What Makes Rickey Run?
If Rickey Henderson had capped his MVP 1990 season by breaking Lou Brock's career stolen-base record last October, his Oakland teammates would have carried him off the field as awed fans whispered, "There goes Rickey Henderson, the best there ever was." Sadly, as he closed in on the record this season, Henderson was being viewed in a different light.
He got off to a bad start when he announced in spring training that he wanted to renegotiate his contract 15 months after having signed a four-year, $12 million deal. Then he hinted that he might not be able to play his hardest if his contract wasn't upgraded.
With all that as a backdrop, the first week of the season left some people wondering if Henderson was making good on his threat to play at half speed. First, he almost didn't play in Oakland's opener, against the Twins on April 9, because of tendinitis in his left shoulder. He started, though, and swiped base number 937 in the first inning to move within one steal of tying Brock's mark. But in two of Oakland's first three games, he didn't hit the ball out of the infield. What's more, he got picked off second base in the A's second game and was thrown out trying to steal second the next day. He left the third game in the seventh inning with a strained left calf and missed the entire weekend series against Seattle.
Now there are whispers: Is he really hurt as badly as he says? Is he going all out? Did his springtime pouting prevent him from getting into top shape?
The moody Henderson has nobody but himself to blame for these questions. When he doesn't get his way, he sometimes doesn't give 100%, as the Yankees found out in 1989. That season, he was hitting .247 when the Yankees gave up trying to sign him and sent him to Oakland for Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk and Luis Polonia. That was the second time Henderson, the game's premier leadoff hitter, had been traded. In '84, the A's dealt him to the Yankees for five unproved players.
Henderson's thrilling combination of speed, power, patience and defense is unparalleled, and if he retired today, he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Brock, who is in the Hall of Fame, needed 19 years to steal 938 bases; Henderson is in his 13th season. Henderson also has more homers than Brock had (166 through Sunday, to 149) and a significantly higher on-base percentage (.403 to .344). "He's the best," says Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart. "Rickey is the only player I've seen who can say, 'I want to hit a couple of homers today,' and he does. Then he says, 'Today I want three hits and three steals,' and he does."
Perhaps the game is too easy for Henderson. Perhaps he needs someone as good as he is to come along and push him to play hard every day. With the competition in the American League West having gotten stronger and injuries having weakened the Athletics, Oakland needs another MVP-caliber year from Henderson. Producing one is no problem. All he has to do is want it.
Last season was the Year of the No-Hitter—a record nine no-nos were thrown—and the first week of this season indicated that we may be in for more of the same in 1991. Two one-hitters were tossed last week, the first on opening night, when the Expos' Dennis Martinez and two relievers combined to beat the Pirates 7-0. Two days later Scott Sanderson of the Yankees took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in Detroit, but the wind and sun turned Tony Phillips's catchable fly ball into a double off the glove of rightfielder Jesse Barfield. "On a normal day, I could have caught the ball," said Barfield.
It snowed during warmups, and the temperature was 42° at game time, which kept Sanderson from throwing a curveball for the first three innings. "It was like throwing a snowball," he said.
Two pitchers who had no-hitters going were removed from games—and rightfully so. On April 10, Jose DeJesus of the Phillies threw 51 pitches without allowing a hit to the Mets but was yanked after walking six in 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. That gave him 18 walks in his last 6⅖ innings, counting spring training. In Cincinnati on April 11, Astro righthander Pete Harnisch's first National League start lasted five innings. His line: no hits and eight walks.
After a 1990 season that seemed to feature a fight every week, baseball had two brawls in the first four days of '91. On April 10 the Giants' Kevin Mitchell charged the mound after being brushed back with a fastball and then hit in the foot by a curve thrown by Padre Bruce Hurst. On April 11 the Reds' Rob Dibble threw behind the Astros' Eric Yelding, who went after Dibble and threw his helmet at him from point-blank range. Both incidents led to bench-clearing melees.
Something has to be done to eliminate such hostilities before someone gets seriously hurt. Dibble's 95-mph fastball aimed at someone's head is more dangerous than Ronnie Lott's hardest hit, Rick Tocchet's most brutal check or Bill Cartwright's sharpest elbow. Nothing in team sports is more frightening than the sight of a baseball coming at a batter's face. Houston manager Art Howe, a hard-line baseball man who strongly believes in the virtues of pitching inside, said of Dibble's latest actions, "They should suspend the guy. He's head-hunting. His act is weak—period."
Howe is right. Dibble should be suspended without pay for a few games and heavily fined. The NBA often suspends players and always heavily fines anyone involved in a fight. It's time for baseball to get tough too. "You have to protect your team," says Bill Doran, a teammate of Dibble's, "but it can get out of hand."
Don't just punish the pitcher, though. When a hitter loses control and charges the mound without just cause, as Mitchell did—Hurst obviously was not throwing at him—he should be fined and considered for suspension.
Early-season rosters included some old, new and interesting names. Here are the more intriguing ones.
•Bruce Egloff, Indians. A 26-year-old righthander, Egloff made it to Cleveland despite a history of injuries. He twice underwent surgery on his right shoulder in 1987. "The pain [before the operations] was like having a six-inch spike in there," he says. In '88 he tore his rotator cuff. "That hurt more than the spike," he says. "I couldn't lift my arm four inches from my side." After having rotator-cuff surgery, he pitched well, albeit with pain, in '89 and '90 in Cleveland's minor, league system. "Since 1987, I've had one month [last season] when my arm didn't hurt," he says. Now, remarkably, he's throwing 90 mph with little pain. "I always wanted to be a big league pitcher," says Egloff. "Nothing was going to stop me. I didn't care how much it hurt."
•Warren Cromartie, Royals. After seven successful years with the Yomiuri Giants, Cromartie, 37, who played for the Expos from 1976 to '83, is a reserve outfielder-first baseman for Kansas City. He said he doesn't miss some of the training techniques in Japanese baseball, including the leapfrog drill. "Can you see telling George Brett or Kirk Gibson, 'Hey, go leap over that guy?' " says Cromartie. "I don't think so."
•Joe Slusarski, A's. A 1988 Olympian, Slusarski, 24, was called up from Triple A Tacoma on April 10 and made his big league debut the next day, shutting out the Twins for seven innings before giving way to a reliever. The only glitch was the incorrect spelling of his name on his jersey: SLUZARSKI. The Athletics jokingly blamed equipment manager Frank Ciensczyk for the mistake. "I guess he gave me his z," says Slusarski with a smile.
•Mike Timlin, Blue Jays. A 25-year-old righthander who made the jump from Double A, Timlin picked up two victories as a reliever in the first six days of the season. "If he throws as well all year as he did the first week," says one American League scout, "the Red Sox are in a lot of trouble."
A Hard Job Gets Harder
Two managers who have to win to keep their jobs, Tom Trebelhorn of the Brewers and Jim Lefebvre of the Mariners, have already lost key players. Trebelhorn had to put pitcher Ron Robinson (bone chips, right elbow) and outfielder Candy Maldonado (broken bone in left foot) on the disabled list, and he lost Opening Day pitcher Mark Knudson for at least one start with a viral infection. Lefebvre learned that his closer, Mike Schooler, would be out until at least May with an inflamed nerve in his right shoulder. Then he lost Schooler's replacement, Bill Swift, to a pulled calf muscle. Swift could be sidelined for as long as a month....
Milwaukee should trade third baseman Gary Sheffield. He has immense ability, but he might be more trouble than he's worth. He was fined $1,000 in spring training for not running wind sprints, just another chapter in his stormy relationship with the Brewers. "It's hard for me to understand the things he does," says Milwaukee coach Don Baylor. "What kind of respect can you give a 22-year-old who doesn't want to respect anyone else? I'm tired of it."...
Obviously there's no reason to worry about how the Giants' Mitchell responded to off-season surgery on his right wrist. After hitting five homers and knocking in 16 runs in 17 spring-training games, he started the season with five homers in five games....
Shame on anyone who even hinted that Angel outfielder Dave Winfield was past his prime. He's 39 but in terrific shape, which he proved by driving in 12 runs in his first five games. Last Saturday, he belted three homers in a game for the first time to increase his career home run total to 381, moving past Dwight Evans and Eddie Murray into first place among active players. At week's end, Winfield also led active players with 1,528 RBIs.
BETWEEN THE LINES
A Wild One
There might not be an uglier game all year than the Mets-Phillies debacle on April 10. It was the longest 10-inning game in history (four hours and 51 minutes) and featured 18 hits, five errors and 11 pitchers giving up a total of 24 walks and throwing three wild pitches, including a heave by the Phils' Tommy Greene that hit the screen on the fly. "A knockdown pitch to Manute Bol," said Philadelphia pitcher Dave LaPoint. The Phillies won 8-7 despite the fact that of the six Philadelphia pitchers who worked, the only one who didn't walk anyone was Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams. His first eight pitches were strikes.
An Up-and-Down Player
Toronto infielder Rene Gonzales, who tried bungee jumping this winter, wants to jump from the roof of the SkyDome. "It could be a first-ball ceremony," he says. "I'd drop down, leave the ball on the mound and bounce back up."
Thank God, Viola's a Pitcher
Royals ace Bret Saberhagen gave up three homers to the Blue Jays' George Bell on Opening Day in 1988, one to Baltimore's Sam Horn on Opening Day last year and one to Cleveland's Albert Belle on Opening Day this year. "Every time I face an instrument on Opening Day, I give up a homer—a Bell, a Horn, a Belle," said Saberhagen. "Hopefully, if I start Opening Day next year, there won't be any instruments in the lineup."
Bill Buckner, Fashion Plate
Bill Buckner introduced hightop spikes to baseball in 1986 because he had weak ankles and a strained right Achilles tendon. "I took a lot of abuse for it," says Buckner. "Now, it's the style." Tom Brunansky, Joe Carter, Jack Clark, Eric Davis and Mike Greenwell are among the growing number of players sporting hightops, which they believe are more comfortable than regular spikes and provide added ankle support. "There was a conspiracy this spring to burn mine," says Greenwell, who along with Clark and Brunansky plays for Boston. "But now Jack and Tom have 'em. They're ugly, but styling never got me a hit."
Thirty-nine-year-old southpaw Mike Flanagan, an Oriole from 1975 to '87, rejoined Baltimore this spring. On Opening Day at Memorial Stadium, he received three standing ovations. "I got a bigger hand than the secretary of defense," said Flanagan, referring to Dick Cheney, who attended the game, "and he had a better spring than I did."
Taxation Without Relaxation
On April 9, Pirate outfielder Andy Van Slyke had a troubled look. "I just got my W-4 tax form. I'm nervous. It should be called a W-4 million form."
By the Numbers
•After the first week of the season, pitchers Steve Avery, Doc Gooden and Terry Mulholland had more steals (one each) than Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines (one each).
•According to The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst—the best edition of this stats book ever—Mets third baseman Gregg Jefferies finished last season with no hits in his last 37 at bats with runners in scoring position. In Jefferies's first at bat this season, he doubled home a runner from second base.
•The Twins' smallest spring training crowd (7,022) in Fort Myers, Fla., was larger than the Pirates' home crowd (6,624) on the second night of the season.
STOLEN BASES PER 9 INNINGS PITCHED
Dwight Gooden, Mets
Mike Scott Astros
Ron Darling, Mets
Kevin Gross, Dodgers
Jack Morris, Twins
Minimum 100 innings pitched
SOURCE: STATS, INC.