Baseball

July 03, 1994

Anyone Having Fun Yet?

Another major leaguer walked away from baseball last week because his heart wasn't in the game. This time it was pitcher Salomon Torres, 22, who left the Giants on June 19, saying he had "lost interest" in baseball and would not pitch the rest of the season. He returned four days later and started last Saturday.

What do you make of this trend? On May 13 Padre second baseman Bip Roberts took himself out of a game and left the park because a hitting slump had so thoroughly frustrated and confused him. "He was ready to crack," one San Diego player said of Roberts, who stayed away for two more days. On May 31 the Astros released struggling closer Mitch Williams, who said he had lost his desire to pitch, and, though other teams were interested in signing him, he declared he wasn't going to play again this year. On June 13 the Cubs' perennial All-Star second baseman, Ryne Sandberg, retired because, he said, he was not playing up to his usual high standards and with the same enthusiasm he once had. On June 19 Ranger pitcher Bruce Hurst retired for reasons similar to Sandberg's.

Meanwhile Red Sox reliever Jeff Russell repeatedly has said that he dislikes playing baseball and that he's looking forward to the end of this season, when his contract is up. Pitcher Jose Rijo of the Reds says he wanted to quit twice in recent years, but his pride prevented him from doing so. Angel DH Chili Davis says that if there's a strike this summer, he will consider not coming back after it's over.

Even fun-loving outfielder Kevin Mitchell of the Reds says, "The game isn't like it used to be. When I was a rookie with the Mets in 1986, we had fun. No one wanted to be anywhere else. It was like being a kid at Disneyland. But now it's just a business. There are a lot of things going on in this game that can drive you to your grave. But we all want to go out a hero, not a zero."

Torres felt like a zero after last season, when as a rookie he was put under extraordinary pressure during the Giants' down-to-the-wire National League West race with the Braves. He won his first two major league starts alter being called up from Triple A Phoenix on Aug. 24 but then lost live of his next six, including the season finale—12-1 to the Dodgers—that enabled Atlanta to win the division. Over-whelmed by the pressure of the race and the feeling that he had let down his new teammates, Torres wanted to quit the game after the season, but the San Francisco management talked him out of it.

When he continued to struggle this season—he was 2-6 with a 4.86 ERA after being shelled by the Cubs on June 19—Torres wrote a note to manager Dusty Baker saying he would not accompany the team on its trip to Cincinnati the next day.

A bright young man from the Dominican Republic, Torres talked during his hiatus about going to college if he didn't return to the club. A Jehovah's Witness, he said the baseball lifestyle made it difficult for him to make peace with his religion. He was the only Latin-born player on the Giants, and even though he is fluent in English, he was lonely and felt as if he had no one to reach out to. "Baseball players are completely into the game," he said. "I don't want to make baseball my life." While away from the Giants, Torres spoke with Rijo, a fellow Dominican, and decided that he didn't want to let anyone down by quitting.

Because he has the best young arm in the organization, Torres was welcomed back by the San Francisco front office. But some of the Giant players resented his actions even after he had apologized to the team last Friday. Torres started the next day against the Rockies at Mile High Stadium, pitched seven innings, gave up five runs and took the loss in a 6-4 defeat. To further complicate his week, Torres threw a pitch that hit Colorado third baseman Charlie Hayes in the face, breaking his cheekbone.

There's no guarantee that Torres won't walk away again—perhaps for good—if he doesn't make a quick turnaround on the mound. It took just such an about-face, in fact, for another troubled player, Roberts, to escape the doldrums. He was hitting .217 when he left the Padres seven weeks ago, but after his short respite he put together a 23-game hitting streak, and by week's end his average had rocketed to .308. "I've been playing baseball since I was four, and here I am 30 years old, and it crossed my mind, Is the game passing me by?" Roberts says of his mindset in mid-May. "It seems idiotic now, but it was very real then. I realized it's not the game, it's me. I realized I wasn't ready to give it up. If I had been, I would have never been able to come back the way I have."

Believe It or Not

Red reliever Tim Fortugno, who was once traded for 12 dozen baseballs, is one of the most improbable success stories of the season. While playing in the Class A California League in 1989, Fortugno was sold by the Reno Silver Sox to the Milwaukee Brewer organization, and in addition to cash, the Silver Sox insisted that the Brewers throw in a gross of balls. But even that wasn't the nadir of Fortugno's career. He reached that last fall when, after being released by the Angel organization and then from the Expo farm system, he wound up pitching in Venezuela.

"I said to myself, Look, Tim, you're no good at this game," says Fortugno, a 32-year-old lefthander whose major league experience before this year consisted of 14 appearances for California in '92. "Venezuela was the low point. Everything on TV was in Spanish, and I didn't understand Spanish, so I spent a lot of time looking out the window."

After he was let go by the Venezuelan team during the winter season, Fortugno considered playing in Taiwan but signed instead with the Mariners, who released him in spring training. He was ready to join the Class A independent team in San Bernardino, Calif., when the Reds signed him on April 6. After Cincinnati starter Tom Browning broke his left arm on May 9, the Reds wanted another lefty for the bullpen. They chose Fortugno, who had six saves and 29 strikeouts in 17‚Öì innings at Double A Chattanooga, and he has been terrific in middle relief since being called up.

At week's end he was 1-0 with a 1.83 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 19⅖ innings. He credits his turnaround to his taking a more serious approach to the game, as well as concentrating on throwing strikes. "I was a car that needed a tune-up," he says. "New points, plugs, an oil change, everything."

Short Hops

Last Friday the Phillies signed pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, who was 10-3 for the Jalisco Cowboys in the Mexican League this season, to plug a hole in their injury-riddled rotation. He was scheduled to make his first start Tuesday, which would have made him the 10th pitcher to start for Philadelphia this season. It appears that the Phillies may have signed Valenzuela at just the right time: Last July, while toiling for the Orioles, he was the American League pitcher of the month, going 3-0 with a 1.56 ERA....

One of the hottest commodities around is Cub reliever Randy Myers, who was 1-3 with a 1.78 ERA and 15 saves at week's end. He could bring a pennant to a team in need of a closer—especially the Yankees, who reportedly have talked trade with Chicago....

The Tigers are considering releasing pitcher Mike Moore, who had a 6.47 ERA through Sunday, even though he is in the middle of a three-year. $10 million contract....

When Pirate outfielder Dave Clark hit two homers against the Mets in a 9-4 win last Friday, it left the Phillies as the only team without a player who has had a multihomer game this year. In 1993 the Phillies had 12 multihomer games, the second most in the National League....

Said one Ranger player of the American League West race, which Texas led by 1½ games at week's end despite a 33-40 record, "We'll win because we stink less than everyone else."

...Padre outfielder Derek Bell struck out nine times in a three-game stretch last week. That's one short of the major league record for strikeouts in three consecutive games....

Juiced Ball Note of the Week: Last Friday, Astro Jeff Bagwell became the fifth player this season to hit three home runs in one game. In 1993, another huge year for hitters, only four players hit three homers in a game.

PHOTOKIRK SCHLEAAfter briefly abandoning the game, Roberts (below) rebounded, but Torres is still struggling. PHOTOMARTHA JANE STANTON[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEFortugno has made an unlikely return to the major leagues. PHOTOBRAD MANGINBagwell, who has slid in among the game's top run producers, stood tall with a three-homer game.

Between the Lines

Sad State of Pitching, Case No. 953: Giant reliever Pat Gomez threw three consecutive wild pitches in the eighth inning of a 7-5 loss to the Reds last Thursday. His next pitch, like the three previous ones, bounced in the dirt, but catcher Kirt Manwaring was able to block it; otherwise, Gomez would have become the third pitcher ever to throw four wild pitches in an inning.

A League of His Own. One way to gauge a pitcher's effectiveness is to compare his earned run average with his league's ERA. Through Sunday the Braves' Greg Maddux had a 1.63 ERA, while the National League's was 4.18—a difference of 2.55. In major league history, the largest such disparity was 2.36, in 1930, when Dazzy Vance of the Dodgers had a 2.61 ERA and the National League average was 4.97.

Rocky Mountain Low. How many players have declined as quickly as Howard Johnson of the Rockies? After leading the National League in home runs (38) and RBIs (117) while with the Mets in 1991, he had a combined 14 homers and 69 RBIs in '92 and '93. This season he was benched on June 17 after hitting .215 with five homers, 21 RBIs and 52 strikeouts in 149 at bats. Last week Johnson asked Colorado to consider trading him.

Double Jeopardy. Through Sunday, Padre rightfielder Tony Gwynn had grounded into 13 double plays and struck out only 12 times this season. The last player to finish the year with more GIDP's than K's (minimum 400 plate appearances) was Bill Buckner, who bounced into 17 double plays and whiffed 16 times for the Cubs in '81.

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)