Baseball

September 08, 1991

Down to the Wire

With nine players hitting between .322 and .338 through Sunday, the American League batting race promises to have one of the most competitive, star-studded finishes in history. The differences among the contenders make the competition even more interesting.

Boston's Wade Boggs, who's gunning for his sixth batting crown, is joined in the race by four other veterans with lifetime averages higher than .300: Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, Milwaukee's Paul Molitor, and Rafael Palmeiro and Julio Franco, both of Texas. Two other contenders are power hitters: Cal Ripken Jr. of Baltimore and Kansas City's Danny Tartabull, the league's slugging leader. Rounding out the field are two of the best young players in the game, Chicago's Frank Thomas and Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr.

The most interesting player to watch may be Palmeiro, the Rangers' first baseman, whose .334 average at week's end was third, behind Franco and Boggs. The rap against the lefthanded-hitting Palmeiro when the Cubs traded him to Texas in December 1988 was that he was a one-dimensional hitter content to flick singles to the opposite field. Palmeiro, 26, has quieted his critics by becoming a more productive offensive force. At week's end he was on pace to finish with 28 homers, 94 RBIs and 82 extra-base hits. No American League batting champion has had that many home runs or extra-base hits since the Red Sox's Fred Lynn, in 1979.

"When I came up [in 1986], I went the other way a lot, because I had done it that way my whole life," says Palmeiro. "But since then I've adjusted to the pitchers. I've turned on the ball [and been able to pull it more]."

Palmeiro doesn't wake up in the morning and check out the batting leaders in the newspapers. When told that Boggs has been known to do that, Palmeiro said, "I guess that's the difference between Wade Boggs and myself. He plays to win a batting title. I play to be the best I can be. I'd much rather hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs than bat .340 with eight home runs and 50 RBIs."

Palmeiro says it helps to have a teammate in the batting race with him. "Julio pushes me, I push him," Palmeiro says. "I think it makes you go harder."

Palmeiro has another reason to push harder: his brother Jose. During the recent Pan Am Games in Cuba, two of the producers of the syndicated television show This Week in Baseball tracked down Jose, 36, a photographer who is living in Havana. When Rafael and his parents left Cuba for Miami 20 years ago, Jose was approaching the age for military service and thus wasn't allowed to accompany them. The brothers haven't seen each other since.

On the weekend of Sept. 14, This Week in Baseball will air the segment on the Palmeiros. In it, videotaped messages are sent from brother to brother. Rafael recently saw the message from Jose. "It was emotional," he says. "It was something else. It's been such a long time since I've seen him. To see the place where I grew up, it was pretty amazing."

Rafael wants to visit Jose and other relatives in Cuba, but says it is more likely that Jose will come to the U.S. instead. Rafael says that seeing his brother on film has given him an added incentive for the rest of the season. "He's aware now of exactly what I'm doing," says Rafael. "Knowing that, it would be extra special if I could win a batting title."

A New Standard

Ray Taylor, the father of the Yankees' No. 1 draft choice, Brien Taylor, is a mason. Brien's mother, Bettie, is a crab processor. The family lives in a mobile home in Beaufort, N.C. They say they're not "dirt poor," but $850,000, the offer the Yankees had on the table two weeks ago, would undoubtedly have come in handy. They deserve credit for not being intimidated by baseball's negotiating process and for holding out until Brien, a lefthanded pitching prospect, got $1.55 million to sign a standard $850-a-month minor league contract with the Yankees. The deal was struck at the eleventh hour, on Aug. 26, the night before Brien, 19, was to begin classes at Louisburg (N.C.) College. Had he started school, the Yankees would not have been allowed to sign him until next May.

The Taylors' adviser, agent Scott Boras, almost certainly orchestrated the family's hard-nosed bargaining, but it was the Taylors who held firm. Bettie told The New York Times that a scout named Don Koonce, of the Major League Scouting Bureau, made an unsolicited visit to her home on Aug. 13 and tried to pressure her into accepting a Yankee offer of $650,000. She says that Koonce told her he reported directly to commissioner Fay Vincent. "He refused to leave," she told the Times. "I told him, 'If you don't leave, I don't want to close the door in your face.' He said, 'That's what you'll have to do.' " Koonce denies that he misrepresented himself.

Brien's deal is sure to affect negotiations with future draft picks. Indeed, a few major league executives think the Taylor signing has opened the door to fiscal insanity. Particularly bothered is Bill Wood, general manager of the Astros, who will have the No. 1 pick in the June 1992 draft if they finish with the worst record in the league, as well they might. "I'll be darned if I know what we're going to do next year," says Wood. "Maybe they should make an adjustment in the rules and allow a team to trade the No. 1 pick."

Taylor's contract is the largest ever given to a draft pick, surpassing the $1.2 million the A's paid high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel last year. As a point of reference, Griffey, the No. 1 pick in the '87 draft, signed with the Mariners for $160,000. "These deals damage the system that rewards players for what they do as major leaguers," says Wood. "We're rewarding players who haven't played an inning as a professional. When you give $1.5 million to an 18-year-old, how eager is that player going to be to listen to a pitching coach who tells him, 'Here's how to hold the fastball'? He can say, 'Here's how I hold it, and look what I got—$1.5 million.' Players in the minors have been motivated to tap into the unbelievable rainbow when they get to the majors. Now they're tapped in already."

Short Hops...

There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in the National League since the Cardinals' Ducky Medwick, in 1937, but through Sunday the Giants' Will Clark was leading the league in RBIs with 102, was three homers shy of the home-run lead with 26 and was 14 percentage points from the batting lead with a .309 average....

The Twins' most consistent pitcher this season hasn't been Jack Morris or Scott Erickson, but Kevin Tapani, who was 13-7 with a 2.89 ERA at week's end. Since May 31 he has lost only once, a 1-0 complete-game decision to Toronto in which the run was unearned. Just think where the Twins would be had they not traded Frank Viola (12-12 through Sunday with the Mets) for Tapani, Rick Aguilera (36 saves) and David West (4-3).

BETWEEN THE LINES

•One-Man Team
Phillie reliever Mitch Williams was 8-1 in August, one victory short of the National League record for most wins in a month and two shy of the major league mark. In August, Williams had one win fewer than the Expos did.

•Glad To Be Back
In April 1987, pitcher Roger Mason, then with the Giants, hit a line drive to rightfield but was thrown out at first base by Cub rightfielder Andre Dawson. On that ignominious note, Mason was sent to the minors the next day. Mason bounced around, battled arm injuries and now, at 32, is back, pitching for the Pirates. As of Sunday, he had two wins and a save in 12 appearances. "To be pitching meaningful games in a pennant race is unbelievable," says Mason.

•A Mark of Distinction
Former A's pitcher Brian Kingman, the last pitcher to lose 20 games in a season (8-20 in 1980), recently read an item by Jayson Stark of The Philadelphia Inquirer about how California's Kirk McCaskill (10-17 at week's end) might get Kingman off the hook by dropping 20 decisions this year. Kingman, who now lives in Phoenix and runs a nationwide check-cashing service, called Stark last week to tell him, "I don't want to get off the hook." He said he enjoys the attention. "Most people want to know who's going to win 20 games," says Kingman. "I get people who call me and ask me who is going to lose 20 games."

•By the Numbers
>After going 978 major league at bats without a three-base hit, Boston's Carlos Quintana tripled on Aug. 28. The new leader among active major leaguers for most at bats without a triple is Baltimore's Sam Horn, with 778.

TWO PHOTOSSTEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT USAIn his bid to best Franco (left) and Boggs (right), Palmeiro draws inspiration from Cuba. PHOTOBRUCE SCHWARTZMAN[See caption above.] PHOTOJAMES KEYSERTaylor and his mom hung tough in dealing with the Yankees, whose largess riled other teams.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)