A Dubious Dodger Tradition
The defensive brilliance and unexpected success of the 1989 Orioles started a trend. A number of teams began emphasizing defense more than ever. Last winter, for example, the Braves signed shortstop Rafael Belliard, first baseman Sid Bream and third baseman Terry Pendleton, three free agents who were brought in more for defense than for offense. Atlanta has gone from being a rotten fielding team to a pretty good one, and it shows in the standings. At week's end, the Braves trailed the Dodgers by half a game in the National League West.
The Dodgers, however, are winning with quite a different formula. Says one National League West manager, "They have the worst defense I've seen; no one else is close." (He obviously hasn't seen the Mets lately.) Los Angeles was in first place despite having committed the most errors (38) and having allowed the second-most unearned runs (20, three fewer than the Mets) in the majors.
"Right now, we're poor defensively," says L.A. centerfielder Brett Butler. "Defense has cost us three or four games. We have to go from poor to adequate—consistently adequate."
Since the days of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers have viewed defense differently than have most other teams. Rickey's philosophy, simply stated, was: Give your best athletes a position; they will learn to play it. Perhaps the greatest example of Rickey's credo was the Dodger infield of the '70s. Second baseman Davey Lopes and shortstop Bill Russell came up as outfielders. First baseman Steve Garvey was originally a third baseman. The only member who played his natural position was third baseman Ron Cey.
The Dodgers won four pennants and a world championship in 10 seasons with that infield. In 1983 L.A. had the worst fielding percentage in the league but won the division. The '88 Dodgers had a below-average defense but won the World Series. "Tommy [Lasorda] has always been an offensive-oriented manager, even in the minors," says Lopes. "I've seen him win without great defense."
Lasorda says that he has always emphasized run production over defense because he was a pitcher. He explains that a good offensive team will put runners on base, distracting the pitcher and giving the hitter an advantage. With runners on, he adds, a pitcher must throw more fast-balls, another advantage to the hitter.
Another reason that Los Angeles has not stressed defense is its ballpark. The outfield in Dodger Stadium is smaller than any other in the league, which means outfielders have less space to cover. In a larger stadium, it's safe to say that the Dodgers' defense would have hurt them a lot more than it has.
None of this is to say that defense is insignificant. Keep in mind that the Dodgers won without good defense because they usually had terrific pitching, often centered on fastballers who struck out a lot of hitters. However, L.A. does not have standout pitching this year. With Kevin Gross, Mike Morgan and Bobby Ojeda in the rotation and no dominating reliever, this is not a power staff. Consequently, lots of balls are put in play, affording the fielders lots of chances to foul up. So far, the defense has only hurt the Dodgers. It may yet bury them.
Stuck in the Middle
In this year of the collapsing closer, the best short reliever in the American League has been a middle reliever, Duane Ward of the Blue Jays. Through Sunday, Ward was tied with the Red Sox's Jeff Reardon for the major league lead in saves with 12. More important, Ward had blown only one save opportunity, had a 1.83 ERA and had struck out 26 batters in 19⅖ innings, while permitting three walks. And he had done all this even though he was in the stopper role only because Tom Henke was sidelined with a groin pull on April 12.
Now Henke is back and has been restored as Toronto's closer. To his credit, Ward has gone back to middle relief without a whimper. "I've gotten a lot of attention, and I've helped my career," he says. "I've shown people around baseball who knew I could do the job in middle and long relief that there is no question that I can be a stopper, too."
Ward throws in the mid-90s and is just wild enough to keep hitters wary. He's perhaps the last reliever an American League batter wants to face. In that respect, he's like the Reds' Rob Dibble.
Ward's stuff and stamina were never in question while he served as Henke's setup man the last three years. But over that span, Ward blew his share of saves, threw 28 wild pitches and had a 15-21 record. "It was a no-win situation," he says of middle relief. "You come in one run ahead, the bags loaded [he faced bases-loaded situations 31 times in 1989 alone], and there is no room for error."
But in five weeks as this season's closer for Toronto, he entered games with no one on base in 15 of his 17 appearances. When the bases are empty, a pitcher usually feels less pressure, and he can work from the windup. Standout closers almost never get the call unless their team is ahead, and they rarely come on before the ninth inning. In many ways, the middle reliever has the tougher job. "The game is usually won or lost by what that middle reliever does," says Ward.
The closer, though, is the one who makes the big money. Ward, who will have four years of major league service after this season—leaving him two years short of qualifying for free agency—earns $800,000. He would, of course, prefer a closer's bucks, say $2 million a year. For now, though, he's content with his role. Still, he has shown any team that is looking for a first-rate closer that Toronto has not one but two.
An Anonymous Team
Right before last Saturday's Mariners-Yankees game at Yankee Stadium, Seattle outfielder Ken Griffey Sr. was getting treatment in the trainer's room. He was listening to the pregame show and heard that the Mariners' scheduled pitcher was Pat Rice. He looked up and asked trainer Rick Griffin, "Who's that?"
It was hardly surprising that Griffey didn't know who Rice was. Rice had not been deemed good enough to be invited to Seattle's spring training camp, and he had been called up to the Mariners from Triple A Calgary only the day before, after pitcher Erik Hanson had been scratched because of a tender right elbow. Rice didn't arrive in New York until 2 a.m. Saturday, less than 12 hours before the game.
Rice, 27, had been in the minors for five years when Seattle asked him this spring if he wanted to be a coach. He said he wanted to give pitching one last try. He was 5-1 with Calgary when he was promoted. He beat the hapless Yankees (page 46) 4-1, without allowing a runner past second base in the 5⅖ innings he pitched.
Rice's victory was Seattle's 12th in its last 13 games. As a result, the Mariners were atop the American League West on May 19, the latest they've been in first in franchise history. Unlike in years past, Seattle, which finished the week a half game behind the first-place A's, is winning close games. In those 12 wins, the Mariners outscored their opponents by 21 runs and won five one-run decisions. They've played without their closer, Mike Schooler (tendinitis in his shoulder), but the bullpen committee of Mike Jackson, Russ Swan and Billy Swift has been effective.
The old Mariners probably would have folded after getting off to an 0-6 start, as Seattle did this season. But these Mariners rebounded quickly, proving what second baseman Harold Reynolds professed this spring. "This team has heart," he said.
Expo manager Buck Rodgers on Padres catcher Benito Santiago: "He's not even in the Top 10 anymore [defensively]. He's living off his reputation."
...Reds first baseman Hal Morris ended the week with a .328 lifetime average in 454 at bats, but not until May 14 did he get his first extra-base hit against a lefthanded pitcher. It came in his 100th career at bat against a southpaw. Lifetime, he was hitting .370 against righties, .208 against lefties....
Phillie manager Jim Fregosi is drawing raves for the way he's using his pitchers. At week's end, Philadelphia was 14-10 since Fregosi replaced Nick Leyva on April 23. Philly had a 4.69 ERA in 13 games for Leyva, 3.22 for Fregosi....
The Phillies have yet another pitcher with Steve Blass disease-complete loss of control. He's Chuck Malone, once a top prospect in the organization. While at Triple A Scranton this season, Malone walked 32 batters in 13 innings. Fifteen of those walks came in two innings over two starts. On May 15, the Phils sent him to Clearwater for extended spring training....
The hottest player in the American League is Angel first baseman Wally Joyner, who at week's end had 28 hits in his most recent 60 at bats to raise his average to .383. In that 15-game span he had five homers and 20 RBIs.
BETWEEN THE LINES
•God Save the Queen
Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan, who has met Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at ballparks during his career, shook hands with the Queen of England on May 15 at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. But Flanagan didn't get a chance to talk to Her Majesty. "The game wasn't exactly flying along, and she left in the third inning," said Flanagan of a game that featured seven walks, one wild pitch and three errors. "Everyone else left in the fifth. Maybe she's more accustomed to baseball than we knew."
•Earth to Gary
Tiger manager Sparky Anderson had never seen it happen in his 38-year baseball career. Neither had anyone else on either team. On May 13 the Rangers' Gary Pettis was picked off third base while a batter was being intentionally walked. Texas skipper Bobby Valentine had called for the squeeze play with Jack Daugherty at the plate, but when Detroit catcher Mickey Tettleton called for Daugherty to be passed intentionally, the squeeze became unworkable. Somehow, though, Pettis didn't realize what was happening. On the first pitch to Daugherty, Pettis broke for home and was tagged out by third baseman Travis Fryman while trying to scramble back to third. "Someone had a vapor lock," said Tettleton. One Ranger, however, seemed unsurprised by what Pettis did, saying, "Oh, Gary does stuff like that all the time."
•Dances with Fungoes
Actor Kevin Costner, who is a friend of Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro's, took batting practice and fielded some flies and grounders last Saturday night at Arlington Stadium. Wearing Daugherty's uniform, number 8, Costner was impressive hitting from both sides of the plate against the deliveries of Rangers batting coach Tom Robson. "Ah, he was only throwing 65 miles an hour," said Costner.
After watching Costner's series of line drives, Daugherty, who was batting only .176 at week's end, said, "Ask him how I can get some knocks."
•Gods Do Answer Letters
May 12 was Ted Williams Day at Fenway Park, and Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon lent his hat to Williams for the occasion. "He put it in his back pocket and then he sat on it," said Reardon. "I thought, Hey, that's my hat." At the end of his pregame speech, Williams tipped his hat to the crowd, something he almost never did during his playing career. Reardon got the hat back afterward and, he says, "Some New England sports collectors wanted it for their display. I said no. I'll put it on display in my house."
By the Numbers
•Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken had nine home runs through Sunday's games. The American League's other starting shortstops had a total of 10.
•Last Thursday the Triple A Calgary Cannons hit three grand slams in one game. It is believed to be the first time a pro team at any level has done that. The three slams came in a 22-7 win over the Tacoma Tigers. Dave Cochrane and Chuck Jackson each hit one in the Cannons' 12-run second inning, and Alonzo Powell belted one in the seventh. The next afternoon, the Cannons had 24 hits in a 24-5 win. Here are the two worst pitching lines in the two games, from Tacoma's Clay Parker on May 16 and Apolinar Garcia on May 17:
SETTING THE TABLE
Bill Doran, Reds
Hal Morris, Reds
Dave Magadan, Mets
John Olerud, Blue Jays
Otis Nixon, Braves
Edgar Martinez, Mariners
Rickey Henderson, Athletics
Kevin Mitchell, Giants
Alex Cole, Indians
Kevin Maas, Yankees
From start of 1990 season through May 18, 1991
SOURCE: STATS, INC.