Last May, Syd Thrift was being hailed by the press as a magician, the G.M. who had turned a dying Pittsburgh franchise into one of the hottest clubs in baseball. But now that the Pirates have sunk to the bottom of the standings and look as if they might take up permanent quarters there, the revisionists are rewriting the history of the Thrift "miracle."
Many of the team's key players, including centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, ace closer Jim Gott, catcher Mike LaValliere, first baseman Sid Bream and pitcher Brian Fisher, have been injured this year. And it has become painfully obvious to the Pirates that Thrift, who was fired last October and is now with the Yankees, did not leave behind a vast pool of talent. "No one can lose guys like Van Slyke and Gott and expect not to feel it," says manager Jim Leyland. "But we don't have a lot behind them."
Some members of the organization feel that Leyland deserves more credit than Thrift for the Pirates' transformation from a last-place team in '86 to a strong contender in '88. "Almost every one of the deals that turned this team around were the result of Leyland's groundwork and ideas," says pitching coach Ray Miller. And with the passage of time, some of Thrift's once esteemed trades have lost their luster. In April 1987 Thrift dealt catcher Tony Pena to the Cardinals for Van Slyke, LaValliere and pitcher Mike Dunne. That deal still ranks as a great one, because Van Slyke and LaValliere have blossomed into such strong players. But Dunne was 7-11 with a 3.92 ERA last year and was recently traded, along with two other players, to Seattle for shortstop Rey Quinones and pitcher Bill Wilkinson. Trading righthander Jose DeLeon to the White Sox for third baseman Bobby Bonilla looked like a steal at first, but Bonilla's production has fallen off dramatically since last year's All-Star break, while DeLeon, now with St. Louis, has become one of the best pitchers in the National League. And the Giants weren't exactly taken when they traded pitchers Jeff Robinson and Scott Medvin for veteran righthander Rick Reuschel.
Trades are only part of the story. Thrift has also come under fire for deficiencies in the area that is supposed to be his forte: scouting. The Pirates had the first pick in the 1986 draft and the second the next year. In '86 they took Arkansas third baseman Jeff King over pitcher Greg Swindell (now with the Indians) and shortstop Gary Sheffield (Brewers), and King still hasn't played a day in the big leagues. In '87 the Pirates took outfielder Mark Merchant from Oviedo (Fla.) High School, but the current general manager, Larry Doughty, decided that he was a nonprospect and included him in the Dunne trade.
As might be expected, Thrift is not apologetic about his track record. "They're frustrated because they've had so many injuries," he says of the Pirates' current regime. "In time they'll find out we built a helluva foundation. An organization takes five to eight years to build, but we never got the chance to finish what we started."
The Yankee pitching staff has discovered, much to its delight, that new skipper Dallas Green is a pitchers' manager. "He lets his starters stay in, and he sticks by people," says bullpen stopper Dave Righetti.
Unlike his panicky predecessors, Green has let righthander Tommy John average seven innings per start, lefthander John Candelaria and righthander Andy Hawkins nearly seven and lefthander Dave LaPoint just below six. In addition, Green stood by Righetti after a couple of shaky early outings and has nurtured setup men Lance McCullers and Lee Guetterman. Says John, "For two years people have said, 'We need innings from our starters,' but we were never left in games to get those innings. This staff won't blow out like the ones in the past because of the way we're handled."
Another big factor, according to Righetti, is New York's improved defense. With Alvaro Espinoza at shortstop, Steve Sax at second and Roberto Kelly in center, the Yankees are much stronger up the middle than they were last year. And Green's coaches have worked hard to get catcher Don Slaught to speed up his release. Last year, according to Stats, Inc., Slaught was tied with Boston's Rick Cerone for the second-worst percentage in the American League for throwing out runners (22%). But through Sunday, Slaught had thrown out about 40% of the runners attempting to steal on him.
The Blue Jays are leading both leagues in losses, and their fans want the head of manager Jimy Williams. But general manager Pat Gillick seems to be interested in dumping players instead. After dealing Barfield to the Yankees, Gillick discussed shipping outfielder George Bell to the Braves, reliever Tom Henke to the Expos and centerfielder Lloyd Moseby to several clubs. If Gillick is forced to replace Williams, his first choice would be former Yankee manager Lou Piniella.
The Blue Jays have never been strong on fundamentals, but that is a reflection of their farm system, not of Williams's skill. "Their problems stem from lack of discipline down below," says Rick Leach, former Blue Jay outfielder-first baseman, now with Texas. "I watched minor leaguers refuse to go into games in spring training. [Outfielder] Junior Felix was sent home last season for disciplinary reasons, and he was rewarded by being promoted to the majors."
The Padres are still trying to trade catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and are asking for a boatload of talent in return. (They recently offered Alomar to the Mets for third baseman Howard Johnson, centerfielder Lenny Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell.) But several teams are no longer sure that Alomar is the best catching prospect in Triple A. As one general manager puts it, "Alomar just doesn't look like he's going to hit, and there is some question about his instincts." Adds another G.M., "Todd Zeile of the Cardinals is the best catching prospect around. Joe Girardi of the Cubs may be better than Alomar in the long run, and if Greg Myers of the Blue Jays gets over his arm trouble, he may be the best of the lot." ...Houston scout Joe Nossek says, "There's a genuine shortage of righthanded power, and no one has any definitive reason for the cycle." He should know. The Astros are one of at least a dozen teams searching for righthanded hitting. The Tigers are so desperate for righthanded bats that they traded away one of their most reliable starters, Walt Terrell, to San Diego for designated hitter Keith Moreland and oft-injured third baseman Chris Brown, who through Sunday had a combined total of four RBIs. And the Yankees gave up their only young starter, Al Leiter, to Toronto for right-fielder Jesse Barfield, who many scouts believe is washed up.... The Royals, who are one of the few teams loaded with righthanded power, may soon add a thundering lefthanded hitter to their lineup: first baseman Bob Hamelin, who hit seven homers in the first month for the Royals' Double A Memphis club. "He's got power approaching that of Bo Jackson's," says scouting director Art Stewart. Kansas City picked Hamelin in the second round last spring. The Red Sox, who could use some power, passed over Hamelin, though scout Joe Stephenson reported that he was "the best power-hitting prospect I've seen in 25 years." ...Mariner outfielder Jeffrey Leonard is having one of the best comebacks of the year. At week's end he was second in the American League in homers, with eight, and in RBIs, with 25. Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre went out on a limb to sign Leonard, who had only eight homers and 44 RBIs with the Brewers last year. "I knew he was healthy by his bat speed, the way he ran and the life of his body," says Lefebvre, "and I knew what an extraordinary person he is from my time with the Giants. Having Leonard and [first baseman] Alvin Davis as veteran examples has been a big help to [centerfielder] Ken Griffey Jr." ...The Rangers are quickly becoming the bad boys of the American League West. "Every other manager in this division notices that they're leading the league in hit batters," says one opposing manager. "They're going to have a lot of fights before this season is over. They win worse than any team in baseball."
WHAT I MEAN IS, I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN TOMMY'S PET.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Cardinals first baseman Pedro Guerrero apologized last week to manager Tom Lasorda for telling reporters that the Dodgers had treated him "like a dog" before he was traded to St. Louis last August But Guerrero (right) blamed sportswriters for creating the problem in the first place, saying, "Sometimes they write what I say and not what I mean."
SEIZE THE DAY
More than 20 scouts turned out last week to watch Tyler Houston, a catcher for Valley High School in Las Vegas who is expected to be one of the top five picks in the June draft, play against Bishop Gorman High School of Las Vegas. However, because Valley's regular shortstop was injured, Houston played short, and alternate catcher Doug Mirabelli worked behind the plate. Mirabelli made the most of the opportunity, hitting four homers in four at bats to pace the Vikings to a 22-0 win, while Houston went three for four with a homer. After Mirabelli's barrage, raves general manager Bobby Cox, whose team has been scouting the Vikings, said, "That kid'll get drafted now."
When Red Sox manager Joe Morgan wrote out his lineup on May 3, he listed the righthanded-hitting Rick Cerone as catcher instead of the lefthanded-hitting Rich Gedman, because he thought White Sox starter Shawn Hillegas was a southpaw. Not to worry. Cerone hit a two-run homer off Hillegas in the sixth inning, which provided the game-winning run in an 8-4 victory.
RETURN TO SENDER
San Diego outfielder John Kruk, who was hitting .186 at week's end, has figured out the reason for his prolonged slump. "Somebody sent me one of those chain letters last June, and I threw it away," he said. "Tony Gwynn got one too. He said he mailed his out. I'm going to get me one of those things and start mailing them out. I've heard about bad things happening to people if they don't send theirs out. One guy got cancer two months later, and another guy got in a car wreck. But I never thought I'd stop hitting because of it."
AND IF THAT SOUNDS WEIRD...
Before each start, Cleveland lefthander Greg Swindell bites off the tip of one of his fingernails and holds it in his mouth throughout the game for good luck. Bizarre as it sounds, this practice seems to be working: At week's end Swindell was 3-0 with a 2.50 ERA and 41 strikeouts.
CHRISTMAS IN MAY
When the White Sox visited Yankee Stadium on April 29, they had to play in a downpour and lost to their former teammate, lefthander Dave LaPoint, 8-2. But the White Sox got revenge of a sort last Saturday. As the Yanks arrived in Comiskey Park for a night game, it was snowing heavily, and the groundskeepers were building snowmen behind home plate. The snow was still falling 20 minutes before the scheduled start; but the flurries tailed off, and after a half-hour delay the umpires decided to begin the game. "They're making us play this game because we made them play in New York," LaPoint said after he heard the decision. The snow didn't seem to make that much difference, however. The Sox lost anyway, 5-2.
•At least one shutout was pitched every day from April 10 through Sunday.
•Cleveland leftfielder Oddibe McDowell has been called out twice this season for leaving too early while tagging up.
•When the Yankees traded lefthander Al Leiter to the Blue Jays for outfielder Jesse Barfield, Leiter had given up the most walks in the American League and Barfield was leading the AL in being whiffed.
PERFECT IN THE PINCH
St. Louis outfielder John Morris has been nothing short of perfect as a pinch hitter this season. Here's how he compares with this year's other top pinch hitters—and with the worst:
THE TOP FIVE
John Morris, Cardinals
Nelson Liriano, Blue Jays
Bill Buckner, Royals
Curtis Wilkerson, Cubs
Dwayne Murphy, Tigers
Mariano Duncan, Dodgers
THE BOTTOM FIVE
Curt Ford, Cardinals
John Cangelosi, Pirates
Dave Collins, Reds
Dion James, Braves
John Russell, Phillies
Through May 6