There are ghosts in Cooper Stadium, the quaint ballpark on the
outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, that is the home of the Yankees'
Triple A affiliate Clippers. The brick walls deep inside the
stadium speak, and if you listen closely, you can hear:
Or sometimes there'll be the eerie sound of:
The images of the ghosts are on the walls, mug shots of the best
Clippers from seasons past. Some, the Dave Righettis and Don
Mattinglys and Derek Jeters, are silent because they got to a
better place. Others, the Brad Arnsbergs and Jeff Moronkos, also
make little noise. They're gone, forgotten. The ones you
hear--the ones whose haunting voices won't go away--are those
with unfinished business. The could've-beens. The should've-beens.
"I don't want to be a one-time guy," says Shane Spencer, sitting
in the tiny Columbus clubhouse. "So many guys have been in the
minors, had their chance and were never heard of again. This
can't be the end of me." If baseball does one thing especially
well, it's crush the hopes of its young. In a blaze of glory
late last season Spencer, a 26-year-old rookie with nine years
of minor league service, smashed 10 homers, drove in 27 runs and
batted .373. He hit three grand slams--only the seventh Yankee
to do so in one season. He was an American League Player of the
Week. In his first playoff at bat, against Rangers ace Rick
Helling, he smoked a solo home run over Yankee Stadium's
leftfield wall. Last October he was a folk hero. Last Thursday
he was sent down.
Spencer knows his New York history. He has heard of Doyle, the
obscure second baseman who, in the 1978 World Series, filled in
for an injured Willie Randolph, hit .438 and then disappeared.
He has heard of Maas, the wunderkind who, as a rookie in 1990,
set a major league record by hitting 10 home runs in his first
77 at bats and then faded out. During this spring's exhibition
season Spencer hit a solid .271 but was the odd man out in the
Yankees' leftfield platoon of Chad Curtis and Ricky Ledee. He
played in only four of New York's first 19 regular-season games,
went 2 for 11 and was demoted. Yankees general manager Brian
Cashman flew to Texas to give Spencer the news in person.
"It hurts--I can't say it doesn't," Spencer said on Sunday, an
hour before the Clippers' game against the Louisville RiverBats,
in which he would go 2 for 4. "I've never been the prospect, and
if you're not the prospect, it's easier to find things wrong
with you. That's how it is. After I've had a good year, they
say, 'You need to hit for a higher average.' So two winters ago
I went to Venezuela, played winter ball and hit above .300. Then
they say--well, you need to drive the ball the other way. I do
that. They say I can't hit the slider low and away." Spencer
catches his breath. "Well, except for Tony Gwynn, who can hit
the slider low and away?"
The Yankees say Spencer is in Columbus to get at bats, play
every day and will come back up sooner rather than later.
Clippers manager Trey Hillman says Spencer is too good a hitter
to be around for long. But Spencer--he's not so sure. This is
his fourth season with the Clippers. He knows there are no
guarantees. "There comes a point," he says, "when you start to
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU