't played this season because
of a back injury and hasn't played more than 84 games in any
season since signing his current contract extension four years
ago, and leftfielder Jefferies was batting a subpar .265. And
Giles's talk about needing a new stadium has drawn criticism
from fans who believe a mismanaged team shouldn't be rewarded
with a new ballpark built with public money.
So Giles handed over the reins to Montgomery, whose challenge is
daunting. The man who was once asked to sell tickets to a
cemetery is now in charge of reviving a bunch of stiffs in a
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN After a brief sulk in the minors, Cruz Jr. has sparkled in leftfield and at the plate for Seattle. [Jose Cruz Jr. fielding ball against stadium wall]
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZITO/SPORTSCHROME-USA Knoblauch is one of the few leadoff men who think of going to first, not going deep. [Chuck Knoblauch batting]
LIFE AT THE TOP
A look at the leadoff performances of all players with 100 or
more plate appearances in the number-1 slot this season raises
questions about why Derek Jeter and Rickey Henderson haven't led
off more and why others have led off so often.
PLAYER, TEAM AT BATS RUNS AVG. PERCENTAGE
BRADY ANDERSON, Orioles 269 47 .323 .440
DEREK JETER, Yankees 134 26 .358 .436
RICKEY HENDERSON, Padres 114 20 .263 .422
CHUCK KNOBLAUCH, Twins 265 56 .291 .418
BRETT BUTLER, Dodgers 144 17 .313 .411
BRIAN MCRAE, Cubs 272 36 .246 .306
MARK MCLEMORE, Rangers 143 16 .210 .296
BRIAN HUNTER, Tigers 269 43 .223 .292
RAY DURHAM, White Sox 147 21 .231 .290
GERALD WILLIAMS, Brewers 144 21 .250 .283
Source: Elias Sports Bureau Statistics through June 22