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Inside Baseball

May 25, 1998
May 25, 1998

Table of Contents
May 25, 1998

Baseball

Inside Baseball

CRUEL COMEBACKS

This is an article from the May 25, 1998 issue

It could have blown up my eye socket," Orioles righthander Mike
Mussina said of the line drive off the bat of Indians catcher
Sandy Alomar that struck him just above the right eye on May 14.
"It could have hit me in the temple. I could be dead."

Standing in front of his locker on Sunday with a broken nose and
about 20 stitches above a purple and swollen-shut right eye,
Mussina relived the ugly moment when he was struck and actually
used the word lucky. He believes he is fortunate because he
could have been hurt much worse. That sentiment has been echoed
by many of his confreres recently, since a barrage of batted
balls has pelted pitchers in the opening weeks of this season.

On the Orioles alone, righthander Doug Drabek was struck flush
in the chest in a game on May 8 against the Devil Rays, and
reliever Norm Charlton had his nose broken when he was hit
between the eyes on April 29 against the White Sox. "It's as if
pitchers are human targets out there," Charlton says.

Elsewhere, Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte, who was hit in the
face by a batted ball last season, has already been plunked
twice this season--on his right knee and right leg. Through
Sunday he had given up 18 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings since
his latest blow. Yankees righthander Hideki Irabu was nailed in
the lower back on April 19 and had to leave the game an inning
later. The same day Cubs righthander Jeremi Gonzalez was knocked
to the ground by a ball in a game against the Dodgers. Rockies
righthander Darryl Kile left a May 5 start when he was struck in
the right knee. On May 2 the Marlins' Eric Ludwick tried to
block a batted ball and fractured his throwing arm; he's
expected to be out for three months. Later that evening the
Angels' Chuck Finley was also struck on the throwing arm and had
his next start delayed. "They teach guys to hit up the middle,"
Finley says. "What's up the middle? The pitcher. I'm surprised
there aren't more pitchers hurt."

The consensus in baseball is that most pitchers are struck by a
ball that was pitched outside against a hitter who has shortened
his swing in an attempt to drive the ball back where it was
pitched. Literally. Baltimore manager Ray Miller believes that
the distance from home plate to the mound is too short in this
age of bigger and stronger hitters whose batted balls travel as
fast as 110 mph. "When a ball is hit, the pitcher is standing 52
feet away, leaning forward on one foot with his head sticking
out," Miller says. "It's scary. If they ever put aluminum bats
in major league hitters' hands, they'll be carrying pitchers out
in caskets."

Miller also says that many pitchers try to get so much stuff on
the ball that it takes them out of good fielding position, but
that line of thinking doesn't wash in the case of Mussina, who's
a two-time Gold Glove winner. "We're the ones who should be
wearing the helmets because most times it doesn't matter how
good a fielder you are; you have no chance," Charlton says. "You
just can't think about getting hit. If you're afraid, you can't
pitch."

When a pitcher like Mussina is struck in the head it brings back
memories of the Indians' Herb Score, who was struck on the right
eye by a line drive off the bat of the Yankees' Gil McDougald on
May 7, 1957. Score, the American League Rookie of the Year in
'55 and a 20-game winner in '56, recovered from his injuries and
attempted several comebacks, but he won only 17 more games over
the next five seasons and retired. Nobody in the Orioles
clubhouse anticipates a similar fate for Mussina, who at first
thought he could avoid going on the disabled list but was placed
on the 15-day DL on Monday. "He's a tough kid, and I don't
expect this to affect his pitching," Baltimore third base coach
Sam Perlozzo says, "but he may think about defending himself
initially until he gets a game or two under his belt."

Mussina's prompt and effective return could make or break the
Orioles' floundering season because, more than any other
Baltimore player, he appears to be the key to the Orioles'
success. Baltimore got off to a 10-2 start, but then Mussina
went on the disabled list with a wart on his right index finger,
and the Orioles lost 10 of 15 games in his absence. They went
5-4 after Mussina returned and were winning 4-3 the night he got
hit. His replacement, Arthur Rhodes, gave up a two-run homer to
the first batter he faced, and the O's lost 5-4. They then lost
their next three and at week's end were 10 1/2 games out of
first place.

On Sunday, Mussina was content to carefully toss a ball in the
outfield at Camden Yards. "I understand how dangerous it can be
on the mound, but this is my job," Mussina said. "Fortunately, I
have a hard head."

Unexpected Relief
ARE CLOSERS ALL THAT SPECIAL?

Four years ago Kerry Ligtenberg was a chemical engineering major
at Minnesota who turned down a high-paying job at 3M to earn
$650 a month pitching for the Minneapolis Loons in the
independent Prairie League in front of about 80 people a night.
Two years ago the team's general manager, Greg Olson, bartered
Ligtenberg to the Durham Bulls, then an Atlanta Braves' Class A
affiliate, in exchange for six dozen baseballs and two dozen
bats, and then Olson joked that he got the better end of the
deal. Today Ligtenberg is the Braves' closer. Go figure.

The Braves were supposed to implode when bullpen ace Mark
Wohlers went on the disabled list on May 3 with a torn muscle in
his side. Instead, through Sunday, Ligtenberg was 4 for 4 in
save opportunities since Wohlers's injury. "Nobody ever thought
I'd be up here saving games, so I don't feel much pressure,
which I think has helped me succeed," Ligtenberg says. "Closing
is a tough job, but I think every team has a couple of guys who
have the potential to save games. Moving from setup to closer
you have the same mind-set in both roles--hold the lead."

The Phillies were supposed to be doomed, too, when closer Ricky
Bottalico underwent elbow surgery in April. Enter Mark Leiter, a
starter who had 17 losses and a 5.67 ERA last year. Before this
season Leiter had three saves in his eight-year career, but
since Bottalico got hurt, Leiter was 7 for 8 in save
opportunities. (Remember also that a few years before Bottalico
was inducted into the fraternity of closers he was in the
semipro Greater Hartford Twilight League, playing primarily as a
catcher.)

Over the past two seasons there has been ample evidence that the
job of closer, which usually commands a megabucks contract,
might be, well, overly appreciated. Reds setup man Jeff Shaw
stepped in for the injured Jeff Brantley in May 1997 and ended
up leading the National League with 42 saves. Tom Gordon of the
Red Sox, another former starter, was atop the American League
saves list at week's end, with 16. Mike Jackson of the Indians,
Matt Karchner of the White Sox and Scott Radinsky of the
Dodgers, among others, have also thrived recently as substitute
closers. "I've always believed that I had the stuff and makeup
to be a closer," says Jackson, who has 11 saves this season,
"but baseball is set in its ways, and it's tough to get a chance."

The modern closer's role--essentially to pitch only the ninth
inning when his team is ahead by three or fewer runs (i.e., a
save situation)--was refined by A's manager Tony La Russa while
Oakland was winning pennants in 1988, '89 and '90. La Russa
divided his bullpen into long relievers, setup men and a
stopper, Dennis Eckersley. Because baseball is populated largely
by copycats, nearly all teams adopted La Russa's blueprint,
including his pattern of bringing in his closer only in save
situations. (It has gotten so ridiculous that many managers let
the possibility of the stopper gaining a save dictate their
strategy: A closer who is warming up to start the ninth inning
with a three-run lead will often sit back down if his team goes
up by four.)

Some people in baseball insist, however, that being a closer
isn't as tough as it seems. "Think about it," Mets manager Bobby
Valentine has said. "The closer almost always starts out with
the bases empty, and a lot of times you miss a team's best
hitters."

Says Mariners pitching coach Stan Williams, "I think a closer
has an easy job. Heck, you pitch one inning, your arm is fresh,
and you can let it all hang out."

Most major league managers dismiss this notion, clinging to the
idea that the ninth inning is the crunch time that tests a
reliever's mettle. They believe that reliable closers such as
John Franco, Randy Myers and John Wetteland have the
psychological makeup necessary to do the job over many seasons
and therefore are worth all the millions they are paid. "There's
a good kind of fear and a bad kind of fear," says La Russa. "If
your mind gets shaky, you lose your edge."

Giants closer Robb Nen cautions those who would overreact to the
success of some of this year's surprise stoppers: "When
everything goes well it looks really easy. But when you've blown
a couple in a row, you can start to get paranoid. All of a
sudden, a starter is looking at you funny, and you kind of
wonder what he's thinking. That's the hard part, the mental
side. Let's see how some of these guys bounce back after blowing
a couple."

Atlanta's homer streak
GOING THE DISTANCE

The Braves tied a major league record last week when they ran
their streak of games with at least one home run to 25. During
that span Atlanta launched 45 homers, with the most potent
contributions coming from first baseman Andres Galarraga (10
homers), catcher Javier Lopez (eight) and surprising outfielder
Michael Tucker (eight), who hit six dingers in one six-game run.
Every Braves regular except shortstop Walt Weiss contributed to
the homer streak before it ended in a 7-3 win over the Cardinals
last Thursday. "We had a fun time while it lasted," said Ryan
Klesko, who hit the homer that tied the record.

Atlanta had hit 17 more home runs than any other team in the
league through Sunday, thanks to a power surge at Turner Field.
Last season the Braves hit only 76 homers at the Ted, 30 fewer
than their total in 1996, their last season at Atlanta-Fulton
County Stadium. Of their league-leading 69 homers this season,
37 have come in 24 games in Atlanta. Says Galarraga, "They
called Turner Field a pitcher's park after just one season, but
it looks like Coors Field to me."

With a 31-13 record as of Sunday, the Braves had clubbed their
way to the best record in the league, but, at the risk of
raining on Atlanta's World Series parade once again, it's
notable that the Braves were scoring a whopping 45% of their
runs on home runs, by far the highest percentage in the league.
This could mean trouble in the postseason because teams that
rely heavily on the long ball are vulnerable in the playoffs,
when manufacturing runs can be critical in low-scoring games
against top pitchers.

Atlanta easily has the best record in baseball in the '90s, but
the Braves' overdependence on the big inning may be one reason
for the disappointing fact that they have won but one World
Series. In fact, of the Series champions in the '90s, only the
'95 Braves (40.8%) won a title with more than 35% of their runs
scoring on homers. The six other champions in this decade
averaged just 30.3%, ranging from 26.7% by the Reds in '90 to
the 34.5% of the Blue Jays in '92.

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

COLOR PHOTO: GENE SWEENEY JR./BALTIMORE SUN DIRECT HIT Mussina feels lucky that the shot that decked him didn't do more damage. [Mike Mussina lying on ground after being hit by baseball]COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GRUELE/ALLSPORT FINISHING TOUCH Leiter lost 17 games as a starter last year, but now he's starring as a closer. [Mark Leiter pitching]COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE HOT 'LANTA Galarraga has led Atlanta's homer binge. [Andres Galarraga in game]

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

In the first inning of a May 12 game in Tampa Bay, Indians
second baseman David Bell fielded a double play grounder and
flipped the ball to shortstop Omar Vizquel, who stepped on
second--but neglected to catch the ball. It was Vizquel's first
error in 71 games, which ended the longest active errorless
streak by a shortstop in the majors. Vizquel later explained
that when he had come to bat in the top of the first, he had
seen out of the corner of his eye a note about his streak on the
scoreboard. "It was something about Omar and 70," Vizquel said.
"I figured it must be 70 straight games without an error. The
first ball I handled after that was the error. I can't believe I
missed it."

Q & A

Doug Bochtler, the Tigers' righthanded reliever, is also the
team barber and resident magician. He does about seven haircuts
a week, and his clients range from manager Buddy Bell to his
teammates' kids. He also entertains the guys in the clubhouse
during rain delays with displays of prestidigitation. We posed
a few wand- and clipper-related queries to him.

Which are you better at, cutting hair or magic?

Definitely cutting hair. I've had players offer me $100 for a
haircut. I had to repair Rickey Henderson's hair once [when both
were with the Padres]. He had been cutting his own hair, and the
whole front of his head was bald on one side. We had 10 minutes
until game time and he was going, "Boch, you gotta fix it. You
gotta fix my hair. Rickey can't go out like this. You gotta fix
Rickey's hair." I ended up having to give him a full haircut,
but I fixed it.

As a barber, what is your professional opinion of Doug
Henning's hair?

Actually, I'd like to cut his hair and see if he could put it
back on. It's all an ill-uuuu-sion.

What do you admire more about David Copperfield, his hair or his
magic?

Actually, I'd say his fiancee [supermodel Claudia Schiffer]. He
did pretty well for himself.