Back in the Swing
One of the hallmarks of a great player is his ability to adjust when a change becomes necessary. A year ago both Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles and Robin Yount of the Brewers struggled through slumps that left them frustrated and confused. But now, after making changes, some of them very minor, the two future Hall of Famers are back where they belong, among the American League's statistical leaders.
At week's end Ripken, 30, was tied for the league lead in home runs (12) and total bases (111), was first in slugging (.607), fourth in hitting (.344) and fifth in RBIs (36). He was doing all this despite the absence in the lineup of slugger Glenn Davis, who was acquired in January to bat fourth, behind Ripken. Davis has been out since April 25 with a nerve injury in his neck, but Ripken has thrived anyway without Davis's threatening presence in the on-deck circle.
Last year Ripken was batting only .209 in mid-June, and his critics were saying that his consecutive-game streak—which reached 1,458 on Sunday—had reduced his effectiveness as a hitter. "I knew that that wasn't true," says Ripken. "I had made some adjustments [in his hitting stance], but all they did was make me inconsistent."
The change in his stance that has worked so well this season is obvious. Instead of standing upright with his feet close together and his bat pointing toward the umpire, Ripken now goes into a slight crouch with feet spread apart and his bat on his shoulder. "It's not totally different," he says. "But about two weeks before the All-Star break last year I thought I needed to reteach myself how to hit. I spread out a little, I went into a little crouch and decided to wait for the ball instead of trying to hit it before it got to me. The key to hitting is waiting as long as you can. I'm strong enough to hit the ball out; I don't need to gather all kinds of momentum. It was a slow process. But I worked hard on it over the winter. Spring training was a big key, because it worked well then."
Ripken's personal hitting coach has always been his father, Oriole coach Cal Ripken Sr. Says Cal Jr., "I don't believe I fought off others who offered advice," but he may have resisted listening at length to anyone except his father. Cal Jr. still gives most of the credit for his hitting success to Cal Sr., but he also acknowledges the help of former manager Frank Robinson, who began working privately with Ripken last year.
"Frank was a great offensive player, and he was able to share some of his experiences from the mental side of hitting," says Ripken Jr. "He told me about a time in the '60s when he was slumping and didn't think he'd ever get another hit. But he turned it around."
Yount also seems to have turned it around. He won the American League MVP award in 1989 but had trouble pulling the ball in '90, when his average fell 58 points, to .247, and his RBIs dropped from 103 to 77. Brewers hitting coach Don Baylor publicly stated that Yount had to make adjustments but that he was reluctant to do so.
Yount's woes continued in spring training this year, and he began to seek a solution, although he is reluctant to discuss in detail the changes he has made. "I tried some experimentation because of my difficulties last year," he says. "Mechanically, little adjustments make you as a hitter. Some adjustments are so minor, if you watched me play every day, you wouldn't notice."
Rangers manager Bobby Valentine says it appears that Yount's stance is slightly more open than it was last year, and his crouch isn't as pronounced. On Opening Day in Texas, Yount homered to left center in his first at bat, against Nolan Ryan. Through Sunday's games—less than a third into the '91 season—Yount was hitting .283 with nine home runs and 33 RBIs.
"When you've had six or seven non-Robin Yount-like months, you begin to wonder things like, Am I getting old?" says Baylor. "But one thing you could see was that his closed stance was exaggerated. When we opened him up a little bit, it enabled him to pull some balls, and the field has opened up for him since. Of course, hitting the ball to rightfield is still his greatest strength. After he hit the homer off Ryan, I told him, 'I was worried about you.' He said, 'So was I.' Now I'd say he's back to where he was."
A Good Skate
The last Braves pitcher to win the National League's Pitcher of the Month award was Pascual Perez in 1983. The last Braves lefthander to win the honor was Warren Spahn in 1961. They were the last, that is, until Atlanta lefty Tom Glavine went 6-0 in May with a 1.76 ERA, walked six and struck out 33 in 46 innings.
Glavine, 25, was 8-2 at week's end with a league-leading ERA of 1.99. He had allowed two or fewer runs in eight of his 10 starts. This follows a 1990 season in which he struggled to a 10-12 record with a 4.28 ERA. Glavine, who was a standout high school hockey player in his hometown of Billerica, Mass., and a fourth-round choice of the Los Angeles Kings in the '84 NHL draft, says that competitiveness is something he learned from hockey and that it has helped him this year.
"After the 1989 season [when he was 14-8 with a 3.68 ERA], I thought I was going to take off," he says. "It didn't work out. People buried me, they talked bad about me. When I heard that garbage, I wanted to show them '89 wasn't a fluke."
He began to show them last September, when he went 4-1. "Last year I was trying to be too perfect, too fine," says Glavine, who walked 22 batters in the first inning of his games in 1990, but only two this season—both of them in his first start. "I want to dictate what I do rather than let the hitter dictate what I do," he says.
Glavine also points to the Braves' improved defense as a factor in his success. "There's no substitute for the way we're playing defense," he says. "In the past the pitchers just didn't throw well at times. But we didn't score a lot of runs, and the defense didn't always make the big play. So the pitchers took the rap, undeservedly."
There's no rap to be taken this year for the Braves, who were a game and a half out of first place through Sunday.
Managing a team may look easy from the bleachers, but it's harder than you think. So most managers employ a bench coach—a righthand man who is there to offer suggestions and support. Bud Harrelson of the Mets has had Doc Edwards since he took over as New York's skipper last season. Sparky Anderson of the Tigers has had Alex Grammas by his side for 12 seasons. Now Mariners manager Jim Lefebvre has Ron Clark. Clark has helped make Lefebvre less uptight on the bench.
"Ron has helped me and the club a lot," says Lefebvre. "A manager needs someone to kick around ideas with. Most every manager has someone next to him. There's too much going on out there for one man to cover everything. Sometimes you're thinking so far ahead in the game you forget about now, and vice versa."
Lefebvre brought in Clark, a coach with the White Sox last year, to be an infield coach. But Clark's job entails more than positioning the defense. Among other duties, he clocks opposing pitchers' deliveries to the plate with runners on base. That helps Lefebvre to determine whether or not to have a base runner attempt to steal. The Mariners have been more aggressive on the base paths this year because of Clark's influence.
"I make suggestions, Jimmy makes the decisions," says Clark. "I just try to prepare him for anything that might happen. I figure that two heads are better than one."
Clark says he and Lefebvre rarely disagree, but then he adds with a smile, "Sometimes I go to him and say, 'You managed a terrible game tonight. We got shut out. It's your fault.' "
Padres catcher Benito Santiago is a marvelous talent, but will he ever completely realize his potential? In the fourth inning of a 4-0 victory over the Astros last Thursday, Santiago was yanked from the game by manager Greg Riddoch for failing to run out a ground ball. The move was applauded by San Diego general manager Joe McIlvaine, who said, "I think it's great. If guys don't want to hustle, get them out."...
A sure sign of a man in a terrible slump: At week's end Red Sox designated hitter Jack Clark had struck out 15 times looking....
The Red Sox and Blue Jays are each shopping for a starting pitcher, and both have inquired about Tim Leary of the Yankees....
The Mets' unsettled infield situation should be helped by an exchange of utility infielders that took place last Saturday, when New York sent Tim Teufel to the Padres for Garry Templeton. Templeton is the better defensive player and can play short in the late innings if Kevin Elster is lifted for a pinch hitter. Teufel, who hit a three-run homer in his first at bat for San Diego, will get a chance to solve the Padres' woes at second, where they've already unsuccessfully tried four other players this season....
At the 11th hour on Sunday, the Red Sox signed Frankie Rodriguez, a second-rounder in the 1990 draft but Boston's first pick overall, to a one-year contract with a $250,000 signing bonus. If the Sox hadn't signed Rodriguez, he could have been drafted by another team in this year's draft....
Last Saturday, Mike Timlin of the Blue Jays became this season's third pitcher, along with the Phillies' Pat Combs and San Diego's Adam Peterson, to throw a wild pitch during an intentional walk....
In other news out of Toronto, some of the Blue Jays aren't pleased that third baseman Kelly Gruber has not played since May 1 because of an injury to his right thumb. More than one player has questioned whether Gruber has worked hard enough on his rehabilitation. Gruber said last week that he could play though not at full speed. He said he would return to the lineup when he felt that he could help the team.
•By the Numbers
•The Braves' 17-9 record in May ended a miserable streak of 23 straight losing months dating back to June 1987. To put that in perspective, the longest current streak of losing months is now three, belonging to the Royals.
•Twins rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch has been awarded first base twice this season on catcher's interference—both times with Texas's Geno Petralli behind the plate.
•When the Phillies' Tommy Greene shut out the Expos on May 28, he became the first Philadelphia pitcher to throw shutouts in consecutive starts since Steve Carlton did it in 1972. Through May 13, the Phillies had gone 41 straight games without a shutout; they threw four in 13 games after that.
TO BUNT OR NOT TO BUNT?
The Prirates Jay Bell might be called "the human sacrifice." From the start of the 1990 season through June 1 of this yeae, he has more than twice as many sacrifice bunts as any other player in the major. but a look at what the top 12 sacrifice bunters have done in sacrifice situations indicates that many of them have been better off hitting away, especially bell, who may be the best cluth hitter noboby knowns about.
IN SACRIFICE SITUATIONS*
Jay Bell, Pirates
Jody Reed, Red Sox
Scott Fletcher, White Sox
Jerry Browne, Indians
Steve Buechele, Rangers
Billy Ripken, Orioles
Luis Rivera, Red Sox
Robin Ventura, White Sox
Ozzie Guillen, White Sox
Felix Fermin, Indians
Dick Schofield, Angels
Mike Gallego, Athletics
*No outs and a runner on first or second, or first and second
SOURCE: STATS, INC.