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THE BEST YEARS OF THEIR LIVES A BUNCH OF PLAYERS ARE IN THE MIDST OF CAREER SEASONS. ARE THEIR PERFORMANCES JUST FLUKES, OR DO THEY BODE WELL?

July 29, 1996
July 29, 1996

Table of Contents
July 29, 1996

THE BEST YEARS OF THEIR LIVES A BUNCH OF PLAYERS ARE IN THE MIDST OF CAREER SEASONS. ARE THEIR PERFORMANCES JUST FLUKES, OR DO THEY BODE WELL?

The old man handed his cane to San Diego Padres centerfielder
Steve Finley and said, Here, show me your swing. Finley cocked
the stick high in his ready position and then swiped, with the
ease of a painter wielding his brush, at an imaginary baseball
coming at him in the Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., living room of
Padres owner John Moores. Then Finley swung again, only this
time in slow motion, as the old man tugged and pushed on the
cane, his hands like those of a doctor examining a patient.
Finley listened intently to the white-haired man, tall and
angular with a rugged bearing that made Finley think of John
Wayne. You've got power, the old man told him, you just have to
learn to harness it. And then 77-year-old Ted Williams took his
cane back.

This is an article from the July 29, 1996 issue Original Layout

Power? Finley? An out-of-tune Yugo packed more juice than
Finley. He was one month shy of his 31st birthday that February
day at Moores's house and never had he hit more than 11 home
runs in a season. "Finley was just a nice little player who
couldn't hit a high fastball," Colorado Rockies manager Don
Baylor says. "It would knock the bat out of his hands. But he
can hit the high fastball now."

He certainly can. At week's end Finley led the National League
in extra-base hits (57) and doubles (32)--both totals were
career single-season highs--and ranked second in total bases
(224). He also had career highs in home runs (18) and RBIs (60)
while batting .300. In only 100 games Finley already had
achieved something that infrequently occurs with players past
30: a career year. "With most hitters by then, you pretty much
know what you have," Baylor says. "But some guys just take
longer to know their swing."

Likewise, 32-year-old Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles,
who had never topped 21 home runs, busted out this season with
31 dingers before appendicitis sidelined him last weekend. And
31-year-old Ellis Burks of the Colorado Rockies had hit more
home runs in a season (24) than he ever had, while leading the
National League in runs (85), total bases (231) and slugging
percentage (.614). Are Finley, Anderson and Burks late
bloomers--or are they just having career years?

A career year is when a player far exceeds his well-established
statistical norms. The best example of that might be the
performance of Norm Cash, the otherwise ordinary former Detroit
Tigers first baseman who batted .361 in the expansion season of
1961. He never hit better than .283 in any of his 10 other full
years (defined here as seasons with at least 400 at bats) in the
major leagues. The 78-point difference in Cash's best and
second-best averages is the biggest gap in history among players
with at least five full years (chart, left). It was in that same
season that Roger Maris hit his record 61 home runs. Otherwise
Maris never clubbed more than 39 in one year.

Career years can happen to anyone: to forgettable players such
as Larry Sheets, who batted .316 with 31 home runs for the
Baltimore Orioles in the juiced-ball season of 1987; to players
whose career years were their only full major league season,
such as the '80 American League Rookie of the Year, Joe
Charboneau, who hit 27 homers and had 87 RBIs his first year and
four and 18 his second; to future Hall of Famers such as George
Brett, who hit .390 in '80 but never came within 54 points of
that average in 17 other full years in the big leagues.

But an apparent career year can turn out to be much more than
that; it can be the beginning of a whole new career. The New
York Yankees' Paul O'Neill, for instance, was a career .259
hitter through his 30th birthday when he broke out with a .311
season in 1993. He followed that with a batting title (.359) the
next year and is now working on his fourth straight .300 season.
He was batting .313 at week's end.

That's the tricky part for Anderson, Burks and Finley. Until
they produce like this again, the question will remain: Are they
Paul O'Neills or Norm Cashes?

Unquestionably this season will rival pyrotechnic 1987 for the
number of players having career years. The record of 28 players
hitting 30 or more homers in a season, set in '87, is in
jeopardy. Candidates to join that group include Henry Rodriguez
(28 at week's end) of the Montreal Expos, Todd Hundley (25) and
Bernard Gilkey (18) of the New York Mets, Geronimo Berroa (24)
of the Oakland Athletics and Ed Sprague (24) of the Toronto Blue
Jays. All have already amassed career highs in home runs. Given
their relative inexperience, however, those players may be
following a natural career progression. None of them has had
more than three seasons with 400-plus at bats, and only Sprague
has had more than two such seasons. Says Sprague, who had 18
home runs last season, his career best, "I came in expecting to
improve my numbers, but I'd be the first to tell you I'm
surprised at this."

Career paths of pitchers tend to vary more, partly because their
success is influenced by factors beyond their control, such as
run support and defense. However, 29-year-old John Smoltz of the
Atlanta Braves is having a breakout year that was long in the
making. With about 14 starts remaining as of last Sunday, Smoltz
already had more victories (16) than in any of his previous
eight seasons. "After breaking through that 15-win barrier," he
said upon beating the Houston Astros 3-2 last week, "there's
less pressure with each win. It's actually easier to relax."

Because of their long experience, no breakthroughs have been
more stunning than those of Anderson, Burks and Finley. Each had
more than 3,200 career at bats before hitting it big this year.
Anderson is the trio's common link, like that Internet game in
which Kevin Bacon can be associated with any actor through a
chain of shared movie appearances. Anderson played with Burks in
Boston in 1988 and with Finley in Baltimore in '89 and '90, when
he roomed with Finley and dated his sister for seven months.

"We were the same size, played the outfield the same way and a
lot of people said we looked like brothers," the 6'1",
195-pound Anderson says of the 6'1", 180-pound Finley. "I'm not
surprised to see what he's doing now. He always had a quick bat
and got good carry on the ball, got a lot of backspin."

Anderson, Burks and Finley have gained strength through weight
training. They've bulked up on confidence, too. "That's the
difference for these guys," says Finley's current teammate,
Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who batted 58 points above his
lifetime average by hitting .394 in 1994. "Every hitter has to
learn himself and his swing, what he can and cannot do, what
pitches he can handle, the length of his stride, the path of his
hands. Everyone's different. And I know Steve's 31 and only now
learning to hit. That's when you get more confident. Now we're
all sitting in the dugout calling him Babe Finley."

While others may wonder if Anderson, Burks and Finley are this
good, they don't. As Anderson says, "I eliminate any kind of
negative thinking. You succeed as a major league player because
you have to believe in yourself."

Says Anderson's manager, Davey Johnson, "These guys know they
belong at this level. It's not like an eight-handicap golfer
finding himself two under after nine holes and going into
unchartered waters, wondering if he's this good."

Alas, Johnson knows of career years. He was 30 in 1973 when,
after a trade from the Orioles to the Atlanta Braves, he
abandoned the opposite-field style of hitting Baltimore
preferred and tried to pull more pitches, which came naturally.
He also was fully recovered from a shoulder injury that had
plagued him for two years. Johnson, who had never hit more than
18 home runs in a season, cranked out 43 that year. He suffered
a knee injury the following spring and never again had the same
success. No other player in history has had a one-season home
run total that is so out of whack with the rest of his career--a
25-homer gap between his best and next-best totals.

More recently, Houston Astros catcher Rick Wilkins, who hit 30
home runs for the Chicago Cubs in 1993, has never hit more than
eight in his other four seasons. Likewise, John Olerud of the
Blue Jays is starting to look like as much of a one-hit wonder
as The Knack. He batted .363 in '93, but he hasn't hit .300 or
better in any of his other five seasons. This year he was
languishing at .266 through Sunday. "It was as if everything was
in slow motion for me that year," Olerud says of '93. "I saw the
ball so well, and when I got my pitch, I hit it, I didn't foul
it off. I had a lot of confidence. I'd like to think I can still
get back there. You feel you did it before, so you should be
able to do it again."

Anderson, Burks and Finley would prefer that their career years
repeat themselves in seasons to come, like those of O'Neill,
Darren Daulton and Dante Bichette. Daulton, who is semiretired
this season from the Philadelphia Phillies because of
chronically sore knees, was a career .222 hitter and had never
driven in more than 57 runs when he turned 30 in 1992. But he
led the National League with 109 RBIs that year, the first of
three All-Star seasons. And Bichette, who had never hit more
than 15 home runs in a season until he turned 29, has pounded
106 home runs in fewer than four years since then for the
Colorado Rockies.

"In my mind my career is not that old. It started in '92,"
Anderson says, referring to his first season as a regular. "I
feel like the next four or five years are my prime."

Anderson, a fitness fanatic who has a new 1,500-square-foot gym
at his Lake Tahoe house and recently posed for Muscle & Fitness
magazine, prepared for this season with his usual grueling
training sessions, including running sprints up a local mountain
road. He tied a major league record with 11 home runs in April
and followed that with nine in only 73 at bats in May. So how
did he handle his good fortune?

"Whenever I saw a highlight of myself on TV, I'd either change
the channel or turn my back," he says. "I just didn't want to
see what I looked like. I knew I felt good, and that's what was
important. I knew that I was driving the ball better and that I
was trying to drive it less.

"I hit some balls out to centerfield, and that allows you to
trust your swing, that you don't have to pull it. Whenever I hit
a home run, I'd remember my plan going up there had been to
drive the ball up the middle. I think that's kept me from
getting home run-happy."

Burks began this season with a simple, familiar goal. "For years
I've just been trying to stay healthy," he says, "and to get rid
of that stereotype that I can't stay away from injuries." Five
visits to the disabled list in the past eight seasons held back
what was once a career so promising that Baylor, while working
as a special assistant for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1989,
included Burks on a list he drew up of the five best players in
the game.

"I remember Earl Weaver telling me, 'In 10 years you're going to
be the MVP of the league,'" Baylor says. "It came true in eight
years, in 1979. It's taken 10 years for it to kick in for Ellis,
and you know what? When you look at how consistent he's been for
us this year, I'd vote for him for MVP."

Says Burks, "I always knew I could hit with power. Now it seems
like I'm getting the infield hits and the bloopers that fall,
the kind of breaks you get when you have a big season. Maybe
this is the year for me."

Finley's career year began with a dreadful 2-for-31 start.
Toward the end of May he felt so lost at the plate that he
decided to look for pitches to drive in the air, a drastic
switch for someone who had spent most of his career hitting
groundballs as a leadoff hitter. When he hit a home run to break
open a scoreless game against the Cubs on June 15, for example,
he explained, "I was looking for something I could knock the
crap out of. It was a mad swing."

He hit four home runs in one three-game stretch beginning June
29, including three in three at bats, tying Nate Colbert's
franchise record and topping his total output for 464 at bats in
1990. Says Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, "He's really
quick on pitches inside and has a nice arc to his swing. We
thought he could hit in the 20 to 25 home run range. He's got
the swing to do it."

Unlike Anderson and Burks, though, Finley isn't sure if he'll
continue bashing long balls at this rate. "I like it," he says.
"I didn't plan it this way, so I'm just enjoying this ride and
seeing where it takes me. Who knows, maybe next year I'll be
back to hitting the ball more to the opposite field."

"I don't think so," Rettenmund says.

"I think this is part of his evolution as a hitter."

There was a time when Finley could have taken batting practice
in Moores's living room with a real ball and bat, not Williams's
cane, and hardly hurt a houseplant. Now, like Anderson and
Burks, he's a threat to do damage at any time. More power to
them.

COLOR PHOTO: AL BELLO/ALLSPORT Steve Finley SAN DIEGO PADRES 1996 Projection .300 29 HRs 98 RBIs Career Average .280 6 HRs 46 RBIsCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN MCDONOUGH Ellis Burks COLORADO ROCKIES 1996 Projection .330 40 HRs 130 RBIs Career Average .279 18 HRs 74 RBIsB/W PHOTO: ART RICKERBY [Norm Cash] COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Brady Anderson BALTIMORE ORIOLES 1996 Projection .288 52 HRs 107 RBIs Career Average .265 15 HRs 64 RBIs

YEARS TO REMEMBER

Here are the players whose best season in one of three offensive
categories exceeded their next-best season by the greatest
margin. Players are ranked according to the magnitude of that
difference.
Next-Highest
Player Year Avg. Avg.

Norm Cash (above) 1961 .361 .283 (1971)
Germany Schaefer 1911 .334 .259 (1908)
Roger Bresnahan 1903 .350 .284 (1904)
Heinie Zimmerman 1912 .372 .313 (1913)
George Brett 1980 .390 .335 (1985)

Next-Highest
Player Year HRs Total

Davey Johnson 1973 43 18 (1971)
Roger Maris 1961 61 39 (1960)
Willard Marshall 1947 36 17 (1953)
Hack Wilson 1930 56 39 (1929)
Andre Dawson 1987 49 32 (1983)

Next-Highest
Player Year RBIs Total

Tommy Davis 1962 153 89 (1973)
Wildfire Schulte 1911 121 72 (1913)
Carson Bigbee 1922 99 54 (1923)
Luke Appling 1936 128 85 (1933)
Wes Parker 1970 111 68 (1969)

Minimum 400 at bats in at least five seasons

"Steve's just learning how to hit. Now we sit in the dugout and
call him Babe Finley."
"When you look at Burks's consistency for us this year, I'd vote
for him for MVP."