THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 1989 issue
The Manager of the Year Awards, which are handed out by the Baseball Writers' Association, are nebulous honors at best. They usually go to skippers who have orchestrated startling turnarounds or have ignited talented teams that had lost their spark. But superior managing is more than a one-year magic trick. It's a long process that involves not only creating a winning team but also keeping it from falling apart when times get tough.
That's why Oakland's Tony La Russa gets my American League vote this season, for what I believe is the best managerial performance in more than a decade. It's much tougher to win the second time around. Indeed, no team in the 1980s has won a pennant and finished first in its division the following season. But the Athletics, who finished the week 4½ games in front in the American League West, are well on their way to doing just that.
The A's had every reason to fold this year. They not only were coming off a pennant-winning season but also had lost many of their best players to injuries, including MVP outfielder Jose Canseco, closer Dennis Eckersley, shortstop Walt Weiss and starter Bob Welch. But La Russa pasted together a winner by taking full advantage of his bench. He will use anyone anytime, and a role player such as Mike Gallego can be just as important in La Russa's scheme of things as, say, hard-hitting third baseman Carney Lansford. Says Lansford, "Tony asks for no less than nine hard innings every day. And he gets it, no matter who he plays. When you go to see the A's, you may not see them play well, but they will play hard."
ZEN OF HITTING
Coaches can talk all they want about the value of patience at the plate, but some players will never learn to be selective, because as California hitting coach Deron Johnson says, "It's just not in their nature." The best example? In Johnson's mind, it's Angel centerfielder Devon White. "Devo should be one of the great players," says one of his teammates. "But he gets himself out twice a game because he swings at absolutely everything. Why throw him a strike?" According to Stats, Inc., White had swung at and missed more pitches through Sept. 9 (315) than anyone in the American League except strikeout leader Bo Jackson (383). But, of course, White, with 12 homers through last weekend, is nowhere near the slugger Jackson is with 31.
Then there are those batters who can't hit the breaking ball. That's what everybody said about Giants third baseman Matt Williams when he was sent down to Triple A Phoenix on May 1 after batting .130 with only two homers. But he must have learned something in the minors. After hitting 26 homers in 76 games for the Firebirds, Williams returned to the Giants on July 24 and, since then, he has 14 home runs with 33 RBIs in 45 games. Says one scout, "It used to be that he'd swing and miss at 10 straight breaking balls. Now he'll miss the first nine and foul the 10th off. But he can turn around the fastball with anyone."
Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who was hitting .227 at week's end with only one RBI over his last 12 games, admits that 1989 has been "a stink year" for him. But those words can't excuse his slovenly performance. At the plate, he looks as if he has no idea who is pitching, much less what that pitcher might be trying to do. In the field, he's a disgrace: He rarely changes position; he's lackadaisical while chasing down fly balls; and he misuses a decent arm by throwing without regard to cutoff men. In the last two seasons he has had just eight assists.
The Mets are planning to pick up the option on Strawberry's contract for 1990, but they haven't decided whether to sign him to a longer deal to prevent him from becoming a free agent after the '90 season. Don't hold your breath. "If he's really adamant about being on the West Coast, we'll see what happens," says Mets senior vice-president Al Harazin, referring to Strawberry's remark two years ago that he would like to play on a California team with his boyhood pal, Cincinnati outfielder Eric Davis. Earlier this year, the Dodgers were rumored to be eyeing Strawberry, and the Padres have expressed interest in Davis, who can become a free agent in the fall of'90.
When Indianapolis investors Jeff Smulyan and Michael Browning bought the Mariners last month, they asked the fans—through The Seattle Times—to come up with suggestions on how to improve the club. Shortly afterward, the Times received nearly 360 recommendations from its readers. Many thought the team should move out of the Kingdome or make major alterations to the stadium, which one reader described as "a giant bombshelter urinal." Paul Field of Silverdale suggested removing the roof, and Mike Yanega of Auburn wanted a bright blue sky painted on the ceiling. But Kenton Gingrich of Seattle had the most novel, not to mention truly West Coast, idea of all. He wrote, "Hang tanning lights above the rightfield bleachers, raise the temperature to 80 degrees and make sure we have plenty of beer vendors.... I've always wanted to be a shirtless Seattle bleacher bum."
Several Boston players have criticised Red Sox manager Joe Morgan recently for his inability to communicate and his poor handling of the pitching staff. But that's not how Morgan sees it. Last week, after lefthanded pitcher Joe Price (2-5, 4.46 ERA) said, "I don't think there are a lot of players on this team who are real happy with the way things are happening," Morgan lashed back by saying, "We have a bunch of babies and we've got to have a major housecleaning." This is an age-old problem for the Red Sox. Broadcaster Tim McCarver, who was a catcher for Boston briefly in 1974 and '75, said, "What's new? It was like that when I played there. I couldn't believe what the stars got away with."
Morgan started losing the players' respect in early August when management ignored his recommendation to release designated hitter Jim Rice (.234, three homers at week's end), catcher Rich Gedman (.212) and pitcher Bob Stanley (4.88 ERA, four saves). That housecleaning would have been Morgan's chance to show who was boss. But general manager Lou Gorman did nothing, and as a result, Morgan has become the target of verbal broadsides from his players ever since.
Things could be changing, though. On Sunday, Gorman suspended Price for four days after he cursed Morgan on the runway to the clubhouse after Saturday night's game, in which Price gave up three earned runs and four stolen bases in one inning of relief.
One National League scout has an explanation for why Reds closer John Franco has gone 2-6 with only eight saves since July 4. "Hitters are laying off his screwball, which he seldom throws in the strike zone," says the scout. "When he has to come in with his fastball, he's very hittable."
...This year's most disappointing team has to be the Texas Rangers, who have played under-.500 ball since their 17-5 start. Part of this slump can be blamed on the blasè performances of a pair of first-half flashes, second baseman Julio Franco and rightfielder Ruben Sierra. Texas is likely to make several changes before next season: moving Franco to first and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to left; trading leftfielder Pete Incaviglia; and either dealing pitcher Bobby Witt or making him a reliever....
A pleasant surprise for the Dodgers this year has been rookie righthander John Wetteland (4-7, 3.26 ERA). "I like Wetteland better than [Tim] Belcher or any of the Dodgers' other pitchers except [Orel] Hershiser," says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog. "If I were going to build a staff in the National League, I'd start with Wetteland, [Cincinnati righthander] Scott Scudder and [Atlanta righthander] John Smoltz."
...Outfielder Deion Sanders left the Yankees last week after signing a $4.4 million contract to play cornerback for the Atlanta Falcons. True to form, during his final appearance as a Yankee this season, in Seattle on Sept. 6, he wore sanitary hose with dollar signs drawn on them.