Baseball

September 06, 1992

Center of Attention

Born as he was on Oct. 16, 1969, the day the Amazin' Mets won the World Series, Juan Gonzalez may have been destined for baseball greatness. At 22 he is well on his way. With American League home run leader Mark McGwire stuck at 38 homers because of a rib-cage injury that will keep him out of the A's lineup until at least mid-September, Gonzalez, who plays centerfield for the Rangers, has a good shot at becoming the major league home run leader. Through Sunday he had 37 and was virtually a lock to join Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Mathews and Johnny Bench as the only players to hit 40 homers in a season before turning 23.

Gonzalez often hits his homers in pairs. Since July 26 he has had six multihomer games—three more than the whole Twins team has had in that time. As of Sunday he had seven all told this season. (Hank Greenberg's 11 multihomer games in 1938 is the major league record.) Ranger coach Orlando Gomez says Gonzalez's success is due in large part to his learning how to control his temper. "Last year he would strike out, throw a helmet, get mad and give away his next at bat," says Gomez. "He's more mature now. He's learning."

He has a lot more to learn, like running out every ground ball, hustling on every play in the outfield and not trying to pull every pitch for a home run—all topics of complaint against Gonzalez in Texas this year. "He's an impressive young power hitter, but he has some holes," says Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove. "He can be pitched to."

What makes Gonzalez's power surge more intriguing is the position he plays. Home run hitters in centerfield were once common. In the 1950s New York City had three—Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider—who regularly hit 40 homers. Others, notably Tony Armas, Fred Lynn, Dale Murphy and Jim Wynn, followed. Last season, however, only three clubs got more than 20 homers from the centerfield position: Oakland, Seattle and Atlanta. This year Gonzalez, Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. and Baltimore's Mike Devereaux have hit more than 20, but they will probably be the only centerfielders who do.

Instead, centerfields are now patrolled by the likes of Lance Johnson, Kenny Lofton and Brian McRae. "Scatbacks play center now," says Oriole manager John Oates. "Teams get smaller guys who can cover ground." At 6'3", 215 pounds, Gonzalez is easily the biggest centerfielder in the major leagues. But his days playing center are probably numbered. He has been below average defensively, so don't be surprised if the Rangers move him to left next year and acquire another centerfielder during the off-season. This year could be Gonzalez's last chance to become the first centerfielder to lead his league in homers since Murphy hit 37 for Atlanta in 1985.

The Recession Hits Minnesota

On July 26 the world champion Twins were 60-38, three games ahead of the A's in the American League West and probably the best team in baseball. Through Sunday they were 72-59, 7½ games behind Oakland and almost out of pennant contention. At times they've pitched poorly, and at other times they haven't hit. But, surprisingly, their collapse has been marked by a large number of mental mistakes—the last thing you would expect from a Minnesota team. "We haven't played the game correctly the last month," says Twin first baseman Kent Hrbek. "We've been sloppy."

Says manager Tom Kelly, "The first week of this recession—that's what I call it—I think some guys were feeling the pressure. That's when the veterans have to take over. That didn't happen."

Last week, in the eighth inning of a scoreless game against the Tigers, Detroit had runners at first and third and one out, with Gary Pettis at the plate. Kelly went to the mound, where he discussed with pitcher John Smiley and the middle in-fielders what to do in case of a bunt, a hit-and-run or a hard grounder back to the box. During the exceedingly long conference, home plate umpire Al Clark strode to the mound and told Kelly, "Tom, it's August 26"—the inference being that, by this late in the season, the players ought to know what to do. After watching all the mistakes of the previous month, Kelly was taking no chances.

A Wise Old Bird

Should the Orioles emerge as winners in the American League East, remember Aug. 25 as a key date. That was the day that pitcher Rick Sutcliffe gave his teammates a lift with an extraordinary performance. Two days earlier Sutcliffe's mother, Louise Bloss, had died after a long bout with cancer. Rick flew to Kansas City that night to help arrange the funeral and planned to return to Baltimore in time to make his scheduled start.

"Stay with your family," manager John Oates told his pitcher. "I have another starter ready." But Sutcliffe insisted on going back to take his turn. That night he gave up four hits in eight innings in a 9-1 victory over the Angels. The win was the third in a row for Sutcliffe, whose ERA from Aug. 5 to Aug. 25 was 1.57, while the rest of the Baltimore starters' was 6.01. In the O's 2-0 shutout of Seattle on Sunday, he went 8⅖ innings to get his 14th win.

Sutcliffe, 36, has been an inspiration to Baltimore's young pitchers. But he is one of the guys, too. An example: After a day game in New York in late July, he hired a limo to take himself, Oriole p.r. director Rick Vaughn and trainer Jamie Reed to a Bruce Springsteen concert. During intermission the threesome visited backstage, and after the concert they took the limo, stocked with food and drink, to Boston for Baltimore's next game. Sutcliffe picked up the entire tab.

Short Hop...
Anthony Young's emergence as the Mets' closer (he had 11 saves in 11 tries through Sunday) might make John Franco expendable. But Franco will make $8 million over the next two years, and that will make him hard to deal.

PHOTOTONY INZERILLOFor the time being, Gonzalez is one of the vanishing breed of centerfielders who can hit with power. PHOTOTONY INZERILLODuring their slide the Twins sometimes lost their grip on the fundamentals—and the ball.

Between The Lines

Follow the Bouncing Ball
When Pirate rookie Tim Wakefield beat the Dodgers' Tom Candiotti 2-0 on Aug. 26, it was the first meeting of two National League knuckleballers since Houston's Joe Niekro beat his brother Phil and the Braves 5-3 on Sept. 13, 1982. "At the end of the game I was a little cross-eyed," says Pittsburgh catcher Mike LaValliere, who had two hits. "I waved at a few knuckleballs, both offensively and defensively."

Surprising Cyclist

There has probably never been a more unlikely player to hit for the cycle than Houston shortstop Andujar Cedeno. In 102 at bats with the Astros, Cedeno had hit .186 with only eight extra-base hits before being sent down to the minors June 3. But last week, in his first game after being recalled from Triple A Tucson, Cedeno's triple-homer-double-single night made him the 113th player in National League history to hit for the cycle—something Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth never did in their long careers. Cedeno, 23, is the youngest player to hit for the cycle since Cesar Cedeno (no relation) did it for the Astros in 1972 at age 21.

By the Numbers
•Philadelphia's Darren Daulton has a chance to become the first catcher in history to drive in 100 runs for a last-place team. At week's end he had 91.

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)