Is a Pennant in the Cards?
This is an article from the June 8, 1992 issue
When June 1 arrived with the Cardinals atop the National League East, it marked the first time since the close of the 1989 season that the Pirates were not in first place at the end of a month. That 13-month streak—second longest in history to the Yankees' 18-month stretch from April 1926 to September '28—was remarkable. Almost as remarkable is that St. Louis, which led Pittsburgh by half a game at week's end, was the team that ended the Bucs' run.
The Cardinals, considered to be mild contenders entering this season, could have collapsed under the avalanche of injuries they've suffered. Eleven St. Louis players have spent time on the disabled list. In addition, the Cards" starting rotation has been disappointing; third baseman Todd Zeile, one of St. Louis's few power sources, hadn't homered in 42 games through Sunday; and Pedro Guerrero, normally a big run producer, had 11 RBIs. Yet the Cardinals had the best record in the East.
There are many reasons for their success, none more important than manager Joe Torre's deft juggling of his bench and loaded bullpen. But the Cardinals didn't start to soar until rightfielder Felix Jose came off the disabled list on April 29. Jose missed St. Louis's first 20 games due to a strained right hamstring, and without him the Cards went 10-10, while scoring only 66 runs. In Jose's first 20 games back in the lineup, he drove in 23 runs to take over the team lead in that department as the Cardinals went 13-7 and scored 96 runs. Through Sunday he was hitting .351.
Besides being one of the game's most underrated players, the 27-year-old Jose has something of an identity problem. He has been called Jose Felix, Junior Felix (the name of an Angel outfielder), even Felix Fermin (the name of an Indians infielder) by the media during the last three years. "I think I called him Jose Felix once," says Torre, who was a broadcaster for California when Jose played for Oak-and from 1988 to '90. "Those names mesh together a bit. But now that he's an every-day player, there's no excuse for it."
Jose is a much better player than the one Oakland traded to St. Louis for Willie McGee on Aug. 30, 1990. "I'm more patient at the plate now," says Jose, who demonstrated a quick but undisciplined bat while he was with the A's.
The games Jose missed early in the season turned into something of a plus for St. Louis. They gave Cardinals outfielder Brian Jordan, who also plays strong safety for the Atlanta Falcons, a chance to prove he's a major leaguer, which he did with 16 extra-base hits and 21 RBIs before going on the disabled list on May 23 with a hamstring injury. Likewise, Luis Alicea filled in for the injured Jose Oquendo, who was out with a dislocated right shoulder, and had a load of timely hits in May.
"We've done pretty well with the players we've had," says Torre. "Competition is keen. Everybody knows they're fighting for their spots. It's like going into a burning building. You find out you're capable of doing more than you thought you could as far as strength goes. If you want something in that building very badly, you're able to pick it up."
Pitcher Bob Tewksbury has been almost Herculean in picking up for injured starters Joe Magrane and Bryn Smith. He had gone 6-1 with the National League's best ERA (1.78) through Sunday. Tewksbury, who had walked only six batters in 76 innings, credits much of his success to not falling behind in the count. "This is nothing against hitters, but they get themselves out," says Tewksbury. "If you throw it down the middle, they'll probably pop it up."
That may sound like hubris, but Tewksbury and the Cards believe they are not flukes. June 1 is the latest the Cards have been in first place since 1987, when they last won the National League pennant. Can they win it this year? "We have a chance," says Zeile. "There's not a doubt in anybody's mind."
Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett and Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, two members of that dwindling fraternity of star players who have spent their entire careers in one city, could be playing for new teams in 1993. That notion seems almost incredible, but the longer their contract negotiations drag on, the greater the chances are that one or both of them will move.
Puckett, 31, is probably the more likely to leave, perhaps for Chicago, his hometown, where the Cubs and White Sox are financially stable enough to pay the $30 million to $40 million it will take to sign him for four or five years. The Twins, a small-market team with a projected gross revenue of approximately $40 million for 1992, will have a hard time paying that price. Puckett knows that and would accept less to stay in Minnesota—reportedly $5.5 million a year for five years. But when Twins owner Carl Pohlad recently backed off slightly as negotiations heated up, Puckett told his agent, Ron Shapiro, to end talks until after the season.
"I'm done talking," Puckett said last week. "If I'm here next year, I'm here. If I'm not, I'm not, Maybe they think I'm going to have a bad year this year. But I don't think that's going to happen." Puckett was hitting .344 at week's end.
Ripken is also a Shapiro client, but his situation is quite different from Puckett's because the Orioles are among the healthiest franchises in the game. With a relatively low payroll and fans filling the new Camden Yards ballpark nightly, Baltimore's projected gross revenue for 1992 is estimated to be as high as $80 million. A $30 million to $40 million deal for Ripken is well within the Orioles' means—leaving Ripken to wonder why he has not yet been signed.
Baltimore owner Eli Jacobs apparently has placed financial limits on what club president Larry Lucchino, the Orioles' chief negotiator, can offer Ripken, though neither Lucchino nor Shapiro will comment on the specifics of the negotiations. "There is a giant misconception in the media that we haven't been addressing this," says Lucchino. "We have. And we will continue to work on it."
Ripken was hitting only .258 at week's end and was struggling to find the stroke that won him the American League MVP award last year. But whatever he hits this year, his departure via free agency would be a devastating blow to the Orioles, not only because of his all-around good play but also because his consecutive-game streak could one day make him the hottest attraction in the game. Ripken observed the 10th anniversary of the streak last Saturday—he had played in 1,621 straight games at week's end—and a Baltimore fan recently called the Orioles wanting to buy tickets for a game in late June 1995. That's when the woman figures Ripken will break Lou Gehrig's string of 2,130 games.
There's no figuring Indians outfielder Albert Belle, who for most of his four years in the majors has frustrated and infuriated club officials with his inconsistency on the field and his petulant behavior on and off the field. But he's one of the most dangerous hitters in the league, so they live with him.
Belle's history includes alcoholism (he spent 10 weeks in rehab during the 1990 season), lack of hustle (he was sent to the minor leagues in 1991 for not running out a double play ball) and lack of self-control (he was suspended for six games last year for intentionally hitting a fan in the stands with a baseball and is currently appealing a three-day suspension for going after Royals pitcher Neal Heaton on May 4). But his rèsumè also includes 28 homers and 95 RBIs in 123 games last year. In American League history, only Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Rudy York and Ted Williams had that many homers and RBIs in so few games.
Earlier this season Belle was urged by Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove to be more aggressive on the bases. Belle complied by getting thrown out at second base four times in six games while trying to stretch singles into doubles. Belle also complained—though not to Hargrove—about being the designated hitter, saying he wanted to be the every-day leftfielder. His play, meanwhile, suffered. He went 83 at bats without a home run, earning a seat on the bench for two games in the middle of May.
Hargrove decided to give his moody slugger a start in leftfield on May 23. "If it's that much of a mental thing, then we'll see," Hargrove said.
Hargrove got an eyeful. Starting with that game, Belle went on the most torrid stretch any player has had this season, going 14 for 24 with seven home runs and 12 RBIs in six games.
Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson says his relationship with manager Bill Plummer is "shot" after Plummer called Johnson a "quitter" for taking himself out after two innings of a 13-8 loss to the Orioles on May 26. Johnson added, "I don't pitch for Bill Plummer. I pitch for myself, my teammates and the Seattle Mariners." Whatever, taking yourself out of a game is poor form, no matter who you're pitching for.... This season the Braves have won only one game in which they trailed by more than one run. On May 27 they overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the Phillies 9-3....
Tommy Lasorda has done a terrific job of keeping the Dodgers together despite their many injuries. But why in the world would he call a St. Louis radio station 90 minutes after a 6-5 loss to the Cardinals on May 25 to berate a talk-show host and his caller for second-guessing a move Lasorda made in the game?...At week's end Yankee catcher Matt Nokes had thrown out only seven out of 49 would-be stealers (14%) this season. Since he's also no wizard at calling a game, the Yankees have to wonder if he's the man they want catching promising youngsters such as Brien Taylor, Mark Hutton and Ed Martel, who are all likely to arrive in the majors in the next couple of years.... During a recent 16-game stretch the Padres didn't steal a base and still went 11-5....
Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens's fastball was clocked at 98 mph in his May 26 start against the Angels. He's already the best pitcher in baseball, but there's a suspicion that he's now throwing harder than ever.
Between The Lines
Three times this year Oriole instructor Rick Dempsey has been mistaken for Baltimore manager John Oates by members of the media, and Dempsey has gone ahead and given interviews as if he were Oates. "Look at us side by side from 20 yards, and we look a lot alike, same receding hairline," says Dempsey, who especially enjoys impersonating Oates on radio shows that give their guests a gift certificate. "It's been fun. Sometimes I hammer the players. I told one radio guy, 'I don't know if I can play Cal [Ripken] anymore.' He says, 'You mean you're thinking of sitting him down?' I said, 'Yeah, that streak doesn't mean much anyway.' "
Service with a Smile
On May 25 Expo pitcher Scott Service made his first appearance of the season, and the first hitter he faced was Astro catcher Scott Servais, whose name is pronounced just like Service's. Servais singled. "I've never met him before, but I've been asked to sign his baseball card—those card collectors don't know anything," says Servais. "My teammates were all over me after I faced him. They told me, "You'd better have gotten a hit, you knew what was coming, you were pitching to yourself.' "
Working on Fundamentals
On May 26 Phillie pitcher Don Robinson had a perfect game for 4⅖ innings when Atlanta's Damon Berryhill hit an infield pop-up. Robinson, who would lose his perfecto in the sixth inning, saw third baseman Dave Hollins and shortstop Kim Batiste converging under the ball near the pitcher's mound, so he shoved Batiste to the ground to make sure he didn't collide with Hollins. "That might be a new drill in spring training," says Philadelphia pitcher Curt Schilling. "We'll have Batiste go out there with a neck brace and run toward us, and we get to clobber him."
He Won by Default
Blue Jay outfielder Rob Ducey earned a dubious distinction last week. Through Sunday, Ducey was the only nonpitcher who had been on a team's active roster all season and not gotten a hit. His teammate Alfredo Griffin singled on May 26 for his first hit, leaving Ducey (0 for 10 with seven strikeouts) with the Hitless Wonder Award.
Let the Fielders Field
On May 26 Bill Gullickson pitched a complete-game victory without a walk or a strikeout to become the first Tiger to do that since George Zuverink in 1954. In the last five years Roger Clemens (1987), Jell" Ballard ('89), Bob Tewksbury ('91) and Gullickson are the only pitchers to have done it.
By the Numbers
•Nolan Ryan, who was pitching professionally before Frank Thomas of the White Sox was born, has struck out Thomas 11 of the 12 times he has faced him.
•Dodger first baseman Todd Benzinger, who had only 48 lifetime homers at week's end, hit the fifth grand slam of his career last week.