UP AND COMING
The Triple A All-Star Game on July 11 in Las Vegas had what its major league counterpart in Chicago the previous night didn't: excitement, runs, hits, home runs, steals and top-notch defense. Future big leaguers played that night in Las Vegas, and others are playing every night somewhere in the minor leagues. The tricky part is predicting which players will become stars in the majors. The best bets were the two top performers in the All-Star Game: Oklahoma City outfielder Juan Gonzalez and Albuquerque shortstop Jose Offerman.
Gonzalez, 20, the most promising prospect in the Rangers' system, was leading the American Association in homers (18) at the All-Star break. At 6'3", 210 pounds, he reminds people of Texas right-fielder Ruben Sierra, and he impressed the crowd in Las Vegas by crushing a double and a home run. "People forget that he's only 20," says Rangers scouting director Sandy Johnson. "I hate to use this word, but he's a potential superstar. He hasn't scratched the surface yet."
Texas doesn't want to rush Gonzalez and may keep him down on the farm until major league rosters expand in September. Says Gonzalez, "I guarantee, if I spend the whole year here, I will be in the Rangers' lineup on Opening Day next year."
Offerman, 21, is expected to be in the Dodgers' Opening Day lineup in 1991, but a Los Angeles scout says, "He's ready now." The Dodgers aren't in a pennant race, so they want Offerman to spend the whole season in Triple A. "If I was ready to play in the big leagues now, I'd be there," says Offerman, who was hitting .339 with 51 steals, 44 RBIs and 23 errors at the break. "I need to work on my consistency."
A six-foot, 160-pounder, Offerman has the same build and many of the same moves as one of his idols, Blue Jay shortstop Tony Fernandez, a fellow native of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. "He's no doubt the best prospect in our league," says Vancouver manager Marv Foley. "He's going to be a major league All-Star. He can swing the bat. He could hit 10 to 15 home runs someday."
After Gonzalez and Offer-man, the talent levels off in Triple A, but there are some prospects. First baseman Tino Martinez of Calgary, a Mariners farm team, was batting .323 with 10 homers at the break. "He's the best hitter in our league," says Foley. In addition, Louisville (Cardinals) centerfielder Ray Lankford and third baseman Leo Gomez and first baseman David Segui of Rochester (N.Y.) in the Oriole system could be big league starters next season.
Perhaps the four best arms in Triple A this season were called up to the majors in the last six weeks: Ben McDonald (Orioles), Steve Avery and Kent Mercker (Braves) and Scott Scudder (Reds). A few to keep an eye on include Scott Chiamparino of Tacoma (A's), Rafael Valdez of Las Vegas (Padres) and Jason Grimsley of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the Phillie organization. Chiamparino resembles Oakland's Bob Welch; the Athletics hope he will pitch like Welch too.
Further down on the farm, in Double A, Canton-Akron shortstop Mark Lewis should be starting for the Indians sometime next year. With 16 homers, Frank Thomas of Birmingham in the White Sox system may be the best power-hitting prospect in the minors. Jeff Conine, the Royals' 58th-round pick in the 1987 draft, has torn up the Southern League for Memphis. Willie Banks of Orlando (Twins) may be the finest pitcher in Double A.
Overall, however, the minor league crop is not particularly strong. "The studs today are as good as any other year," says Johnson. "There just aren't as many of them." He and most other scouting directors agree that there's a shortage of pitching as well as of power hitters and speed.
Whether many of these players make it big in the major leagues remains to be seen. Ted Simmons, St. Louis's director of player development, describes the frustration of life on the farm: "You plant a seed, you water, you weed, you make sure it gets sunlight. You know it's going to surface. Baseball players aren't the same. You put the seed in the ground, and you can do everything humanly possible to give it a chance to grow, and it might not come up."
In June 1987, the Mariners "agonized long and hard," according to Tom Mooney, then a Seattle scout, whether to use the first pick in the draft to select Ken Griffey Jr. or Mark Merchant, a high school outfielder from Oviedo, Fla. Seattle took Griffey, and the Pirates chose Merchant with the next pick. Griffey was in the major leagues by 1989; Merchant struggled in the minors before Pittsburgh traded him to the Mariners in April 1989 as part of a deal for shortstop Rey Quinones. In mid-May of this year, Merchant was still hitting only .188 at Double A Williamsport (Pa.).
"When you look at Merchant, you can't believe clubs were torn between him or Griffey," said Baltimore farm director Doug Melvin in May. "But I bet if you had asked most clubs who they would have taken, they would have been split."
Now maybe the Merchant riddle has an answer. During a bus ride from Williamsport to Albany, N.Y., on May 15, Merchant had a seizure, the cause of which has yet to be determined. That led doctors to believe that in the past Merchant may have suffered episodes of petit mal, a form of epilepsy in which a person loses concentration and often appears spacy. Merchant was dropped to Class A San Bernardino (Calif.) and put on medication for his condition. As of Saturday, he was hitting .354 in 23 games. "It may be that we have found the key to unlock Merchant's door," says Seattle farm director Jim Beattie.
Then there's the sad tale of pitcher Bill Bene, whom the Dodgers made the No. 5 pick in the 1988 draft. Three years later he's still in Class A, now with Vero Beach of the Florida State League, and struggling to regain his control. Through July 14, Bene had pitched 39⅖ innings, walked 62, thrown 13 wild pitches and hit three batters. That's an improvement over last year, when he pitched for Class A Bakersfield and developed a mental block so thick that, at one point, the team wouldn't let him throw against live batters during workouts. He had to pitch to a mannequin. For his 2½-year minor league career, Bene, a 22-year-old righthander, has pitched 132 innings and walked 163.
No one feels worse about all this than Bene himself. Last winter he bought an expensive video camera to record his motion in hopes of curing his wildness. He also visited a sports psychologist. Bene made strides early this season. "He was walking six a game, but that's better than six an inning," says Vero Beach pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn. But Bene suffered a shoulder injury on May 6 and didn't pitch again until May 29. "Every time he starts climbing the mountain, he falls back down," says Lewallyn.
Still, Lewallyn was encouraged recently when Bene's fastball was clocked at 93 mph. "If he clicks, I could see instant success," says Lewallyn. "I'm not saying he'll click, but I'm not giving up on him."
What is it like being the identical twin brother of the game's highest-paid player and probably its most controversial star? "It can be hard," says Ozzie Canseco, an outfielder for Huntsville (Ala.), Oakland's Double A team. "The fans on the road yell obscenities. I can't even tell you about them, that's how bad. But when you're the twin of a celebrity, you're kind of open."
Fans heckle him about not measuring up to his brother. Ozzie, 26, was a pitcher in the Yankee system from 1983 through '85. Only after signing with the A's as a free agent in 1986 did he become an everyday player. This year, his second full season in Huntsville, he was hitting .222 with 16 homers and 53 RBIs through Saturday.
Says Ozzie, "I always wanted to be an every-day player, but I wasn't allowed to be in high school or college [at Miami Dade South Junior College] because I had such a good arm." He's not in Jose's class as a hitter, he says, because "I don't have his experience."
Or his size, but he's getting close. Through weight training, Ozzie has gained more than 20 pounds since last season, and is now 6'3", 225 pounds. Jose is 6'4", 230. Ozzie may even be called up by the A's in September. "I should have 25 or 30 homers by then," he says.
A PEREZ UPDATE
Melido Perez of the White Sox pitched a rain-shortened no-hitter on July 12 against the Yankees. Even though the game went only six innings, it's official. Perez's no-hitter was the seventh in the major leagues this year, tying the single-season record set in 1917. Perez's brother, Pascual, of the Yankees, also has thrown a rain-shortened no-hitter, a five-inning effort against the Phillies while he was playing for the Expos in 1988. So this seemed a good time to check in on three of the other Perez brothers (SI, Jan. 8). Vladimir is pitching for Jackson (Miss.), the Mets' Double A team, for which he was 1-0 in 14⅖ innings as of last Saturday. He started the year at Class A Port St. Lucie in the rookie league. Ruben Dario was 1-2 for the Royals in Florida's rookie Gulf Coast League. Carlos was 2-1 for the Bradenton Expos in the same league. Melido's brothers called him on July 13 to congratulate him on his no-hitter. "I told Vladimir, 'You're next to pitch a no-hitter,' " says Melido....
When Jack McKeon resigned as manager of the Padres on July 11 to become the team's full-time general manager—Greg Riddoch will take over as manager of the team for the rest of the year—he took a shot at San Diego's minor league operation. "We need to do a better job of scouting, and we need to develop our minor league players a lot quicker and get them to the big leagues," said McKeon....
Comic actor Bill Murray is part owner of five minor league teams. "I don't actually own the teams," says Murray. "I own a couple of bases, some bats, balls, you know." Asked if he was interested in owning a major league team, Murray said, "I don't think so, you have to be real thrifty for that. But I could work in concessions. I think I'd be good in concessions."
...Former major league pitcher Britt Burns's courageous comeback attempt from a degenerative hip condition was dealt a setback in early July. Burns, who until this spring hadn't pitched since spring training of 1986, injured his left shoulder while pitching for the Yankees' Class A team in Fort Lauderdale. He returned home to Birmingham to have the shoulder examined. At week's end the Yankees weren't sure of Burns's plans. "He hasn't given it up," says Mitch Lukevics, New York's director of minor league operations. "He just suffered a setback." However, at the time of the injury, Burns was 1-3 with an 11.08 ERA this season....
Lynchburg (Va.), Boston's Class A team in the Carolina League, has three sons of former major leaguers on its roster: outfielder Mickey Rivers (son of former Yankee outfielder Mickey Rivers), third baseman John Malzone (son of onetime Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone) and pitcher Tim Stange (son of former Red Sox pitcher Lee Stange). They are managed by former Boston catcher Gary Allenson. "I haven't gotten a phone call yet from any fathers," says Allenson with a smile....
Good news for a few minor leaguers who have spent time on big league rosters: The Baseball Writers Association of America, which oversees the Rookie of the Year awards, has changed its rules on what constitutes a rookie. Time spent on the big league disabled list will no longer affect a player's rookie status. The change is effective immediately, so Montreal outfielder Larry Walker, who spent the 1988 season on the DL and heretofore hasn't been eligible for the award, is now a rookie.
BETWEEN THE LINES
THE X FACTOR
There have been 33 major leaguers whose last name begins with Q and 62 with Z, but none with X. Joe Xavier, a 27-year-old infielder for Greenville (S.C.), Atlanta's Double A team in the Southern League, is the only minor leaguer whose surname begins with X. For that reason, he has become a cult figure of sorts for readers of Baseball America, which covers the minors extensively. Despite his release from the Brewers' system earlier this year—and talk that the Braves picked him up because he's Atlanta manager Bobby Cox's nephew—Xavier holds out hope of making the majors. "Just because my name starts with X isn't going to get me there," he says. "But it would be great to be the first X in the big leagues."
A LONG ROAD BACK
Eric Brooks, a catcher for Toronto's Class A team in Myrtle Beach, S.C., suffered severe memory loss in November 1985 after a collision while playing high school football in LaMirada, Calif. He lost the ability to read and write and even had to relearn how to comb his hair, among other things. For months, says Brooks, "I couldn't differentiate between my mom and any other female."
After spending some time at a trauma rehab center in May 1986, he was told he could resume his athletic career. Brooks played baseball in the spring of 1986 and football in the fall of '87. In June 1988 he was drafted by the Blue Jays. He still can't remember anything from his childhood—"My imagination fills in the blanks," he says—but he has learned to read and write again. "I have trouble understanding feelings and emotion," says Brooks, who was batting .285 through Saturday. "I get mad sometimes and don't know how to handle it. But I feel great, and I'm playing well. I'm progressing."
GOOD THINGS COME IN SIXES
Righthander Antonio Alfonseca, 18, of the Mendoza Expos in the Dominican Summer League, won his first pro game on June 18 and soon after pitched his first shutout. Alfonseca has six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. The sixth finger grows out of each pinky. His manager, Jesus Alou, who expects Alfonseca to make a Montreal farm team in the States in 1991, says the extra finger doesn't hurt or hinder Alfonseca. Fittingly, in his first victory, Alfonseca pitched six innings and gave up six hits.
The minor leagues have some famous names—Terry Bradshaw is an outfielder for Hamilton (Ont.), and Ron Howard plays second base for Fayetteville (N.C.)—but none is more famous than Ted Williams. He's an outfielder for Triple A Calgary in the Mariners' chain. "It's Ted, not Theodore, and there's no middle initial," says Williams, who insists he wasn't named for the Red Sox Hall of Famer. Ted bears no resemblance to the Splendid Splinter—he's black, a switch-hitter and has 34 steals—except that he started this season wearing No. 9. After having batted .181 through June 1, though, he changed to No. 12. As of Saturday he had raised his average to .227. "Everywhere I go, people yell, 'Why did they name you Ted Williams?' " he says. " My goal is to be half as good as he was. My teammates tell me, 'He was the Splendid Splinter, you're the Splendid Sprinter.' "
BY THE NUMBERS
•On June 23, Willie Ansley, an outfielder for the Astros' Double A farm team in Columbus, Ga., hit inside-the-park homers in consecutive at bats in Huntsville. Ansley, perhaps the fastest player in the Astro system, scored standing up on both homers. "On the second one," says Columbus manager Rick Sweet, "he was halfway to the dugout when the ball got to the plate."
•Catcher Randal Renfroe of Class A Palm Springs hit two homers on the first two pitches he saw as a professional, on June 17. As of Sunday, he hadn't homered again.
THE BACK BURNERS
Minor leaguers today don't steal the way Vince Coleman and Donell Nixon did in 1983, when they swiped 145 and 144 bases for Macon and Bakersfield, respectively. But Ellerton Maynard of San Bernardino has a chance to be the first minor leaguer in five years to get 100.
San Bernardino (Mariners-A)
*Through July 14
**Projected for 140-game season
SOURCE: HOWE SPORTSDATA INTERNATIONAL