Last Friday, in the opening performance of his final season, Nolan Ryan gave up four hits and no earned runs in six innings of the Rangers' 3-1 win over the Red Sox. "He is still the head gunslinger in the O.K. Corral," says Tom House, a special assistant in the Texas front office. "But he has opened the gate for the next gunslinger."
That would be the Mariners' Randy Johnson, who, at 29, might finally become a consistently dominant pitcher instead of a clueless lefthander capable of walking 10 batters in any given start. A lot of the credit for Johnson's transformation goes to Ryan and House, who was the Ranger pitching coach for seven seasons before moving upstairs this year.
Last August, before a game at the Kingdome, Ryan and House watched as a struggling Johnson threw in the bullpen between starts. Johnson became so frustrated with his mechanics that he stormed off the mound, looked at House and said, "What the hell am I doing?"
So House and Ryan gave him a few pointers, and Ryan talked with him about the mental part of the game. They talked some more before the end of the season, and then the three of them produced a pitching video called Fastball, which documents how Ryan and Johnson throw their specialty pitch.
Since that first conversation Johnson has made 13 starts and gone 6-2 with 138 strikeouts (Instant Analyst, below). In seven of those starts he struck out 10 or more batters, including 14 in a scintillating Opening Day performance against the Blue Jays, whom he limited to one run in eight innings. The adjustment in Johnson's pitching mechanics was a minor one. He was landing on his right heel and dragging his arm behind him, so he wasn't getting all of his 6'10", 225-pound body into his pitches. House had him land on the ball of his right foot and raise his arm to a three-quarter position, thus allowing him to pitch with more power. "My velocity is up three or four miles per hour," says Johnson, who last year had one pitch clocked at 102 mph.
The adjustment in Johnson's mental outlook was more significant. "Nolan said he saw a lot of himself in me—an unproven pitcher who has shined sporadically," says Johnson. "Nolan walked a lot of guys in his career, and he told me how he dealt with it. It was really beneficial."
Says Ryan, "Randy has the most potential of any pitcher in baseball. He has a slider that righthanded hitters can't hit. Ron Guidry had one. So did Sparky Lyle and Mickey Lolich and Steve Carlton. Randy's liable to win the Cy Young." On Sept. 27, 1992, Ryan got a firsthand look at how much progress his pupil had made when Johnson struck out 18 Rangers in eight innings at Arlington Stadium.
The two pitchers haven't talked since they made the video in January, but, says Johnson, "I'm not afraid to call him for advice." If he starts to labor, Johnson says he'll go to new Seattle pitching coach Sammy Ellis first, but he might call House or Ryan, too. "Or," he says, "I might get out the videotape and check it out."
WAY OFF BASE
Second baseman Steve Sax was coming off one of the best hitting seasons (.304, 10 home runs) of his career when the Yankees traded him (and his four-year, $12.4 million contract) to the White Sox on Jan. 10, 1992, for pitcher Melido Perez and minor league pitching prospects Bob Wickman and Domingo Jean. But how terrible does that trade look for Chicago now? It was bad enough when Sax lost his starting job in spring training this year to utilityman Craig Grebeck, whose defense is significantly better than Sax's. Then when Grebeck missed the first three games with a hand injury, journeyman infielder Joey Cora, not Sax, started at second.
For one game this spring Perez, Wickman (who now is in the Yankee rotation) and Jean (a top prospect at Double A Albany-Colonie) were all on schedule to pitch against the White Sox, but the Yankees shuffled their pitching order so they wouldn't appear to be rubbing it in. Credit Chicago manager Gene Lamont for having the guts to bench a high-salaried veteran at the outset of the season.
CAN'T BEAT THE SYSTEM
When Cardinal reliever Lee Smith preserved Donovan Osborne's 2-1 win over the Giants last Thursday, he tied Jeff Reardon on the alltime save list with 357. Smith has been the game's prototypical closer over the last 10 years, not only because of his remarkable numbers (he has averaged 34 saves in that time and has led the National League in saves the last two years), but also because of the way he has been used. Every year between 1983 and '92—whether he was with the Cubs, the Red Sox or the Cardinals—Smith appeared in at least 62 games but not more than 70. He has not entered a game without a lead since July 14, 1990.
Smith is no longer the gas-throwing monster who overpowers hitters, as he was a couple of years ago. Now he throws around 86 mph and has a good slider and tremendous control. He has adjusted nicely—just as he did in 1975 when the Cubs drafted him out of Northwestern (La.) State, where, as a star basketball player, he aspired to be the next Dr. J.
Barry Bonds, the free agent who left the Pirates and signed a $43.75 million deal with the Giants in the off-season, returned to Pittsburgh for a three-game series last Friday. After the first game he spent an hour talking to Pirate manager Jim Leyland, with whom he had a celebrated blowout in spring training two years ago. The next morning he arrived at the park early to have coffee with Leyland and the coaches....
The Phillie clubhouse is crazier than ever, now that Mr. Clean, outfielder Dale Murphy, has gone to the Rockies. "This is the only team where the chapel leader is afraid to come into the clubhouse," says first baseman John Kruk....
Crazy or not, the Phillies won their first three games of the season, the first time they've been three games over .500 since June 22, 1990....
Met rightfielder Bobby Bonilla got into a shouting match with a New York writer after a game last Saturday. "If Bobby played in Nome, Alaska," says a former Pirate teammate, "he'd have trouble with the media."
Minor league note of the week: Former major league catcher Terry Kennedy is the new manager of the Cardinals' Class A team in St. Petersburg, Fla. Out of baseball last year, Kennedy took 34 hours of classes, mostly in English literature, at Cal State-San Marcos. "I read all the biggies: Chaucer, Swift, Pope," says Kennedy. "They were hard to understand at first, but I finally got what a heroic couplet is." Will his English studies help him with his managing? "Yeah, right," says Kennedy. "These guys probably haven't heard of Gulliver's Travels. They think that Swift is Billy Swift, and that he wrote a book about pitching."
BETWEEN THE LINES
Boom Boom Baerga. On April 8, when switch-hitting Indian second baseman Carlos Baerga (below) hit a home run from each side of the plate in one inning, he became the first major league player—but not the first player in baseball history—to accomplish the feat. Two minor leaguers are known to have done it: Ellis Burton of Triple A Toronto in 1961 and Gary Pellant of Class A Alexandria (Va.) in '79. Pellant, now a scout for the White Sox, pointed out some coincidences involving his feat and Baerga's: Both players hit the homers in the seventh inning; current Indian catcher Junior Ortiz was the catcher for Salem, Alexandria's opponent; and Pellant's roommate for most of the '79 season was Rick Adair, who is Cleveland's pitching coach. Baerga, who was 4 for 5 in the 15-5 rout of the Yankees, homered off Steve Howe batting righthanded and off Steve Farr batting lefthanded.
What's-his-name. At the Ranger home opener last Friday, there was one omission from the numerical rosters in the souvenir scorecard: number 34 for Texas—Nolan Ryan.
By the Numbers. Zany Phillie reliever Mitch Williams changed his uniform number from 28 to 99 because a coach "said I did everything [at] 99 miles per hour." This must be the first time that baseball has a 99, an 88 (California's Rene Gonzales), a 77 (Florida's Jack Armstrong), a 66 (Toronto's Juan Guzman), several 55's, 44's, 33's, 22's and 11's and a 00. That's the new number worn by Card pitcher Omar Oliveras, who says it's his initials, not his number.