Backup players used to be called "scrubbinis," and they had about the same status as batboys. But times have changed. Now the boys on the bench are referred to as "role players." And as Braves manager Russ Nixon puts it, "Pennants can be won or lost by benches."
The '88 Dodgers are a good example. They were plagued by injuries all season, but they hung on to win the pennant and the World Series in large part because of backups like Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey and Dave Anderson. "You don't win with just a good starting lineup anymore," says Phillie third base coach Larry Bowa. "For one thing, there aren't any lineups that are that good anymore. The best teams are the ones that have the most alternatives."
Many clubs have had to reexamine the way they use their benches this year because some 200 players have been placed on the disabled list since the start of the season. "I look at a bench not only as what I've got sitting there when we open the season, but also as what we have in Triple A," says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "No one has 15 prospects at that level, so clubs that acquire minor league free agents and fringe big leaguers are better off than those who don't. We signed [infielder-outfielder] Rex Hudler and [outfielder] Otis Nixon as minor league free agents, and they've become two of the best role players in the game."
What type of player is in the most demand? Everyone wants power hitters, of course. That's why outfielder Tony Armas, who was batting .290 with six homers and 16 RBIs at week's end, is so valuable to the Angels. Catchers who can play other positions, such as the Cubs' Lloyd McClendon, the Mariners' Scott Bradley and the Mets' Mackey Sasser, are also highly prized. Indeed, versatility is the key. Two of the best role players are the Athletics' Tony Phillips and the Twins' Al Newman, both of whom can switch-hit and play six positions.
According to an informal poll of managers, Oakland has the best bench by far. "You look at the A's [with all the injuries they've had to key players] and it's amazing that they're right in the race," says Toronto manager Cito Gaston. "But it's because of their bench." The secret? Oakland manager Tony La Russa makes sure his role players see a lot of action. Utility men like Phillips and Mike Gallego play so regularly that they seem like every-day players.
Other American League teams with strong benches are the Twins, Blue Jays and Royals. The deepest teams in the National League are the Mets, Expos, Dodgers and Giants. "No matter who the Giants bring up, he produces," says one scout. The latest overachiever is infielder Greg Litton, who was called up from Phoenix on June 5 and as of Sunday was hitting .303.
Who has the worst bench in baseball? Probably Detroit. A case in point was the Tigers' July 20 game against California. In the ninth inning, Detroit had runners on first and second with two out and the score 3-3. The next batter was centerfielder Gary Pettis, who had had only three RBIs all season and had stranded all 36 of the runners who were in scoring position when he came to the plate. But the only right-handed hitters on the bench were Doug Strange, who is batting .200, Mike Brumley (.225) and Matt Sinatro (.150). So manager Sparky Anderson stayed with Pettis, who struck out to kill the rally. The Tigers lost 4-3.
The day after a game against Atlanta that was interrupted by rain, Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda criticized his teammates for their lackadaisical attitude. Ojeda told a reporter, "The tarp was off and all the Braves were out there, but the only people in our dugout were me, Mackey Sasser and [trainer] Steve Garland. It made me think, Do we even want to be here and play a game today?" The day Ojeda made his remarks, New York dropped a double-header to the Astros, and the next day Mets manager Davey Johnson uncharacteristically lashed out at his players. The tirade seemed to work. Through Sunday the Mets had won their next six games.
To have any chance of successfully defending its division title, New York will need its ace, Dwight Gooden, who went on the DL on July 2 with a torn muscle in his right shoulder. Gooden began throwing again on Sunday, but he has doubts about his recovery. "I wonder every day about my arm," he says. "Will I have the same velocity? Will I have that real good curve? Will I be able to throw as hard as I used to? The doctors can tell me this will heal up fine all they want. I still ask the same questions every day. So I guess I'm still scared."
Last month Cincinnati manager Pete Rose said he wasn't interested in acquiring righthander Tim Leary from the Dodgers. But the Reds' pitching staff is so worn down that general manager Murray Cook decided to go ahead with the deal. Last week Cook sent outfielder Kal Daniels to L.A. for Leary, who was 17-11 with a 2.91 ERA last season but 6-7 with a 3.38 ERA this year. Rose had been disenchanted with Daniels, who was hitting a disappointing .218 with nine RBIs and has a reputation for being moody. "Kal's kind of a strange player in one respect," said Rose. "He always told me that he wanted to be the guy who produced runs, but every time I'd put him third or fourth in the order for an extended period, he'd say he didn't like it."
Daniels claims that's not the case, and he has privately blamed some of his troubles with the Reds on racial divisions within the clubhouse. Getting away from Rose, whom he doesn't respect, should be good for Daniels. He should also benefit from playing on the grass of Dodger Stadium instead of the artificial turf of Riverfront Stadium, because he's coming off his fourth knee operation.
To make room for Daniels in left, L.A. moved Kirk Gibson to center. But last week Gibson, who has been hobbled by a sprained right knee and a strained left hamstring, went on the DL for the second time this season, and rightfielder Mike Marshall is still bothered by the sore back that sidelined him for 30 games. As a result, Jose Gonzalez, a career .194 hitter, may lead the Dodger outfield this season in games played.
Gibson is considering retiring when his contract runs out after next season, primarily because of his nagging injuries. "Ever since I turned 31 [he was 32 in May], I haven't been able to heal," says Gibson. "Before I had always healed quickly. But in the past year, it seems I've aged several years. Maybe I can go to the American League as a busted-up National Leaguer and serve as DH. But I won't be a hanger-on."
HOLDOUT OR HOLDUP?
The Orioles have offered No. 1 draft pick Ben McDonald a $275,000 signing bonus and a one-year guaranteed contract, but he is holding out for a two-year deal. Now it looks like Baltimore president Larry Lucchino may ignore general manager Roland Hemond's advice and give in to McDonald's demand, offering him a two-year package worth around $500,000. Several scouting directors are worried that such a deal will set a dangerous precedent. "If they do that, they're hurting everyone else," says one, adding that the Orioles shouldn't give in because "they hold all the cards. He'll have less market value next season. What's he going to do—go back to the arm-injury factory at LSU? No way." ...Slugger Jose Canseco returned to the Oakland lineup on July 13 and hit five homers in his first nine games. But he still doesn't think he's going to be right this season. "My shoulders are tired, and both wrists are tired," says Canseco. "I have an idea what I want to do, but the body doesn't react." ...Last week the Padres offered the Tigers three players, including catcher Sandy Alomar, for shortstop Alan Trammell, but the Detroit front office nixed the deal. One would think that the aging Tigers would be interested in trying to rebuild, but as of Sunday they hadn't signed two of their top four draft choices.... Braves G.M. Bobby Cox is trying to work out a three-way deal that would send Atlanta infielder Jeff Blauser to the Cubs, Chicago shortstop Shawon Dunston to the Padres and Alomar to the Braves, who desperately need help at catcher.... On July 19 the A's were rained out of their last scheduled game in Detroit, but they could go back if the race is undecided. Anderson called La Russa and told him, "Don't make me have to play you after the season. I don't believe in playing the part of a spoiler."
...turns that batter into a .308 hitter with 342 RBIs*
...to get to a .263 hitter with 76 RBIs...
*Figures as of July 22, projected for full season
SOURCE: STATE, INC.
BETWEEN THE LINES
DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR
The Mets' Kevin Elster isn't happy about being platooned at short. "A guy my age having to sit, it's just awful," said the 24-year-old Elster last week. "If I was on any other team, I'd be stuck out there every day." At week's end Elster's career batting average was .215.
STATISTICS CAN LIE
Toronto first baseman Fred McGriff hit a homer in the SkyDome last week that bounced off the windows of the restaurant overlooking centerfield. Although the restaurant is located beyond the 400-foot mark, the IBM Tale of the Tape, which flashes an electronic measure on the scoreboard, said the ball had traveled only 391 feet. Quipped Blue Jay pitcher John Cerutti, "It just goes to show that IBM doesn't stand for Intelligent Baseball Measurement."
THIS IS THE BIG LEAGUES?
How badly have the Reds been riddled by injuries? The Opening Day lineup for the Triple A Nashville Sounds consisted of: Keith Lockhart (2B), Marty Brown (2B), Luis Quinones (3B), Van Snider (CF), Rolando Roomes (RF), Chris Jones (LF), Jeff Richardson (SS), Joe Oliver (C) and Jack Armstrong (P). When the Reds faced the Expos on July 15, Quinones, Roomes, Oliver, Brown and Richardson were all in the starting lineup. Armstrong and Snider have also played for Cincinnati this season.
The Expos have added a 16-year-old pitcher named Antonio Alfonseca, who has six fingers on each hand, to their organization in the Dominican Republic. Predicted one reporter, "He's going to be twice as good as Mordecai [Three Finger] Brown."
NICKNAME OF THE WEEK
The Royals have dubbed utility man Bill Pecota I-29, which is the interstate that runs between Kansas City and Omaha, home of the team's Triple A club. In the last four years, Pecota has been called up from Omaha seven times.
THE PLAY'S THE THING
After Padres outfielder Chris James hit five homers in nine games, manager Jack McKeon said, "A lot of guys wanted to cross him off the board. But as Shakespeare said, 'How poor are they that have not patience!' " Asked where the line came from, McKeon replied, "The Pickoff Play." Actually it was Othello.
•Much has been made of pitcher Mike Morgan's miraculous improvement since joining the Dodgers this season. But he's still pitching just well enough to lose. Going into this year, his ninth in the majors, Morgan's lifetime winning percentage for the first four months of every season he has played was .353. This year he has pushed it up all the way to .375.
•No righthanded hitter has won the American League batting crown since Carney Lansford did so in 1981 while with the Red Sox. At week's end, however, the top three hitters in the league were righthanded: Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, Lansford (now with Oakland) and Texas's Julio Franco.
•You can bet that the White Sox will think long and hard before putting another Williams at third base. Last season Kenny played there for 32 games and had 14 errors. This year Eddie tried it for 65 games before being sent to the minors with 16 errors.
•At week's end the Reds had won only six of their 26 games since June 26, the day the Dowd Report, which chronicles manager Pete Rose's alleged gambling practices, was released.
NO GETTING AROUND IT
Pitchers often walk dangerous hitters intentionally if first base is empty with a runner on second. But that strategy is risky. This year the next batters up in such situations are hitting 45 points above their average and are driving in 4½ times more runs than they normally do. Keep in mind, though, that they are always hitting with at least one runner in scoring position.