BALKS AND STRIKES
Both leagues have tried to get umpires to enforce the balk rule more vigorously this spring, and the change has been rough on some pitchers. Texas Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough got nailed nine times in an exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays. And Boston's Dennis Lamp got called for a balk a few days later with Joe Oliver of the Cincinnati Reds on third and the score tied 2-2. The resulting run ended up winning the game.
Some teams, especially those who rely heavily on speed, welcome the new policy. "Pitchers are supposed to come to a stop, but in the World Series Bert Blyleven balked 19 times and they wouldn't do anything about it," says St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "If the rule is there, enforce it." But other teams are less enthusiastic. "If they want Vince Coleman to steal 180 bases, they've come up with a way for him to do it," says Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller.
As far as the umpires are concerned, nothing much has really changed. "The league wants us to make sure that pitchers come to a complete stop in their stretch," says American League ump Richie Garcia. "Basically the rule has been there. They just added the word 'discernible' to 'stop,' and clarified that pitchers are no longer allowed to jump and make their spin moves to first base."
Forcing pitchers to stop will probably hurt base stealers like Carlton Fisk and Marty Barrett, who rely more on guile than speed. And it will probably have more impact on the American League because, according to Miller, "balks haven't been called there for years."
The umpires are also supposed to lower the strike zone, a change in the rules that might end up raising it instead. "The rule used to say that the strike zone is from the knees to the armpits," says one American League ump, "but most of us call it from the knees to the belt. Now they want us to call it from the knees to halfway between the belt and the armpits."
If the umpires abide by the new rule, high-throwing fastballers like Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan will benefit. Most batters call themselves high-ball hitters, but what they usually mean by high pitches are breaking balls, not fastballs. Indeed, Red Sox hitting coach Walter Hriniak estimates that "95 percent of the best hitters today are low-ball hitters."
THE WEIRDEST AT BAT
Jose Nunez, a righthanded pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays who had never batted in the pros before, stepped in against the Phillies' Kevin Gross in an exhibition game in Clearwater, Fla. Before Gross could throw a pitch, the third base ump motioned for Nunez to take off his warmup jacket. Then Nunez returned to the lefthanded-batter's box and was told by plate ump Dave Pallone that he was wearing a righty's helmet—the earflap covered his left ear rather than his right, which faced the pitcher. So Nunez turned the helmet around on his head and wore it catcher-style. No, no, said Pallone, get a lefty's helmet. No, no, said Nunez, who moved across the plate to bat righthanded.
When Gross began his delivery he saw Nunez bent over the plate, looking back into catcher Lance Parrish's glove.
"What are you doing?" asked Parrish.
"I want to see the signs," said Nunez.
"O.K., what pitch do you want?"
A fastball it was, and Nunez lined it foul. He turned to Parrish and said, "Could you make that a changeup instead?"
At that, Pallone doubled over in laughter, and Gross needed a few minutes to compose himself. Finally, on a 2-2 count, Nunez grounded out to short.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
As usual, a number of players are attempting to make comebacks this spring. The most notable is Detroit Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez, who won the American League MVP award in 1984 but only had eight saves last year and an ERA of 3.67. He arrived in camp in excellent shape and has regained the bite on his screwball. Hernandez's big test, however, will come on April 12, the date of Detroit's home opener. Last season he was booed so loudly in Tiger Stadium that manager Sparky Anderson virtually stopped using him there.
Another player to watch is Baltimore Orioles lefthander Scott McGregor, who has recovered the strength in his shoulder and posted a 2.60 ERA in four appearances. "For two years there was hardly any difference between his fastball and his change-up," says one scout. "When arm strength deteriorates, the fastball gets slower and the change gets quicker until they're too close to be effective."
Tony Pena, a four-time All-Star catcher before he was traded last year from the Pirates to the Cardinals, is also looking good again. Last season his batting average fell to .214 after he hurt his thumb in April. His hitting has improved this spring and so has his fielding now that he has adopted a more conventional catching style. Pena used to catch sprawled on the ground, with one leg stretched out in front. "He couldn't catch tough pitches, chase pop-ups or get to bunts," says Herzog. "Now he's a different catcher entirely."
The Montreal Expos' Hubie Brooks isn't thrilled about being moved from shortstop to rightfield. "If I don't knock in 100 runs, do they dump me?" he said. Brooks's replacement at short, Luis Rivera, should help improve the Expos' double play record, which was the second worst in the league last year.
Rivera, 24, is one of four young shortstops on the spot in the National League. Barry Larkin, 23, looks as if he's on the verge of stardom in Cincinnati now that he doesn't have to share the position with Kurt Stillwell, 22, who was traded to the Kansas City Royals. "Larkin can hit 20 homers, steal 40 bases and has all kinds of range," says one National League scout. "There's no question that they kept the right guy."
Chicago Cubs manager Don Zimmer has made Shawon Dunston, 25, his spring project. "I still think he can be one helluva player," Zimmer says of Dunston, who struck out 68 times and only had 22 RBIs in 346 at bats last season. "He just needs to relax and slow himself down once in a while." Funny, no one seems to be worrying about whether rookie Kevin Elster, 23, can do the job for the New York Mets.
THE LITE TOUCH
Some scouts are concerned that New York Yankees rookie Al Leiter, who has never pitched 120 innings in a season because of control problems and various injuries, might start wearing down long before October. But nobody questions his ability. "He's got the best arm of any young pitcher in Florida," says Phillies scout Ray Shore. "He's got a loose, easy delivery, and the ball explodes."
...In his first 11 appearances this spring Boston closer Lee Smith struck out 15 batters and gave up only one hit and no runs. But that won't solve the Red Sox's middle-relief problems. "Not having a lefthander will kill them," says one American League manager, "since every other team in the division does better against righthanded than lefthanded pitching."...
The Blue Jays are so concerned about the fans' reaction to George Bell's reluctance to DH this spring that they may not present him with his MVP trophy at their home opener....
The Kingsmen will sing "Louie, Louie" at the Seattle Mariners' home debut, while the Royals' opener will feature outfielder Thad Bosley crooning "The Star-Spangled Banner."...
The worst hitter of spring training was Houston Astros rookie catcher Robbie Wine, who was 0 for 13 with 11 strikeouts before he was traded to the Rangers for Mike Loynd on March 25....
On the new Pete Rose, one veteran Reds player said, "He's been a completely different manager this spring. He found out that if you're buddy-buddy with the players, you get burned. Now he may finally start to manage the way he played the game."
BATTLING JAPAN INC.
Bob Horner is back in North America, with the St. Louis Cardinals, after a disenchanting, though lucrative, season with Tokyo's Yakult Swallows. But that doesn't mean the flow of American players to Japan has begun to reverse. Indeed, because the yen has doubled in value since March 1985, the Japanese have become even more ambitious in their quest for talent.
One Japanese team recently offered the New York Mets $500,000 for the contract of rookie first baseman Randy Milligan and Milligan himself another $500,000 in salary. But the Mets turned down the deal and traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who will pay him $62,500.
In the off-season the Yomimuri Giants courted Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris. "My agent had the groundwork all laid out—three years and $10 million," says Morris. "Then, all of a sudden, we got a call saying that they were no longer interested." After passing on Morris, the Giants tried unsuccessfully to sign New York Yankees reliever Dave Righetti but did land Righetti's teammate, pitcher Bill Gullickson, with a one-year, $1.5 million deal.
In the past the expatriates were usually either dead-end Triple A sluggers or veterans who were past their prime. That's certainly true of this winter's other signees, including Doug DeCinces ($700,000 salary), Bill Madlock ($700,000) and Brian Dayett ($3.7 million over four years). But the signing of frontline players like Gullickson and Horner, who was paid $2.4 million last season and received a three-year, $10 million offer to stay in Japan, indicates that the Japanese have already begun to raise the stakes of the game.
It may be premature, though, to declare an embargo. "Japan has become an alternative for one or two free agents a year," says Oakland Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson. "But I don't believe there's any grave inflationary threat to the American salary structures."
What concerns the major league owners more is the possibility that some fabulously wealthy Japanese businessman might buy a U.S. team and dive headlong into the free-agent market. When George Argyros, owner of the Seattle Mariners, put his club on the market last spring, two Japanese investors expressed interest, including Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, who is one of the richest men in the world. But neither deal got very far, according to a Seattle team official, because "other owners and the commissioner made it clear that any such sale wouldn't get approved."
However, warns the official, "if Argyros or the owners of the Cleveland Indians can get $120 million for a franchise worth one third that amount, it'll be difficult legally for [commissioner Peter] Ueberroth or the other owners to put a stop to such a sale on the basis that the buyer is Japanese."