L.A.'S BICKERING PLAYERS DON'T LOOK LIKE CONTENDERS ONE PITCHER HAS GRIFFEY'S NUMBER REDS BECOME CHESSMATES

June 22, 1997

NOT-SO-ARTFUL DODGERS

Dodgers manager Bill Russell was talking to reporters before
batting practice at Oakland Coliseum last Thursday night when he
was knocked down by a stray baseball. Russell scrambled to his
feet and without hesitation mumbled, "Who threw that, one of my
pitchers?"

Over a four-day stretch the previous week, Russell had engaged
in confrontations with two of his hurlers, Ismael Valdes and
Pedro Astacio. Valdes didn't appreciate being pulled for a pinch
hitter, and Astacio had to be restrained by coaches in the
dugout after Russell had yelled at him during a meeting on the
mound. But those were merely the most public battles within this
fractured franchise.

Many members of the Los Angeles pitching staff are convinced
that Russell, in his first full season on the job, gives
preferential treatment to position players and that stars are
pampered. On April 26, just 35 minutes after centerfielder Brett
Butler held a players meeting to discuss unity, Valdes and first
baseman Eric Karros challenged each other in the shower. "This
is the toughest thing I've ever been through in baseball," says
Russell, who has been in the Dodgers' organization as a player,
coach or skipper since 1966.

In spring training many observers believed the Dodgers would
dominate the National League West and duel the Braves for the
pennant. Instead, at week's end they had lost 20 of their last
30 games and were mired in third place in the West at 32-35.
"You could spend every last dime on every world-renowned
psychiatrist, and they couldn't figure out this team," Karros
says.

The implosion is being conveniently blamed on the makeup of the
Dodgers' roster, which includes players from six countries and
has perhaps led to some culture conflict and to the
communication gap between Russell and his pitchers. But more
important, Los Angeles has become a predictable righthanded
team. All five starters and the closer throw from the right
side, and even though Russell has tried 27 lineups in the last
29 games, he has only righties in the heart of the batting
order. The Dodgers are 13th in the 14-team league in on-base
percentage and 12th in runs scored. Last Friday outfielder Todd
Hollandsworth, the '96 Rookie of the Year, who was batting only
.232, was sent to the minors, and lefthanded hitting outfielder
Karim Garcia, who batted .298 with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs in
62 games with Triple A Albuquerque, was called up.

"We've been frustrated in past years, but never like this," says
closer Todd Worrell. "I think everybody's fed up. If we keep
playing like this, we're going to have one long, miserable year."

GRIFFEY'S NEMESIS

Six times in his fledgling career Tigers lefthander Justin
Thompson has faced Ken Griffey Jr., and all six times Thompson
has struck him out. The most lethal hitter in baseball has seen
27 pitches from Thompson, and the results have been eight balls,
four foul balls, three called strikes and 12 swinging strikes.
"What amazes me is how dominant he was in those strikeouts,"
says Detroit pitching coach Rick Adair. "That's the best hitter
in our league, and he's taking bad swings against a 24-year-old
kid with less than a year in the majors. That really puts
Justin's talent in perspective."

No other active pitcher has struck out Griffey more than four
consecutive times, but Thompson would much rather talk about a
2-0 loss to the Orioles in May because that was his first major
league complete game. And while Thompson was tied for sixth in
the American League with a 2.81 ERA at week's end, he prefers to
point out that he is among the league leaders in innings pitched
(99 1/3).

His fascination with his workload stems from the times when he
couldn't throw at all. He was drafted by the Tigers out of Klein
Oak High in Spring, Texas, with the 32nd overall pick in the '91
draft. He progressed quickly through the Detroit farm system,
only to suffer an injury to his left elbow in spring training of
'94 that knocked him out for the year. He spent the '95 season
in the minors but made it to the majors last year--only to
injure his left shoulder after two promising starts. He missed
five weeks, then came back in August and finished the season
with 11 starts and a 4.58 ERA, which on a sorry staff was good
enough to qualify him as Detroit's ace.

"It seemed like every time I got to the mountaintop, something
would knock me off," Thompson says. "Those disappointments
mellowed me out, and I came into this year with a better idea of
my limits."

The sky, for instance. Throwing a 92-mph fastball, a nasty curve
and a changeup, Thompson was limiting opponents to a .223
average (fifth best in the league) after last Saturday's 1-0
loss to the Expos, which left him 6-5. He has pitched at least
seven innings in his last eight starts and recently ran off 20
2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. Says Orioles first baseman
Rafael Palmeiro, "After Randy Johnson, he's the best lefthander
in the American League."

GRANDMASTER STAN

The phenomenon began innocently enough in the Reds' clubhouse
before a game in April when reliever Stan Belinda noticed Ricky
Bones, who was then his teammate, carrying a chessboard. Belinda
challenged him to a game. Righthander Jeff Brantley strolled
over to watch and asked to play the winner. In the ensuing weeks
teammates Mike Kelly, Joe Oliver, Eduardo Perez and Mike
Remlinger joined the action, and Kent Mercker picked up the game
for the first time. In all, about a dozen Cincinnati players
have caught chess fever, including Deion Sanders, who can
sometimes be spotted castling as he seeks to transform himself
into a three-sport star.

Last season the Reds' clubhouse was an arcade full of portable
video games and deafening music. This season it is often as
hushed as a library while as many as half a dozen battles are
waged at once. Says Remlinger, "Pretty soon we're going to have
a cappuccino maker in the clubhouse, and we're all going to be
drinking cafe lattes."

The team's de facto chess commissioner is Belinda, who was
introduced to the game at age six by his father, Stan Sr. By the
time young Stan reached the fourth grade, he was the chess
champion of Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pa.,
regularly checkmating older students. Belinda has continued to
dabble in chess during his nine-year major league career, and he
sees parallels between his two passions. "In chess you're always
setting up your opponent, thinking two or three moves down the
road," says Belinda, a setup man who at week's end was second in
the majors with 37 appearances this season. "As a pitcher I
might throw an inside fastball so that two pitches later I can
strike a guy out with a slider on the outside corner."

As the undisputed grandmaster of the team, Belinda has defeated
all challengers, which has led his teammates to begin calling
him Bobby Fischer. "I don't think I'm ready to take on Deep Blue
quite yet," Belinda says. "But for now at least, I'm the chess
champ in Cincinnati."

The King of the Queen City.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Greg Gagne is a part of L.A.'s struggling righty hit parade. [Greg Gagne batting] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Belinda likens his chess strategy to the way he works against a hitter. [Stan Belinda playing chess]

CHASING JOHNNY

On June 10 the Marlins' Kevin Brown became the 129th major
leaguer to throw a no-hitter, beating the Giants 9-0. That gave
him the chance to try to match one of the singular achievements
in baseball history: Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back
no-hitters for the Reds in 1938. But on Monday, Brown's bid
ended when the Tigers' Bob Hamelin singled to lead off the
second. Here are the pitchers who went the longest before giving
up a hit in their next start after pitching a no-hitter.

PITCHER, YEAR/TEAM NO-HIT INNINGS FIRST HIT

EWELL BLACKWELL, 8 1/3 EDDIE STANKY, DODGERS
1947 REDS

NOLAN RYAN, 7 MARK BELANGER, ORIOLES
1973 ANGELS

VIRGIL TRUCKS, 6 1/3 BILLY HITCHCOCK, A'S
1952 TIGERS

MIKE SCOTT, 6 WILL CLARK, GIANTS
1986 ASTROS

NOLAN RYAN, 5 2/3 HANK AARON, BREWERS
1975 ANGELS

DENNIS ECKERSLEY, 5 2/3 RUPPERT JONES, MARINERS
1977 INDIANS

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

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)