CHARACTER STUDY

There's something about leaving New York that turns players into dynamos. That's what happened to outfielder Rickey Henderson when the Yankees traded him to the Athletics in June. Ditto for outfielder Lenny Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell, whom the Mets shipped to the Phillies the same month. Don't be surprised if the same kind of metamorphosis occurs in role player Lee Mazzilli and outfielder Mookie Wilson, now that they've moved from the Mets to the Blue Jays.

Both players have made impressive starts. Mazzilli, who was picked up by Toronto after being released by the Mets, hit a homer in his first Blue Jay game, on Aug. 2. Wilson, who was traded to the Jays for pitcher Jeff Musselman, stretched a routine single into a double in the same game and then scored from third on a shallow sacrifice fly. Mazzilli gives the Blue Jays a solid clutch-hitter on the bench, and Wilson provides the speed Toronto needs to strengthen its outfield, which has been a critical weakness ever since the Jays moved to the cavernous SkyDome. More important, the two former Mets are stable, respected veterans who can and will say what's on their minds. "Now we have three legitimate leaders in [pitcher] Mike Flanagan, Mazzilli and Wilson," says one Blue Jay official. "This may be the best internal mix we've ever had."

In the last eight months, the Mets have unloaded six of their most aggressive competitors: Dykstra, McDowell, Mazzilli, Wilson, infielder Wally Backman (to the Twins), and pitcher Terry Leach (to the Royals). Vice-president Joe McIlvaine says that all the Mets need to get back on top in the National League East is for outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds and pitchers Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda to "perform at their normal levels for two months." That may be asking a lot of Strawberry. After telling reporters earlier in the week, "I don't know how much longer HoJo [third baseman Howard Johnson] And I can keep carrying this team," he pushed his laughable average up to .234. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog won two games last week by deciding to walk Johnson and pitch to Strawberry. In both cases, Strawberry popped up for the final out.

How important is character? Last season Detroit manager Sparky Anderson dismissed it by saying, "Character is 40 home runs." But now he acknowledges that letting veteran designated hitter Darrell Evans go and trading infielder Tom Brookens to the Yankees earlier this year has had a negative impact on his team.

Oakland manager Tony La Russa says, "Talent is far and away the most important factor on a team. But the right mix of personalities is a must on a good team." The player La Russa turns to for leadership is designated hitter Dave Parker. When sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were both out with injuries in April, Parker inspired the team, both on and off the field. As Canseco puts it, "The clubhouse picks up every day when he walks in." And let's not forget Henderson. In his first 38 games with Oakland, he had 48 hits, scored 42 runs and drove in 21 more.

Milwaukee is another team that understands the importance of character. After the Brewers acquired 40-year-old pitcher Jerry Reuss (8-6, 5.23 ERA through Sunday) from the White Sox last week, general manager Harry Dalton said that the famous Reuss sense of humor was a key factor in the decision. "We don't have anyone like this," Dalton said. "He can really help us, even if he doesn't pitch as well as he has for the White Sox."

BELEAGUERED

The threat of a new league loomed over major league baseball last week. Agents who represent nearly half the players met in New York with Players Association director Donald Fehr to discuss a venture that has already attracted the interest of investor Donald Trump and others. "They have a lot of money and some good ideas, but whether or not one can advise a player to jump is another matter," says one agent of the new league. "There are a number of questions that haven't been answered and probably won't be soon, but the message is, Remember the Continental League."

At this point, the proposed league is nothing more than a bargaining chip the Players Association may use in its coming contract negotiations, especially if the owners threaten to lock out the players in 1990. The specter of a new league could give the Players Association the leverage to force expansion, just as the emergence of the Continental League did in the late '50s and early '60s. The proposed league could also turn into a useful bargaining tool for such recent draftees as former LSU pitcher Ben McDonald, though college baseball players don't have the same marquee value as their counterparts in football or basketball. The USFL could sell football stars Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker to national television. But who outside of Louisiana has ever heard of McDonald?

TRUE VALUE

Last fall several teams went shopping for power hitters, and the Dodgers and Padres made the biggest splashes by acquiring first basemen Eddie Murray and Jack Clark, respectively. Now it looks as if the Red Sox made the best deal by grabbing first baseman Nick Esasky and reliever Rob Murphy from the Reds in a deal involving first baseman Todd Benzinger. Here's a comparison of Esasky's stats with those of Clark and Murray, through Sunday:

." Now that Les Lancaster has proven himself as a closer, Zimmer is confident the Cub bullpen, led by Mitch Williams, is strong enough to survive the move. Since being called up from Triple A on June 24, Lancaster is 3-0, with four saves and a 0.00 ERA in 19 appearances.... St. Louis outfielder Vince Coleman was involved in two bizarre incidents on July 29. First he batted away a pickoff throw that had gotten away from Expo first baseman Andres Galarraga, and was called out for interference. Five innings later Coleman grabbed at second baseman Damaso Garcia's jersey in an attempt to break up a double play. Coleman is one of the National League umpires' most unfavorite players because of his constant complaints about strike calls. If outfielder Willie McGee hadn't gotten injured, it's likely Coleman would have been traded long ago.... Yankee owner George Steinbrenner is at it again. Last week he called a New York writer to vent his dissatisfaction with manager Dallas Green and the coaching staff. Steinbrenner said that he wants former Yankee skipper Lou Piniella back next year, a move Piniella wants no part of.... On July 30 the Reds re-signed 36-year-old outfielder Dave Collins, who had been released by Cincinnati in June and had been unable to hook up with another club. Explaining the move, general manager Murray Cook said, "We consider these extraordinary circumstances."

PHOTOTONY TOMSICWilson is the kind of gutsy leader the Blue Jays have long needed. PHOTOROB BURNS/ASSOCIATED PRESSA Riverfront Stadium scoreboard told the tale of the hot-hitting Reds. PHOTOLORI STOLLBurrell went from executive VP of the Athletics to big-time rap star. PHOTO© THF TOPPS COMPANY, INC.Happy 35th to the inimitable Bird. CHARTJOHN GRIMWADE ILLUSTRATION

BETWEEN THE LINES

BIG LEAGUE FANTASY
When San Diego held its first fantasy camp last week, one of the ex-Padres who participated, former utilityman Kurt Bevacqua, said, "I experienced a fantasy of my own. I got to play an entire game."

EL PERFECTO
No pitcher has ever finished a season with more saves than hits allowed, but Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley is well on his way to doing it this year. At week's end, he had given up only 16 hits en route to picking up 21 saves.

SHORT AND SWEET
After the Reds set a major league record on Aug. 3 by getting 16 hits in the first inning of an 18-2 win over the Astros, Cincinnati outfielder Rolando Roomes, who had four hits in the game, was physically and emotionally exhausted. "Every time we tried to sit down and rest, we had to get up and congratulate somebody," he said. "It was amazing. I looked up at the end of the inning and thought, This is going to be a long day." Actually it wasn't. The first inning took 38 minutes, but the remaining eight whipped by in one hour and 38 minutes, making it the shortest game played in the majors that day.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO...

Remember Stanley Burrell? He was the 16-year-old from Oakland whom A's owner Charlie Finley dubbed his "executive vice-president" in 1978. Burrell used his position to sign his older brother, Louis, to a bonus contract, but Louis was shipped back to Oakland after his first week with the A's Medford (Ore.) club because he couldn't hit the ball out of the batting cage. The following year Stanley was forced out after allegedly stealing a couple of Finley's famed orange baseballs. But that didn't stop his climb to fame. A few years later, with the help of former A's outfielders Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy, he launched a music career and is now a successful rap singer called M.C. Hammer. During his days with the Athletics, Burrell was known as the Hammer because Brewer infielder Pedro Garcia once said he looked like Hammerin' Hank Aaron.

MISCELLANEOUS

•The Rangers used 24 designated hitters between the 1988 All-Star break, when they released Larry Parrish, and July 29, 1989, when they acquired Harold Baines.

•The A's drew 510,309 in their recent 14-game home-stand. Not bad when you consider that in 1979 they pulled in 306,763 for the entire season.

•Through Sunday, Cardinals third baseman Terry Pendleton led all players in homers at Busch Stadium, with six.

•Talk about hard-luck pitching. At week's end, Blue Jay lefthander John Cerutti (8-5) had an ERA of 3.54 during losses, 2.36 during wins and 1.91 in his 10 no-decisions as a starter.

ON SOLID GROUND?
Ground ball pitchers usually give up fever homers than fly ball pitchers do. But as Scott Terry has learned, having a high grounder-fly ball ratio is no guarantee against the dinger. Here's how Terry compared, as of Aug. 5, with the other ground ball leaders:

GROUND BALL TO FLY BALL RATIO*

HOME RUNS PER 9 INNINGS

Kevin Brown, Rangers

3.0 to 1

.58

Zane Smith, Expos

2.7 to 1

.38

Scott Terry, Cardinals

2.7 to 1

.88

Mark Gubicza, Royals

2.5 to 1

.33

Greg Maddux, Cubs

2.5 to 1

.35

Orel Hershiser, Dodgers

2.5 to 1

.36

MAJOR LEAGUE AVG.

1.3 to 1

.73

*Minimum 106 innings pitched
SOURCE STATE, INC.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)