A GIANT AMONG GIANTS

Every sandlot league in the country has a player like San Francisco closer Rod Beck: junkyard body, Fu Manchu mustache, long hair, loves to pitch. Beck himself was playing in one such league, the California Baseball Association, as late as the winter of 1988. At the time, he was in the Giants' organization, and playing in the league put him in violation of his exclusive pro contract. He did it—as a second baseman under the assumed name of Rod Roy—because, he says, "I just love to play baseball. People knew who I was. No one told."

People now know Beck, 25, as the best reliever in the National League. At week's end, he was 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA, 33 saves and 64 strikeouts in 53‚Öì innings while walking only four batters unintentionally for the Giants, the team with best record in baseball. The 33 saves is a club record, and his string of 24 saves without a blown save, which ended on Aug. 4, is a league record. "I expect this from myself," Beck says of his success. "I don't know where the strikeouts have come from, but the walks, I can do better than that."

Two years ago no one would have expected anything like this from Beck. He was picked by Oakland in the 13th round of the 1986 draft and was traded to San Francisco in March 1988 for pitcher Charlie Corbell, who injured his arm that year and never pitched again. Beck was a successful starter in the minor leagues but bombed when the Giants called him up briefly in 1991. They then sent him to Triple A Phoenix to learn to be a closer. "I was real confused," he says. "I thought they'd given up on me." Beck made the Giants' roster in 1992 as a middle reliever and pitched so well that he was named the team's stopper in June. Since the '92 All-Star break he has had, as of Sunday, a 1.30 ERA and 42 saves in 81 games. He also made the All-Star team this year.

Beck has all the necessary tools to be a closer: a 90-plus-mph fastball, a nasty slider, a darting split-fingered fastball and terrific control. Beck even looks the part of the unhittable reliever, with his menacing mustache and stare, and his unruly hair. "People think I look like this because I'm the closer now," he says. "I've looked the same way since I was 16."

Beck is 6'1" and weighs 236 pounds, which includes a noticeable gut that he is kidded about regularly. He weighed 247 pounds and had a body-fat percentage of 25.5 when he sought the services of fitness guru Mackey Schillstone in the winter of '91. Six weeks later Beck was 230 pounds, and his body fat was down to 14.7%.

Once labeled a player with a weight problem, he's now seen as a throwback, a guy who loves to pitch, especially when the game's on the line. "I'll throw every day," he says. "If my arm hurts a little, I figure it will work its way out. If I had to pay $100 for this uniform, I would. That's just the way I've always been."

THE THIRD MAN

The Rangers won three of four games from division-leading Chicago last week to help them move within 3½ games of first place on Sunday. Leading the way was first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who has been one of the game's hottest hitters since mid-May. Coming off a season in which his average fell from .322 in 1991 to .268, Palmeiro was hitting .202 with three homers and 12 RBIs through the Rangers' first 31 games this year. He had lost his good opposite-field swing to left because he was trying to pull the ball too often, perhaps going for big power numbers since he will become a free agent after the season. As he struggled, it was rumored that Palmeiro—and his $4.55-million-a-year contract—might be headed to Atlanta for centerfielder Otis Nixon.

At week's end Palmeiro was batting .355 with 26 homers and 69 RBIs in the last 79 games, going back to May 12. Palmeiro now ranks in the top seven in the league in homers, slugging, doubles, hits and total bases. He's staying back on the ball more, getting his hits to leftfield but pounding homer after homer to right.

Most of Palmeiro's damage has been done from the third spot in the order, which opened up when Jose Canseco suffered a season-ending elbow injury on May 29. Before that, Palmeiro was considered a player who could hit only second or fifth, while bangers like Canseco, Ruben Sierra (a Ranger from 1986 to '92) and Juan Gonzalez carried the load in the third and fourth spots. However, since batting in the three hole, he has outproduced even Gonzalez. So much for the perception that Palmeiro doesn't have the mental toughness to carry a team.

His torrid stretch has delighted the Rangers, but it also puts them in a tough spot. With DH Julio Franco surely gone to free agency after the season, and with Canseco's career in jeopardy, Texas needs Palmeiro's bat—and his glove (he had gone 63 straight games without an error through Sunday). But the Rangers are not expected to begin negotiations with him until after the season. If Palmeiro continues to hit the way he has recently, he'll have a long line of suitors.

BEASTS OF THE EAST

A number of gaijin (foreigners) are thriving in Japan. Former Angel and Padre third baseman Jack Howell of the Yakult Swallows is on his way to becoming the first foreigner to win the Central League MVP Award twice. He had 19 homers and 49 RBIs in his first 73 games. Third baseman Tom O'Malley, who played for six major league teams in nine seasons, is playing for the Hanshin Tigers; at week's end he was leading the Central League in batting with a .361 average. Second in that league was Glenn Braggs, a former Brewer and Red outfielder, who had a hitting streak of 28 games going for the Yokohama Baystars.

Howell, for one, is thinking of making the move from Japan back to the U.S., just as the Tigers' Cecil Fielder and the Marlins' Orestes Destrade did. "My goal was to come over here and get my career back on track," says Howell. "There's a new breed of gaijin players—guys who are hungry and feel they still have a lot of career left. The guys who came over here years ago created a bad reputation for today's players. Those guys just came over for a final big payday, went through the motions, collected their million dollars and went home. I'd like to come back [to the majors], but I could also end my career here. I'm about 50-50 on returning."

THE HITS KEEP COMING
San Diego rightfielder Tony Gwynn went 6 for 7 on Aug. 4 against the Giants, giving him four games with five or more hits this season. That tied the major league record held by Willie Keeler (1897), Ty Cobb (1922) and Stan Musial (1948). "I can't believe those names," said Gwynn, who two nights later got his 2,000th hit. "When someone else does it, they'll have to mention my name, too. Wow!" Gwynn has had seven five-hit games, the most among active players, but only half as many as Cobb's alltime record.

A STIRRING COMEBACK

Last Saturday night Cleveland's Bobby Ojeda pitched for the first time since the March 22 boating accident in which he was injured and Indian pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed. Ojeda received a standing ovation from the crowd of 46,424 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards when he entered the game to start the fourth inning. He gave up four hits and two runs (one earned), walked none and struck out one in two innings, but those results were insignificant. "It was hard coming through that [bullpen] gate and onto the field," said Ojeda afterward. "But I did it. Hopefully it will get easier. I'm glad that part's over. That was for the guys, my dead buds."

Ojeda was only able to say four words at his postgame news conference before being overcome with emotion, but he soon regained his composure. He said he planned to call the wives of Crews and Olin to thank them for their support. Later he even made a small joke. Referring to a homer that Cal Ripken hit off him, Ojeda said, "Ten years ago I don't think I could have thrown a 3-2 cross-seamer by Cal. I don't know what made me think I could do it tonight. Some things don't change."

SHORT HOPS

What was the worst free-agent signing of the off-season? It had to be Ranger shortstop Manny Lee, who signed a two-year, $3.4 million deal. Through Sunday he was hitting .158 and had played erratically on defense. In addition, he has been injured much of the year; he refused to go on a rehabilitation assignment in July; and he was benched after loafing in a game in early August....

On Aug. 5 Detroit's Rob Deer struck out four times for the the third time this year and the 17th time in his career. He holds the record for the most four-or-more-strike-out games in a career, topping Dick Allen who had 15....

Barry Bonds Note of the Week: On Aug. 4 he was twice walked intentionally, giving him 32 intentional passes this year, which is twice as many as any other player in the league. Former Giant Willie McCovey holds the major league record for most intentional walks in a season, with 45 in 1969. The statistic wasn't kept before 1955....

The latest Mets' incident with pitcher Bret Saberhagen sums up the season for that beleaguered team. Last Friday Saberhagen threw a tantrum in the clubhouse before the game and then said he wanted to be traded. He was supposed to pitch the next day, but he injured his knee while warming up on Saturday and had arthroscopic surgery on Monday. He is probably out for a month. This year's Mets will be remembered as one of the most fouled-up teams in history....

Red Sox closer Jeff Russell is having a tremendous year for a team in a pennant race, but here's how he describes his situation: "It's the passing of time, really. It's sort of sad to say, but I'm just waiting for this year and next year to go by, really, so I don't have to do this anymore." ...Beefy Cardinal reliever Lee Smith says he has been feeling a little sluggish lately. "I've been running too much," he says, smiling. "But it's been to the refrigerator."

PHOTO PHOTOBRAD MANGINBeck backs up his menacing appearance with an even more frightening array of pitches. PHOTOBILL SMITHThomas is a big reason that Chicago lights up the scoreboard faster than any other team. PHOTODAVE HAMMOND/APEven Ojeda's foes cheered him
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)