With the Chicago White Sox fading in the American League West, some of their fans undoubtedly are hoping that Bo Jackson will come to the rescue down the stretch. That's a tall order, even for someone as spectacular as Jackson, who suffered a career-threatening hip injury while playing pro football last January. But his 1991 baseball debut was promising: In a doubleheader on Sunday, Jackson went 2 for 6 with two RBIs as the designated hitter for the Sarasota White Sox in the Class A Florida State League.
Still, Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium is a long way from Comiskey Park, and if Bo does make it back to Chicago this season, a lot of questions will need to be answered:
•Can he be an effective player? Some hitters have a hard time regaining their timing at the plate even after six weeks of spring training. Jackson might get a total of 30 at bats at Sarasota and Double A Birmingham before being recalled by Chicago. His remarkable athleticism notwithstanding, baseball doesn't come easily to Jackson. Hard work is the biggest reason that he has been as successful as he has been.
When healthy, Jackson is probably the fastest and strongest player in the sport. His intimidating speed is a big part of his game, but he's running with a slight limp and admits he's no speed demon. Indeed, though he got two infield hits on Sunday, he was timed going from home to first in 4.3 seconds, only average for a righthanded hitter. As for power, he is swinging mostly with his arms. He's still strong enough to hit 400-foot homers, but he will not have awesome power until he gets his legs and hips more involved in his swing.
•What position will he play? "DH," says White Sox general manager Ron Schueler, adding that Frank Thomas can play first base. Thomas, however, has been the team's designated hitter since the end of May because an injury to his right shoulder has limited his throwing. "It still hurts," says Thomas. "I can't deny that."
•Will Jackson be accepted by his teammates? In spring training a few players were upset that the team paid Bo $700,000 for 1991-almost as much as the top four pitchers in the starting rotation make all told—even though it knew he might not play this year. "We have a lot of young guys who were going through tough times with contract negotiations this spring," says veteran pitcher Charlie Hough. "They see Bo get a lot of money when he can't play, and they say, 'Hey, I can play, and I'm not getting anything.' You can understand that. But Bo is a good guy. He makes a lot of money, but he's earned it in a way. He has brought a lot of publicity to the club. And if work can be measured, he's earned every penny of it."
Says another White Sox source, "I haven't heard of one problem with Bo. Carlton [Fisk] wasn't happy when we signed Bo, but now they get along great."
•Will Bo be eligible for the playoffs? Postseason rosters must be set by Sept. 1. Every team must designate 25 players, not counting those on the disabled list. Jackson will be on the DL, so he'll be eligible.
•If Jackson is activated, won't a deserving player get kicked off the roster? Probably. Chicago, however, has used a number of players this year, many of whom haven't spent the entire season with the team. Picking Jackson over a fifth outfielder who didn't join the club until July shouldn't cause a stir.
Many of these questions will become moot if the Sox don't start playing better. At week's end they had lost 12 of their last 14 games to fall seven games behind the first-place Twins. Pitching, not hitting, has been the cause of Chicago's slide. Says one player, "We don't need Bo as much as we need another pitcher."
This is the age of specialists, but some pitchers are proving that pitching is pitching, and good pitchers can adjust to any role. Take Milwaukee's Dan Plesac and Cincinnati's Randy Myers. They were two of the game's top closers until they fell on hard times in the bullpen. Now both of them are starters.
The 29-year-old Plesac, who saved 110 games from 1987 to '90, saw his velocity drop from the mid-90's to the high 80's between last year and this spring. "I can't overpower people anymore," he says. "I've got to look at something different now. It took getting my brains beat out for over a year to come to grips with that."
Plesac, who was 3-7 with a 4.43 ERA and 24 saves last season, was moved to the rotation three weeks ago. On Aug. 21, he breezed through the Toronto lineup for four innings, allowing one hit before a lower back strain forced him from the game. "If I never save another game, I won't lose any sleep over it," he says. "Hopefully, this will be another chapter in my career."
Myers, 28, saved 81 games between 1988 and '90, but he lost his job as the Reds' closer to Rob Dibble following a horrible start. As of Sunday, Myers, who was a starter for most of his minor league career, had done a good job in six starts (3.18 ERA) for Cincinnati despite a 1-4 record. In his last start, against the Mets on Sunday, he went six innings and gave up two runs on six hits.
Then there's Baltimore's Mike Flanagan, a longtime starter who has found relief in the bullpen. A leading candidate for the American League's Comeback Player of the Year award, the 39-year-old Flanagan made 404 starts from 1975 to '90, but Toronto released him in May 1990. After rehabilitating his weakened shoulder, he won a spot in the Orioles' bullpen this year. At week's end he had a 1.88 ERA coming out of the bullpen, and he had pitched more innings in relief (81‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®) than anyone else in the league except the Blue Jays' Duane Ward (87‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®) and the Tigers' Paul Gibson (84).
"We've put him in every role possible—short man, setup man, long relief, and he's handled them all," says Baltimore manager John Oates. "That's difficult for a 22-year-old to handle, let alone a 62-year-old like him."
He's Got the Power
The Mariners spent a lot of time looking for a power hitter. Little did they know that the man they sought was right on their roster. At week's end Jay Buhner was hitting .250, with 24 homers and 64 RBIs in only 312 at bats. "All our players knew he was capable of doing this," says one Mariner, "but we don't make out the lineup card."
That honor goes to manager Jim Lefebvre, who until the beginning of June played Buhner, a strapping rightfielder, sparingly because of Buhner's tendency to strike out. As of Sunday he had gone down on strikes 96 times. But since being inserted into the lineup on a regular basis, the 27-year-old Buhner has turned into one of the league's power sources.
Seattle batting coach Gene Clines got Buhner, who tended to crouch at the plate, to take a more upright stance. Now, instead of popping up high fastballs with an uppercut swing, he takes a more level stroke, and that means more line drives. Clines also has fixed the hitch in Buhner's swing and gotten him not to swing so hard. With his strength, Buhner doesn't need to swing hard to generate power.
Buhner began his career with the Yankees, who traded him in 1988 to Seattle for first baseman Ken Phelps. Phelps didn't do much for New York and now is out of baseball. "I believe in myself now," says Buhner. "I put too much pressure on myself when I was in a platoon situation. I knew I had to have a good game to be in there tomorrow. Now, everything is very positive. When the season starts, you might as well pencil in 150 strikeouts for me. But I'm not going to worry about it."
For most of the season, the best lefthander in the American League hasn't been Chuck Finley, Jimmy Key, Greg Swindell or even Mark Langston. It has been Jim Abbott of the Angels. In April, Abbott was 0-4 and almost out of the rotation. But he started pitching like a power pitcher again and began winning. As of Sunday, Abbott had gone 13-4 with a 2.63 ERA since May 5, and he had allowed no more than three runs in 15 of his 22 starts over that span. In 16 of those starts he pitched into the seventh inning....
Braves rookie reliever Mark Wohlers was clocked at 99 mph on Aug. 21 against the Reds. Rob Dibble was clocked at 97 mph. Wohlers broke the bat of the three hitters he retired....
An American League scout recently watched Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. jog to second base on a double that Griffey thought was going to be a homer. "For every great play I've seen him make, I've seen one where he hasn't hustled or made a dumb play," says the scout....
Phillie outfielder Wes Chamberlain is making a late bid for National League Rookie of the Year. He had nine homers since being recalled in June. All nine came with runners on base. Detroit's Cecil Fielder never hit more than two consecutive homers with runners on base last season, when he had 51....
The Rangers, on pace to become the first team in history to lead its league in giving up unintentional walks for six consecutive years, have canceled the mandatory throwing of footballs by pitchers before games. That added to the speculation that pitching coach Tom House's job is in jeopardy. The football drill, instituted by House when he joined the team in 1985, is praised by some, scoffed at by others. Former Texas pitcher Charlie Hough was once asked if throwing footballs helps a pitcher's mechanics. "I don't know," he said, "but we lead the league in third-down conversions."
Paul Postier, an infielder for the Rangers' Triple A farm team in Oklahoma City, has pitched In relief four times this season. He was even credited with a victory after going three innings on Aug. 6. "It's fun, but I can't lift my arm the next day," says Postier. In his latest outing, on Aug. 15 against the Omaha Royals, he went from shortstop to the mound and got only seven warmup pitches. "Jeffrey Leonard hit the longest home run I've ever seen in my life," says Postier. "I think it went 500 miles. I was hoping he'd do a one-flap down circle of the bases, but he didn't. I guess because he hit it off me."
Former major league third baseman Wayne Gross managed San Ramon Valley, Calif., which reached the final of last week's Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Before the game, Jim Palmer, who played on the Orioles with Gross and broadcast the game for ABC, said jokingly, "His kids can only hit in day games." In his last four full big league seasons, 1982 to '85, Gross batted .301, .298, .306 and .297, respectively, in day games, and .225, .192, .175 and .209 at night.
By the Numbers
•On Aug. 19, Oakland's Jose Canseco hit his 200th homer. It came on his 3,067th at bat. Only Ralph Kiner, Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew, Eddie Mathews, Rocky Colavito, Willie McCovey, Dave Kingman, Willie Mays and Jimmie Foxx got 200 home runs in fewer at bats.
It's common to hear of a pitcher getting little run support, but he can also be done in by a lack of defensive support. Just ask the Astros' Darryl Kile. Bungling Houston fielders give the opposition nearly a run and a half every time Kile takes the mound. Conversely, the Astros have performed almost flawlessly behind Jim Deshaies. Here are the five pitchers who are sabotaged most often by their fielders and the five who get the best defensive support.
UNEARNED RUN AVERAGE
Darryl Kile, Astros
Bill Wegman, Brewers
Bob Tewksbury, Cardinals
Greg Swindell, Indians
Kevin Appier, Royals
Jack McDowell, White Sox
Andy Benes, Padres
Greg Harris, Red Sox
Jim Deshaies, Astros
Eric King, Indians
Minimum 100 innings through Aug. 24
SOURCE: STATS, INC.