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Original Issue

Breaking Out Talented Tiger Juan Encarnacion needs fewer fractures and more seasoning

In September 1997, four games into his major league career,
Tigers outfielder Juan Encarnacion had his right hand broken by
a pitch from the Angels' Allen Watson and played in only seven
more games that season. During spring training last year,
Encarnacion's bid to make the Detroit roster was ended by
another broken bone, this one shattered by a ball fouled off his
left foot. So when Encarnacion, 23, reported to camp this
spring, his teammates were waiting. "They told me to drink more
milk because my bones were weak," says Encarnacion, who returns
to his native Dominican Republic in the off-season. "I told them
not to worry because I bought a cow in the Dominican."

He was joking, but the Tigers would tie a Guernsey to the
clubhouse buffet table if they thought it would help him.
Encarnacion's surname is Spanish for incarnation, and any scout
will tell you that the name fits: He's the embodiment of a
five-tool ballplayer. Detroit hitting coach Alan Trammell calls
the 6'3", 187-pound Encarnacion, who returned to hit .329 with
seven homers in 40 games with the Tigers last year, the most
talented player he has seen in his 20 years with Detroit.

In his first season as the Tigers' regular leftfielder,
Encarnacion, who before every pitch holds his bat aloft like a
samurai sword, was hitting .279 with seven homers, 30 RBIs and
18 steals through Sunday. But he also had been caught stealing
10 times and had tantalized Detroit fans and brass with play
that was alternately blockheaded and brilliant.

To wit: In the eighth inning of a 7-4 loss in Cleveland on May
23, Encarnacion dropped two consecutive fly balls with runners
on base. Five days earlier, in Toronto, he ran through third
base coach Lance Parrish's stop sign and was tagged out at the
plate, killing a two-out rally. Yet the next day, with the Blue
Jays and Tigers tied in the seventh, Encarnacion hammered a
three-run homer off lefthander David Wells, who had struck him
out twice in the game. Detroit went on to win 7-3. "Anytime you
bring a young player up, you're going to see some growing
pains," says manager Larry Parrish. "You just hope he can learn
from them."

Encarnacion has been on the Tigers' accelerated learning program
since he was signed at age 16. A pitcher for most of his youth,
he had been playing the outfield and batting regularly for only
a month when Detroit scout Ramon Pena signed him after seeing
him play in a Dominican tournament. Two months later Encarnacion
was with the Tigers' affiliate in a Dominican summer league; he
hit .251 with 13 homers in 72 games. "I loved his bat speed and
the way the ball jumped off his bat," says Pena.

The Tigers look forward to having Encarnacion's bat--and
foot--speed in Comerica Park, their new stadium that opens in
2000. Parrish says one reason Encarnacion, a rightfielder in the
minors, was moved to left was that Detroit needed a speedster to
cover Comerica's spacious leftfield. It's up to Encarnacion to
prove that he deserves to patrol those grounds every day. "When
I became a professional, I felt like I was just starting to play
baseball," says Encarnacion, who when he signed was playing only
twice a week on sandlots. "The more I play, the more easily it
will come for me."