There are people yelling. People booing. People crunching loudly
on popcorn and people screaming for beer. There's music blaring
and bubble gum popping and soda spilling and sunflower seeds
flying and chewing tobacco oozing and kids crying and mothers
cooing and fathers cursing and grandparents complaining. There
are 40,000 people engrossed in 20,000 conversations--many of
them louder than a Pantera concert in the Lincoln Tunnel.
Then there's the leadoff hitter--at peace. His mind is as clear
as his objective. He isn't thinking about that botched putt
earlier in the day on 16 or last night's episode of Dawson's
Creek. (What's up with Pacey, anyway?) He doesn't aspire to be
the next Mark McGwire or Babe Ruth. He sees, only 90 feet up the
white-powdered line, the place that reminds him of the goodness
and innocence of his youth in Orlando, a boyhood spent climbing
trees and playing tag and coming home to a warm supper.
Johnny Damon wants to reach first base. The Oakland Athletics
will pay him $7.1 million this season, approximately 99.9% of it
because of Damon's ability to have one of his feet land
firmly--and safely--on the 15-inch white canvas square. Home runs?
Stolen bases? Those are extras, sometimes even considered
undesirable. "A leadoff hitter's first priority is to get on by
any means necessary," says Damon. "A walk, a hit, a hit by pitch,
I don't care. When I lead off, sometimes I'll take a peek at the
infielders. If they're playing in on me, I'll swing the bat. If
they're playing back, it's more likely I'll bunt. I figure that
if I bunt well enough, there's no chance they'll get me, no
matter where they're playing. But I'd always rather slug than
bunt." Concludes Damon: "The best leadoff hitters have one thing
in common: They reach base regularly."
Such a simple job description. Such a difficult gig. New York
Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, one of the peskiest
table-setters for the past decade, says the Holy Grail for him
is a .400-plus on-base percentage. "That's the number every
leadoff hitter should shoot for," he says, "but you don't
realize how hard it is unless you play the game." Knoblauch
plays the game, and he has played it well. Yet he has cleared
.400 only twice in his 10-year career, in 1995 and '96 with the
Minnesota Twins, when his percentages were .424 and .448,
respectively. Last season only two full-time leadoff
hitters--Florida Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo (.418) and
Anaheim Angels leftfielder Darin Erstad (.409)--broke the
barrier. "As hard as pitchers try to get out the heart of the
order, they go even harder after the leadoff hitter," says
Knoblauch. "That's why the leadoff hitter must have a real
ability to get on. He gets nothing for free."
Boasting speed and pop, the 6'2", 190-pound Damon, a leftfielder
whose .382 on-base percentage was fourth among major league
leadoff hitters in 2000, is simultaneously old school and New
Age. In 1986, when the St. Louis Cardinals' Vince Coleman, the
Yankees' Rickey Henderson and the Montreal Expos' Tim Raines
headed a class of leadoff men who ran wild on the base paths,
Coleman predicted that soon one of their kind would swipe 200
bases in a season. Looking back, the forecast has a Mars Attacks!
absurdity to it. Whereas in the '80s most teams needed to
generate offense one base at a time, with today's power hitters
it makes more sense for the runner who reaches first to sit tight
until a teammate launches one into the corner or over the fence.
"In those days, stealing was it," says Raines, 41, who's back
with the Expos this season as a fifth outfielder. "Guys ran
whenever they could, even with a game 8-1. Speed was huge."
Nowadays, Raines regretfully concedes, the leadoff hitter is
usually asked to stay on first as long as possible because: 1)
the meat of the batting order will then see more fastballs from
pitchers who are worried that the leadoff man--assuming he has at
least a modicum of speed--will try to steal second; 2) pitchers
employ the slide step more than ever, not only making it
difficult for a runner to get a big jump but also sacrificing
something on their deliveries and, thus, helping fuel the
explosion in power hitting; and 3) where's the logic in getting
thrown out stealing and thereby running five beefy horses with
power out of an inning?
Although last season Damon led the American League with 46
stolen bases (the league's second lowest top full-season total
in 30 years), he considers thievery fifth in importance among
his goals, well behind on-base percentage, runs, RBIs and
batting average. Playing for the Kansas City Royals in 2000,
Damon hit .327 with 16 homers, 88 RBIs and a league-leading 136
runs. "I'll be much happier hitting a double [he was 10th in the
AL last year with 42] than singling and stealing second," he
says. "Stolen bases look nice, but sometimes there are better
ways to win."
Such a philosophy will serve the 27-year-old Damon well on the
A's, who acquired him in a January trade. Given the power in his
lineup, manager Art Howe rarely feels the need to manufacture a
run. Last year, despite having to use Terrence Long in the number
1 hole, Oakland scored 947 runs, third most in the American
League. (With Damon's arrival, centerfielder Long, who had a
paltry .336 on-base percentage in 2000, is expected to bat
seventh.) Five A's hit 20 or more homers, led by MVP Jason
Giambi's 43. Meanwhile, the A's finished last in the league with
40 steals--six fewer than Damon had on his own.
"We've started to realize that not only does a leadoff hitter not
have to steal bases, but also that the stolen base is overrated,"
says Oakland general manager Billy Beane. "Teams no longer want a
guy atop the lineup who only runs. You want a guy who gets on and
who also drives the ball. If he's very fast--that's more plus than
necessity. But you can do without speed. Mainly it's all about
driving in runs and getting on so others can drive you in."
Consider: In 1980 leadoff hitters on the 26 big league teams
combined for 175 home runs and 1,232 stolen bases. In '90, also
for 26 teams, the figures were 262 homers and 976 stolen bases.
Last year, with 30 teams, leadoff men bashed an alltime high 423
home runs and stole a 22-year-low 872 bases.
When Damon steps into the batter's box in his regular-season
debut as an Athletic, he will ignore at least one aspect of the
legacy brought to the Oakland uniform and the leadoff spot by
Henderson. In 13 seasons leading off and playing leftfield for
the A's, Henderson did anything and everything to make opposing
pitchers miserable. His Mini-Me strike zone is legendary. He
would step in, step out, step back in, step out. He would take
and take and take until he could take no more. He would
rarely--if ever--swing at the first pitch. His goal wasn't only
to reach first but also to see every pitch the pitcher had in
the process, which was advantageous to his observant teammates
when they stepped to the plate. "Rickey was a master," says
Damon, by comparison, views his role in simpler terms: He walked
a modest 65 times last season and faced only 3.55 pitches per
plate appearance. (Castillo, who walked just 78 times, led the
majors with 4.30 pitches per plate appearance.) "The pitcher
doesn't want to walk me, so he'll throw me strikes," says Damon.
"Am I not supposed to swing at balls over the plate? Is a hit not
as good as a walk? As long as I get on...." He pauses, thinking
over his words. "I mean, Rickey made an art out of the leadoff
spot. But I'm not like Rickey. The best comparison would probably
be someone like Erstad. I think we're similar."
Indeed, leadoff hitters like Damon, Erstad and Houston Astros
second baseman Craig Biggio--swift but not blazing fast, with
sound baseball minds, quick bats and 20- to 30-home-run pop--are
the kings of leadoff nation. Several of his peers consider Erstad
the best leadoff hitter around. "Nobody represents the job better
than Erstad," says Knoblauch. "He has the power to drive in runs,
but he doesn't clog the bases."
In most eras Erstad's run production (25 homers and 100 RBIs,
with a .355 average in 2000) would land him in the middle of a
lineup. However, Erstad, like Damon, hits in front of a row of
power hitters who need a base stealer as much as Julia Roberts
needs a makeover. Erstad made only 36 steal attempts last year,
succeeding on 28.
Although Raines acknowledges that the leadoff hitter's role has
changed, he proudly points to Castillo, Atlanta Braves shortstop
Rafael Furcal and Detroit Tigers rightfielder Roger Cedeno as
gnats who can nevertheless change a game. Castillo in particular
earned attention last year for his bizarre stats: a .334 average
(fifth highest in the National League), a league-leading 62
stolen bases, a team-leading 101 runs--but only 17 RBIs in 539
at bats. "A man like Castillo can be an effective spark," says
Raines, who's fifth alltime in steals (807). "He's instant
Maybe so. But for every team or two that relies on a leadoff
hitter like Castillo to use his speed to create runs by himself
(the power-lite Marlins scored 731 times last season, 15th in
the National League), there are the Anaheims and Houstons and
Oaklands that live by the long ball, and Johnny Damon just
watches and smiles from his perch on the 15-inch canvas square.
COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY NITIN VADUKUL A prototype of the 21st-century leadoff hitter, Damon can lay one down or hit one out.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Though lacking pop, the fleet Castillo usually finds a way to get around the bases.
View from the Top
Former Yankees and Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter ranks six
hitters who don't bat leadoff but would be dazzling--if
unorthodox--choices for the top of a lineup.
1. Alex Rodriguez, Rangers. A .300 hitter who can just as easily
take a walk as hit a pitch out of the park.
2. Derek Jeter, Yankees. Selective, doesn't try to do too much,
and takes what he's given.
3. Larry Walker, Rockies. The thought of getting him 90 to 100
more at bats makes you lick your chops.
4. Frank Thomas, White Sox. Takes 100 walks a year. You have to
throw him strikes.
5. Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox. He can put a ball that's out of
the strike zone into play very firmly.
6. Bernie Williams, Yankees. He has a very high on-base
percentage and walks a lot.