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KEVIN MITCHELL AND DEION RETURN IN STYLE SPRING FLINGS HOME RUN BINGE BY LARRY WALKER

April 14, 1997
April 14, 1997

Table of Contents
April 14, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

KEVIN MITCHELL AND DEION RETURN IN STYLE SPRING FLINGS HOME RUN BINGE BY LARRY WALKER

BACK IN THE SWING

This is an article from the April 14, 1997 issue Original Layout

In the opening week of the 1997 season, two players reminded us
that some guys are born to hit--no matter what obstacles they
must overcome.

When he arrived at spring training, Indians designated hitter
Kevin Mitchell, 35, weighed in at 263 pounds and became the
first Cleveland player ever to fail to complete the Warrior Run,
a set of sprints totaling 850 yards, that the Indians instituted
five years ago. Then after a bicycle on which he was training
collapsed under Mitchell's girth, strength and conditioning
coach Fernando Montes created a new plan: He would accompany
Mitchell on a three-mile walk every afternoon. Once Montes even
ushered Mitchell past the drive-through lane at McDonald's,
where the portly DH was forbidden to order so much as a measly
Arch Deluxe. By all accounts, Mitchell didn't drop much weight,
but no matter; he still hit three home runs in the Tribe's first
four regular-season games.

Mitchell's bat has always been a dangerous weapon, but due to
myriad injuries, many of which could be attributed to his
weight, he hasn't played in 100 games in a season since 1991.
The only time Mitchell has played 150 or more games, in 1989
with the Giants, he collected 47 homers, 125 RBIs and the
National League MVP award. "I haven't been to the plate as much
as I'd like," says Mitchell, who began the year as a career .287
hitter with 228 homers in 11 seasons, "but when I do get my
swings, I haven't met anybody who can silence my bat."

Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove tells a story about a typical
Mitchell moment: In '92, when he played for Seattle, Mitchell
had fallen asleep in the trainer's room and was awakened to
pinch hit in the ninth inning. He knocked in the game-winning
run with a double. Says Hargrove, "Some guys can fall out of bed
and hit."

Reds centerfielder Deion Sanders, 29, sat out the entire '96
season to devote himself full time to the Dallas Cowboys. But
after going more than 17 months without hitting in a
regular-season game, Sanders went 2 for 4 on Opening Day against
the Rockies, stole two bases, scored two runs and knocked one
in. The next day he went 4 for 5. Through Sunday, Sanders was
hitting .444 with four stolen bases, and had hits in all six
Cincinnati games. "I think I'm a better player than I was
before, because I've learned what pitchers want to do with me
and how I have to work the count," Sanders says. "I'd like to
have a breakthrough year."

Sanders, who says he is committed to staying with the Reds until
they are eliminated from playoff contention, has never had more
than 375 at bats in a season, but he has batted .282 since '92,
when he first hit his stride as a big leaguer. "You have to
understand that Deion is still a baby," Cincinnati manager Ray
Knight says. "His potential is unlimited because he has not
played that much. He knows he's behind. He plays like a guy
chasing greatness."

Despite his long layoff, Sanders is off to such a hot start that
soon it could be tough to tell that baseball is his second
sport. "I'm one of those Elvis-type people, who'll be
appreciated more when he's gone," Sanders says. "When I die
they're going to say, 'Man, that dude was something else. That
dude used to play a football game, jump in and out of a
helicopter and go 2 for 3.'"

GOOD SPRINGS

"There are plenty of Hank Aarons in spring training," Braves
manager Bobby Cox is fond of saying. Indeed, if exhibition
statistics were an accurate forecast of regular-season
performance, then outfielder Patrick Lennon, who hit .349 with
six homers and 20 RBIs for the A's this spring, would be
launching his assault on a Triple Crown. Narciso Elvira, who
threw 14 1/3 scoreless exhibition innings for the Dodgers, would
be setting his sights on the Cy Young Award. In fact, neither
Lennon nor Elvira started the season in the majors, confirming
just how little stock many teams place in spring stats (chart).

Most big league managers believe that the approximately 60 at
bats or 20 innings pitched that a player is afforded in the
spring can't possibly provide a sufficient sampling of his
skills. They add that the statistics produced are skewed because
they are often collected against minor leaguers.

Still, a surprising number of players win spots on major league
rosters--even starting jobs--based on these suspect stats. Last
year Mike Kelly hit three homers for the Reds in the first week
of the exhibition season, prompting Ray Knight to anoint him as
the Opening Day centerfielder, even though Kelly was a career
.220 hitter with only 214 major league at bats. Kelly went
hitless in his first 12 at bats of the '96 season and was
demoted to the minors on April 20.

This spring Pirates outfielder Jose Guillen, who had never
played a game above the Class A level, hit .342 with 12 RBIs to
steal the club's rightfield job and become the latest in a
procession of young Pittsburgh prospects dubbed "the next
Roberto Clemente." Alas, at week's end the 20-year-old Guillen
had just one hit in 16 at bats and appeared more likely to
become the next Mike Kelly.

HAT TRICK IN MONTREAL

As Larry Walker trotted toward third base last Saturday at
Montreal's Olympic Stadium, a blue batting helmet came flying
out of the stands and bounced onto the infield. Right country,
wrong sport. But Walker, a Maple Ridge, B.C., native, grasped
the symbolism immediately. The Rockies rightfielder (and former
junior hockey goaltender) realized he was being saluted for his
third home run of the game: a baseball hat trick.

The cheers were especially sweet for Walker, a former Expo who
until that moment had been jeered with a vengeance by
Montrealers grown weary of seeing their best players bolt town
as free agents. "What's the word? Revenge?" asked Walker, who
has been booed regularly in Montreal since he left for Colorado
after the 1994 season. Underneath his uniform he was wearing a
tattered sleeveless T-shirt with the Maple Leaf flag and CANADA
printed on it. "I can't outshout 30,000 people if they want to
boo. The only way I can answer is how I play on the field. I
think I answered back pretty well today."

Of course, he also couldn't resist using a little body language.
Walker, whose nickname when he was an Expo was Booger, paused at
the plate to admire the second of the three homers--a moon shot
that landed a few rows short of a homemade sign in the
rightfield bleachers that read BOOGERVILLE--and he did a stutter
step rounding third on his homer trot. "My Albert Belle," Walker
explained. He declined a chance to try for a fourth homer
because, at least in part, three is his lucky number. "It's one
thing beating a club," concurred manager Don Baylor, who removed
Walker in the eighth inning of the 15-3 win. "It's another
embarrassing them."

Walker, who hit just .142 on the road last year, began 1997 with
two dingers in the season-opening series at Cincinnati. He
finished the first week batting .440 with six home runs in 25 at
bats--as many homers as he had in 127 at bats away from Coors
Field in 1996. His carnage in the three-game sweep of the Expos:
seven hits in 13 at bats, four home runs, a double, five runs
scored, seven runs batted in and three stolen bases. Montrealers
shouldn't have been throwing helmets. They should have been
waving white flags.

--MICHAEL FARBER

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE After sitting out '96, Sanders hit the ground running last week, with four steals in his first six games. [Deion Sanders running in game]

IT HAPPENS EVERY SPRING

THE TWINS' Matt Lawton looked like the second coming of Babe
Ruth this spring, with seven homers in 27 exhibition games. But
when all is said and done, will he have a bust-out season or
join this list of recent busts who fizzled out after stellar
spring training performances?

SPRING
YEAR PLAYER, TEAM AVG. HRS RBIs

1996 Andujar Cedeno, Padres .357 2 11
J.R. Phillips, Giants .346 6 16
Pedro Munoz, A's .424 4 16
1994 Dan Pasqua, White Sox .389 4 20
Billy Bean, Padres .415 1 9
Thomas Howard, Reds .377 3 15
1993 Scott Lydy, A's .325 5 13
Scott Pose, Marlins .397 0 7
Kurt Stillwell, Padres .383 1 10

REGULAR SEASON
[YEAR PLAYER, TEAM] AVG. HRs RBIs

[1996] [Andujar Cedeno, Padres] .212 10 38
[J.R. Phillips, Giants] .163 7 15
[Pedro Munoz, A's] .256 6 18
[1994] [Dan Pasqua, White Sox] .217 2 4
[Billy Bean, Padres] .215 0 14
[Thomas Howard, Reds] .264 5 24
[1993] [Scott Lydy, A's] .225 2 7
[Scott Pose, Marlins] .195 0 3
[Kurt Stillwell, Padres] .231 1 14

*1995 omitted because of replacement players
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU