The Not-Really Rookies

Baseball's best young talents this spring aren't true rookies, just phenoms
April 01, 1991

On Aug. 2, Pitcher Alex Fernandez, who was 20 at the time, and first baseman Frank Thomas, 22, started for the Chicago White Sox in a game against the Brewers at Milwaukee's County Stadium. Each player was making his major league debut and was understandably nervous. Between them, Fernandez and Thomas, both of whom had been called up that day from the Double A Birmingham Barons, had less than two years of minor league experience.

With Chicago ahead 3-2 after seven innings, White Sox manager Jeff Torborg approached Fernandez in the dugout and told him, "That's all for today, son. Well done."

"But Skip," replied Fernandez, who had given up only five hits, "I can get them out."

Torborg folded his arms and gazed at the sky. "I'm sure you can," he said, "but Barry Jones and Bobby Thigpen out there in the bullpen can, too."

Fernandez departed, and Jones came in. He promptly gave up the tying run. Torborg didn't forget that.

In all, Fernandez, who in May had been pitching to junior college hitters, started 13 times for the White Sox in 1990, going 5-5 with a 3.80 ERA and establishing himself in the rotation. "The talk was that I was young and inexperienced," says Fernandez. "Jeff gave me confidence by letting me battle my way out of situations."

Thomas was similarly precocious. After going hitless in his first game—"jitters," he says—he drove in the winning run with a triple the next day and never looked back. At season's end his batting average was .330, the highest since 1942 by a White Sox player with at least 200 plate appearances. "From day one, both of them seemed as if they belonged here," says Torborg. "They're special."

What happened to Fernandez and Thomas is not unheard of. Young players break into the big leagues every year. Downright startling, however, was how young Fernandez and Thomas were, how they were called up before September and how little time they needed to make a splash. Moreover, Chicago was not alone in experiencing this baby boon.

Five days after Thomas and Fernandez debuted, Brian McRae, a 22-year-old centerfielder for the Double A Memphis Chicks, who were playing on the road in Huntsville, Ala., was awakened at 7 a.m. by a pounding on his door. "It was Jeff Cox, my manager," says McRae, who had been up until after four. "He tells me I'm going to Kansas City, to the big leagues. I had brought no clothes with me to Huntsville except jeans and T-shirts, and now all I have time to do is catch the plane. I get to Kansas City and go straight from the airport to batting practice. I'm dead tired. Everything's happening so fast, my head is spinning. I can't even call anyone to say I'm in the big leagues. I look at the lineup, and I see that I'm playing. My first time up, I get behind 0-2. I was standing there thinking, I'm in the big leagues and I'm 0-2. Snap out of it! I worked the count even and tripled, and then I wasn't tired anymore."

On Aug. 29 outfielder Juan Gonzalez was called up by the Texas Rangers. In truth, he shouldn't have been surprised. In 128 games with the Triple A Oklahoma City 89ers last season, Gonzalez led the American Association in home runs (29), RBIs (101) and total bases (252) and was named the league's MVP. What's more, at 20 he was the youngest player in the American Association.

Traditionally, a player of his age and accomplishments might have been called up when the rosters expanded in September and perhaps been allowed to pinch-hit a few times. Gonzalez, however, had already done that the year before. With the Rangers well out of contention, Texas general manager Tom Grieve wanted to see whether Gonzalez could be counted on to help improve matters in 1991. Grieve remembered something that Paul Richards, the famed Oriole general manager, had once told him. "He said, Always be cautious about rookie performances in September," says Grieve. "They don't indicate what'll happen in April."

So with a glint of August left, Grieve acted. And how did Gonzalez respond? He batted .289 for the rest of the season and hit four homers in one 10-game span. Was he nervous? "Nah," says Gonzalez. "Only one time, in the first game."

For all the skill and poise and promise that Fernandez, Gonzalez, McRae and Thomas showed in 1990, they share another common quality: None of them will be Rookie of the Year this season. All four have had more than 130 at bats, pitched more than 50 innings and/or spent more than 45 days before September on an active major league roster, and a player who exceeds any of those limits is no longer classified a rookie. The same goes for several other young players who turned heads toward the end of last season, including California Angel second baseman Luis Sojo, 25, Detroit Tiger third baseman Travis Fryman, 21, and pitchers Scott Erickson, 23, of the Minnesota Twins and Reggie Harris, 22, of the Oakland Athletics. Indeed, last year's bevy of late-summer success stories reflects fundamental changes in the way general managers—particularly those in the American League West—are building their ball clubs.

New economic realities, say the general managers, have forced many teams to fill gaps with youngsters instead of with high-priced veterans. Why pay an established role player $1 million when you can get a gifted youngster for a tenth the cost? "You don't do it at the expense of wins," says Twins G.M. Andy MacPhail, "but you do want to find out about a young player, so, if possible, you can forgo the millions you would pay to a free agent."

General managers also like the fact that these late-summer arrivals are largely anonymous and thus are under less pressure. "When's the last time a heralded rookie made it?" says MacPhail. "Well, Sandy Alomar, but more of them don't make it than do."

So it is that Thomas, Fernandez, McRae and Gonzalez will play their first full seasons in the majors without rookie status and, consequently, without the attendant trumpets and flourishes. For the most part, they are being treated as if they were regulars, though there is little that is regular about any of them.

Thomas, a former tight end at Auburn, is the most impressive physical specimen of the bunch. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure in the White Sox's new black warmup shirt and pin-striped white trousers. "Frank is too big to be a man and too small to be a horse," says teammate Steve Lyons, who is advised not to make a habit of such remarks.

Thomas, who was Baseball America's 1990 Minor League Player of the Year, is well aware that his not-really-a-rookie status comes with different expectations. "I'm looked at as a second-year player," he says. "Can't have all that 'rookie mistake,' 'rookie this,' 'rookie that.' It's time to perform. People are saying this and that about what Frank Thomas can do. The truth is, I haven't done anything yet. I want to do things others haven't done."

With that in mind, he traveled from his Columbus, Ga., home in January to Los Angeles, where he spent a month hitting baseballs with Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry. "Awesome. Totally," says Davis of Thomas. "You don't see many big guys with the bat speed and agility he has. The only thing that can stop Frank from having success is Frank."

What Torborg likes most about Thomas is his patience at the plate. Last year Thomas led professional baseball with 156 walks (112 with Birmingham and 44 with Chicago). When he does swing, line drives fly to all fields. And that's not all. "I can run!" says Thomas in a rare animated moment after barely losing a race to White Sox speedsters Sammy Sosa and Tim Raines. "I'm a sprinter at 250. Find me a man my weight. I can beat him."

Five years ago Fernandez could have obliged him. As a high school sophomore in Miami, he stood 5'9" and weighed 240 pounds. Fernandez's parents are Cuban immigrants who raised their son on staples from their native land: baseball, black beans and rice. But Fernandez eventually went on a diet—which consisted largely of boiled chicken without the skin and 10 glasses of water a day—and today he is a trim 6'1", 210 pounds.

After going 15-2 with a 2.01 ERA as a freshman at the University of Miami, Fernandez transferred to Miami-Dade (South) Community College so that he could become eligible for last June's draft. He was 12-2 with a 1.19 ERA for the Jaguars, and the White Sox snapped him up in the first round. "He's so much more mature than I was at that age," says Chicago bullpen coach Dave LaRoche, who pitched 14 seasons in the majors. "I think I was typical, a little bit in awe at first. It's that confidence."

Fernandez, whose fluid pitching motion has been compared with that of Tom Seaver, uses four different pitches, including a 90-mph fastball. "I don't like to give in to hitters," he says. Last year Fernandez pitched a total of 258‚Öì innings for his college team, three minor league clubs and the Sox. In all of baseball, only Oakland's Dave Stewart worked more. "Young kids always talk about wins," says Chicago general manager Ron Schueler. "When I saw him this spring, the first thing he said was, 'I want to throw 250 innings.' "

When McRae visited Royals Stadium as a boy, the first thing he said was, "Hello, Dad." His father, Hal, starred for the fine Kansas City teams of the 1970s and '80s. "I tried to give Brian the best instruction I could," says Hal, who's now the Montreal Expos' hitting coach, "but I wasn't trying to turn him into a ballplayer. You don't think like that. My concern was that, if he played, he should have fun."

Brian had plenty. "My dad would bring me to the ballpark, let me shag in the outfield, hit in the cage, stuff like that," he recalls. "Charley Lau used to feed me soft toss. I picked up a lot of things."

In 1985 the Royals picked Brian, who was a high school senior, as a surprise first-round draft choice. Three years later he was still in the low minors, and the media dubbed him one of the worst first-round picks in history. "It was frustrating," he says. "I saw some progress, but my stats didn't show it."

Late in 1989 the Royals urged him to move from second base to the outfield, where he could make better use of his speed. A year later he was making acrobatic catches in Kansas City and hit .286 in 46 games. This season he will bat leadoff and start in center. "I never thought that he'd progress to be such an excellent centerfielder in such a short time," says K.C. manager John Wathan. "He gained a hell of a lot of experience in those two months with us. Had he not played as much, we might have had to do something to find a centerfielder."

"Brian's no overnight success," says George Brett, who has known him since he was a kid. "At times he doubted himself. But he plays the same way his dad did—hard. That's a good thing. Otherwise, his dad would kick his butt."

If McRae is a reflection of a famous father, Gonzalez is a reflection of a national hero. Since boyhood, when he began picking up his front foot, swinging easily and wafting baseballs great distances, Gonzalez, who comes from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, has reminded people of that island's baseball legend, Roberto Clemente. Gonzalez may not have Clemente's speed, but then, Clemente didn't have Gonzalez's knowledge of calculus.

Gonzalez's father is a high school math teacher in Vega Baja, and his son excelled in the subject. Juan's preference, however, is history. "History is more for life," he says, then cites his three heroes as Clemente, Ponce de León and Cervantes.

At 16, after considering offers from seven major league clubs, Gonzalez chose Texas because the Rangers seemed to offer the best opportunity for quick advancement. But when he arrived in the U.S., he found playing with older athletes who didn't speak his language stressful. Cervantes' idealistic knight, Don Quixote, provided Gonzalez solace in those difficult times. "Quixote is the most inspiration I've had," he says. "He always keeps trying. If things don't go well, you must always keep trying."

Things were going extremely well for Gonzalez this spring—he was hitting .435—until he tore cartilage in his right knee. He underwent arthroscopic surgery last week and could be back in as little as three weeks' time, which is a relief to the Rangers. "Juan has all the tools in the world," says Texas leftfielder Pete Incaviglia. "You want my honest opinion? Juan's going to be a superstar."

As for his three peers—Thomas, Fernandez and McRae—they won't exactly be tilting at windmills, either.

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSThough entering their first full seasons, neither the big-hitting Thomas (left) nor the Seaver-like Fernandez is eligible for Rookie of the Year. PHOTORONALD C. MODRA[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGonzalez, whose hot spring was cooled by injury, pays homage to Clemente and Cervantes. PHOTOJOHN IACONOMcRae was a second-guessed first-round draft pick until he switched to centerfield.

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)