HOT RIGHT OFF THE BAT
It may be premature to light a victory cigar, but with nearly a
month of play behind them, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a nice
early lead over the ghosts of baseball expansion. The '61
Washington Senators and the '69 Seattle Pilots? Eating dust. The
'62 Houston Colt .45s and the '69 Expos? Sucking wind. The '62
Mets? Puh-leeze. They're bringing up the rear, just slightly
behind the '98 Arizona Diamondbacks, the National League
newcomers with the $30.8 million payroll, deluge of off-season
hype and 7-18 record at week's end.
Meanwhile, the Devil Rays are huffin' and puffin' atop the
Expansion League--not to be confused with the American League
East, the division in which Tampa Bay actually plays--an
imaginary conference in which the records of baseball's 14
expansion teams since '61 are compared on a regular basis by the
St. Petersburg Times. The Devil Rays were so hot at the start of
their first season that despite losing five of their last six
games through Sunday, they still stood at 11-11. Their 11 wins
in April is an expansion-club record, and they still had four
games to play before May.
"With free agency, the expansion equation has changed," says
Seattle manager Lou Piniella, who played on the '69 Royals, a
team that holds another expansion record the Devil Rays have
their eyes on: 28 days spent above .500. (As of Sunday they had
been above .500 for 22 days.) "Tampa Bay signed a veteran
starting pitcher [Wilson Alvarez], a proven closer [Roberto
Hernandez], Wade Boggs and Paul Sorrento. They were able to
trade for Kevin Stocker and Fred McGriff. They have some
experience over there."
Enough experience to, just possibly, lead this team to expansion
nirvana: an above-.500 finish for the season, something no
first-year team in baseball--or for that matter, in the NBA, the
NFL or the NHL--has accomplished. Piniella's '69 Royals, it
should be noted, spent 152 days under .500 and finished the
season 69-93. Which is why Devil Rays rookie manager Larry
Rothschild, who last year was the pitching coach for the world
champion Florida Marlins, is keeping those victory stogies under
wraps. "There's nothing saying we can't play 162 games the way
we played the first 19," he says of the team's 11-8 start, "but
we might not get the same results. You're not going to hit every
night like we have."
Tampa Bay ranked a surprising second in the American League in
batting average (.302) at week's end, led not by Tampa natives
Boggs and McGriff--both of whom were over .300--but by a
23-year-old third baseman snapped up from the Atlanta Braves'
minor league system, Bobby Smith. After Boggs went on the
disabled list with a strained right calf on April 18, Smith
stepped in and was hitting .362 at week's end, tops among AL
rookies. "I didn't expect them to hit as well as they did," says
White Sox manager Jerry Manuel, whose team lost four of its
first six games to the Devil Rays. "They have a good mix of
speed and power, and that's a better pitching staff than a lot
of staffs that have been around the majors for years."
Chicago's, for one.
With a rotation that features free-agent acquisition Alvarez
(3-2, 3.96 ERA) and 29-year-old rookie Rolando Arrojo (2-2,
5.40), who defected two years ago from the Cuban national team,
the Devil Rays are in the top half of the league in ERA and have
a bullpen that had not lost a game through Sunday. (The Mets are
the only other team in the majors who share the latter
distinction.) Hernandez has performed well as the closer, but
the biggest surprise is a setup man who's been unhittable:
Esteban Yan, a 23-year-old Dominican righthander taken from the
Orioles in the expansion draft, against whom opponents are
batting .027 (1 for 37) and have yet to score a run. "We aren't
in the top half of the league as far as names, but we're in the
top half as far as arms," says catcher John Flaherty.
Credit for that goes to Chuck LaMar, the team's 41-year-old
general manager, who, before he joined the Devil Rays, was the
assistant G.M. for player personnel for the Braves, the team
that has the mother of all pitching staffs. "People say there's
not enough pitching to support expansion," says LaMar. "I
disagree. Some of those 22 new pitching jobs have been filled by
quality prospects in need of an opportunity." LaMar selected 14
pitchers among his first 25 picks of the expansion draft, and
nine have already pitched for the Devil Rays. "With a payroll
under $26 million, you're not going to be able to buy enough
bats," LaMar says. "So we emphasized defense, pitching, foot
speed and athleticism."
Sure, it's early, but when the Devil Rays are ready to fire up
those victory cigars, they can do so in the majors' first
in-stadium cigar bar, an addition to Tropicana Field, which was
refurbished recently for $85 million (even though it was just
built in 1990). However, no one in the Tampa Bay organization is
getting ahead of the program. They're thinking five years.
That's how long it took the Marlins to win a World Series.
That's when LaMar and Rothschild--assuming they're still
around--will light up. --E.M. Swift
BORN AGAIN IN BOSTON
Early in spring training righthander Bret Saberhagen walked up
to Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and said, "I want to
pitch in the All-Star Game this summer." Kerrigan grinned, as if
he was looking at a pitcher who had thrown only 26 major league
innings over the previous two seasons and hadn't won a game in
the last 30 months--which, of course, he was.
Needless to say, nobody in the Boston organization expected
Saberhagen to begin this season 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA (his
performance through Sunday), except perhaps Saberhagen. "I
haven't surprised myself, but I've surprised a lot of other
people," Saberhagen, 34, says. "Everybody thought I was washed
up, and that's what gave me an edge."
Over the past two years Saberhagen has fought his way back from
one of the most elaborate reconstructive shoulder surgeries ever
performed on a pitcher. During his rehabilitation, which forced
him to miss the entire '96 season and most of '97, Saberhagen
regularly experienced pain so harsh that it woke him up at
night. He suffered many setbacks and often doubted he would make
Finally, on April 5, he defeated Randy Johnson and the Mariners,
his first win since Sept. 26, 1995. "I would have loved to have
seen the odds on that game," Saberhagen says. "Before that night
I bet a lot of people didn't know where I was or that I was
Aware that Saberhagen no longer had an overpowering fastball,
Kerrigan helped the two-time Cy Young winner refine his
curveball to better complement his fastball and changeup. "I
wouldn't call him a finesse pitcher," Kerrigan says. "Bret
reminds me of those guys who pitched in the '60s and '70s, like
Catfish Hunter and Tom Seaver, guys who were both creative and
fearless on the mound."
Says Saberhagen, "Before I got injured, I never wanted to see
scouting reports. I had the mentality that if I have my stuff, I
should win the game. Now I think a lot more out there."
After a 3-2 victory in Cleveland last Saturday, a game in which
Saberhagen allowed one run and three hits in six innings,
Indians hitters complimented his fastball and his ability to
spot his changeup on 3-and-1 and 3-and-2 counts. "He's still a
legitimate power pitcher," Cleveland third baseman Travis Fryman
says, "but what makes him so tough is that he can locate the
ball anywhere in the strike zone on any pitch."
Saberhagen is still restricted to about 100 pitches a game, so
his next goal is to work into the seventh inning. He believes he
can throw 200 innings in '98, which could earn him a second
Comeback Player of the Year award--he won his first 11 years
ago--and a $250,000 incentive bonus that must have seemed like a
pipe dream when he signed a new contract following his surgery.
It's fair to conclude that Saberhagen is well acquainted with
baseball mortality. "I remember when Chris Bosio came up to me
in spring training and told me he was calling it quits because
of injuries," he says. "I remember thinking, That could have
been me. It makes you appreciate each pitch."
Stevens Has Landed
HOME, HOME ON THE RANGERS
"Timing is everything," says Lee Stevens, pondering the pivotal
moment of his baseball career. On April 1, 1996, he was sitting
on his couch in Wichita, Kans., unable to bring himself to watch
any Opening Day games on television. Stevens's agent had spent
the week trying to find his client a team, but all 28 clubs had
rejected him. "I was one day from quitting, one day from finding
out what I would do the rest of my life," says Stevens, who had
played parts of three seasons with the Angels before spending
the 1994 and '95 seasons in Japan.
Then, on April 2, after a conversation with Stevens's agent
about another player, Rangers general manager Doug Melvin
offered Stevens a minor league contract. (Melvin had seen
Stevens hit a ball out of Camden Yards back in '92 and recalled
that he'd really "crushed it.") Stevens promptly drove the 2 1/2
hours to Triple A Oklahoma City, where he would go on to win the
American Association Most Valuable Player award.
He began the '97 season as the last man on the Texas bench. But
injuries to rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, first baseman Will Clark
and DH Mickey Tettleton provided Stevens with opportunities to
play, and he made the most of them, hitting .300 with 21 home
runs and 74 RBIs in 137 games.
This year Stevens, the Rangers' regular DH, is among the top 10
in the American League with seven homers, 21 RBIs and a .636
slugging percentage at week's end. "Every time I walk on the
field, I'm playing against a team that said no to me," Stevens
says. "That's motivating."
California chose him in the first round of the '86 draft, but
there was no place for him in Anaheim until fan favorite Wally
Joyner departed as a free agent after the '91 season. Stevens
stepped into Joyner's spot at first base but hit just .221 in
'92, struggling to make contact with anything except
watercoolers between whiffs. "It was Wally's World, and I wasn't
ready to handle it," Stevens recalls. "I tried to be Superman
and not Lee Stevens. I took every at bat as life and death, and
my confidence was shattered."
After the Angels gave up on him, Stevens also couldn't make a
place for himself in Montreal or Toronto, and finally fled to
Japan. He played for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, where he hit 43
homers and drove in 136 runs in two seasons. But, more
important, because the Japanese frowned on outward displays of
frustration, he learned to control his temper.
Calmer and more confident than when he left the States, Stevens
returned in '96 looking to get back to the big leagues. Yet
without all those Rangers injuries the following spring, Stevens
might never have gotten a chance to prove himself.
Is Stevens a one-year wonder? Not to worry. His seven homers led
the team at week's end and put him fifth in the league in home
runs per at bat, erasing his own doubts about repeating his '97
success. "The question crossed my mind, too, for a second,"
Stevens admits. "Then I said, 'Hell, yeah! I can do it again.'
That's the difference between me now and 10 years ago."
Anyone who retrieves a home run hit by a Pirate at Three Rivers
Stadium this season can get the ball autographed by the batter.
A team employee collects the ball, brings it to the player to
sign and mails it back to the fan within 48 hours.
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS FLAT-OUT SURPRISING Vets like Stocker helped the Devil Rays get off to a record-setting start. [Kevin Stocker in game]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CLARKE REHABILITATED Saberhagen is pitching like the Cy Young Award winner he once was. [Bret Saberhagen pitching]
The Cubs will gladly entertain trade offers for 34-year-old
centerfielder Lance Johnson. When Johnson missed 14 starts with
a strained groin and hip flexor, he was replaced in 10 of those
games by Brant Brown, 26, who hit .333 with two home runs and 10
RBIs. Johnson won't be easy to deal, however, because the
two-year, $10 million contract extension he signed in November
'96 runs through next season.
THE EXPANDING UNIVERSE
At week's end the Devil Rays were at .500, which may not sound
like a big deal until you stack their record against those of
the other expansion teams after 22 games. By that measure, Tampa
Bay is off to a resounding start and Arizona has its work cut
out to avoid becoming the worst expansion team of all time.
FIRST 22 TEAM FINAL RECORD
12-10 1969 Kansas City Royals 69-93
11-11 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays NA
10-12 1993 Florida Marlins 64-98
10-12 1977 Toronto Blue Jays 54-107
9-13 1961 Los Angeles Angels 70-91
9-13 1969 San Diego Padres 52-110
8-14 1993 Colorado Rockies 67-95
8-14 1962 Houston Colt .45s 64-96
8-14 1969 Seattle Pilots 64-98
8-14 1969 Montreal Expos 52-110
8-14 1977 Seattle Mariners 64-98
8-14 1961 Washington Senators 61-100
6-16 1998 Arizona Diamondbacks NA
5-17 1962 New York Mets 40-120
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
"It is hard to motivate yourself with a team like this," Gary
Sheffield said last week of the defending world champion
Marlins, who had an 8-16 record through Sunday. "People look at
us like we are the Bad News Bears. Moises Alou said he felt
betrayed and so do I, but the difference is that I'm still here."
Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with general manager
Dave Dombrowski, who last year signed the petulant rightfielder
to a $61 million, six-year contract extension that kicked in
this season. "Anyone who is not motivated and doesn't want to
work hard," said Dombrowski, "should just quit and go home."
Responded Sheffield, "I'll quit and go home if they just send
the checks to my house."