I never expected us to finish the season 162-0," said third
baseman Wade Boggs, after the expansion Devil Rays lost their
opening game on March 31. "I was thinking more like 160-2."
While Tampa Bay started the season 4-2 and was two games ahead
of the mighty Yankees in the American League East through
Sunday, the most significant impact of the franchise's inaugural
season will not be in the standings--but in the stands.
Boggs, 39, said last week that he didn't see a regulation major
league game in person until the day he made his debut with the
Red Sox when he was 23 years old. Devil Rays first baseman Fred
McGriff didn't witness his first regulation major league game
until he was a 22-year-old first baseman with the Blue Jays.
When Boggs and McGriff were growing up in Tampa, the nearest
major league stadium was in Atlanta, 458 miles away.
Reared just four blocks from Al Lopez Field, where the Reds
staged spring training, McGriff became a Cincinnati fan. He had
no baseball icons, nobody he emulated while swinging a bat in
his backyard. His only Tampa sports hero was quarterback Doug
Williams of the Buccaneers.
Boggs remembers rooting for the Athletics and says as a kid his
favorite player was the Reds' Pete Rose. "We had to find our
baseball heroes elsewhere," Boggs says, "because we didn't have
anybody local to call our own."
So while each of the 25 Devil Rays enjoyed making history last
week, it was a particularly proud moment for McGriff and Boggs.
Until the team's opener, McGriff's last official baseball game
in Tampa had been with his Jefferson High team in 1981. "Getting
a baseball team in Tampa has been a long time coming, but now
we're on the map," McGriff said after the opener. "Now kids can
grow up hoping someday to be Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They have
idols right in front of them."
Tribe Pitching Woes
IT TAKES HART TO BUILD A ROTATION
One day in the middle of March, Indians general manager John
Hart telephoned Reds G.M. Jim Bowden to ask if he might be
interested in trading righthander Dave Burba, Cincinnati's
projected Opening Day starter. Bowden was skeptical, but the two
exchanged about 30 phone calls during the ensuing two weeks.
Finally, Hart agreed to deal Cleveland's top hitting prospect,
first baseman Sean Casey, for Burba, who was only 21 hours from
taking the mound at Cinergy Field. Burba was the final item in
an off-season shopping spree during which Hart acquired 17
pitchers in trying to piece together a staff.
After leading the American League in ERA in '95 and '96,
Cleveland struggled in '97, using 14 starters and dropping to
ninth in the league in team ERA (4.73). The starters combined
for a 60-53 record and a 4.90 ERA, prompting Hart's
reconstruction campaign. "We wanted pitching depth, so we took
some gambles," he says. "Then we became the victims of Murphy's
Hart began the off-season by choosing not to re-sign free-agent
righthanders Orel Hershiser and Jack McDowell, two expensive and
aging former stars. The Tribe also lost two pitchers, Brian
Anderson and Albie Lopez, in the Nov. 18 expansion draft. Then,
on Dec. 8, after failing to lure free agents Darryl Kile and
Andy Benes, Hart traded centerfielder Marquis Grissom to the
Brewers for righthander Ben McDonald and signed free-agent
righthander Dwight Gooden to join rotation holdovers Charles
Nagy, Jaret Wright and Chad Ogea. After it was determined that
McDonald needed shoulder surgery and would miss the entire
season, Hart sent him back to Milwaukee and got Mark Watson, who
had never pitched in the majors. Then Ogea's left knee locked up
in spring training, requiring surgery that will keep him out
until mid-April. Two other candidates to join the rotation,
righthanders Bartolo Colon and Steve Karsay, put up spring ERAs
over 6.00. Finally, on March 30, Gooden was tuning up for his
first start of the season when he felt stiffness in his right
shoulder and landed on the 15-day disabled list. That was the
day Hart pulled the trigger on the Burba deal.
When the season started, Cleveland's rotation consisted of Nagy,
Wright, Burba, Colon and, when a fifth starter is needed, Rick
Krivda, who was claimed on waivers from the Orioles on March 24.
"We're pleased with what we've got, even though we don't have an
ace," Hart says. "The Indians philosophy has always been about
big bats, and we believe that our offense is usually going to
carry the day."
In the first week of the season it did. Cleveland came back from
a 9-3 deficit to win its opener in Seattle 10-9 and then
defeated the Mariners 9-7 the next night. The Indians then swept
three games from the Angels by a combined score of 23-6 to
remain the last unbeaten team in the majors. The 31-year-old
Burba picked up a victory in his first Cleveland start last
Friday, and the 22-year-old Colon threw a four-hit shutout the
This winter's star-crossed search for healthy and productive
arms reinforced Hart's reluctance to make long-term commitments
to pitchers. "It's a mistake to think you can build the perfect
staff in the winter, because nothing ever works out the way you
want it to," he says. "But the fun part of my job is having to
adjust on the run. Sometimes it gets a little slippery at the
top of the slope."
NEW RED BOUND FOR GREATNESS
During a March 30 press conference, Jim Bowden compared
23-year-old Sean Casey to Jeff Bagwell, Tony Gwynn, Chipper
Jones, Fred McGriff and Robin Ventura. Bowden also predicted
that Cincinnati fans would look back at the Casey-for-Dave Burba
trade as the best deal made by the Reds since they acquired Joe
Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke, Jack Billingham and Ed
Armbrister from Houston for Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy
Stewart in '71. He also likened the swap to the infamous
Boston-Houston trade in '90, when the Astros got Bagwell for
aging reliever Larry Andersen.
"This kid immediately is going to be the second-best hitter we
have [after] Barry Larkin," Bowden said. "We acquired an
All-Star and a superstar with some batting titles mixed in. I've
never seen a kid swing a bat like him. This is one trade I don't
mind staking my reputation on."
While it is true that Casey never hit lower than .329 in the
minors, Bowden may have been carried away by the results of his
three previous deals with Hart, all of which favored Cincinnati.
On Aug. 20, 1993, Bowden acquired outfielder Thomas Howard for
first baseman Randy Milligan. Howard had 3 1/2 productive
seasons with the Reds, while Milligan was traded by the Indians
to the Expos after the '93 season. On Dec. 14, 1994, Bowden got
infielder Mark Lewis in a trade for utilityman Tim Costo. Lewis
batted .339 for the Reds in '95, while Costo never played for
the Indians. Then last July 31, Bowden picked up prospects Jim
Crowell, Danny Graves, Damian Jackson and Scott Winchester in a
deal for veteran lefthander John Smiley and infielder Jeff
Branson. The trade instantly stocked a depleted Reds farm
system; Smiley broke his left arm warming up for his seventh
Indians start and might never pitch again.
Alas, Bowden's good fortune took a sudden turn last Thursday
when Casey was hit in the right eye by a thrown ball during
batting practice at Cinergy Field. Casey collapsed on the turf
in a pool of blood, with a fractured orbital bone. He was placed
on the 15-day disabled list and is expected to be out four to
In two of his three at bats with the Reds, mighty Casey struck
THE FORGOTTEN BLAKE ST. BOMBER
It was not surprising to see Rockies third baseman Vinny
Castilla crack three home runs in his first nine at bats this
season. Castilla has never been a patient hitter. In fact, the
first two homers came on the first pitches of Opening Day at
bats against the Diamondbacks' Andy Benes and Clint Sodowsky.
All told, 36 of Castilla's last 83 homers have come on first
While Castilla has tried to be more selective, striking out only
once in his first 22 at bats in '98, he still takes wild hacks
at bad breaking balls and is such an eager hitter that as
Rockies manager Don Baylor says, "Vinny doesn't know when
they're trying to pitch around him." Still, Castilla isn't
likely to alter his basic approach.
After three unspectacular years in the Braves' farm system and
two more with Colorado, which plucked him from Atlanta in the
'92 expansion draft, Castilla had not hit more than 14 home runs
in a season. Then, with sluggers Larry Walker and Dante Bichette
batting in front of him in '95, Castilla found his power stroke
and socked 32 home runs, followed by back-to-back seasons in
which he hit .304 with 40 homers and 113 RBIs. "There isn't much
of a secret to my success," says Castilla, who remains in the
shadows of his fellow Rockies sluggers. "I want every pitcher to
try to throw his best fastball past me."
It's a mystery why any pitcher would still challenge Castilla
with heat, because there is no better high fastball hitter in
the majors. Rockies batting coach Clint Hurdle explains that the
lift in Castilla's swing is conducive to hitting in the upper
part of the strike zone, where fastballs that leave the yard are
often thrown. Hurdle also believes that while the 6'1",
200-pound Castilla has an ordinary build, he possesses superior
hand-eye coordination and the strongest hands and wrists of any
Colorado hitter. "Vinny has a high-risk, high-reward type
swing," Hurdle says. "I think he could pull a bullet."
Castilla's success against some of the hardest throwers in the
game supports Hurdle's hyperbole. In addition to launching a
Benes fastball for his first homer this season, Castilla hit two
game-winning shots off Astros closer Billy Wagner last year. He
homered off the Braves' Mark Wohlers in '96, and he is 5 for 8
lifetime against flamethrower Robb Nen, who moved this year from
the Marlins to the Giants.
Castilla's mindset is ideally suited to these hardball
showdowns. "He thrives on it," Hurdle says. "He's always
thinking, I'm going to be the hero. You can strike Vinny out
nine times in a row, and the 10th time, he still thinks he's
going to take you out of the park."
Who's in Left?
THE 12TH MAN IN WRIGLEY
Henry Rodriguez became the Cubs' 12th straight new Opening Day
leftfielder, following Brian Dayett ('87), Rafael Palmeiro,
Mitch Webster, Lloyd McClendon, George Bell, Luis Salazar, Candy
Maldonado, Derrick May, Scott Bullett, Luis Gonzalez and '97
experiment Brant Brown.
Who's in Right?
11 IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER
Darren Bragg became Boston's 11th Opening Day rightfielder in 11
years, following Mike Greenwell ('88), Dwight Evans, Kevin
Romine, Tom Brunansky, Phil Plantier, Andre Dawson, Billy
Hatcher, Mark Whiten, Troy O'Leary and memorable '97 discovery
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Tampa eye-con Boggs's hometown now has its own big leaguer to root for. [Wade Boggs batting]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: CHIP WASS [Drawing of Bernie Williams]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO TRADE UP An escapee from the low-budget Reds, Burba helped the Indians to a 5-0 start. [Dave Burba pitching]
The Rangers privately admit they want to rectify the error they
committed in 1993 when they chose not to re-sign free agent
first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and made a deal with free agent
Will Clark instead. Palmeiro, who can test the market again
after this season, hit 139 home runs and drove in 432 runs for
the Orioles during the past four years, while Clark has had 54
homers and 295 RBIs over the same period. Unless Baltimore
offers Palmeiro a contract he can't refuse, look for him to wear
a Rangers uniform again in '99.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
In the '97 World Series, Indians righthander Orel Hershiser gave
up two three-run homers on a sinker and a slider, respectively,
to the Marlins' Moises Alou, a dead fastball hitter. On April 1
at the Astrodome, Hershiser, now a Giant, faced Alou, now an
Astro, with two runners on base. Alou launched his third
three-run blast against Hershiser in a span of five at bats.
Hershiser had decided to try a sinker again this time--only the
pitch didn't sink.
FIRST THE PARTY, THEN THE HANGOVER
There's nothing baseball fans love more than Opening Day--and
little they like less than the second game of the season.
Consider these attendance figures for teams that opened at home
Team Game 1 Game 2 Difference
Reds 54,578 13,706 40,872
Mets 49,142 13,591 35,551
Mariners 57,822 24,523 33,299
Astros 43,776 13,719 30,057
Athletics 36,915 7,313 29,602
Twins 43,848 18,589 25,259
Expos 31,220 6,396 24,824
Marlins 41,126 16,877 24,249
Cardinals 47,972 27,414 20,558
Blue Jays 41,387 25,584 15,803
Devil Rays 45,369 30,109 15,260
Cubs 39,102 25,436 13,666
Angels 43,311 29,899 13,412
Rangers 45,909 32,663 13,246
Braves 42,891 29,671 13,220
Orioles 46,820 38,623 8,197
Diamondbacks 47,484 43,758 3,726
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Baseball is at a crossroads, and standing at the intersection is
Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams, who is expected to be one
of the most coveted free agents available after this season.
Will he go to the Diamondbacks, boosting them into contention in
their second year and in the process turning his agent, Scott
Boras, into a kingmaker? Or will he re-sign for his asking price
of $77 million for seven years, pushing the Yankees' payroll
perilously close to the mythical $100 million mark? To track
baseball's vital signs, we will present an occasional report on
all things Bernie, on the field and off.
Last week the Yankees opened the season with two losses to the
mediocre Angels and one to the dreadful A's, as Bernie went 4
for 16 with no extra-base hits and one RBI. Still, at week's end
George Steinbrenner had yet to fire manager Joe Torre or hold
Bernie personally responsible.