WHITHER THE COLLEGES?
The 1984 Olympic team was probably the best collection of college baseball talent ever assembled. Three years later Mark McGwire is leading the American League in homers; Cory Snyder, Oddibe McDowell, Will Clark, B.J. Surhoff and Barry Larkin are big league regulars; and Bobby Witt and Scott Bankhead are starting pitchers.
But don't be misled. The colleges are not going to become the main (and free) supplier of players to the big leagues. They won't replace the minors, no matter what an occasional owner may say after looking at his balance sheets. Two reasons: 1) College and pro baseball are two different games played with different equipment; 2) college baseball coaches have little or no chance of becoming pro coaches or managers. Thus they have little or no incentive to cooperate with pro baseball front offices.
Thanks largely to ESPN, college baseball has become more popular in the last several years, and there are more major leaguers with college experience today than ever. In the first rounds of the 1965 and '66 drafts, for instance, clubs selected 36 high school and 4 college players. In the '85 and '86 first rounds they chose 24 high school and 28 college players. The trend continues: After this year's draft on June 2-3, the pros will sign more college than high school players. "But still," says one National League scout, "teams prefer high school prospects. By the time you've professionalized a college player he's 24, and it's make-it-or-be-released time. What you see is what you get with a college kid, with little chance of improvement. You can see a good college player and know he'll play in the big leagues, but you don't win pennants with the Terry Franconas [Arizona] of the world. Where do the best players come from?" Last year's All-Star teams offer a possible answer: Thirty-seven were signed out of high school, 13 out of four-year colleges and 6 out of junior colleges.
"This year's draft [see box, page 74] is basically a high school draft," says Mets VP Joe McIlvaine. If teams based their picks solely on talent, at least the first five picks would be high schoolers: outfielders Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark Merchant, and pitchers Willie Banks, Mike Mussina and Dan Opperman. However, a club like the Mariners, which will pick first, may want more immediate help and select Cal State-Fullerton pitcher Mike Harkey or Stanford's Jack McDowell. (The Pirates went for immediate help last year and, choosing first, took Arkansas third baseman Jeff King, who has been a disappointment, over Tampa high school shortstop Gary Sheffield, a potential superstar chosen by Milwaukee.) Mussina intends to enroll at Stanford in the fall, so the price for changing his mind is steep, and Opperman has raised some concern because of arm trouble.
The only major college player considered to have star ability is LSU outfielder Joey Belle, and he may not be drafted until a late round. (He has been suspended three times this season, most recently after going into the stands to confront a heckler.)
One reason that pro ball clubs like to sign hitters before they play in college is the aluminum bat. "They develop terrible habits, because with an aluminum bat it's possible to drive a ball when it's almost past the batter. And the pitchers throw five miles an hour slower than major leaguers," says Toronto scout Tim Wilken. "If a kid goes to college, he has an additional three or four years to develop those bad habits." The Red Sox drafted outfielder Scott Wade out of Oklahoma State in 1984, and it took until this spring to break his college habits.
Aluminum bats are also hurting the development of young pitchers. "If you jam a hitter, he can still drive it with a metal bat, something he can't do with a wooden bat," says Mariners pitcher Mike Moore, the first draft pick in 1981, out of Oral Roberts. "In college, you learn to pitch away and with a lot of breaking balls. In the big leagues, if you can't establish your fastball inside, you're in big trouble." Mcllvaine, who is considered to be one of the brightest judges of talent in the business, says. "It goes beyond that. Too many of the major colleges are simply sore-arm factories. A kid's arm should be developing at the ages of 18 to 20, which is why most pro clubs have pitch and innings limits. How many of the top pitchers came out of the big college baseball factories?"
Very few. Of the current major league pitchers who have won or saved 10 games in a season, 59 signed out of high school and only 25 came from big-time college programs, where teams can play 80 or more games from September through June. Sixty-nine played at smaller colleges or junior colleges, which play fewer games, under less pressure. "In many cases, it's selfishness on the part of coaches, who overwork their kids," says Mcllvaine. Tigers G.M. Bill Lajoie scouted Matt Williams at Rice in 1981 and watched him throw 100 pitches in five innings of one game and come back and throw 199 more in nine innings of relief the next day. Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre yanked his son Todd out of Nevada-Las Vegas because he thought Todd's arm was being blown out. Then there's Richie Lewis of Florida State. "He's not throwing anywhere near as well this year as he did last," says one scouting director. "Everyone's afraid he's been blown out." Coach Mike Martin used Lewis in five College World Series games in 10 days last year; in a game against LSU this season, Lewis threw 198 pitches.
"What's unfortunate is that there is so little cooperation between the pros and colleges," says Pirates G.M. Syd Thrift. "A lot of coaches won't tell scouts when a kid is going to pitch, so the scouts have to go directly to the kid, and it creates problems. It's too bad there can't be more cooperation, because we can help one another."
For starters, professional baseball should use a small piece of its television revenue to help keep colleges and summer leagues supplied with wooden bats (aluminum bats don't break and are used to save money). And the NCAA should immediately adopt the Little League rule that prohibits a coach from bringing a pitcher back within 72 hours of throwing four or more innings.
THE JAX FACTOR
Auburn coach Hal Baird says that since Bo Jackson forsook the gridiron for the diamond, "a lot of good Southeastern Conference football players are coming out for baseball." Florida quarterback-first baseman Rodney Brewer will be a high baseball draft pick and is expected to sign. Georgia reliever Cris Carpenter (who turned down nearly $200,000 from Toronto last summer) and Clemson shortstop Billy Spiers—both punters for their schools' teams—are other possible first-round baseball picks.
Wade Boggs, going for his third straight AL batting title, had the lead—briefly—sooner this year than in the previous two seasons, and the Red Sox' new leadoff man, Ellis Burks, may be the reason. On May 5, Boggs was moved from the first to the third spot, and in the 17 games since, he has hit .403, with 4 homers and 14 RBIs. "I'm a lot more comfortable hitting third," says Boggs. "You get to look at a pitcher while two guys hit. I never thought I was a leadoff guy, even though I had a high on-base percentage." Boggs had tied his career high in homers (eight) by the 40th game, but he insists he is not swinging for the fences. "[If I were] I'd pop up to the infield more and probably hit .310," he says....
The Dodgers considered moving second baseman Steve Sax to centerfield before they got John Shelby from the Orioles for Tom Niedenfuer. That the Dodgers would go for Shelby surprised many AL observers, who had seen him struggle every time he was handed an opportunity in Baltimore.
A few weeks after their record-tying 13-0 start, the Brewers lost 12 straight to become the only team in this century to win and lose as many as a dozen consecutive games in one season. On May 20 the Brewers averted a 13th straight loss with a 5-1 win over Chicago—the same team that had snapped the winning streak.
During the losing streak, the Brewers maintained their sense of humor and some semblance of confidence. Before one losing effort, outfielder Rick Manning tried to have third baseman Jim Gantner submit to the umpires a gag lineup card that included the names Gehrig, Bench, Clemente, Williams and Koufax.
On the day of the slump snapper, the Brewers were a sideshow of superstitions. Rick Manning wore a tricornered Cheesehead hat with K's painted all over it, and pitcher Bill Wegman taped a rubber mouse to the bill of his cap. "This is the Rally Rat," he said. "Last night we had it hanging from the dugout ceiling, and when Gantner popped out, he came into the dugout and smacked the mouse with his bat." Mike Birkbeck had his pants, shirt and warmup jacket on backward and his hat inside out. "Turn everything around," he said. "If I were married, I'd divorce my wife."
"Those streaks—winning or losing—you can have them," said Rob Deer after the game. "The word streak scares me now."
BETWEEN THE LINES
Harry Caray, the voice of the Chicago Cubs, who had been sidelined since suffering a stroke on Feb. 17, returned to the WGN-TV microphones on May 19. Former play-by-play man Ronald Reagan found time in the midst of the Persian Gulf turmoil to give Caray a call, and for an entire half inning before Caray's traditional seventh-inning rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the Wrigley Field crowd chanted "Har-ry! Har-ry!"
Not everything went well, however. Governor James Thompson, who proclaimed May 19 Harry Caray Day in Illinois, may regret having suggested that the Wrigley crowd of 28,890 "drink all the Budweiser Harry can't drink," especially when fans began throwing giveaway beer tankards at Reds centerfielder Tracy Jones, causing the umpires to stop the game for six minutes.
A MARKED MAN
After the Pirates lost two straight games to the Braves on May 16 and 17, manager Jim Leyland spent nearly an entire night in the clubhouse "talking ball" with some of his coaches. Leyland fell asleep on his office couch, but at about 4:30 he awoke suddenly. "I thought I had kidney stones," he said. He was sleeping on a Magic Marker that was jabbing him in the stomach.
DEFENSIVE PLAY OF THE WEEK
On May 20, Texas base runners JeffKunkel and Steve Buechele were caught stealing on the same play. If you're scoring, it went 1-3-6-3-3-5-2-4-3-6.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
•Pirates coach Rich Donnelly on his friend Buddy Bell of the Reds: "Buddy says the two biggest career shorteners are hustle and sweat. Oh, Buddy hustles, but he hustles at his own pace. He's a slow hustler. The biggest thing Buddy does all winter is renew his subscription to TV Guide."
INCOMPETENCE IS CATCHING
The American League All-Star ballot lists the following candidates for catcher: Terry Kennedy, Marc Sullivan, Ron Karkovice, David Valle, Mike Heath, Mickey Tettle-ton, Don Slaught, Joel Skinner, Butch Wynegar, Bill Schroeder, Rick Dempsey, Ernie Whitt, Ed Hearn and Tim Laudner. As of Sunday, their cumulative batting average was .228.
INJURY OF THE WEEK
While accommodating an autograph hound, Tiger ace Jack Morris stepped on a drainage grate near the stands at Texas Stadium. The grate gave way, and Morris dropped thigh-high into the drain. His fall was broken by a pipe that struck Morris in the ribs. The X-rays were negative, and two nights later Morris ran his career record in his home state of Minnesota to 11-0 with a 3-2 win over the Twins.
•Giants catcher Bob Melvin has thrown out 18 of 36 base runners, including Vince Coleman and Tim Raines. He also has seven homers, two more than he hit all last season.
•Neal Heaton's wins over the Giants on May 18 and the Padres on May 23 are the only complete games for an Expo pitcher this season.
•After 41 games, the Mets had scored four runs fewer than they had through the same number of games in 1986. Their record a year ago was 30-11, compared with 19-22 this season. That tells you all you need to know about their pitching.
•Julio Franco and Pat Tabler have either scored or driven in 55% of Cleveland's runs.
•Former manager Dick Howser's number 10 will be retired by the Royals on July 3. His will be the first number retired in the club's 19-year history.
•Alan Wiggins's only game-winning RBIs since September 1983 have come on a groundout to shortstop and a sacrifice fly.
•The Eddie Yost Award goes to Pirates outfielder John Cangelosi, who through last weekend had 37 official at bats and 21 walks.
•Injuries have so depleted the Angels pitching staff that the team had to recall DeWayne Buice and Jack Lazorko, who between them have 20 years of minor league experience with 25 teams in 9 organizations.
•Through last weekend, Cards pitcher Bob Forsch had almost as many RBIs (six) as Boston's Jim Rice (seven).
More former collegians are in the majors than ever, but clubs would still rather develop players straight out of high school. Here are the Top 10 prospects available in the June 2-3 draft.
1. Ken Griffey Jr.
Moeller HS, Cincinnati
2. Willie Banks
St. Athony's HS, Jersey City
3. Mark Merchant
Oviedo (Fla.) HS
4. Mike Mussina
Montoursville (Pa.) HS
5. Mike Harkey
6. Derek Lilliquist
7. Dan Opperman
Las Vegas Valley HS
8. Jack McDowell
9. Cris Carpenter
10. Chris Donnels