Rangers pitchers Aaron Sele (5-1 with a 2.72 ERA through Sunday)
and Rick Helling (6-0, 2.93) were taken in the first round of
consecutive June drafts--in '91 and '92, respectively--so it
shouldn't be a total surprise that they're two of the hottest
hurlers in baseball. That they are among the top 10 in the
American League in ERA and combined for more wins in April than
five major league teams is shocking, however, especially
considering that neither had delivered on any of that
first-round promise before this year. The dynamic duo has given
Texas a pair of aces in a rotation that for years has been
stacked with jokers, and thanks in large part to them, the
Rangers were atop the American League West at week's end.
Sele came to Texas in a trade last winter after an ugly breakup
with Boston that included some questions from his Red Sox
teammates about his intestinal fortitude. "Not everyone can play
in New York or Boston," Sele's former teammate, Bret Saberhagen,
said last week. "I don't think Aaron had the toughness to play
here. If he had a tough outing, he wouldn't say, 'I'm going to
go out there and kick ass next time.' Instead it was, 'If I go
out there and get hit, I'm going to get hit again the next
time.' He was timid."
Sele, who had ERAs of 5.32 and 5.38 in his final two seasons in
Boston, brushes off his former teammates' criticism, claiming
his lack of emotion on the mound is easily misconstrued as
timidity. He has suggested that his troubles in Boston were at
least partly a result of disputes with his coaches over pitch
selection. What is certain is that Sele's 80 walks in 177 1/3
innings in '97 cemented his reputation as a nibbler. Sele no
longer discusses his Red Sox tenure except to say, "Now I've got
a pitching coach [Dick Bosman] I can have a conversation with
and a manager [Johnny Oates] who sticks with me."
Since arriving in Texas, he has followed Bosman's credo: Get
ahead. Stay ahead. Use your head. "He has three good pitches, so
he doesn't need to trick the hitters," Bosman says. "He's got
plenty of arsenal to challenge anybody."
Sele admits he feels more comfortable throwing strikes this
season because he is backed by the league's best defense and
because the Rangers' robust offense has scored 60 runs in his
six starts. As a result of his new aggressiveness, Sele has
already thrown two shutouts in '98 after throwing none (and just
four complete games) in 108 starts with the Sox.
Helling began this season with only 11 major league victories
and looked like a bust. He had started the '94 and '95 seasons
in the Texas rotation but was dispatched to the minors in May of
both years. In '96 he shuttled back and forth between Triple A
Oklahoma City and the Rangers three times before being traded to
Florida. Helling left thinking he'd been blackballed by someone
in the Rangers organization.
But someone liked him enough that the Rangers reacquired him in
a trade last August. Since then he has pitched as if he has
something to prove. Says Oates, "If Rick's got a chip on his
shoulder, I hope he tapes it on there."
Helling has learned to keep his fastball down and work his way
up the ladder instead of trying to throw high fastballs past
hitters early in the count. He has also benefited from following
Sele in the rotation and charting his games. "We have a similar
style, so I can learn by watching how he attacks hitters,"
Helling says. "He keeps racking up wins and you want to keep the
BAD MOJO IN MOTOWN
Where is Sparky Anderson when the Tigers need him? With Detroit
wallowing in last place in the American League Central, you can
almost see baseball's eternal optimist leaning back in his chair
and pointing out that, while his team may have the fewest wins
in the league, at least Tiger Stadium has yet to be leveled by
an asteroid or a 500-pound expansion joint. Anderson might be
the only guy who could find a silver lining in Motown these days.
With a dispiriting 7-20 record through Sunday, the Tigers are
off to their worst start in the last 45 seasons. Unfortunately
this misery arrives on the heels of a '97 season during which
the team improved by 26 wins over '96 and raised expectations to
preposterous heights. After an awful April, Tiger talk has
turned from making the playoffs to finishing with a better
record than the expansion teams. Says Detroit general manager
Randy Smith, "We need wins like we need oxygen."
Smith arrived in Detroit in November of '95 preaching the
healing powers of pitching and defense, and his personnel
decisions eventually helped spark the '97 turnaround. The
Tigers, who had set a league record for futility with a 6.38 ERA
in '96, lowered that mark to 4.56, sixth best in the league, a
year ago; they also had the major leagues' best fielding
percentage (.985). So far in '98 the club has taken a giant step
backward. The team ERA (5.87) is the worst in the league, and
the fielding percentage (.975) is among the worst in the majors.
The offense has sputtered as well. At week's end the Tigers were
the worst in the American League in runs scored (112) and
trailed everyone except anemic Toronto in on-base percentage
(.323) and slugging percentage (.381). First baseman Tony Clark,
who hit 32 homers last season, tinkered with his swing this
spring and has hit just two home runs in '98, while the team has
launched a league-low 19 homers. Detroit has only one three-run
homer and no grand slams in '98. "I've been saying for two weeks
that it can't get worse," rightfielder Bobby Higginson says,
"and every day it just keeps getting a little worse."
Restricted by a $23 million payroll, the league's second lowest,
Smith made some off-season moves that have backfired. He traded
third baseman Travis Fryman to Arizona (which shipped him to
Cleveland in a deal for Matt Williams) for Joe Randa and two
minor leaguers, but Randa spent the first month of the season
batting below .200. Smith also chose not to re-sign pitcher
Willie Blair, who was 16-8 last year, and in his place plugged
in Frank Castillo, who spent nearly all of April on the disabled
list. (Giving up on Blair might have been fiscally sound though:
He signed with the Diamondbacks for $11.5 million over three
years and is off to an 0-6 start with a 6.33 ERA.)
It didn't help that surehanded shortstop Deivi Cruz sat out the
season's first 20 games recovering from a broken left ankle. His
replacement, Bill Ripken, committed six errors. "We've got to be
able to catch the ball," says Tigers manager Buddy Bell.
"Hopefully we'll stop this before we get ourselves in a
tremendously deep hole. I think this team has underachieved as
much as last year's team overachieved."
Smith's primary concern is the development of the Tigers' young
players and much-improved farm system, aiming to build a playoff
team by the time Detroit opens its new stadium in 2000. However,
there is a fine line between incubation and meltdown. "We never
would have imagined such a bad start," Smith says, "but we're
not going to panic by rushing our prospects or trading our
nucleus. We have to have the courage to stay the course, no
The Go-Go Yankees
THE BOMBERS' GROUND ATTACK
Yankees manager Joe Torre conducted an experiment during spring
training, giving all of his starters the green light on the base
paths at any time. "The only way to know how aggressive my guys
were was to see how many opportunities they wanted to take
advantage of," Torre says. "I found out we liked to run."
Suddenly the Bronx Bombers have turned into the Bronx Burners.
The Yankees led the majors with 44 stolen bases through Sunday
and had been successful in 80% of their attempts. Last year
through the same number of games the team had just 11 steals.
While it was expected that the Yankees' thefts would rise with
the acquisition of the league's second-leading base stealer in
'97, Chuck Knoblauch, it's shortstop Derek Jeter who actually
leads the team with nine steals. Much of the larceny has come
from less obvious sources like Bernie Williams (seven), Chad
Curtis (five) and even Paul O'Neill (four). Perhaps the most
improbable base burglar is 36-year-old Darryl Strawberry, who
has four stolen bases despite knee surgery last season. "My legs
feel as good now as they have in a long time," Strawberry says.
This isn't the first time Torre has relied on speed to win
games. During the first half of the '96 world championship
season--before the Yankees signed Strawberry and traded for
Cecil Fielder--the team played National League-style baseball,
or, as bench coach Don Zimmer puts it, "getting by without home
run hitters." Coincidentally, so far this season the Yankees
rank 10th in homers in the league; O'Neill has hit only one and
Williams none. It's hard to believe, but it may not be long
before opposing pitchers have to start throwing more fastballs
to curtail the Yankees' running game, which could help transform
the club back into the familiar Bronx Bombers.
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER HOT HAND So far this spring, hitting against the 6-0 Helling can best be described as hellish. [Rick Helling pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO IN A JAM After belting 32 home runs last year, Clark is struggling to regain his stroke. [Tony Clark batting]
Q & A
Mets announcer Keith Hernandez is one of the few people in the
world with knowledge of how the last episode of Seinfeld will
end--at least he thinks he knows what will happen. After
returning from shooting the series finale, he answered our
questions about the show.
On the show, you met Jerry in a health club. Ever meet anybody
exciting in a health club in real life?
Chuck Barris, of The Gong Show. I met him about five years ago,
and we became friends.
What was it like making out with Elaine?
She was three months' pregnant at the time and happily married.
But she knows a thing or two about first base.
Is helping a guy move really the biggest step in a male
Well, it was obviously a very big step for Jerry. I think he
kind of overreacted, myself.
There are rumors of decoy scenes being shot for the finale. Are
you sure you're in it?
I don't think I'm a decoy. I can't tell you more because I
signed my life away. If I talk they'll take my house. I will say
we filmed two endings, though.