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Inside Baseball

April 27, 1998
April 27, 1998

Table of Contents
April 27, 1998

Inside Baseball

MERCILESS PADRES

This is an article from the April 27, 1998 issue Original Layout

Padres general manager Kevin Towers was gobbling up what he calls
the "Rolaids and Tums combo platter" as he watched the Cardinals
score four runs to take a 7-3 lead against his team in the
bottom of the eighth of their April 5 game. As Towers started
for the clubhouse, Devil Rays scout Monk Williams stopped him in
his tracks. "Don't go anywhere," Williams told him. "Your guys
are gonna come back."

Towers heeded the words of the wizened scout, and sure enough,
the Padres scored five runs in the top of the ninth to win 8-7.
"When somebody from another organization senses that kind of
chemistry on your club," Towers says, "then you begin to believe
that magic can happen."

The victory was one of four dramatic comeback wins San Diego
already had at week's end, including three in games when it
trailed by two or more runs entering the ninth. Last season the
Padres finished 5-81 in games in which they were behind going
into the ninth. "A year ago when teams got a couple of runs
against us early, we'd sink in our seats and think, Wow, can we
come back?" third baseman Ken Caminiti says. "This year we're
always wondering, Who's going to be the hero tonight?"

By winning 11 of its last 12 games before Sunday's rainout in
Pittsburgh, San Diego improved its record to 14-3, the best
start in the majors and by far the best in franchise history.
"We know it's still early," manager Bruce Bochy says, "but a
good start can really lay the foundation for a great season."

During this torrid April, a new Padres protagonist has starred
in virtually every game. The much-improved San Diego pitching
staff, led by ace righthander Kevin Brown, has the seventh-best
ERA (3.91) in the league--the Padres were 13th a year ago--and
has already produced more shutouts this season (three) than in
all of '97 (two). The offense has not only featured clutch hits
from the usual suspects, like Caminiti, eight-time batting champ
Tony Gwynn and centerfielder Steve Finley, but also has gotten
timely contributions from such unexpected sources as bench
players Archi Cianfrocco and Andy Sheets.

Still, the most dramatic comeback story belongs to leftfielder
Greg Vaughn, who struggled mightily after coming to the Padres
in a deal with the Brewers at the '96 trade deadline. During a
miserable '97 season, Vaughn batted .216 with 18 homers (he'd
hit 41 in '96), lost his job to Rickey Henderson, got traded to
the Yankees and then was returned to sender when he couldn't
pass a physical because of a damaged right shoulder. "He became
the scapegoat for the bad season," Caminiti says, "and he
suffered a lot because he's the kind of guy who hears every boo."

At spring training this year Vaughn began working regularly with
Gwynn, who lectured him on delaying his swing and striking with
quick hands. The advice has helped: At week's end Vaughn was
batting .269 with five home runs and 10 RBIs. Two of his homers
have been game-winners. Vaughn credits his resurgence to a
combination of factors ranging from his regular tune-ups with
Gwynn to wearing his old Brewers uniform number--23. "All I know
is that I feel a great sense of relief," says Vaughn. "Last year
was a matter of survival, but now I'm at peace with myself."

Burnitz Blazes
FINDING PARADISE IN MILWAUKEE

Maybe Brewers rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz should thank Mariners
reliever Paul Spoljaric, or, as Burnitz refers to him, "That
dude, the lefty, who used to be with Toronto." While playing for
the Indians in July 1996, Burnitz, who had just cracked the
lineup, was hit on the elbow by a Spoljaric pitch and knocked
out of the game. Burnitz's replacement, Brian Giles, proceeded
to hit so proficiently that Cleveland decided it no longer
needed Burnitz. Or, in Burnitz-speak, "That dude smoked me, and
Giles got in there and just raked for the rest of the year. And
that was it for me." A month later the Indians shipped Burnitz
to Milwaukee for utilityman Kevin Seitzer. Finally, six years
after the Mets selected him with the 17th pick in the draft,
Burnitz had a chance to play every day.

Regarded as the Mets' rightfielder of the future, Burnitz in '91
became the first 30-30 man in the 53-year history of the Eastern
League, hitting 31 homers and stealing 31 bases for Double A
Williamsport. By '94 he was in the Mets' Opening Day lineup, but
then he got on the bad side of manager Dallas Green, who was
known for his lack of patience. Green often publicly criticized
Burnitz for what he perceived to be lackadaisical play and
pouting, and ultimately shipped him to the minors before trading
him to Cleveland in November '94.

Burnitz's current skipper, Phil Garner, understands how the
player's style might be misconstrued. "It's just the way he
carries himself," says Garner. "He can have some bad body
language. Sometimes when he walks back to the dugout after
striking out, you'd think this guy had lost all hope in life.
But he comes to play every day, plays extremely hard, and we get
along fine with that."

Green wasn't the only New Yorker to misread Burnitz. Reporters
tagged him as an introvert, with one writer going so far as to
call him "painfully private." Burnitz scoffs at that. "First of
all, the reporters are in the manager's office, and he's saying,
'Burnitz stinks, he's out of here.' Then they come up to me and
ask me about it. There wasn't a whole lot I could say."

No one in Milwaukee has accused Burnitz of being withdrawn.
During spring training a year ago, a fan mistakenly handed him a
card with a photo of teammate Bob Wickman, who weighs 25 pounds
more than Burnitz, and asked for an autograph. "That's it!"
Burnitz cried with a tone of mock indignation. "Time to go on a
diet. I must look like a fat slob."

Burnitz says he has always been a Harley-riding guy, only now
he's playing for a Harley-riding manager in a town where
pitching changes are marked by a Harley-riding dude taking a lap
around the ballpark. In short, Burnitz and Milwaukee are a
perfect fit, and he is making the most of it. He batted .281
with 27 homers and 21 steals last year, and he has been a key to
the Brewers' surprisingly strong start (12-5 at week's end, tops
in the National League Central). He was among the league leaders
in homers (six), RBIs (19) and coming out of one's shoes on a
swing (countless). "He's a wild swinger," says Garner. "You
don't want to take away that aggressiveness, but he has to take
it down a little bit."

During batting practice last Saturday, Burnitz launched
consecutive pitches into the rightfield seats, then nearly
corkscrewed himself into the ground going for three in a row.
During the game, however, he showed better discipline by taking
a low, outside curve from Giants lefthander Jim Poole to
leftfield for a double. It was just the kind of thing he works
on in the cage. "I'm not good enough to show up and just get in
the game and hit," Burnitz says. "I do a lot of extra hitting.
I'm not a great hitter." Not yet, at least. --Mark Bechtel

Stieb's Last Flings
COMEBACK FOR THE AGED

Dave Stieb has come full circle. Twenty years ago he began his
professional career as a Class A Dunedin (Fla.) Blue Jay. These
days the 40-year-old righthander is pursuing an improbable
comeback--in Dunedin--after five years in retirement.
Contemplating how much time has passed, he gazes at his
teammates and sees three players who were only a year old when
he made his pro debut. It's no wonder his teammates have
nicknamed him Dinosaur. "I don't know if that necessarily means
I'm old," Stieb says with a wry smile. "I prefer to think that
it means I'm big and bad."

Stieb is listed on the Dunedin roster as a player-coach, but
there is greater emphasis on player with every passing day. Last
Saturday night he pitched five innings against the Brevard
County Manatees, a Marlins farm team, allowing two earned runs
and striking out nine. It was his third start in a comeback that
began in February after Toronto invited him to spring training
to be a guest instructor.

Stieb left baseball in '93 because elbow tendinitis and an
aching back had made him ineffective. Until this spring he
hadn't thrown a pitch since then at any level above Little
League batting practice. "He doesn't have the velocity he used
to have," Toronto general manager Gord Ash says, "but he still
has good movement on his slider. The years away from the game
have helped his elbow. His fierce desire and competitiveness are
still there."

Stieb is scheduled to pitch in an exhibition game between
Toronto and Triple A Syracuse this week, and his timetable
mandates that by late May he will either be pitching in Toronto
or going home. "I'm actually having more fun this time around,"
Stieb says, "My attitude is, If it works out, that's great, and
if it doesn't, I go home as planned. I've never been afraid to
fail."

For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS UPENDED The Padres' hot start can be traced to hard-nosed play like this Caminiti takeout of the Pirates' Tony Womack. [Ken Caminiti and Tony Womack in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER NOT A PRETTY SIGHT His swing may not be perfect, but Burnitz is getting sweet results. [Jeromy Burnitz batting in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP PHOTO [Darren Kennedy being tackled by security guard]

THE BUZZ

With the Yankees' recent signings of Cuban refugee righthander
Orlando Hernandez for $6.6 million and 16-year-old righthander
Ricardo Aramboles of the Dominican Republic for $1.5 million,
some major league owners are renewing efforts to expand the June
free-agent draft to include players from all over the world. In
addition to U.S. high school and college players, the draft
would encompass amateurs from Latin America, some Asian
countries and Australia, though probably not Cuba. Acting
commissioner Bud Selig says the impetus for baseball's movement
toward a worldwide draft is the fear that a few wealthy
franchises can outbid the rest of the sport for any elite
foreign prospect.

Q & A

Like his idol, Babe Ruth, David Wells is a portly portsider who
plays for the Yankees and has a taste for the occasional beer.
Also there's the much-publicized fact that Wells paid $35,000
for Ruth memorabilia, including a cap Wells got in trouble for
wearing in a game. But there are still some unanswered questions
about Wells's affection for the Sultan of Swat.

If you faced Ruth, how would you pitch him?

I'd go right at him. Challenge him. I go after everybody. Why
change?

What would you do if a player you were pitching to stepped out
of the box and pointed at the seats, calling his shot a la the
Babe?

I'd point at his rib cage.

What if Ruth did it?

I'd point at his rib cage.

You'd throw at the Bambino?

Well, if he's being funny, I'd just laugh it off. If not, I
don't know what I'd do. Actually, I do, but I can't tell you. If
I tell you, I'd have to kill you.

You would, wouldn't you?

Mmm-hmm.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

On April 13 everybody at Coors Field was talking about the cold
streak. No, not the Rockies' eight straight losses, but Darren
Kennedy's naked dash across the Colorado outfield. Despite brisk
winds and temperatures so chilling (46[degrees] at game time)
that Rockies players wore long johns or tights under their
uniforms, Kennedy jumped out of the leftfield stands during the
third inning of a game against the Reds, shed his clothes and
began chasing Dante Bichette toward the infield before being
collared by security guards. "Here I am in purple tights with a
naked guy chasing me," Bichette said. "I'll bet you didn't think
I could run that fast. I'm just glad the guy wasn't wearing
cleats. If he had run me down with 50,000 people watching, I
don't think I could have ever shown my face again."

What was Kennedy thinking? Apparently he studied at the John
Hinckley school of seduction. The 30-year-old thought his
actions might impress a woman. "I've been looking for this girl
to share my world," Kennedy told the judge the next day. "I
thought it would be a good idea, what I did. I know it's kind of
wild.... I'm sorry." The apology wasn't enough. Kennedy pleaded
no contest to disturbing the peace, trespassing and
public-indecency charges--all misdemeanors--and was fined $500,
ordered to pay $29 in court costs and received a 30-day
suspended sentence.

A couple of hours after Kennedy's romp, the Rockies halted their
own frigid run with an 8-4 victory over the Reds. After the game
Bichette said, "My poor dad's in the stands, and he's 79 today.
I don't know what he's thinking. I told him the fans love me
here, but I didn't tell him they loved me that much."