To diligent readers of box scores, they have been a constant source of surprise these past few months. Ray 2b 6 3 4 2. Laskey (W, 7-5) 9 8 1 1 5 7. HR—Davis (10). SB—Dernier 3. 3B—Sax 2. Show S, 3 2 0 0 0 1. McGee cf 5 2 4 2.
They're rookies, all of them. They have overrun and overpowered the National League almost overnight. Fifty-seven of the 300 players on the league's rosters, an astounding 19%, are fledglings, and although they may be wet behind the earflaps, 35 have played major roles for their teams. The debs are having a ball. Where would the Pirates be without Johnny Ray, the Cardinals without Willie McGee, the Giants without Chili Davis and Bill Laskey, the Padres without their kiddie corps of relievers?
The American League, too, has its share of freshmen—48 in all—but Kent Hrbek of the Twins dwarfs his classmates. In the National League, the Dodgers seem to have a lock on the Rookie of the Year award, having produced the last three winners, and they have another candidate this season in Second Baseman Steve Sax, the only rookie on the league's All-Star team. But the field is crowded. The following presentation is a Who's Who of who's new, a sort of tyro-scope.
Without a doubt, the best of the lot. As of last Sunday, Ray, a switch-hitting second baseman, was second in the league in hits with 107, and he could become the second rookie in league history to top the hit parade. Charles Hollocher of the Cubs did it in 1918. Ray could also be the fifth NL rookie and the first since Richie Allen in 1964 to get 200 hits.
"It's a shame and a disgrace that he didn't make the All-Star team," says Pittsburgh Third Baseman Bill Madlock. "They shouldn't take the selection away from the fans, they should take it from the manager. The only thing Sax can do better than Johnny is run, but Tommy Lasorda took Sax because they're both Dodgers. That's all right, though. Johnny Ray's going to be in the next 15 All-Star Games."
Ray grew up in Chouteau, Okla., about 37 miles east of Tulsa. "We had one traffic light," he says. His father, Ray Charles Ray, once tried out for the Pirates. Ray Ray taught Johnny to switch-hit his sophomore year in high school, but died in an automobile accident while Johnny was in junior college.
In 1979, as a senior, Johnny helped Arkansas to a second-place finish in the College World Series and was drafted in the 12th round by Houston. Bob Cluck, who was head of minor league instruction for the Astros before he became the Padres' director of player development last year, says, "After his first year in A ball, we were going to keep him there, but he said, 'Just give me one shot at Double A.' Well, he sort of talked us into it. He ended up hitting .324."
In September of last year, Ray and two minor leaguers to be named later were traded to the Pirates for Phil Garner. Houston needed a veteran second baseman at the time, and the rap against Ray was that he couldn't field. Astro officials now cringe at mere mention of the deal.
In his first game against Houston, on April 29, Ray went four for four with a double and a stolen base. He has had three other four-hit games, and only twice has he gone as many as two games without a hit. "He's a tremendous hitter," says Garner, "one of the best-disciplined young hitters I've seen."
Under the tutelage of Pirate Coach Al Monchak, Ray became a very good second baseman in spring training. "While everybody was running off to the beaches," says Monchak, "Johnny was working, taking ground balls. I remember the first thing I asked him was 'Can you dance?' When he said 'Yes,' I knew there'd be no problem."
"I thought Al was crazy when he asked me that," says Ray, "but playing second base is really a little like ballet." During the spring, Madlock asked the Royals' Frank White, the Baryshnikov of second basemen, to give Ray some pointers on the pivot, and that has paid off, too.
Ray's hitting was never a concern to the Pirates. He's a better batter from the left side, which is odd because he's a natural righty. "The thing I liked about him right off was that he got mad when things didn't go well," says Madlock. Ray, however, kept cool when Madlock and some other Pirates acted as if they intended to stick him with a $900 check in a Chicago restaurant. "I might still be washing dishes if they hadn't chipped in," Ray says. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
His initiation into the big show came two weeks ago in Cincinnati. Falling victim to an old trick, he opened a tin box labeled WILD MONGOOSE and out popped a furry fake. The shrieking McGee took off across the clubhouse and tried to climb a bank of lockers. Said Darrell Porter, "If he could get a jump like that when he's on base, nobody would ever throw him out."
Actually, McGee is doing fairly well without the mongoose. At week's end he had 12 stolen bases; more impressive, he was batting .311 with 24 RBIs, four of them game-winners. Since being called up in May, he has become, unquestionably, the best rookie in the league.
The baseball world wasn't exactly stunned when on Oct. 21, 1981 the Yankees traded the 22-year-old McGee, who had never moved higher in their system than Double A Nashville, to the Cardinals for Bob Sykes, a journeyman pitcher. But the trade could turn out to be one of the great Yankee follies: Sykes was recently sent down to Nashville because his ERA was 8.02 after 15 games at Triple A Columbus. Says McGee, "Any young guy would have been up and down with the Yankees. I don't think I would have been in the majors for two or three years, and if I'd had to wait that long, I would've quit."
The Cardinals also underestimated McGee. Although he did well in spring training, St. Louis kept its more highly touted rookie outfielder, David Green, and sent McGee to Louisville. But Green was injured and McGee was called up on May 9. He hit .359 his first month, and when Green came off the disabled list, he was the one to go to Louisville, not McGee. Manager Whitey Herzog says, "I didn't think Willie would come that fast with the bat."
Fast is the word for McGee, who goes to first in less than four seconds. On May 13, when he got his first major league hit against the Braves, McGee tried to score from second on a single, but he broke late, ran through a stop sign at third and then pulled up 20 feet short of the plate. With a little experience, there may be no stopping him.
When he was recently asked who he thought would be Rookie of the Year, Davis thought for a moment and said, "I like this Jamaican kid, the one with the funny nickname."
Quite frankly, Chili (rhymes with Willie) is absolutely right, even if he's less than humble. Through Sunday, the Jamaican kid with the funny nickname had 52 RBIs and was hitting .268, .325 with runners in scoring position. He reminds people of another Giant centerfielder (no, not Von Joshua).
Davis moved with his family from Kingston, Jamaica to Los Angeles when he was nine. The legend behind his nickname is that one day, when he was coming out of a barbershop, a friend kidded Davis that the barber must have used a chili bowl while giving him his haircut. Chili Bowl was soon shortened to Chili. "I was pretty rebellious when I was young," he says. "I could've turned out to be a gangster or a drug addict if my family hadn't got on me. I got a lot of whippings. They beat me with belts, shoes, whatever. My uncle once beat me with a fan belt. I was just happy he didn't use a tire iron."
Davis is engaging, and a favorite with the writers. After the Phillies' Steve Carlton handcuffed the Giants recently, Davis said, "He should be playing in the Heavenly League, pitching against Babe Ruth and the rest of those dudes. Maybe they could do something with him. I sure as hell couldn't."
Like Ray and McGee, Davis is a switch hitter, and like McGee, he has problems with base running. He has been thrown out nine times in 17 steal attempts. "I can't understand it," Davis says. "I've always had a lot of steals, and I feel I should get 40 or 50. I'm something else when I go on the express [first to third], but I've been getting killed on the local." Next stop, stardom.
He was the throw-in when K.C. sent Rich Gale to San Francisco for Jerry Martin. He didn't make the Giants in spring training, but on the day he was sent down the 6'5" Laskey, a righthander, looked Manager Frank Robinson in the eye and said, "I can pitch here, and I'm going to show you."
He has. Laskey got his first start a week after being recalled on April 22 and beat the Expos 7-0 on a three-hitter. His parents, who had flown from Toledo to Phoenix to drive his van to San Francisco, arrived just in time to see him pitch. "My dad was in a state of shock," says Laskey. "When a reporter asked him how many kids there were in the family, he drew a blank and told him to ask my mom."
Laskey was 7-7, after losing that 1-0 duel to Carlton last Friday night, but his ERA of 2.63 was fifth among National League starters. He has little or no muscle definition and a short-arm motion that can't be found in an instructional book. But Laskey is a battler. Robinson, who is grudging with praise, says, "He has heart, mental tenacity and a bulldog-mean attitude. He's a winner." If this kid doesn't win the Rookie of the Year award, it'll be a crime.
Of the Padres' 50 wins through Sunday, 41 involved the relievers, four of whom are rookies. The best record of the bunch belonged to Show (rhymes with Wow!), a righthander who was 7-3 with three saves and a 2.02 ERA.
Show is, to put it mildly, a piece of work. While his teammates read The Sporting News, Show discusses Kierkegaard, listens to Django Reinhardt, goes to Bible study or plays a jazz guitar. His heroes include Werner Heisenberg (Most Valuable Physicist, 1932), Albert Einstein and Charlie Parker. A typical Show quote: "Does curiosity breed intelligence or does intelligence breed curiosity?" A reporter might feel guilty asking him what pitch he threw for a strikeout.
He attended California-Riverside in his hometown, concentrating on physics, philosophy and baseball, was drafted in the 18th round in 1978 by the Padres and signed for all of $1,000. Throughout his minor league career, he averaged nearly a strikeout an inning, mostly as a starter. The Padres decided to make him a short reliever last year, and he performed well in a September call-up.
Show throws a sinker and a slider in addition to his 90-plus mph fastball from a strange, twisting motion that ends with a sudden arm jerk. His most impressive performance came on May 2 when he struck out five Phillies in a row.
The air-apparent to Bill Lee says, "I've paid my dues, I've researched my beliefs in life. Most people I've met haven't. They just have opinions. If they classify me as a Space Cadet, Zone Master, that's their fault." If he's not Rookie of the Year, it won't be his fault, either.
At the end of last week the Phillies were 20-8 in games in which Dernier had stolen a base and 30—31 in games in which he hadn't. When Philadelphia went from 9-14 and fifth place to 19-15 and second place earlier in the season, Dernier was the reason, hitting .350 with 12 stolen bases and 10 walks. He has since cooled off, but through Sunday he still had 36 stolen bases and a .263 average. There's no way this guy isn't the MVR, most valuable rook.
Dernier grew up outside of Kansas City and made the national Babe Ruth all-tournament team at shortstop. "I was one of the most grotesque shortstops ever put on the face of the earth," he says, and obviously some people agreed, because he was a free agent when the Phillies signed him while he was considering Wichita State. They finally found a position for him, centerfield, and he became so good at it that Philadelphia traded Lonnie Smith in the off-season.
He, too, has blazing speed. But, unlike McGee and Davis, Dernier is Caucasian. "I don't know who nicknamed the kid 'White Lightning,' " says Pete Rose, "but it's true. I don't know how fast the kid can run. But he can run. And I've played with some speedsters."
Dernier has been caught stealing nine times and caught golfing once. On June 22 in St. Louis, Dernier went to play golf with his father and teammate Manny Trillo and made the mistake of getting a hole in one. The club called the local papers, which printed a story that Phillie Manager Pat Corrales read with some interest. He has a rule against golf on game days, and Dernier was reprimanded. Pitcher Sparky Lyle carried a golf flag out to centerfield during batting practice the next day. The kid's an ace.
The next Pete Rose. Not only does he run to first base on walks, but he also feels no game is complete without a dirty uniform. Rose is Sax's idol, and when they had a Chinese dinner together in Philadelphia, Sax says he didn't know if he was ordering from Column A or Column B. "I told him, 'You don't know how much of a thrill this is to go out with you.' I've always admired him so much, and here I was having dinner with him." After imparting some wisdom, Rose, a former Rookie of the Year himself, told Sax that he wouldn't hesitate to knock Sax on his butt.
Sax grew up in Sacramento. Dusty Baker, the Dodger outfielder, also lived there, and he would go back to appear at banquets. "There was a kid who was at everything I was at," says Baker. "He would always say, 'Mr. Baker, Mr. Baker, I've got to ask you something. He would ask it, and then he'd be back five minutes later and say, 'There's something I forgot to ask you.' " Now Sax and Baker dress next to each other.
In the off-season the Dodgers let Davey Lopes go and traded their other second-base prospect, Jack Perconte, confident that Sax was their second baseman of the future. Sax, the first new Dodger infielder since 1973, had rewarded them with 33 stolen bases and a .277 average through Sunday. "Certain players make me tingle when I see them," says Dodger Vice-President Al Campanis. "Koufax, Clemente and Willie Davis made me tingle. And so did Sax." No wonder Sax should be the Dodgers' fourth Rookie of the Year in a row.
There are other strong rookies this season, but these guys are the best. Says Ray, "People are always coming up to me and saying, 'You sure don't play like a rookie.' My only question is 'What's a rookie supposed to play like?' " They've rarely played like this before.