Juan Samuel, 23, tries not to dwell upon the fact that the Phillies first let go of Manny Trillo and then Joe Morgan, who between them had won eight Gold Gloves and two MVP awards, so that Samuel could play second base in Philadelphia. Or that manager Paul Owens calls Samuel, a rookie, the best leadoff hitter the Phillies have had since they traded Richie Ashburn to the Cubs in 1959. Or that that noted sporting rag, The Wall Street Journal, put Samuel's face on its front page. Or that Samuel has accomplished all this even though at 16 he was nothing more than a weekend softball player. "I really don't think about being a big prospect," Samuel says. "I don't want to let things go to my head."
With three weeks gone in the new season, Samuel (pronounced sam-WELL) could easily have a swelled head. At week's end he led the National League in stolen bases (with 10 in 11 tries), was hitting .281 and had a sparkling on-base percentage of .379. His presence atop the lineup had been an important reason for the Phillies' 9-5 start. "He makes things happen," coach John Felske says. "Sammy's got a chance to be a superstar."
Quickness of mind, foot and bat is what makes the 5'11", 165-pound Samuel special. "He has great base-running instincts," says Owens, who has given Samuel the green light to run on his own. Samuel stole 195 bases in four years in the minors and was successful on 78% of his attempts. He also hit 82 home runs, and the Phils think that eventually he'll be good for 10 to 15 a year in the majors.
Samuel grew up in San Pedro de Macorís, a city of about 66,000 in the Dominican Republic that has also produced current major-leaguers Pedro Guerrero, Joaquin Andujar, Alfredo Griffin, Rafael Ramirez, Julio Franco and George Bell. In 1977 Samuel, who had played a lot of sandlot baseball as a kid, was working in a San Pedro de Macorís clothing factory (to help support his family, his father having died that year) and playing third base for the company softball team when a scout for Escogido of the Dominican Winter League heard about him and signed him. His teammates on the Escogido reserve squad included Franco and Bell, who were signed in 1978 by Phillie scout Francisco Acevedo. Acevedo got Samuel's name on the dotted line two years later, and shortly afterward, Owens, who was also the Phils' general manager from 1972 through the '83 season, began getting offers for him. "There aren't too many outstanding players who people in the game don't know about," Owens says. "They test you. Another general manager would say, 'How about that young kid? I don't know...what's his name, Samuels?' I'd say, 'Who?' You got to play along with them. The other G.M. would say, 'I don't know that much about him, but one of my people kind of likes him.' " Owens chuckles, and adds, "That's nice to hear."
The Phillies lost Bell, an outfielder, in the 1980 winter draft to the Blue Jays, for whom he was hitting .394 at week's end; in December 1982 they traded Franco to Cleveland, where last year he blossomed into one of the game's best shortstops, with eight homers, 80 RBIs and a .273 batting average. Despite the departure of those two, Philadelphia has six Latin players, second in the majors only to the Dodgers (with seven). It wasn't always that way. "When I became farm director in 1965," Owens says, "we weren't getting any Latin players. We had one scout down there, and he was semi-retired. He wouldn't go to games up in the country." The Phillies now employ full-time scouts in Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela, as well as the Dominican Republic.
Samuel progressed rapidly in his first three years in the Phillie farm system. In 1982 he was named MVP of the Carolina League after hitting .320 with 28 home runs, 94 RBIs and a league-leading 111 runs for the Peninsula Pilots of Hampton, Va. He also led the league's second basemen in double plays (82), total chances (721) and errors (35). It was the third straight year Samuel had been a league pacesetter in flubs, but his bat gave the Phillies the backbone to say no to a five-year, $4 million demand by Trillo, then 32 and fresh off a season in which he'd had a league-record 89 consecutive errorless games. "We knew Sammy would be ready within a year or so," says Owens.
In December of '82, Owens shipped Trillo, outfielder George Vukovich and three minor-leaguers, one of whom was Franco, to Cleveland for outfielder Von Hayes. Owens then traded for the 39-year-old Morgan to fill in at second until Samuel was ready. Samuel started the '83 season at Class AA Reading, but when Morgan got off to a slow start, the Phillies moved Samuel, who was hitting only .234, up to Triple A Portland so that he could learn to play on an artificial surface, which is what Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium has. In 65 games with the Beavers, Samuel's bat (15 homers, 52 RBIs, .330) was far better than his glove. He made 15 errors in 293 chances.
On Aug. 22, with Morgan hitting only .196 and the Phillies unable to pull away in the National League East race, Owens called up Samuel, who proceeded to make six errors in his first 10 games. "The Portland turf was like cement," Samuel says. "Philadelphia had new turf that wasn't as fast. I was attacking the ball too quick. And I was pressing."
Owens finally benched Samuel, and he stayed on the pine for much of the Phillies' stretch drive and on through the World Series. Shortly thereafter, he spent a week at the Phillies' Instructional League camp with teaching coordinator Larry Rojas, who got him to slow down and set himself before he threw. "His problem was unusual," Owens says. "Usually a middle infielder will have trouble getting to balls. Sammy was too quick. He was rushing the ball so fast his feet weren't set before he threw." Samuel subsequently won the Dominican Winter League equivalent of a Gold Glove.
Owens feels Samuel will continue to thrive in the leadoff spot, even if his history suggests he's not suited for it. He'd never batted there before playing in Portland, and over the last three years he averaged more than 120 strikeouts and only 34 walks per season, the reverse of the ideal for a leadoff man. But Samuel says he feels no pressure. "Since they released Joe Morgan [on Oct. 31], I've known the job was mine," he says. And the truth is that as a leadoff man he's better than anything the Phillies have, or have had for many a season.
Ashburn, now a Phillie broadcaster but still remembered as the quintessential leadoff man (from 1948 to '62 he led the National League thrice in hits and four times in walks), says, "Samuel's not a contact hitter like I was. He takes a big swing. But in terms of speed, he can do what a leadoff hitter needs to do—he can get in scoring position. I see him eventually as a number two or three hitter." Owens sees him in the third or fifth spot in the lineup down the road, but in the meantime the Phillies aren't planning to try to change his swing. "He's a very aggressive hitter," Felske says. "You don't want to take that away from him."
Samuel is fastidious—how many ballplayers pack an iron to press their clothes on the road?—and courtly, a man whose manner masks his sense of purpose. In four years he has changed from a Spanish-speaking teenager to a major-leaguer who has taught himself to speak fluent English. "I've seen guys here for 10 years who don't speak as well as he does," says Owens, who has been known to speak English as if it were a second language (on the hot bats of the pennant drive last year: "Everybody was hitting. Our charisma was right"). Samuel still travels with a dictionary, the better to expand his growing English vocabulary, and he was perfectly capable of reading the Journal's annual Opening Day baseball piece, which this year happened to be on him. "If I'm going to be here, I'll learn the language," he says. "It's something I really want to do. Even in the field, it can be difficult to get around if you don't know it."
Samuel, a bachelor, spent last weekend moving into his Philadelphia apartment, along with getting five hits, including a homer, and scoring five runs in a three-game series against the Mets. He hopes to bring his mother to live with him for a month during the season. Though he will continue to make his home in San Pedro de Macorís, he's learning to enjoy his new summer home. "Last year [Phillie teammate] Steve Jeltz took me for my first cheesesteak," he says. "I liked it." Cheesesteaks (a combination of cheese and sliced beef on a submarine roll) are as much a Philly institution as the Liberty Bell. If all the reports prove correct, Samuel may sometime fit into the same category.