Baseball

May 30, 1993

STAYING AFLOAT

Any previous Mariner team would have been buried had it started the season with as many injuries as this year's Seattle club. But at week's end the 1993 Mariners were 21-23 and only 4½ games out of first place in the American League West. "Losing is not an option with Lou [Piniella]," first baseman-designated hitter Pete O'Brien says of Seattle's new manager. "He doesn't put up with it."

Until last Sunday night the Mariners had been without their winningest pitcher of last season, lefthander Dave Fleming, who was 17-10 in 1992 but who injured his elbow in camp this spring. (He gave up six runs on eight hits in 4‚Öì innings on Sunday, but Seattle rallied to beat the Royals 10-7.) Third baseman Edgar Martinez, the reigning American League batting champ, tore his right hamstring three days before the start of the season and had only 12 at bats through Sunday. Righthander Chris Bosio, a 16-game winner with the Brewers last season, was 2-1 in five starts, including a no-hitter, before breaking his collarbone on April 27. He isn't due back until early June.

"I'm amazed by the Mariners. They might be the best club in the division," says Angel manager Buck Rodgers. "When they get everybody back, they might zoom past everyone."

A year ago the Mariners finished 64-98 and, by most accounts, quit playing hard for manager Bill Plummer during the second half of the season. "If anyone on this team thinks he can pack it in and still be here a month from now, he's got another think coming," says closer Norm Charlton, who played for the Reds when Piniella was their manager from 1990 to '92.

The dynamic Piniella has stuck to his spring training promise to play the players who are playing best—with no exceptions. Much-ballyhooed rookie Bret Boone, thought by many to be a lock to start at second base, was shipped back to the minors before Seattle broke camp, and the job was given to 31-year-old Rich Amaral, a 10-year minor leaguer and the oldest rookie in the majors. "I should be proud of that; it shows I endured," says Amaral. "But maybe I should be embarrassed by it." After the weekend there was nothing embarrassing about his .327 average, which included a five-hit game on May 17.

Last year the dreadful Seattle pitching staff gave up 10 grand slams—a major league record. This year Erik Hanson (5-1 with a 1.60 ERA) and ace Randy Johnson (6-3, 2.91, with a major league-high 85 strikeouts) have carried the patched-up rotation. After the 1990 season Hanson, now 28, was considered among the best pitchers in the league. But during the last two seasons he struggled with arm injuries and went 16-25, including a league-high 17 losses last year. Now he's healthy, and his stuff is back.

If the Mariners continue to hold together until Bosio, Fleming and Martinez return to form, they can make a run at the division-leading White Sox.

ON THE DOWNSWING

Between July 1, 1992, and last Sunday, Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken hit .218 with seven home runs in 505 at bats, and his slump is of growing concern in Baltimore. After a .323, 34-homer MVP season in '91, Ripken saw his average drop to .251 last year—the third season in the last four that he had hit less than .258. And at week's end he was hitting .209 for '93.

Ripken, 32, is healthy and strong. He is not worn out by his consecutive-game streak (1,777 through Sunday), and he has been making contact, with only 13 strikeouts this season. He has been brilliant defensively. And though he remains upset about the Orioles' release of his brother, second baseman Bill, last January, he still plays as hard as anyone in baseball, and nobody is better prepared for each game. So why the shortfall at the plate?

Ripken's slump is related in part to Baltimore's weak-hitting lineup. When he has batted in his customary third spot in the order, Ripken has received little or no protection from the No. 4 hitter. In fact, through Sunday, Baltimore's cleanup batters had produced only five extra-base hits this year—and no home runs. Things got so bad recently that in an attempt to generate some runs, Oriole manager Johnny Oates moved Mark McLemore, an infielder who was released by the Astros and Indians during the past three years, into the No. 3 slot and dropped Ripken to the fourth spot.

But the move to cleanup didn't help Ripken, who went 2 for 31. He doesn't see many good pitches batting anywhere in the middle of a soft lineup. And when he tries to carry the Orioles by himself, he gets overanxious and starts swinging at bad pitches. But, insists one opposing player, "we don't pitch around him," and one scout says the mechanics of Ripken's swing are fouled up. Whatever, the Orioles have no chance of contending unless Ripken gets hot and someone else in the middle of the order starts hitting, too.

RED FACES

It was easy enough to understand the firing of Met manager Jeff Torborg on May 19, but it was hard to justify the Reds' dismissal of Tony Perez on Monday—just 44 games into his first season as skipper. Cincinnati, which was expected to challenge the Braves for the National League West title, lost nine of its first 12 games and still hasn't righted itself, but Perez wasn't to blame for the slow start.

There were injuries to key players: First baseman Hal Morris, a career .300 hitter, has yet to play this season because of a separated shoulder; closer Rob Dibble has been sidelined since April 21 with a broken left forearm; and shortstop Barry Larkin (sprained left thumb) and outfielders Bobby Kelly (tender hamstring) and Kevin Mitchell (broken left foot) have been playing hurt.

The starting pitching has been erratic: Through Sunday free-agent pickup John Smiley was 1-6 with a 5.69 ERA, Tim Belcher was 1-4, and Tom Browning (3-3, 6.99) was being hit at a .394 clip.

When Perez was hired, some critics felt that he did not have good communication skills and wouldn't provide enough inspiration to be successful. However, he was popular with his players, and his easygoing style should not have been taken as a sign of managerial weakness. "He's done a good job," first baseman Randy Milligan said a week before Perez was fired. "It's a shame he hasn't had a healthy team to work with."

Another factor in Perez's ouster by 31-year-old Jim Bowden was Bowden's desperation to win. The youngest general manager in major league history, Bowden was promoted from farm director by owner Marge Schott after she fired Jim Quinn last October. After Schott was suspended from baseball in the off-season for using racial slurs, she named Bowden acting CEO. He shaped this team himself.

As Cincy's farm director, Bowden was reputed to be willing to do most anything to win; he didn't hesitate, for example, to send a Double A pitcher to Class A for a week to help the Class A team win its division title for the first half of the season. "If anything goes wrong, watch how fast Bowden moves," a former Red said in spring training. "He won't stand around. I don't know if that's good or bad, I just know he wants to make a name for himself."

Cincinnati appeared to be coming out of its funk when it won its sixth straight game on May 15 to reach .500 and pull within 4½ games of the front-running Giants. But by last Sunday the Reds had lost six out of eight and were 9½ games behind. According to club sources, Bowden began second-guessing Perez's strategic moves during last week's run of defeats. "We played poorly even in games we won," Bowden said on Monday, after he had replaced Perez with Davey Johnson.

Having had no previous experience as a manager, Perez naturally made some mistakes in game situations. But he should have at least been given the opportunity to learn from his errors—or the Reds should have hired a manager of Johnson's caliber at the outset.

Johnson, 50, had not managed since being fired by the Mets 42 games (a 20-22 record) into the 1990 season. He was out of baseball until Bowden hired him last winter to serve as a scout. Johnson, who skippered New York for six-plus seasons, is the only National League manager to have won at least 90 games in each of his first five years. His .588 winning percentage with the Mets, whom he guided to a world championship in 1986, is the fifth best in major league history (minimum five seasons). Why Johnson hasn't managed since New York fired him has been a mystery, though his big ego and large salary demands have been cited as reasons.

What is clear is that the Mets haven't been the same team without him; since Johnson's firing, they have played .484 ball. Bud Harrelson, Johnson's replacement, didn't work out. Neither did Torborg, who was canned after going 72-90 in 1992 and 13-25 this year.

Torborg has been—and can again be—a successful major league manager but only in the right situation. Even though he is at best an average strategist, Torborg proved that his upbeat, family-atmosphere approach can work when he managed the young and hungry White Sox to second-place finishes in 1990 and '91. But that managing philosophy flopped in a Met clubhouse full of surly and highly paid underachievers.

Torborg was also too sensitive to media criticism, and he shielded his players from controversy when he should have confronted them. After last season Torborg said privately that leftfielder Vince Coleman, with whom he had sparred verbally during the season, would not be back in 1993. Well, Coleman came back—and now it's Torborg who is gone.

New Met manager Dallas Green, a drill-sergeant type, is Torborg's opposite in personality. And Green's forcefulness will have an impact not only on the players but also on personnel decisions by the front office.

Still, there's the question of whether Green can turn around New York's fortunes on the field. After all, before taking the Met job, he had managed only 121 major league games—he went 56-65 with the 1989 Yankees—since '81. His success in managing the '80 Phillies to a world championship is well documented, but the players (and their salaries) have changed a lot since then. There's no guarantee that today's players will respond to Green's abrasive style of managing.

SHORT HOPS

The longest hitting streak in the National League this season, 15 games, belongs to Cub infielder Jose Vizcaino, whom Chicago acquired in a 1990 trade with the Dodgers. "He will never hit," one Los Angeles club official said at the time. With help from Cub batting coach Billy Williams, Vizcaino was hitting .342 after last weekend. When second baseman Ryne Sandberg missed the first month of this season with a broken left hand, Vizcaino filled in brilliantly. With Sandberg back, Vizcaino has taken the shortstop job from Rey Sanchez, who had been playing well himself. The player the Dodgers got in the trade for Vizcaino? He was infielder Greg Smith, who was a bust for L.A. and now is back in the Cub farm system....

Hooray for Frank Thomas. The White Sox first baseman worked like crazy this spring to improve himself defensively, and he has. Thomas is no Kent Hrbek yet, but he and new second baseman Joey Cora have turned the right side of the Chicago infield from a liability to a plus in one year's time....

Last Friday, in third baseman Wade Boggs's first game back at Fenway Park since signing a free-agent deal with the Yankees in December, he went 4 for 4. But he didn't score a run or drive in a run, and New York lost to Boston 7-2....

The collapse of the Twins' pitching has been astounding. In a five-game stretch from May 16 to 21, Minnesota allowed 11 runs four times. For the season the Twins have been torched for 10 or more runs in 11 games—four more times than in all of last year.

PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTS (RIPKEN)With little support behind him in the order, Ripken has not seen many good pitches. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (PEREZ)Perez and Bowden aren't laughing any longer. PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT USATo keep Vizcaino's hot bat in the lineup, the Cubs gave him a full-time job at short. PHOTO

BETWEEN THE LINES

Just Happy to Be Here. Among players who have been on a major league active roster since the start of the season, Angel catcher Ron Tingley is the only one who, through Sunday, was still without an at bat. He had appeared in four games but only as a late-inning defensive replacement. "I made it to the on-deck circle once this year, and that's a milestone in itself," says Tingley. "Even my wife rags on me about not playing." Nevertheless, his sense of humor remains intact. On May 14, before pregame warmups, Tingley ran out of the dugout, threw his hands in the air and yelled, "I'm the champ! [Blue Jay] Alfredo Griffin got an at bat last night."

Not-So-Fine Lines. On May 19, Blue Jay starter Dave Stewart had this pitching line against the Red Sox: 1⅖IP, 7H, 10R, 10ER, 5BB, 0SO. Stewart saved the Rangers' Kenny Rogers from having the worst statistical outing of last week. Three days earlier, against the White Sox, Rogers did this: 1⅖IP, 9H, 10R, 10ER, 1BB, 2SO. Stewart and Rogers joined Blue Jay Jack Morris and Twin Pat Mahomes as pitchers charged with 10 earned runs in a game this year.

The Last Shall Be First. Mark Grant, traded from the Astros to the Rockies last Thursday, now has a great chance to move past Greg Harris of the Red Sox as the active player who has pitched on the most last-place teams in his career. Entering this season, both had pitched for four.

By the Numbers. Twice this season, A's relief ace Dennis Eckersley has allowed three runs in an appearance, including the three he gave up in Oakland's 13-8 loss to the Royals on May 19. From Aug. 24, 1988, through the end of last season, he had allowed three runs in an outing only six times in 265 games.... When the Braves and the Expos played back-to-back 1-0 games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium last week, it marked the first time since July 21 and 22,1971, that consecutive 1-0 games had been played in that park—a span of 1,700 games.

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)