NEW-AGE CHIN MUSIC
Every week seems to bring another bench-clearing incident. As of Sunday there had been eight big ones this season, all triggered by a hit batsman. Hitters, it seems, are charging the mound more frequently, even though pitchers appear to be more reluctant to throw at them. "The game has been changing for years," says Oriole manager Frank Robinson, who was hit 198 times with pitches during his 21-year playing career but remembers charging the mound only twice. "Players have become very sensitive if someone throws inside. We knew it was part of the game."
Clearly, the antibeanball rules instituted in 1988 have not worked as well as had been hoped. They allow an umpire, after issuing a warning against brushback pitches, to eject a pitcher and his manager when a subsequent too-tight pitch is thrown. "Before the rule change, before the game became overregulated, players were better at getting out of the way of pitches because they had more practice," says Angel manager Doug Rader, who played from 1967 through '77. "And they learned how to get hit by pitches. The manly thing to do once you were hit was to go about your business, to walk to first base. If the pitchers saw that throwing close affected you, they'd keep throwing at you. The game ought to be deregulated."
Red Sox manager Joe Morgan did some deregulating of his own on June 3 in Cleveland. The night before, Indians reliever Doug Jones had thrown close to the head of Boston's Tony Pena, who after the game predicted that his team would get even. Sure enough, Roger Clemens, the Red Sox starter the next day, hit Cleveland's first batter, Stanley Jefferson, above the right elbow. Both benches cleared, and Pena and Chris James of the Indians squared off. Both were ejected, though Clemens was allowed to stay in the game. Afterward Morgan said, "I loved it. We got even, didn't we? After last night, this was inevitable. We, as a team, voted 34-0 [to retaliate]." The reference to the vote is what earned Morgan a three-day suspension from American League president Bobby Brown. Morgan's appeal of the suspension was to be heard on Tuesday.
Contrast the Red Sox's attitude with the story a National League manager tells about trying to get one of his pitchers to work an opponent inside because the batter had been leaning in toward the plate and hitting everything in sight. The pitcher told the manager, "I can't pitch him inside. He's a friend of mine." The manager said, "I'm not asking you to hit him—just get him off the plate." The pitcher repeated, "I can't."
Can you imagine Bob Gibson saying that?
MUST BE THE SHOES
If you think that offense is on the rise this season, you're right. Consider last Friday. In 14 games that day, there were 171 runs scored, 284 hits and 42 home runs. Six teams got 10 or more runs, including the Giants, who had 23 against the Braves, who scored eight. That all added up to quite a display of firepower, but it came as no surprise. Through Sunday homers had increased 12.1% in the American League over last season and 17.2% in the National League. Runs scored were about even in the American League, but were 10.4% higher in the National. Why?
"I said in April the balls were juiced," says Twins pitcher John Candelaria. "Now people are talking about it." Says Toronto pitcher Duane Ward, "The ball is definitely more lively. It's not like it was last year. It looks like a reenactment of 1987 [when major leaguers hit a record 4,458 homers]. Guys who aren't home run hitters are hitting them. I haven't seen a broken-bat homer yet, but when we see one, we'll know something is going on."
But just as many scouts, managers, coaches and players think the ball isn't juiced. Of course, the people at Rawlings, who manufacture the baseballs for the majors, insist the ball is the same as it was last season.
Most baseball people agree that the balls were livelier in 1987. While more taters have been hit this season than at the same point in '89, the rate at which they're being produced is 21% below that of '87. Still, something is going on. Only 11 players have ever hit 50 or more home runs in a season. This year, however, the Tigers' Cecil Fielder and the A's Jose Canseco are each on pace to hit 60 (though Canseco's chances of doing so are diminished now that he will be sidelined for at least a week with a back injury). The Astros' Glenn Davis, who has the disadvantage of playing half his games in the Astrodome, is on a 51-home run pace.
What's more, at week's end a player had hit three homers in a game six times: Fielder had done it twice, and Davis, Randy Milligan of the Orioles, Kevin Mitchell of the Giants and Jeff Treadway of the Braves once each. In the previous two years combined, a player had hit three homers in a game only five times.
Why so many home runs? Says Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn, "Face it, just the addition of a healthy Canseco [he missed the first half of the 1989 season] plus Fielder [who played in Japan last year] have meant a lot more homers. But I think the biggest reason is that pitching is down. I've never seen so many hanging breaking balls. Pitchers nibble and nibble, get behind in the count, then boom)!" Adds Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston, "You've got a lot of Double A and Triple A pitchers in the major leagues now."
If those explanations don't satisfy you, Milwaukee reliever Dan Plesac has another theory: "It's not the pitching. In some parks, the ball is carrying better. Last year when we went to the [Toronto] Sky-Dome, you could hit the ball off a tee from second base and still not hit it out. Now the ball jumps out of there."
Perhaps it's the ball. Perhaps it's the pitchers. Perhaps it's the parks. Perhaps the lockout has something to do with it. Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek has heard all the explanations. "Maybe the hitters are pretty good," he says. "Hitters never get enough credit."
They are this year.
The A's made a shrewd move in taking highly acclaimed high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel (SI, June 4), who has declared his intention to enroll at Texas next fall, with a first-round pick (14th overall) in the June 4 draft. What have they got to lose? Oakland had seven choices in the first 66 and figured that with an offer to join a world champion organization, Van Poppel, a righthander from Arlington, Texas, might change his mind.
Von Poppel was the jewel of the draft. The Braves, who had the first pick, had planned to take him, but after he turned down their reported $900,000 offer, they decided to draft shortstop Chipper Jones of The Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla.
Teams have become more cautious with their picks because signing prospects is more difficult than it was in the past. "There are a lot more backdoor agents around," says Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president of baseball operations, referring to agents who advise the parents of a drafted high school player in an unofficial but persuasive capacity and often drive a hard bargain. "Kids have more people whispering in their ears than anyone would like to believe."
An acrimonious players-only team meeting seems to have awakened the Padres, who as of Sunday had climbed to within 5½ games of the first-place Reds in the National League West. San Diego was 12-4 since the angry session on May 24 in New York, during which fingers were pointed and names were named. The Padres trailed Cincy by 9½ games that day. During their hot streak the Padres scored 6.3 runs per game after having averaged 4.2 before the meeting....
Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton saw Baltimore advance scout Ed Farmer in the Brewers press box on June 6. "Can you still pitch?" Dalton asked Farmer, 40, a former righthander for eight teams who hasn't played since 1983. "I know 20 teams that could use you." Dalton's staff is so depleted that he—like several other general managers—is desperately seeking pitching. Last Saturday, Dalton traded outfielder Glenn Braggs and second baseman Billy Bates to Cincinnati for pitchers Ron Robinson and Bob Sebra. They should help, but unless Milwaukee shores up its woeful defense—at week's end the Brewers were worst in the majors with 63 errors—they're not going anywhere....
The Astros, tied with the Braves for last place in the National League West, may make wholesale changes. Houston has some terrific minor league talent, and it might be better off going with a youth movement. "I've never been this far out [13½ games through Sunday] before," says second baseman Bill Doran. "It's getting sickening. I'm about to snap. I already have, really, but I just keep sinking to new depths."
...The White Sox's surprising start can be traced to defense, pitching and playing hard—the formula used by the 1989 miracle Orioles. Hrbek says the '90 White Sox "remind me so much of the '87 Cardinals [who were beaten by the Twins in the World Series]. They have some pop, but mostly they have a bunch of little fast guys, good pitching and good defense."
...The Tigers, whose new team president is former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, drafted former Wolverine wide receiver Greg McMurtry and Detroit Lions quarterback Rodney Peete with their 27th- and 28th-round choices, respectively....
Last season each bat that San Diego outfielder Tony Gwynn cracked was sold at a souvenir shop partly owned by the Padres. The bats fetched $100 apiece. This year Gwynn decided to buy his own bats instead of having the team purchase them. Now when he cracks one, he gives the bat to a charity or to a youngster he believes will cherish it. Good idea.
BY THE NUMBERS
•Bill Buckner, who was released by the Red Sox on June 5, is not expected to be re-signed by another team. If he's not, he leaves the game with 2,715 hits—six fewer than Lou Gehrig and 61 more than Ted Williams.
•As of Sunday, A's reliever Dennis Eckersley had not walked a batter in 26 innings. The major league record for most innings without a walk at the start of a season is 52, set by the Cubs' Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1923.
•From 1982 through '88, pitcher Frank DiPino, now with the Cardinals, never had a winning record, going 20-35 over those years. Last season he went 9-0. At week's end he was 3-0.
RISING CRIME RATE
STOLEN BASE ATTEMPTS
STOLEN BASE ATTEMPTS
SOURCE: STATS, INC.