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Original Issue

The Dropo Drop-off A hot rookie year doesn't ensure a brilliant career

Though it can't be fun being Ben Grieve (page 76) right now, he
probably doesn't have a lot to worry about. Baseball's roadside
is littered with the careers of terrific rookie pitchers who
quickly devolved into rusty, dented mediocrities. (Remember
Butch Metzger, who went 11-4 with a 2.94 ERA for the Padres in
1976 and won only five games thereafter? Can you ever forget
Mark Fidrych, who was 19-9 for the Tigers the same year and
10-10 for the rest of his career?) Batters hold up better.
They're less prone to sudden injury, and if they've got fatal
weaknesses, they're likely to show up during the long grind of a
rookie season.

Take Walt Dropo, who with the Red Sox in 1950 enjoyed what might
have been the best rookie season ever--.322 average, 34 home
runs, 144 runs batted in--only to lurch to .239, 11 homers and
57 RBIs in '51. Whitey Ford, himself a rookie in '50, said that
American League pitchers shared their notes on Dropo, and by
September of that season had come to the consensus that while
Dropo's big swing was devastating inside the strike zone, he
would flail with futility at pitches just off the plate. But
even if Dropo's dropoff in '51 can be traced to the cooperative
intelligence of what Ford called "the Great American Pitchers'
Union," and even if he would never remotely match his
astonishing '50 performance, Big Walt (at 6'5" and 220 pounds,
he was nearly Grieve's physical twin) recovered sufficiently to
enjoy a sound 13-year career as a .270 hitter. His work with a
bat was, for him, of utmost importance, too: Dropo played first
base for five teams with all the panache of a very large lamppost.

Grieve will probably right himself. With very few exceptions
(like two rookies of the year who quickly fizzled: Joe
Charboneau, who hit 23 home runs for the Indians in 1980 and
just six more in the next two years before leaving the game, and
Bob Hamelin, who, after batting .282 with 24 homers for the
Royals in '94, bounced around for four dismal seasons and is now
in Triple A), good rookie hitters endure. More suspect are the
late-season wonders who mark the baseball sky like shooting
stars, come-from-nowhere rookies like Bob (Hurricane) Hazle, who
helped lift the '57 Braves to the National League pennant by
hitting .403 over 41 games. Hazle, who a year later was out of
the majors forever, was 26 in 1957, the same age as last year's
most notable rookie meteorite, who until recently was smoldering
in Columbus. Grieve may not have much to worry about over the
long haul, but I wouldn't want to be Shane Spencer's agent.