Top Bananas

Leadoff hitters used to be little guys who slapped singles to the opposite field, bunted a lot and seldom hit a home run. Bobby Bonds smashed that mold in the early 1970s by hitting for power, Rickey Henderson followed suit in the mid-'80s, and now a lot of leadoff men do more than set the table—they clear it.

Tim Raines of the White Sox and Tuffy Rhodes of the Cubs have already had three-homer games this season to become the first true leadoff men to accomplish that feat in their respective leagues since Paul Molitor did it in 1982 (American) and Pete Rose in '78 (National). In fact, Raines, who hit his three dingers against the Red Sox on April 18, had two multi-homer games this year through Sunday.

Among the other achievements by leadoff hitters last week: Raines became the second American League player ever to reach base seven times (three hits, four walks) in an extra-innings game without making an out; Blue Jay Devon White led off a game with a home run for the 23rd time in his career; Brave Deion Sanders was among National League leaders in average (.359) and in RBIs (15); and Cardinal Ray Lankford (.342, three homers, 12 RBIs) continued to look more like the MVP candidate he was two years ago than the troubled hitter of 1993.

That's all in line with the way leadoff men have evolved as heavy-duty contributors. There's no better example of this than the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra. The runner-up in the 1993 National League MVP vote, Dykstra not only reached base 325 times last year—the second-highest total in the league in this century—but he also had 69 extra-base hits, of which 19 were homers. He followed that up by hitting six homers in 12 postseason games.

According to Oriole coach Davey Lopes, who was the Dodgers' leadoff hitter from 1972 to '81 and who himself once hit three homers in a game, the role of the leadoff man has changed because the game is now geared more to the long ball. "When you go to salary arbitration and you've hit 20 home runs out of the leadoff spot, that's outstanding," Lopes says. "What a leadoff man can do to a game is what makes him so important. It's demoralizing when a leadoff man gets on, steals a base and scores in the first inning. It's more demoralizing when he starts the game with a homer."

At week's end leadoff men had hit 41 homers this season, including five each by Raines and White and the first of Twin leadoff hitter Alex Cole's career (in 1,317 at bats). By comparison, leadoff men hit 215 homers in 1989; this season, if the current pace is maintained, they will hit about 135 more than that.

Nevertheless, the Indians' Kenny Lofton, 26, is the game's latest outstanding leadoff hitter even though he doesn't hit for power (seven homers in his two-plus seasons in the big leagues). But he does everything else well; through Sunday he was the fourth-leading hitter in the American League, at .393, and topped the majors in steals, with 11.

A high school baseball star, Lofton virtually gave up the game to play point guard at Arizona. Still, he was a 17th-round pick of the Astros in the 1988 amateur draft and, with no real hope of an NBA career, he returned to baseball. But after Lofton spent four seasons in Houston's minor league system, the Astros traded him to Cleveland for catcher Eddie Taubensee because they felt Lofton would take several more years to develop into a major leaguer. Well, he hasn't spent a day in the minors since joining the Indians, and on April 18, Houston traded Taubensee to the Reds for two minor leaguers. "Houston's loss, Cleveland's gain," Lofton says, shaking his head. "I'm a quick learner. When I put my mind to something, I'll do whatever it takes."

Last year Lofton joined Ty Cobb, Willie Wilson and Raines as the only players to hit .325 and steal 70 bases in the same season. (Cobb did it three times.) And when the topic of power hitting by leadoff men is broached, Lofton smiles and says, "I could hit homers, but it's not my job right now."

On Second Thought...

The Met front office was blasted by the New York media for trading popular pitcher David Cone to the Blue Jays for prospects Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson on Aug. 27, 1992. Now Al Harazin, who was the Mets' general manager at the time but is no longer working in baseball, looks like a genius.

At week's end second baseman Kent and centerfielder Thompson, both 26, were New York's most productive players and were two reasons why the Mets, who lost 103 games last season, were off to a surprising 9-9 start. Thompson was hitting .321 with five home runs and 16 RBIs, and his effervescence had helped turn a bunch of grumblers into a fun, energetic team. Kent has simply been the National League's best player in the first month of the season, tying for the lead in home runs (eight), ranking second in RBIs (23) and standing fifth in hitting (.380). And this comes on the heels of last season, when he had 21 homers and 80 RBIs.

"We were just kidding in the clubhouse the other day, and I said, 'That trade doesn't look so lopsided now,' "says Cone, who once won 20 games for the Mets but was 17-18 through Sunday as a Blue Jay and now a Royal. "The trade is always in the back of my mind, but I don't compare what I do to what they do. I prefer to think of it this way: The three of us are where we should be."

General manager Pat Gillick, who pulled the trigger on the deal for Toronto, says he thought Kent would be "a 15-to-20-homer guy, but we didn't think he'd do what he's doing." Kent played third base in 49 games for the Blue Jays in '92 but, according to Gillick, had no future at that position because he was a defensive liability. And with Roberto Alomar at second, there was no room for Kent in the Toronto infield. "If he were here now," Gillick says, "he wouldn't be playing."

Gillick also thought Kent was a little flaky. "You didn't know what he was thinking," Gillick says. "He had a faraway look in his eyes. You talked to him, and he would be staring off someplace else."

Was that a fair assessment? "Probably so," says Kent. "That's just me focusing on the game. In the minor leagues everyone has a piece of advice for you. But you can't listen to everyone. I get this dull look on my face. It's not that I'm not listening. I'm just thinking about what I have to do. I'm not Hollywood. I'm not flashy. I just like to play hard."

Kent's hard-nosed style comes from his father, Alan, a police lieutenant in Costa Mesa, Calif. "He pressured me into doing things right," Jeff says. "It's inbred in me. I don't have the God-given ability of a lot of players, but I like to work hard."

That toughness makes him one of Met manager Dallas Green's favorite players. "If Dallas asks me to take a day off," Kent says, "I'm saying no." He probably doesn't have to worry about that question coming up anytime soon.

Something's Burning

White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell is mad again—this time at anyone who wonders about his slow getaway this season (1-2, 5.74 ERA in four starts through Sunday). "Nothing I've ever done here is good enough," says the Angry One, who is usually steamed about his contract.

Blue Jay pitcher Dave Stewart believes that McDowell's anger is what motivates him. That's a view shared by at least one White Sox source, who notes that McDowell is Stanford-educated and an accomplished musician, a guy who doesn't really need baseball; so to keep pitching at a high level, he needs to be angry.

The winner of 74 games in the '90s—he's tied with the Braves' Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux for the most victories in this decade—McDowell was hit hard at times last season, when he won 22 games and became the second pitcher to finish with more hits allowed than innings pitched in a season in which he won the Cy Young Award. (The other was Pete Vuckovich of the Brewers, in 1982.)

Oddly, of the White Sox's seven losses at week's end, five of them belonged to McDowell and Alex Fernandez (1-3), who combined to win 40 games last year.

Short Hops

Shame on those fans in Seattle on April 17 and in Los Angeles last Thursday who tossed giveaway baseballs onto the field in reaction to a play they didn't like. An intentional walk to Ken Griffey Jr. (what's so shocking about that?) started the barrage at the Kingdome, and an umpire's call was the spark at Dodger Stadium. It's time for fans to start turning in the perpetrators, before someone gets hurt....

Since opening in midseason of 1989 and at the start of the '92 season, respectively, the SkyDome in Toronto and Camden Yards in Baltimore have drawn, between them, just two crowds of less than 35,000. With The Ballpark at Arlington having just opened, the struggling Rangers drew four crowds of less than 35,000 (almost 15,000 under capacity) in their first nine home games....

Through Sunday there had been only four days this season in which at least one player did not hit two home runs in a game. In all, there had been 44 multihomer games: 24 in the American League and 20 in the National—a record pace in both leagues....

One of the worst trades of the '80s was made by the Yankees when they dealt then 23-year-old outfielder Jay Buhner to Seattle for 33-year-old DH-first baseman Ken Phelps on July 21, 1988. Since the trade Buhner has hit 109 homers, including 13 against his former team. The leading Yankee home run hitter over the same period is Don Mattingly, with 77....

After five starts this season Texas ace Kevin Brown was 0-4 with a 10.86 ERA and had allowed 10 or more hits in each game. (The Red Sox's Bob Stanley, in 1987, was the last pitcher to get hit that hard in five straight starts.) Brown's hard sinker isn't sinking and his breaking ball isn't moving, yet he's so stubborn that he rarely takes the advice of his coaches. The Rangers may find that Brown doesn't have the mental makeup to be a No. 1 starter....

Through Sunday, Boston had won eight games in which it allowed five or more runs. Last season the Red Sox went three months before winning eight such games....

Funny, isn't it, that the Padres still flash GUESS THE ATTENDANCE on their scoreboard at every home game? Someone could have counted the crowd of 7,095 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium on April 20 before the answer was revealed....

The A's are concerned that Todd Van Poppel, their No. 1 pick in the '90 draft, is pitching scared and that his velocity is down (to the upper 80's) since he had serious shoulder trouble in '92. His outing against the Yankees last Saturday could hardly have gone worse: He faced nine batters, walked six (including the first four hitters of the game), got one to line into a double play, gave up a single and served up a grand slam to Paul O'Neill, who smacked the ball into the upper deck in right at Yankee Stadium.

PHOTOBILL SMITHBatters like Lofton (above) and Raines have increased the hits and runs produced by the leadoff spot. PHOTOPHILL HUBER[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOKent's power hitting has made the Mets' '92 trade look good.

Between the Lines

Keeping'em Honest.
On April 19, Expo rightfielder Larry Walker threw out John Burkett at first base after the Giant pitcher's sharp ground ball went for an apparent single. Walker had previously nailed Padre shortstop Tony Fernandez and Pirate pitcher Tim Wakefield at first base, both in 1992. "I get a kick out of watching guys run as fast as they can to first when they hit one to me," Walker says. The night before he gunned down Burkett, Walker alerted first baseman Randy Milligan that he might try to snare Barry Bonds on a sharply hit ball. Didn't happen.

Piling On.

The Pirates' first road win of the season, 5-2 over the Braves last Friday, had a bizarre ending when, with two out in the ninth, Atlanta's Jeff Blauser struck out and the ball got past Pittsburgh catcher Jerry Goff. Blauser thought he had hit a foul tip and didn't run to first until he saw the umpire rule the ball in play. Goff threw a 40-hopper to first baseman Kevin Young, who dived to make the catch and then dived for Blauser and tagged him out. Said Pirate third base coach Rich Donnelly, "I've never seen a game end like that—with the first baseman and the runner lying on top of each other in the coaching box."

High Five.
When Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn went 5 for 5 in San Diego's 8-2 win over the Phillies last Saturday night, he became the sixth player this year to get five hits in a game. It was the eighth five-hit game of Gwynn's career. Among players who played their entire careers in this century, the only ones with more five-hit games than Gwynn were Ty Cobb (14), Pete Rose (10) and Max Carey (nine).

Double the Pleasure.

When Julio Franco and Robin Ventura of the White Sox hit back-to-back homers twice in a 7-6 loss to the Tigers on Sunday, it marked the 17th time it had happened in major league history. While it didn't occur from Oct. 3, 1972, through Aug. 5,1992, it has happened five times since—including five days earlier, when Mo Vaughn and Tim Naehring became the first Red Sox batters ever to do it.