The Inside Story
The first play of the Mets-Cardinals game last Thursday epitomized the first week of the season. New York's leadoff hitter Vince Coleman bunted down the first base line and pulled his left hamstring trying to leg out a hit; pitcher Donovan Osborne twisted his left ankle fielding the ball. Both had to leave the game.
Neither was put on the disabled list, but as of Sunday 84 players had already been on the DL. In the entire 1982 season only 164 players were placed on the list. While many of the first-week injuries were run-of-the-mill muscle pulls, more serious injuries were suffered by Toronto's Derek Bell (broken left hand), St. Louis's Andres Galarraga (broken right wrist), Philadelphia's Lenny Dykstra (broken left wrist) and Minnesota's Shane Mack (concussion), all of whom were struck by pitches. Cardinal manager Joe Torre, who has eight players on the DL, thinks the rash of downed batters may signal a trend.
"Remember when pitchers didn't pitch inside?" says Torre. "Well, they're pitching inside again." He thinks pitchers started to nibble too much on the outside corner in 1987, the year of the live ball, to avoid giving up home runs. But they've started to come back inside.
How far inside are pitchers throwing? Philadelphia's leadoff man was hit in the first inning of three straight games (Dykstra once, and his replacement, Ruben Amaro, twice). Phillie third baseman Dave Hollins was hit by pitches three times in the first week.
Spring training also had its share of hit batsmen. One nasty exchange came after Rangers pitcher Jeff Robinson hit Boston outfielder Mike Greenwell. San Francisco pitchers hit Oakland's Jose Canseco three times in the spring, causing a near brawl between the teams and harsh words between A's manager Tony La Russa and Giants manager Roger Craig. "We were pitching inside, and they were throwing at our guys," said Craig.
Mets hitting coach Tommy McCraw thinks pitchers had stopped throwing inside at least 10 years ago, but he agrees that they've been doing it regularly this spring. "Old pitching coaches are thrilled," says McCraw. "When the pitchers stopped throwing inside, it gave the hitter extra privileges. Now it will be tougher on the hitters."
No one has been accused of intentionally throwing at hitters the first week of the season. More often, hitters have been diving into pitches. Dykstra stands so close to the plate, he's nearly out of the batter's box. The pitch that the Cubs' Greg Maddux hit him with on Opening Day was almost a strike.
"Hitters aren't accustomed to getting out of the way," says Cardinals hitting coach Don Baylor, who was hit a major league record 267 times in his 19-year career. "They've never had to before."
On the Comeback Trail
Relief was evident around the Mets' clubhouse last week when it was announced by Florida State Attorney Bruce Colton that charges would not he brought against pitcher Doc Gooden and outfielders Vince Coleman and Daryl Boston for an alleged sexual assault during 1991 spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The Mets hope that attention will now be paid to Gooden's comeback from surgery last September for a slight tear of the rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Gooden made an impressive showing in a losing effort last week in New York's home opener against the Expos, allowing only three hits in 6⅖ innings. His fastball was clocked at 91 mph, which isn't the Gooden heat of old, and he threw more curveballs than usual. Said Gooden afterward, "I may not be the same pitcher I was—at least not yet—but it will come."
Said Montreal rightfielder Larry Walker, "He didn't throw quite as hard as he did last year, but it's early. It's hard to gas it up this soon. But his curveball was nasty. He's Dwight Gooden, one of the best ever. Whether he's coming off surgery or not, you're in for a tough outing."
The physical part of his comeback has been remarkable. Mets pitcher David Cone says that he didn't think Gooden would be back until June and didn't expect him to throw this well until after the All-Star break. Gooden didn't think he would be back until May. "I never envisioned this," says Mets general manager Al Harazin. "Five or six months ago, to expect this would have been Pollyannaish. But some players can withstand more pain than others, some recover quickly. With Kevin Elster [the Mets' shortstop who had a similar operation], it's been 19 months, and we're still wondering, 'Where are we?' "
The mental part of Gooden's comeback has also been extraordinary. After undergoing arm surgery for the first time, players usually fear cutting loose with pitches. Not Gooden. In addition, the investigation of the alleged sexual assault has hung over his head all spring. "It was real tough," says Gooden.
"He's not your ordinary pitcher," says Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "He has always been able to focus, even with all the media attention starting with his rookie year in '84."
No doubt Gooden's image has been tarnished by the Port St. Lucie incident, but he received warm, if not rousing, applause during his debut at Shea Stadium. "He's still the bellwether of this club," Harazin says. "When he's going good, he lifts everybody. When something happens to him, it's a downer for everyone."
One More Time
As impressive as Gooden's return has been, the comeback story of the season is that of Texas pitcher Steve Fireovid, 33, who is back in the majors for the first time since 1986. He has played for nine different major league organizations, and the Rangers are his 17th team in 15 pro seasons. "I don't know if this is a lesson in perseverance, or if I'm just stupid," says Fireovid. "That's a serious question you have to ask yourself."
He has asked that question of himself many times. One career low point came in 1986 when he was recalled by the Mariners, spent six days with the club and then was sent back to the minors. "I never even warmed up," says Fireovid. He signed on the following year with Toronto but was released soon after the season started. He was playing slo-pitch Softball—"right centerfielder, I was good," he says, laughing—when John Boles, Kansas City's director of player development, talked him into signing in October 1987.
Fireovid needed four years to reach the majors again. On Opening Day this year, Fireovid got the victory—his third lifetime—in the Rangers' 12-10 win over the Mariners. He entered the game in the sixth and was not particularly effective, giving up three hits and two runs. He left trailing 8-3 in the seventh. "But we hit for about an hour [in a nine-run eighth inning]," says Fireovid, "and I said to myself, 'I'm going to back into a victory.' "
He has turned the tale of his struggle for survival in baseball into a book that was published last summer. It's called The 26th Man. "I'm no Robert Ludlum," he says, "but at least I wrote it myself."
Ranger hysteria is already sweeping through Texas. The game's most potent lineup outscored the Mariners 35-4 in the final 29 innings of a four-game road sweep to open the season. Twice in their first six games (five victories), the Rangers overcame deficits of five and six runs to win. Third baseman Dean Palmer belted homers in each of the first three games, giving him 10 in his last 21 games dating back to the final 18 days of the "91 season....
"I saw an expansion team play the other day—the Angels," says one veteran National League scout. "They have three starters [Chuck Finley, who went on the disabled list with a toe injury on Sunday, Mark Langston and Jim Abbott] and one reliever [Bryan Harvey], but that's about it. Denver and Miami will have better players next year, really."
...The Giants want shortstop Jose Uribe to take grounders at second base so that he can become more versatile. Uribe, beaten out this spring at short by rookie Royce Clayton, is balking at the move. Uribe is a career .241 hitter who committed six errors in limited play in spring training. He is making $1.4 million this year. If the Giants ask him to catch, he should gladly agree.
Between The Lines
The Padres' Dave Eiland became the first pitcher to hit a homer in his first major league at bat since the Astros' Jose Sosa did it in 1975. Eiland, batting for the first time since 1987, when he played for the University of South Florida, hit a two-run homer off the Dodgers' Bob Ojeda last Thursday. A hit of any kind is a feat for San Diego's pitchers, who batted .086 last year, worst in the National League. "We have a hitting competition among the pitchers," says Eiland. "Some think those two RBIs will hold up all year."
Dawn of a New Day
There was no carryover from 1991 to 1992 for a number of players. Boston's Roger Clemens, who finished last season with a streak of 77 innings in which he did not walk the leadoff hitter, gave up a base on balls to the first batter he faced this year, the Yankees' Randy Velarde. Mets reliever Jeff Innis, who last season became the only pitcher in history to be credited with neither a win nor a save while pitching in at least 60 games, got a win over the Cardinals on Opening Day. The Rangers' Kevin Brown, who tied an American League record in '91 for most starts without a complete game (33), threw a complete-game shutout in his first start of the season, a 4-0 win over the Mariners.
It Could De a Very Long Season
The Indians and the Red Sox played the American League's only scheduled doubleheader of 1992 on Sunday, the day after a marathon 19-inning, 7-5 Boston victory. In the opener, Red Sox lefthander Matt Young allowed no hits in eight innings but lost 2-1. It wasn't a no-hitter, because Major League Baseball's committee on statistical accuracy ruled last year that a pitcher must go nine innings or more in a game that ends hitless to get credit for a no-hitter. Young didn't think he deserved a no-hitter anyway after walking seven batters. "In a no-hitter you're supposed to strike out the last guy, the catcher comes out, and you jump around," said Young. "This was anticlimactic."
His Bark Is Worse Than His Bat
On Opening Day, Baltimore pitcher Rick Sutcliffe left tickets at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for his friend Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers. After the game the two players stood in the Oriole clubhouse and compared sports. Sutcliffe claimed he could score at least four points in an NBA game and questioned whether Barkley could hit a baseball. Barkley recalled that he had taken batting practice with the Cubs last year and that outfielder Doug Dascenzo was on the mound. "Hitting can be scary," said Barkley, "and the guy I got to face that day wasn't even a pitcher."
Stay out of the Sun Awhile, Junior
Cleveland's comic backup catcher, Junior Ortiz, was not in the starting lineup on Opening Day. "I went 3 for 4 one game in spring training, 3 for 3 the next game, then I go 0 for 2, and the manager [Mike Hargrove] names Sandy [Alomar Jr.] his Opening Day catcher. Doesn't he know I'm better than Johnny Bench?"
By the Numbers
•The Mets' Eddie Murray made his 16th straight Opening Day start, most among active players. Detroit's Lou Whitaker and Philadelphia's Dale Murphy have started 15 in a row.
•When Boston's Roger Clemens lost on Opening Day, it was the first time he had been under .500 since June 21, 1987.