AN AGELESS A
At 40, Oakland's Tony Phillips is still tearing up opposing
Tony Phillips of the A's doesn't chuckle or giggle. He cackles.
He cackles at jokes, at obscure baseball references, at
discussions of movies. He cackles at himself. "Why shouldn't I?"
he says. "This is all about having fun." There were times, not
so long ago, when fun for Phillips was a distant planet. In 1997
he was arrested for possession of cocaine and suspended by the
Angels. Last July he was acquired by the Mets to be an offensive
spark plug and proceeded to hit .223.
Now the 40-year-old Phillips is enjoying one of the most
productive stretches of his 18-year career: Through Sunday he
was hitting .271 with 27 RBIs and was tied with first baseman-DH
Jason Giambi for the team lead in homers (nine). Phillips was
not only one of the catalysts of an exciting American League
West-contending Oakland club (21-17, a half game behind the
Rangers), but also the leader of a collection of refurbished
antiques on display throughout the majors. There are 12 players
who are 40 or older and 85 who are 35 or older in the big
leagues, counting such early-season sensations as Phillips,
40-year-old Orioles DH Harold Baines (.295, seven homers, 29
RBIs), 39-year-old Yankees DH Chili Davis (.341, nine, 30) and
39-year-old Rangers righthander Mike Morgan (6-2, 4.67 ERA).
"Just because you're old doesn't mean you can't play," says
Phillips, who seven teams ago was an unheralded Oakland rookie.
"If I'm not getting the job done, that'd be a sign. But I've
still got it."
It is a drive that older players tend to lose with time and
money. Phillips signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with
Oakland in the off-season and then reported to spring training
weighing 170 pounds, only a few pounds over his rookie weight.
He worked out regularly during the winter, running, lifting
weights, hitting. That was all fine for manager Art Howe, who
figured Phillips could fill a mentoring role with the A's. "But
Tony's done everything we could ask, and more," Howe says.
In the clubhouse Phillips is quick with advice. His reputation,
from earlier years, was that of an overbearing know-it-all.
That's not his persona now. Phillips is loud but positive.
During outfielder Ben Grieve's horrendous early-season slump,
Phillips has been a voice of encouragement. "Ben will snap out
of it," he says. "Everyone goes through this kind of thing. I
know I have."
With the talent pool in the majors diluted by expansion and by
the rush to bring up low-salaried prospects, cagey vets like
Phillips have found an odd job security. In Atlanta, 40-year-old
Otis Nixon may have been hitting just .188 through Sunday, but
manager Bobby Cox loves his speed (10 steals in 13 attempts) and
his influence on 22-year-old Andruw Jones. In Baltimore, Jesse
Orosco, at 42 baseball's senior senior, remains the Orioles' top
"There are things I get now that I didn't before," says
Phillips, who has played six positions for Howe. "It's the
little things--understanding the count, understanding the
inning. When you're a kid, you have no idea. When you're old,
you start catching on." He cackles. "Me--I'm old."
O'NEILL'S VINTAGE WHINE
Baseball players are, so the saying goes, grown men playing a
boy's game. Well, some of those men still have some growing up
to do. SI asked a random selection of 85 major league players,
coaches, managers and G.M.'s to name the biggest whiner in the
game today. Twenty players were mentioned, but one--Yankees
rightfielder Paul O'Neill, who received 41 votes--is clearly in
a kindergarten class of his own. (The runner-up in this crying
game, White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, got 10 votes.) Even
his teammates acknowledge O'Neill's tragic dimension. "Some
people think it's our rightfielder," said one New York respondent.
Indeed they do. Here's what some of O'Neill's opponents had to
say about him:
"He's a baby."
"Oh, god. He's never happy. For being such a great player, he
whines way too much."
"If he didn't swing at it, it's not a strike."
"The guy hits .380, and he cries all the time."
"Every time he comes up to the plate he's complaining."
Marking the Ball
THE STUFF ON SCUFF
The art of ball scuffing, which seems to enjoy a renaissance
every five years or so, is back in the news. On May 1 Tigers
righthander Brian Moehler was caught with a small piece of
sandpaper stuck to his thumb and was suspended for 10 games.
Last week Mariners manager Lou Piniella accused Yankees reliever
Jason Grimsley of doctoring balls. Is scuffing once again
cutting edge? "Things come up in baseball, and then they're
noticed a lot," says A's righthander Tom Candiotti. "I'm sure
there are some pitchers who always do it."
Some pitchers use their belt buckle, an emery board or a jagged
eyelet on their glove to deface the ball, which enables them to
make it move unpredictably. "I've seen a catcher rub the ball on
his shin guard," says Candiotti, a 16-year veteran knuckleballer
who professes to be a nonscuffer, "but sandpaper on the thumb?
It's so deliberate--just blatantly wrong."
Many older players consider the early to mid-1980s to have been
the heyday of scuffing. Some pitchers, like Joe Niekro and
Gaylord Perry, were caught doing the dastardly deed. Others,
like Mike Scott, the former Astros righthander who went from
5-11 with a 4.68 ERA in 1984 to 18-8 and 3.29 the following
season, were often accused but never caught. "When a guy has the
kind of results [Scott] had with only two pitches," says Mets
bench coach Bruce Benedict, a longtime catcher for the Braves,
"you become very, very suspicious."
Among today's pitchers, the Braves' Greg Maddux has been accused
of scuffing, as have the Yankees' Roger Clemens, the Mets' Orel
Hershiser and the Angels' Chuck Finley. None, however, have been
Of course, like any art form, scuffing isn't for everyone. Four
days before the Moehler bust, Reds reliever Gabe White, facing
Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal, found himself with a battered
and nicked ball. White's subsequent deliveries dipped
uncontrollably, and on a full count he walked Lieberthal. Two
batters later Desi Relaford, running for Lieberthal, scored on
Doug Glanville's two-out single, and Philadelphia went on to win
1-0. "I threw the ball out of play after I walked Lieberthal,"
White says. "I think it was a sign that I'm not supposed to
cheat. From now on, if I get a scuffed ball, I'm throwing it out
Reds Coach Don Gullett
HOW THE PITCHING DOCTOR OPERATES
Ask Reds manager Jack McKeon about his pitching coach, Don
Gullett, and he waxes hagiographic. "St. Jude, that's what I
call Don," says McKeon. "He's the saint of the impossible."
There are two ways to take this. The first would be as a
reflection on Gullett's own history of facing seemingly
insurmountable obstacles: a double rotator cuff tear in 1978,
which ended his brilliant but injury-plagued nine-year pitching
career (Gullett was 109-50 with the Reds and the Yankees); a
bout with hepatitis in '72; a heart attack in '86, when he was
just 35; and triple-bypass surgery four years later.
McKeon, however, was referring to the uncanny ability of
Gullett, who's in his seventh year of coaching the Reds' staff,
to transform wayward chuckers into dependable major leaguers.
Hector Carrasco was a Class A journeyman when in 1993 he met
Gullett, who suggested that Carrasco alter how he held the
baseball; the next year Carrasco worked out of the Reds' bullpen
and went 5-6 with a 2.24 ERA. Pete Schourek also came to
Cincinnati, in '94, as a disheartened lefty who had flamed out
with the Mets; a year later he was 18-7 with a 3.22 ERA and
finished second in the National League Cy Young voting. Jeff
Brantley, Pete Harnisch and Jeff Shaw have also refound success
while under the tutelage of the Reds' patron saint of reclamation.
These days Gullett's most successful work in progress is
lefthander Steve Avery, the former hard-throwing Braves prodigy
(47-25 with 391 strikeouts and a 3.17 ERA from 1991 through '93)
who last season with Boston was throwing just 84 mph. Gullett
watched tape of Avery at his peak and saw that he threw over the
top. With the Red Sox he had been delivering with his arm at an
angle. "I said, 'Let's get back to how it was,'" says Gullett.
Avery is now throwing in the high 80s. Through Sunday he had
been the Reds' best starter, at 2-3 with a 2.56 ERA.
In recently acquired Mark Wohlers, the erstwhile Atlanta closer
who mysteriously lost control of his pitches last season,
Gullett may be facing his greatest challenge. Gullett reviewed
Wohlers's mechanics and noticed that Wohlers was falling off the
mound to the right, reducing his momentum toward the plate. The
two worked on his delivery, and the results have been mixed.
Wohlers has had some sessions in which his fastball was over the
plate and in the high 90s. In a minor league outing on May 2,
however, he threw 22 balls in 31 pitches, and through Sunday he
hadn't appeared in a game since. "Rule Number 1 in pitching is,
Why do my pitches do what they do?" Gullett says. "Mark realizes
what he's doing. I believe in him."
That's the best news Wohlers has had in months.
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: CARD: THE TOPPS CO., INC. An A's rookie in 1982 (inset), Phillips is back in Oakland as one of this year's golden oldies.
COLOR PHOTO: CLAY MCLACHLAN/REUTERS [See caption above]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY HELLMAN
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Can pitching guru Gullett build a bridge back to the major leagues for the troubled Wohlers (right)?
This season, saves were awarded in 253 of the 545 major league
games played through Sunday, a rate of 46.4%. No team had
depended on its closer as much as the Devil Rays, whose Roberto
Hernandez had sealed all but six of Tampa Bay's 19 wins (68.4%).
On the other hand, the Rockies had needed just four saves
(26.7%), all from Dave Veres, to cement their 15 wins. Here are
the teams that had the highest percentage of wins coming from
TEAM WINS SAVES PCT. WINS WITH SAVES
1. Devil Rays 19 13 68.4%
Roberto Hernandez's 13 saves were tops in the major leagues
2. Mets 19 13 66.7%
Team ERA of 3.23 from seventh inning on was best in majors
3. Twins 13 8 61.5%
With three wins and six saves Rick Aguilera had had a hand in
69.2% of Minnesota wins
4. Expos 10 6 60.0%
Three blown saves each by Anthony Telford and Ugueth Urbina hurt
5. Giants 22 13 59.1%
Robb Nen had 91.2% of San Francisco's saves over the last two
6. Athletics 21 12 57.1%
Ageless tandem: Doug Jones (41, two saves) and Billy Taylor (37,
7. Astros 23 13 56.5%
Billy Wagner (98 mph) and Scott Elarton (93 mph) put out fires
by bringing lots of heat
8. Marlins 11 6 54.4%
Matt Mantei is making the most (five saves, 1.53 ERA) of the few
opportunities he's getting
9. Padres 15 8 53.3%
Last place Padres won't allow Trevor Hoffman (seven saves) to
approach his 53 saves of '98
10. Cubs 17 9 52.9%
Not bad, considering Rod Beck's four blown saves, four losses
and 10.54 ERA
in the BOX
May 15, 1999
Cardinals 8, Dodgers 5
The Dodgers gladly traded an early-season loss for signs that
Todd Hundley is healthy. Their beleaguered catcher, still trying
to get on track after 1997 elbow surgery, caught Shawon Dunston
trying to steal second in the sixth inning, only the fourth
runner he'd thrown out this season. At week's end Hundley's
4-for-32 (12.5%) success rate was still fourth-worst in the
league, but his arm was showing signs of life. After throwing
out only two of the first 28 runners who tried to steal against
him, Hundley had nailed two of his last four.
Hundley, who hit just .158 in April, also had awakened at the
plate. He had gotten at least one hit in 10 of 12 games in May,
including a 2-for-5 performance last Saturday, and raised his
average to .252.
the HOT corner
Think Barry Larkin is enjoying all the grand slam hoopla this
season? The Reds shortstop has hit 162 home runs but has gone
slamless in his 13-year career, making him the active player
with the most at bats (5,838) never to hit one....
It's early, but with Luis Gonzalez (.379), Jay Bell (13 homers)
and Matt Williams (41 RBIs), the Diamondbacks can at least dream
of sweeping the Triple Crown categories in the National League.
Only once this century--in 1902, when the Pirates' Ginger
Beaumont (.357), Tom Leach (six homers) and Honus Wagner (91
RBIs) led the league--has the same team had a different player
lead the league in each category....
Yankees interim manager Don Zimmer is starting to worry about
righthander Orlando Hernandez, who even in his worst outings
always had good control. In an 8-2 loss to the White Sox last
week--his third defeat in his last three starts--Hernandez
walked four in one inning. "He can throw the ball in a teacup,"
says Zimmer. "So for him to walk those guys--that's not El
Duque. But he says nothing's wrong physically, nothing mentally.
I have to believe him."...
It was meeting time last week. No sooner had Zimmer put the
kibosh on a players-only meeting in New York (Zim likes to be
invited) than Rangers skipper Johnny Oates and Tigers manager
Larry Parrish each pulled his troops together to talk team
effort. Twins skip Tom Kelly called two meetings, one to educate
his young club about better baserunning, another the next day to
talk about overaggressive baserunning. Those get-togethers came
a week after the first players-only meeting White Sox slugger
Frank Thomas had called in his 10-year career, a session to urge
patience at the plate....
Infielder Chris Sexton, 27, was called up for his major league
debut by the Rockies last week and cost his best friend a job in
the process. Outfielder Pat Watkins, who was sent to Triple A
Colorado Springs to make room for Sexton, has been pals with
Sexton since 1993, when both were drafted by the Reds. Four
years ago Watkins introduced Sexton to Sexton's future wife,
After he hit a game-winning homer to beat the Nashville Sounds
on May 3, Kevin Millar, the first baseman for the Marlins'
Triple A affiliate in Calgary, offered his thoughts on the state
of the Florida organization. "We're challenging the Marlins
[11-26 through Sunday] to a seven-game series," said Millar, who
was a late cut from the big league roster, "and the winner stays
[in the majors]! We'd beat them in six games."...
While tossing BP last week, Reds hitting coach Denis Menke was
struck in the mouth by a shot off Michael Tucker's bat. Menke
was standing behind a protective net, but the ball skipped under
a metal bar inches off the ground, took a bounce and whacked
Menke in the face. "I've seen a lot of s---," said 68-year-old
Reds manager Jack McKeon, "but never that."