THE NAME GAME
Strange names always pop up in box scores at the start of a season. But thanks to the 27-man roster, which will prevail until May 1, last week's boxes were packed with obscure rookies, forgotten veterans and others who stole in through the back door. Here are some of the best examples:
•Mike Norris, Athletics—Norris, a 35-year-old righthander who was a 22-game winner in 1980, is pitching in the big leagues for the first time since 1983. Over the last seven years, he has undergone treatment for drug abuse four times; drug, shoulder and tax troubles kept him out of baseball in '87 and '88. But he went to Oakland's minor league camp in '89, found his right shoulder was sound and went 6-6 with a 3.18 ERA for Triple A Tacoma. The Athletics promoted Norris this spring after he had a 1.29 ERA in three exhibition games. His regular-season debut, against the Twins on April 11, was equally propitious: He relieved Mike Moore in the eighth, threw two scoreless innings and received a standing ovation. Asked if he had any regrets, Norris replied, "The only thing I feel bad about is for seven years I couldn't give these fans the entertainment I'm used to giving them."
•Charley Kerfeld, Astros—The big fella is back, weighing 260 pounds and still looking like John Candy. But he's slender compared to his form of 1985, when he made his major league debut at 285. Kerfeld, 26, went 11-2 for the Astros in 1986, but arm injuries and too many pounds kept him in the minors for virtually all of the next three years. In '89 he went 3-11 with a 5.52 ERA for Triple A Tucson, but this spring he threw 92 mph consistently and won a spot with Houston. "I was like a little kid whose bike was taken away," says Kerfeld about being away from the big leagues. "I lost my bike for three years." Unfortunately, the bike crashed in his first three games. He lost to the Reds on Opening Night, gave up the game-winning hit against Cincinnati the next evening and allowed the Dodgers' winning run to score on a wild pitch on Sunday. At this point Kerfeld's chances of riding out the season with the Astros don't look good.
April 22, 1990
•Sam Horn, Orioles—Horn batted .148 in both 1988 and '89 with the Red Sox, who gladly let him go in the off-season. Baltimore signed him to a minor league contract, and he had no chance of making the team until the rosters were expanded. Horn's stock began to rise after broadcaster Dick Vitale saw him hit a massive homer in an exhibition game in Bradenton, Fla., this spring and told Oriole general manager Roland Hemond that, hey, all Horn needed was some P.T., baby! Horn, 26, is battling the bulge too: He's 6'5" and 250 pounds. At the start of camp, reporters asked Baltimore director of player personnel Doug Melvin what he expected of Horn, and Melvin replied, "Well, I don't expect him to look like Roseanne Barr." Horn hit a pair of three-run homers on Opening Day. His six RBIs were one more than he had in his previous 42 major league games. The last player with more RBIs on Opening Day was Brant Alyea, who had seven for Minnesota in 1970. Horn will probably be the Orioles' everyday DH.
•Scott Ruskin, Pirates—"I didn't know him from Adam this spring," says Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland of Ruskin. "I just knew he was an outfielder who'd pitched in college." In 1988, after three fruitless seasons in the minors, Ruskin, 26, scrapped his career as an outfielder and took up pitching again. He developed a terrific curveball and made the Pirates' roster as a lefthanded reliever. "Some days I have trouble believing I'm here," says Ruskin, who retired seven of the first eight hitters he faced this season. When asked about hitting, he said, "I don't even pick up a bat. I don't have a bat. I have two batting gloves, but they're only to keep my hands warm."
THE INSIDE PITCH
The first week produced some impressive pitching. The Angels' Mark Langston (seven innings) and Mike Witt (two) combined for a 1-0 no-hitter against the Mariners on April 9. The Rangers' Nolan Ryan left after the fifth inning with a no-hitter going against the Blue Jays on April 11. And the Mets' Frank Viola threw 7⅖ innings in a 3-0 victory over the Pirates on April 11 and didn't once go to a three-ball count.
But don't be fooled by these performances. Most pitchers still aren't ready after getting only three weeks of spring training. Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella asked the Reds' front office to bring up a 12th pitcher after he went through five on Opening Night. Red Sox starter Mike Rochford got knocked around early in Boston's fourth game, so Dana Kiecker, who had been slated to start the following night, had to come in. As a result, John Leister (7-7, 3.93 with Triple A Pawtucket in 1989) was recalled to start the fifth game. And in St. Louis, after an 11-inning victory on Opening Night, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said, "One hundred and sixty-one games to go, and we're worn out already."
Herzog is carrying 13 pitchers. "I came to camp looking for a third righthanded reliever," he says. "Now I'm looking for three righthanded relievers. It's what I call a threatening experience. Every night is going to be a thrill."
Nonetheless, contrary to rumors, St. Louis general manager Dal Maxvill has said he has no intention of trading outfielder Tom Brunansky for Boston reliever Lee Smith. Says Herzog, who has an outfield overstocked with first-line players, "What would you rather have—four outfielders or a bullpen? We'd have a better chance of winning if we had Lee Smith than any of the four outfielders."
Of all the trivial yet often fascinating statistics kept these days, one of the most esoteric is pickoff throws made by pitchers. Last year the Astros' Jim Deshaies led the majors with 355 such tosses, 60 more than American League leader Roger Clemens of the Red Sox and 102 more than his closest National League rival, Bruce Hurst of the Padres. "I can believe I led the league, but a hundred more?" said Deshaies. "Well, I've got to lead the league in something."
At Olympic Stadium in Montreal, an image of a chicken appears on the scoreboard every time an opposing pitcher makes a pickoff throw. "I guess it means you're chicken," said Deshaies. "I must have hung up 11 chickens with one hitter last year."
Deshaies got off to a predictable start. In his debut, on April 10, his first two throws from the stretch were to first. He finished the game with 13 pickoff throws in five innings and caught one runner: the Reds' Paul O'Neill.
Pirate outfielder Andy Van Slyke is amazed that someone—in this case it's Stats, Inc.—actually keeps track of pickoff throws. "Who says there's an unemployment problem in this country?" he says. "Just take the five percent unemployed and give them a baseball stat to follow."
Pitching is usually the Astros' long suit, but not this year. Houston's fifth starter, Jim Clancy, was 18-27 with a 4.74 ERA over the last two years, and he didn't throw well this spring. The Astros should release him, but they signed him to replace Nolan Ryan when Ryan jumped to the Rangers as a free agent in 1988. That bullet is a hard one to bite.
The rest of the staff is not much more promising. Ace Mike Scott is almost 35. No. 3 starter Mark Portugal was 7-0 in the second half of '89, but that may have been a fluke; he was 11-19 in his four previous seasons. The No. 4 starter, Bill Gullickson, isn't the hard thrower he was before he went to Japan at the end of '87. One solution would be to recall top prospect Darryl Kile from Tucson. But he will miss the first two weeks of the Triple A season with arm trouble.
HAND IN GLOVE
Restricting the length of major league gloves to 12 inches from heel to tip was a bad idea when it went into the books in 1950. And as soon as umpires start enforcing the rule, on May 1, it could create headaches for a lot of fielders. Giants outfielder Brett Butler is a good example. "I'll probably get thrown out of a couple games this year," he says. "I'm breaking in a new glove. It's regulation now, but it's going to be illegal soon, when the depth of the pocket expands. The only glove on this team that's going to be legal is [second baseman] Robby Thompson's. He has the littlest glove in baseball. It's about 10 inches."
...Also starting on May 1, teams will have the option of going to a 24-or a 25-man roster. Look for everyone to choose the latter. Astro general manager Bill Wood has already said he will keep 25 players, and so have the Indians, Mets and Phillies.... The Braves will eventually trade shortstop Andres Thomas, most likely to the Mariners. One scout says Thomas's skills "have gone backwards." Still. Atlanta may not get a bargain if it swaps Thomas for Seattle reliever Mike Jackson, as rumored. He's a pitcher who isn't at his best when the game is on the line. Not a good trait for a short man....
The Yankees and Tigers discussed a trade involving New York reliever Dave Righetti, but talks broke off when the Yanks asked the Tigers to include shortstop Travis Fryman. Al Kaline, a spring training coach for the Tigers, said Fryman, 21, who hit .265 with a league-leading 30 doubles for the Class A London Tigers last year, is even more advanced than Alan Trammell was at the same age. Adds Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, "He's legit. He's no made-up thing."
...The White Sox are looking to trade outfielder Ivan Calderon. He's not happy after being told that he could only wear one gold chain during games. Says Calderon, "One chain, no rings-it's like being in the army."
BETWEEN THE LINES
THE FROSTY CITY
On Opening Day at Wrigley Field, where the Cubs faced the Phillies, the temperature dropped to 36° and the windchill factor made it seem like 8°. When asked if his team expected to use any surprise pitchers, Philadelphia second baseman Tommy Herr said, "How about the Jamaican bobsled team?"
Mets second baseman Gregg Jefferies made three errors in his first three games. He blamed the Rolling Stones, who performed a series of concerts in the off-season at Shea Stadium, for packing down the infield and making fielding tricky. Referring to one spot where he flubbed a grounder, Jefferies said, "I think Mick Jagger must have done one of his jumps there."
INJURY OF THE WEEK
On April 11 Steve Stanicek, a first baseman for the Phillies' Triple A team in Scranton, Pa., cut his right index finger on a chandelier while taking off his shirt in his hotel room.
FOOD OF THE WEEK
Tired of hot dogs? The concessionaires for the Double A Orlando SunRays have the answer-barbecued alligator ribs.
MORE FOOD NOTES
Cardinals pitcher Joe Magrane went to Japan in the off-season, but he didn't eat much. "The Japanese idea of cuisine is pulling a fish out of an aquarium and putting it on your plate," says Magrane. "I don't like seafood that much."
On April 9 a woman in her early 50's was overheard at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport telling a friend over the phone, "Before you do anything, find out what Mike Greenwell hit with runners in scoring position."
ONE FOR THE AGES
On Opening Night in Houston, members of the '65 Astros and '65 Yankees, the two teams that opened the stadium, played an old-timers' game to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Astrodome. Of the 32 players on the old-timer rosters, 14 had been fanned by Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Montreal p.r. director Richard Griffin has discovered that Pearl Harbor Day—Dec. 7—is also a key date in Expo history. On that day in 1978, the team acquired Bill Lee, and the next year it won 95 games. On the same day in '79, it obtained Ron LeFlore, and he went on to win the National League stolen base title. And on Dec. 7, 1989, Montreal got Oil Can Boyd. Says Griffin, "Anytime you can get Pearl Harbor and Oil Can Boyd into the same item, you're doing something."
BY THE NUMBERS
•Last Saturday, Angel pitcher Bert Blyleven gave up his 400th career home run. He is seventh on the alltime list, which is led by Robin Roberts (505), and has allowed more homers than the active home run leader, Dwight Evans, has hit (367).
•The Cubs' Ryne Sandberg set a major league record for second basemen by playing his 92nd straight errorless game last Thursday. But an even more impressive stat is the 21 homers he had hit at week's end since his last error, on June 20,1989.
•According to Marty Noble of Newsday, 24.2% of the players on Opening Day rosters have been Yankee pitcher Dave LaPoint's teammates. More ominously, 29.7% of the players on the DL share that distinction.
•San Diego's Bruce Hurst allowed three runs in the eighth inning of his first game this season. Last year, he gave up a total of one run in the eighth or later in all the games he pitched.
•Last Friday, the Baltimore infield committed three errors—matching its total for May 1989.
•Met Dwight Gooden's loss to the Pirates on Opening Day marked the first time in his nine pro seasons that he has had a losing record. And at week's end it had sunk to 0-2.
•In '89, Blue Jay Fred McGriff hit 13 homers in Mike Flanagan's 30 starts for Toronto. When McGriff connected again in Flanagan's first outing, last Thursday, the pitcher quipped, "Like Fred said, I'm not pitching enough."
Because pitchers are rusty from lack of spring training, the average number of pitches per start has dropped from 94 in '89 to 82 this season (through April 14). That's good news for the five starters who last year got hit the hardest after passing the 75-pitch barrier. Here's how those five fared in '89.
OPPONENTS BATTING AVERAGE
MAJOR LEAGUE AVERAGE
Tim Leary, Yankees
John Cerutti, Blue Jays
Jim Abbott, Angels
Andy Hawkins, Yankees
Mike Witt, Angels
SOURCE: STATS, INC.