A Royal Wedding
Kansas City manager John Wathan insisted during spring training that the signing of free agent Kirk Gibson in the off-season wasn't done solely for the intensity and fire Gibson would bring to the team. "The guy can play," said Wathan. "I don't think people realize that he stole 26 bases in 28 tries last year."
Still, there were lots of skeptics. Because of injuries, Gibson, 33, played in only 89 games last season and 71 in 1989. Last year, while struggling to come back from August 1989 surgery to repair a torn left hamstring, Gibson even hinted at retirement. He batted .213 in 1989 and .260 in '90, and he hit a rather meager total of 17 home runs those two years.
Well, so far, Wathan's assessment looks correct: Gibson can play. As always, he has been ferocious on the bases, but more important for the Royals, his power has returned. Through Sunday, he was tied for the league lead in home runs with six, four of which came in a four-game stretch from April 20 to 24. Three of those four were hit at Cleveland Stadium, which meant Gibson had one more homer there this year than the Indians.
Gibson got one of his home runs off Cleveland relief ace Doug Jones, and it was strikingly similar to the homer he hit off the A's Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series at Dodger Stadium. In each instance, Gibson had two strikes against him with two out in the ninth inning. Jones and Eckersley had both thrown fastballs just before serving up their home run pitches. Both of the gopher balls were off-speed pitches. Gibson was hobbled by a knee injury against Eckersley. Before facing Jones, he had thrown up during the game because of an upset stomach.
Gibson may not win an MVP award, as he did in 1988 when he hit 25 homers and stole 31 bases for the Dodgers, but if he keeps playing this way, he will make the All-Star team for the first time in his career. The reason that the Royals desperately need his offensive onslaught to continue is that they will be without first baseman George Brett for a month because of ligament damage in his right knee and without third baseman Kevin Seitzer for four to six weeks because of a broken right hand.
Gibson's fiercely competitive attitude should be useful in the Kansas City clubhouse as well. After the Royals lost seven of their first 12 games, he called a players-only meeting in Cleveland. "There was just too much talk about last season," said Gibson, referring to K.C.'s lackluster 75-86 record in 1990. "I wouldn't call it a pep rally. We just recognized that we weren't headed in the right direction. We were playing scared. We weren't putting pressure on teams. You've got to be aggressive on the bases. If we get down a run or two, just don't roll over. We can score five or six runs in an inning. It's going to happen. You have to have the attitude you can do that. I think we started making excuses. We have to be accountable."
The Fat Lady Isn't Singing
Few things are tougher on a team than losing a game in which it has led with three outs to go. Some managers believe a defeat of that sort is like losing two games because such losses often carry over to the next game. Through last weekend, 18 leads had been blown this season with three outs or fewer to go. And these weren't run-of-the-mill relievers who were blowing saves. We're talking about the best closers in the game.
Eckersley gave up three runs in the ninth inning on April 20 in a 3-2 loss to the Mariners. (At week's end, he had allowed two homers and four earned runs in nine innings. In 1990, Eckersley yielded two homers and five earned runs in 73‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings.) Dave Smith lost leads in the ninth on April 19, 21 and 22. The result: three nasty defeats for the Cubs. Jones surrendered that ninth-inning, two-out homer to Gibson. Randy Myers of the Reds gave up two runs in the ninth to lose 2-1 to the Astros on April 22.
All of this doesn't even include saves that were blown in the seventh and eighth innings. The White Sox's Bobby Thigpen, who last year saved a big league record 57 games, lost a 3-1 lead to the Tigers on April 21, allowing them to go up 4-3 in the top of the eighth. However, Chicago won the game anyway: In the next inning, Detroit's Paul Gibson gave up two runs to hand the Sox a 5-4 victory.
Leyva Gets Pitched
This is not an attempt to defend Nick Leyva, who was fired as manager of the Phillies only 13 games into the season. Leyva, who had been Philadelphia's skipper since 1989, was too hard on his players, both in private and in public, which explains why most of them were so unsympathetic when he was canned. That said, no manager, including Jim Fregosi, who replaced Leyva, can win with the Phils' awful pitching staff.
Phillie pitchers walked more than 600 batters in each of the last three years, and they are on a pace to walk almost 1,000 this year. Philadelphia shares the National League record for most wild pitches in a season (91 in '89), and at week's end the team had 21 in 19 games this year, including seven that allowed runs to score. In 25‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, Jason Grimsley had 10 wild pitches, more than any team except Cincinnati, which had 14. Grimsley had thrown at least one in nine consecutive starts dating back to last September, breaking the unofficial major league record of eight set by the Brewers' Jaime Cocanower in 1985. Another Phillie pitcher, Pat Combs, opened last Thursday's game against the Mets by walking the first three batters he faced. He threw only 13 pitches, 12 of them balls, before he was mercifully lifted.
Philadelphia's haplessness is not Leyva's fault, and one has to wonder when general manager Lee Thomas is going to be held accountable. He did little to improve the Phillies last winter. What's more, he fired Leyva just 76 games after giving him a two-year contract extension in August 1990. He fired Leyva's predecessor, Lee Elia, 73 games after giving him a one-year extension in September 1988. Thomas also fired a farm director, Lance Nichols, less than a year after hiring him in 1989. "Maybe they fired the wrong guy," said Leyva after getting the ax.
Club president Bill Giles didn't help Leyva during the off-season when he said that he would be disappointed if the Phillies didn't contend for most of this year. That created tension—and unfair expectations—this spring. Giles says that Thomas's job is safe, but it's going to be hard to turn the Phillies around. Their pitching is so bad that they're hoping for help from Danny Cox, who returned to the mound last week for the first time since August 1988. He had been sidelined with an elbow injury, but in his return against the Padres he allowed only three hits and one run in seven innings.
A Footnote to The Book
Batters are almost unanimously applauded when they give themselves up by grounding out to the right side to advance a runner on second base over to third with none out. However, the play is sometimes overrated. The argument here is that righthanded power hitters often take awkward swings to hit a ground ball to the right side. Why should a big gun adjust his swing so much? He would be better off giving himself a chance to get a hit by taking a good hack.
Case in point: April 20 at Comiskey Park, the Tigers' Cecil Fielder at bat, 11th inning, tie score, runner at second, nobody out. Fielder, who hit .371 and slugged .854 (25 homers, 178 at bats) against lefthanders last season, was facing White Sox lefty Scott Radinsky. Fielder grounded out to the first baseman, advancing Rob Deer to third. It was a good piece of hitting by Fielder, who followed The Book perfectly. But Detroit's next batter, Pete Incaviglia, struck out, Travis Fryman was retired, and the Tigers didn't score. They won the game 2-1 an inning later, but Fielder might have put it away earlier had he just done what he does best—crush the ball.
The Rich Will Get Richer
So far, the 26 major league teams have forked over a total of $120 million of the $280 million that the owners, in a settlement last December, agreed to pay the Major League Players Association for having colluded to hold down player salaries in 1985, '86 and '87. The teams must make four more payments of $40 million each, due in July, September and November of this year and in April of '92. The union has invested the $120 million it has collected in treasury bills.
May 20 is the filing deadline for collusion claims by individual players, and as of now the union says it's anybody's guess as to how many will seek a piece of the settlement money. Each claim will be assessed by an arbitrator. Some players could get as much as $2 million, while others may not get a dime. In any case, no claimant will receive any money for at least a year or two.
Oriole first baseman Glenn Davis was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a nerve injury in his neck that could require surgery and possibly end his season. Davis can become a free agent at season's end, and he likely will ask for $15 million to $20 million over four years. Will Baltimore shell out that kind of money? The Orioles gave up three young players—outfielder Steve Finley and pitchers Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling—to get Davis from the Astros, but Baltimore owner Eli Jacobs has displayed little interest in paying high salaries....
The last National League catcher to hit more than 20 homers in a season was Ozzie Virgil of the Braves, who got 27 in 1987, the year of the souped-up ball. Steve Decker, the Giants' rookie catcher, has a chance to hit 20 this year. He had four in San Francisco's first 12 games, after hitting three in 15 games last season as a September call-up. However, Decker says, "I'm no power hitter."
...The A's helped themselves down the stretch last year by acquiring centerfielder Willie McGee from the Cardinals. But St. Louis is thrilled with the player they got in return. Through Sunday, rightfielder Felix Jose was batting .386 with 12 extra-base hits. "I bet the A's would like to have him back now," said one National League scout....
The Indians were supposed to rely heavily on speed, but at week's end, their anchor leg, Alex Cole, had gone 2 for 5....
The season's first hidden-ball trick was pulled by Braves second baseman Jeff Treadway last Saturday. Treadway caught the Astros' Eric Yelding napping off second base and tagged him out....
The Padres were in first place after Sunday's games partly because of the hot start of outfielder Tony Gwynn (.368, 13 RBIs). Gwynn has been more of a leader, too, giving teammates hitting tips and such. In addition, centerfielder Shawn Abner—a bust since he was the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft—has played well. Abner has twice slammed into an outfield wall trying for catches, and he almost knocked himself unconscious running into a wall during spring training. Said Abner, "They should set up firecrackers on the warning track, and as soon as you step on the track, they go off."
A Hitless Wonder
"How about Kile, bailing on a no-hitter after the sixth inning?" yelled Astro utilityman Casey Candaele in the Astros' clubhouse on April 24. "What a wimp!" Candaele was kidding, of course. In his first big league start, Darryl Kile, a 22-year-old rookie, was removed by manager Art Howe after holding the Reds hitless for six innings and 65 pitches. Kile hadn't thrown more than 34 pitches in an outing this season, so Howe lifted him rather than risk an injury. Reliever Al Osuna, another rookie, threw two hitless innings before Curt Schilling lost the no-hitter in the ninth on a single by Bill Doran. Houston won 1-0.
By the Numbers
•The Padres have used Marty Barrett, Paul Fanes, Jim Presley and Garry Templeton at third base this year. After Sunday's game, their combined batting average was .100, and they had gone 69 at bats without an RBI. In San Diego's 22 seasons in the National League, the Padres have never had a third baseman who has driven in more than 65 runs in a season.
•Since his rookie year in 1979, the A's Rickey Henderson has stolen more bases (938) than the Orioles (904), the Twins (758) and the Red Sox (641).
DIGGING THEMSELVES A HOLE
From the start of 1990 through last Saturday's games, hatters had a .373 on-base average when they got ahead 1-0 in the count. Their average was .264 when they fell behind 0-1. Here are the top five offenders when it comes to putting batters one up.
FIRST-PITCH BALL PERCENTAGE
Charlie Hough, White Sox
Tom Candiotti, Indians
John Smoltz, Braves
Scott Garrelts, Giants
Mike Moore, Athletics
MAJOR LEAGUE AVG.
SOURCE: STATS, INC
Minimum of 750 batters faced