IS IT TIME TO SIT DOWN?
A certain veteran infielder is less than one month shy of his
37th birthday. His back is ailing. He is mired in an 11-for-64
hitting slump. His team is in the midst of playing 44 games in
48 days outside its division before embarking on the homestretch
of a tight pennant race. Should that infielder take a day off?
Of course. But what if he hasn't sat out a game since May 29,
1982? Who's going to tell the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. to rest?
"If Mr. Ripken wants to play, then Mr. Ripken will play,"
Brewers manager Phil Garner says. "But having been a player, I
believe you're better off if you take a day off here and there.
At some point the streak has to stop."
When asked whether it's time for Ripken to take a break, many
people in baseball expressed the opinion that after more than
2,400 straight games, baseball's Iron Man should take maybe two
or three days off for his own good and for the long-term benefit
of the Orioles. A few years ago it would have been heresy to
suggest this. Today it is common sense. The consecutive-games
record is long in the books, and it's time for Ripken to
consider that sitting down occasionally might be the best way
for him to reach his second World Series, his first since '83.
"Cal and I sat down one-on-one many times," says former Orioles
manager Johnny Oates, now the Texas skipper, "and our
understanding was that if I ever felt he was hurting the club,
it was my job to start someone else. He did not want to be on
the field if he was not the best player at his position."
Through Sunday, Ripken had batted just .172 in his last 16 games
and had hit only one home run in his last 48 games, including
none in July. He has admitted that back spasms have hampered
him. In the meantime the Orioles have been struggling, at one
point in the last five weeks losing more than half of a
nine-game lead over the Yankees before moving back to a 5
1/2-game lead at week's end. "I'd talk to him first about taking
a day or two off," Indians manager Mike Hargrove says. "If it's
best for the team, I don't think Cal could disagree with it. But
I'm glad I don't have to answer that question for real."
The subject is taboo in Baltimore, where the Streak long ago
took on a life of its own. Baltimore manager Davey Johnson is
loath to broach the subject because he is still licking his
wounds from last season, when he briefly moved Ripken from
shortstop to third base, causing a controversy that divided the
Orioles' clubhouse. That leaves only Ripken himself, who seems
powerless to halt the streak. He refuses even to address the
possibility of sitting down, having always maintained that he
wants to play every day only because he feels that he can help
the team win.
Ripken is keenly aware that sitting out might be even harder
mentally on him than playing, because it would cause a media
frenzy that could last several days. Also, Ripken correctly
points out that, because he hasn't had a day off in 15 years, he
doesn't know how much good one would do him. But considering his
stubborn nature, he isn't any more likely to voluntarily end the
streak than he was to voluntarily leave shortstop. He'll need to
be pushed, and there isn't anybody willing to push him.
Meanwhile, Ripken is finding brief moments of respite. On July
15, Johnson removed him after seven innings of a blowout win
over the Blue Jays and later explained that Ripken looked as if
he was hurting so much that he needed back surgery. Five days
later, Ripken was ejected for arguing over a called third strike
in the second inning of a game in which the Orioles trailed 6-0.
Says White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen, "I talked to Cal about
the streak when the Orioles were in Chicago, and I said, 'I
don't know how you do it.' He said, 'Do you think I want to?' I
think he would help the team and himself if he took a rest. I
think he likes to please the fans a lot, but I think he should
take a day off."
A VOTE FOR DON SUTTON
When former Braves pitcher Phil Niekro is inducted into the Hall
of Fame on Sunday, he will be the only former major league
player voted into Cooperstown by the Baseball Writers
Association of America (BBWAA) in the last two years. Next year,
former Expos and Mets catcher Gary Carter will be the only
significant new nominee, and he is not likely to be elected by a
constituency that refused to admit Joe DiMaggio on the first
ballot. This drought of new busts at Cooperstown could represent
the first time since 1965 that only one player has been voted in
by the writers over a three-year period. Are they raising their
"I think we're just trying to maintain the same high standards
we've had for years, because the Hall of Fame is not for very
good players, only for great players," says Jack Lang, a BBWAA
member for 52 years. All eligible writers may vote for as many
as 10 nominees every year, but a player must be named on 75% of
the ballots to be enshrined. "We try to elect people," says
Lang, "but it's tough to get 75 percent to support anybody.
Heck, if it took 75 percent to elect the President of the United
States, we'd never have one."
But if the writers aren't raising the bar, how do they explain
the rejection of former Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton? He is the
only eligible major league pitcher to have won 300 games who is
not in Cooperstown. There are 36 starting pitchers with fewer
than 300 wins who have been enshrined. This year, in his fourth
appearance on the ballot, Sutton fell nine votes short; Niekro
was named on 80.3% of the ballots. Sutton has more career wins
than Niekro, fewer losses, a better ERA, more strikeouts and
more shutouts (chart). "There is no logical explanation," Sutton
says. "There are so many interpretations of what it takes to get
in. Maybe that's the hang-up, there is no set standard."
Some writers who voted for Niekro but not Sutton reason that
Niekro collected his victories for weaker teams, had three
20-win seasons (to Sutton's one), earned five Gold Gloves and
was usually the ace of his staff, while Sutton often pitched in
the shadows of Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Andy Messersmith.
What goes unmentioned is that Sutton's prickly attitude did not
endear him to many scribes, and that has lost him votes every
The bottom line is that if Niekro merits enshrinement in
Cooperstown, so does Sutton, who deserves to fill what might
otherwise be a void at the podium in the summer of '98. Says
BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell, a 22-year member who
has voted for Sutton, "I fully expect him to be voted in before
his time is up [in 2008]." If he's not, Sutton will then have to
wait three years before he can be considered by the veterans'
committee. "Some of baseball's greatest players had to wait a
few years, but he'll get his due from Cooperstown, and I think
it may happen next year," says O'Connell.
All of which leads to questions about the inexplicable voting
habits of the BBWAA membership. Since each writer may vote for
up to 10 nominees, then why, if a player doesn't measure up one
year, is he suddenly good enough the next? Sutton won't strike
out any more batters this season or win any more games, so if he
finally earns enough votes in '98, one has to wonder: What were
the writers waiting for?
A TIGER'S TALE
Winning the Rookie of the Year award does not guarantee stardom.
For every Jose Canseco, who goes on to years of success, there
is a Joe Charboneau, who flames out in a hurry. In his brief
major league career, Tigers designated hitter Bob Hamelin has
experienced a little bit of both.
It's hard to believe that only three years ago Hamelin was voted
the American League's best rookie, after he hit .282 with 24
homers and 65 RBIs for the Royals in just 101 games in the
strike-shortened '94 season. Kansas City fans embraced him for
his offensive production and for his doughy physique, which had
earned the onetime high school noseguard a scholarship offer
from Notre Dame. Hamelin fans began swinging rubber mallets at
games and chanting, "Hammer! Hammer!" Hamelin was the most
popular Royals player this side of George Brett.
But after the strike Hamelin couldn't rediscover his stroke. His
235 pounds became an issue. Hamelin couldn't hit his weight. He
batted just .168 with seven homers in the summer of '95. Last
season he hit .255 with nine home runs. "Once I had that good
year in '94, I found out you have to put up those big numbers
every year or you'll be miserable," Hamelin says. "I lost my
stroke and then I lost my playing time. The last two years were
like wasted time for me. I would sit on the bench and wonder,
When is this ever going to end?"
Unable to trade Hamelin this spring, Kansas City released him.
The next day he received a phone call from Glenn Ezell, who had
been the Royals bench coach in '94 and was at the time the
manager of Detroit's Triple A affiliate in Toledo. Ezell offered
Hamelin an opportunity to rediscover his swing in Toledo, and
Hamelin accepted. He collected six homers and 24 RBIs in 27
minor league games. When Tigers pitcher Willie Blair was hit in
the face with a batted ball on May 4, Hamelin was called up to
replace him on the roster.
In just his fifth game back in the majors, on May 13, Hamelin
hit two home runs against Toronto. He chalks up his improved
production to laser eye surgery he underwent in October, which
allowed him to discard his eyeglasses, improving his peripheral
vision. Through Sunday, he had hit .290 with 11 homers and 33
RBIs in 60 big league games.
Hamelin has quickly become the darling of Detroit fans, too.
"He's a throwback to the '20s and '30s, the kind of guy who you
expect to have a hot dog stuffed in his back pocket and mustard
stains on his jersey," says Tigers bench coach Larry Parrish.
"But he makes up for his big body with excellent hand-eye
coordination and a gift for hitting the ball hard."
Hamelin, who says he might have signed with a Japanese team this
winter had he known he would be released by the Royals, feels
that in Detroit he's regained the status he had as a rookie. "I
needed a fresh start, and now I feel like I did back in '94,
when I thought I was going to get a hit every time up," he says.
"I'm having that kind of fun again."
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT
With the recent exits from the baseball landscape of both Lee
Smith (retired) and Fernando Valenzuela (waived), the Cardinals'
Dennis Eckersley has moved up a notch in two career statistical
categories among active pitchers. It's no surprise that
Eckersley is now the saves leader, with 378, but he is also
second in complete games, with 100, behind only Roger Clemens
(105)--despite the fact that Eckersley has not started and
finished a game since 1986.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD WARSHAW/ALLSPORT Back spasms have contributed to Ripken's recent slump. [Cal Ripken Jr. scratching his head]
COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER A look at their stats begs the question: Why is Niekro going to Cooperstown and Sutton isn't? [Don Sutton pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: LEVITON ATLANTA [See caption above--Phil Niekro pitching]
W-L Pct. ERA G CG Shutouts Walks K's
SUTTON 324-256 .559 3.26 774 178 58 1,343 3,574
NIEKRO 318-274 .537 3.35 864 245 45 1,809 3,342