Inside Baseball

June 07, 1998

RISING SONS

The major leagues' ERA leader boards have a bit of a Far East
flavor to them, with Hideki Irabu of the Yankees sitting atop
the American League with a 1.48 mark through Sunday and Masato
Yoshii of the Mets fifth in the National at 2.33. While the two
Japanese righthanders are enjoying similar results in the Big
Apple this year, the paths they followed to get there were very
different. Yoshii's transition has been as smooth as a silk
kimono. Irabu's couldn't have been bumpier.

Irabu came to the U.S. last spring overhyped, overweight and
with a hefty price tag ($12.8 million for four years), but his
performance left teammates, fans and the media wondering how
somebody so highly touted could be so lousy. In short, he was
1997's version of Godzilla, replete with the big guy's surly
streak. He so offended New Yorkers that fictional Yankees fan
Frank Costanza lashed out at the George Steinbrenner character
in last month's Seinfeld finale, screaming, "How could you spend
$12 million on Hideki Irabu?"

There was irony in singling out Irabu as a target that night,
because while millions of Americans were watching the sitcom's
swan song, the much-maligned 29-year-old pitcher was holding the
Rangers scoreless for seven innings, yielding just three hits.

Irabu's 1998 season has been stellar, but it was his '97
campaign that raised the ire of Yankees fans. During the much
publicized negotiations to bring him to New York (Irabu's rights
were held by the Padres, for whom he refused to play), the
pitcher was constantly referred to as the Nolan Ryan of
Japan--despite having only a 59-59 record in nine seasons. In
late April '97, San Diego accepted two prospects and $3 million
from the Yankees for the rights to Irabu plus three minor
leaguers. It took Steinbrenner five weeks to sign him, but once
the deal was done Irabu was heralded as the savior of the
defending world champs, who had fallen far behind the
front-running Orioles. Because he came to the Yankees well into
the season, he had no opportunity to ease into the clubhouse
routine and struggled to fit in with 24 players he didn't know.

"Last year he felt like an outsider," says outfielder Chad
Curtis. "He tried to portray himself as this tough, immovable
force." A few bad outings and some untoward behavior on the
field--in Milwaukee, for instance, he spit while walking off the
field after being yanked from a game, apparently in response to
booing by Brewers fans--led to nasty headlines, and he was
eventually sent to the bullpen. He finished the year 5-4 with a
7.09 ERA.

This year Irabu has been with the team since spring training,
and feels more at home. Most days he and Curtis, who lives in
the same New Jersey apartment complex, make the 15-minute drive
across the George Washington Bridge to Yankee Stadium, chatting
about baseball, road trips and even religion. "When I met my
teammates this year, it was a whole different atmosphere," Irabu
says through an interpreter. "I was able to get to know them a
lot better during the spring. Just being able to go out to
dinner with some of my teammates has had a big effect on my
pitching."

Yoshii, meanwhile, slipped into New York quietly, with no
advance billing and few expectations. It probably helped that
the Mets have played second fiddle to the Yankees in recent
seasons, but the 33-year-old native of Osaka also did not have
the reputation that Irabu had in Japan.

Yoshii turned down a four-year, $8 million offer to stay in
Japan, opting to sign with the Mets for $200,000 for this
season, because, he says, "No matter how much money you have,
you can't pay a major league team to put you on the roster."
Yoshii picked New York knowing full well the kind of criticism
Irabu suffered, but he was probably more worried about getting
mugged than getting skewered in the papers. "Before I came over
here, I heard about New York in magazines and news reports,"
says Yoshii, who also speaks through an interpreter. "New York
is portrayed in Japan as dangerous. But it's probably safer than
Tokyo."

Yoshii, who was 4-1 at week's end, has avoided the headlines in
his first season by being everything Irabu wasn't. Whereas Irabu
relies on his fastball and an improving curve, Yoshii depends
more on control and finesse. "He's a Chevrolet, and he doesn't
pretend to be a Cadillac," says Mets pitching coach Bob Apodaca.

If he's asked, manager Bobby Valentine, who managed in Japan in
1995, gushes about how impressively Yoshii pitched against the
Yomiuri Giants in front of a packed, hostile Tokyo Dome crowd.
"He's pitched in games as big as you could pitch anywhere in the
world," says Valentine. But the Mets had the sense not to
inflate expectations for Yoshii before he had thrown an inning,
and that has paid off.

Nevin's Journey
ANYTHING TO CATCH ON

Sitting at a table in the tiny visitors' clubhouse at Fenway
Park before a recent game, the Angels' Phil Nevin shared the
star-crossed story of his baseball life. At one point Anaheim
wonderboy Darin Erstad leaned across the table and joked, "Are
you working on a book or something?"

Nevin smiled and replied, "Not every Number 1 pick is a
guaranteed star."

If Nevin were working on his autobiography, that would be an
excellent title. At that moment Nevin and Erstad, selected first
in the '92 and '95 amateur drafts, respectively, sat directly
across from each other, yet were separated by a million miles.
Erstad, hitting .317 at week's end, is a rising star, the player
Nevin was supposed to be. Nevin, a former infielder, is trying
to salvage his career after transforming himself into a catcher.
Nevin's career provides a cautionary tale as this week's draft
is conducted, a reminder that baseball's No. 1 picks sometimes
don't live up to their potential (chart, page 76).

After being named the college player of the year at Cal
State-Fullerton in '92 and being drafted first by the Astros as
a third baseman, Nevin struggled to hit consistently in the
minors and gained a reputation for having a bad attitude. He
went 7 for 60 in one big league stint, in '95, and engaged in a
well-publicized shouting match with then Astros manager Terry
Collins after learning he was being sent down. Soon after that,
Nevin was traded to Detroit, where he played leftfield for the
last month of the season. Then, in a fortuitous off-season
meeting with the Tigers' new general manager, Randy Smith, a
humbled Nevin said, "I'll do anything to help the team, even go
behind the plate if I have to."

Nevin was joking, but Smith phoned him a few weeks later and
invited him to come to spring training early to work on his
catching. Nevin hadn't caught since he was in the Placentia
(Calif.) Little League, but during the summer of '96 he spent
four months at Double A Jacksonville learning the position.
Despite that, Nevin went behind the plate in just five games
during two frustrating seasons in Detroit.

However, since the Tigers traded him to Anaheim last November,
Nevin has earned a job as the Angels' backup catcher, where he's
at least able to get a few more at bats than he might at another
position. He was hitting .234 with three homers in 26 games
through Sunday and had impressed Collins, who's again his
manager, with his solid defense. "I know I've never hit 40
homers or knocked in 100 runs or met people's expectations of a
Number 1 pick," Nevin says. "But I'm still living the dream.
It's just not exactly the dream I expected."
--Tim Crothers

Blowers's Cycle
A FEAT ONLY A MOM COULD LOVE

When Mike Blowers's mother, Hannelore Ramos, found out that her
son had hit for the cycle two weeks ago, the first thing she did
was call a handful of neighbors in Spanaway, Wash., to do a
little motherly boasting. Well, actually it was the second thing
she did. The first was to find out from her husband, Carlos,
just exactly what "hitting for the cycle" meant.

Once she understood, Hannelore had every right to brag on her
son, the Athletics' third baseman. His cycle was the 238th in
major league history, making it a rarer feat than a no-hitter,
of which there have been 239. In terms of prestige, though, as
Blowers's mom can attest, the cycle pales by comparison.

When a pitcher has a no-hitter going, his teammates stay away
from him on the bench for fear they will jinx him. If pulled
off, the no-hitter becomes national news. On the other hand,
when John Valentin was a double short of the cycle two years
ago, his Red Sox teammates went out of their way to remind him
that he was very proficient at smacking the ball off the Green
Monster for a two-base hit, and joked that it might be a good
time to do so. Valentin did just that, but the fanfare was
minimal.

The knock on the cycle is that it is a fluke. How else to
describe something that depends on a player like Blowers--who
understates the case more than a little when he says, "I don't
run real good"--legging out a triple? "It's not something anyone
sets out to do," he says. "You have to be lucky."

But why are such rare, impressive feats overlooked--and
sometimes even shrugged off by the guys who accomplished them?
Why would Valentin, upon turning baseball's ninth regular-season
unassisted triple play, in 1994, toss the ball onto the mound as
he ran off the field, retrieving it only when one of the umps
suggested it might make a keepsake?

The rule of thumb seems to be that feats accomplished primarily
because of luck tend to get slighted. Hence Valentin's
nonchalance following his triple play, because if it wasn't for
the fact that there were no outs and runners on first and second
who happened to be running on the pitch, it was a routine line
drive.

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON STEALTH PITCHER With little fanfare, the Mets' Yoshii is dominating hitters. [Masato Yoshii pitching] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER TURNAROUND Overblown and overweight a year ago, Irabu leads the American League in ERA. [Hideki Irabu pitching] COLOR PHOTO: DEBORAH ROBINSON/LG TAKING HIS SHOT After bombing at third, Nevin has gone to great pains to be a catcher. [Phil Nevin clutching head in pain]

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

It was a move so audacious that no major league manager had
dared to try it in more than a half century. Arizona led San
Francisco 8-6 last Thursday night at 3Com Park, but the Giants
had the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
Diamondbacks righthanded closer Gregg Olson had walked five of
the nine batters he had faced--and Barry Bonds was on his way to
the plate. Arizona manager Buck Showalter had two pitchers
warming up, righthander Russ Springer, who had the flu, and
lefthander Efrain Valdez, who had pitched in the two previous
games. Showalter knew that Bonds was hitting .328 against
righthanded pitching and had homered in three of his last four
games. He saw journeyman catcher Brent Mayne, a lefthanded .290
hitter, on deck. Without consulting his coaches, Showalter held
up four fingers to catcher Kelly Stinnett, an order to walk
Bonds intentionally, thus forcing home a run and putting the
winning run in scoring position. "I gave it a triple take,"
Stinnett said. "I thought, 'Wow,' but if you think about it,
it's playing the percentages. The guy's going to score anyway if
Bonds gets a single."

Olson wanted to pitch to Bonds, because he was angry about the
way Bonds strolled to first after Olson had walked him in the
eighth inning. "That pissed me off," Olson said. "I wanted to
get him out to end the game, but saner heads prevailed."

Olson walked Bonds as ordered, shrinking the Diamondbacks' lead
to 8-7. Then Olson added to the drama by running the count full
to Mayne. After fouling off the first 3-2 pitch, Mayne lined the
next pitch to rightfield, where it was caught by Brent Brede to
end the game. "They got lucky," Mayne said after the game. "I've
never seen anything like that, except maybe in Little League if
a guy is hitting .900 or something."

Arizona's starting pitcher, Brian Anderson, watched the ninth
inning on television in the clubhouse and said later that he
could hardly believe the strategy that preserved his victory.
"Our manager has elephantiasis of the nuts," Anderson said.
"I've never seen anything like this. No other manager makes that
move. They play by the book. Buck could give a frog's fat ass."

Baseball records reveal that it was the first time any major
league batter had been walked intentionally with the bases
loaded since July 23, 1944, when Giants manager Mel Ott had the
Cubs' Bill (Swish) Nicholson walked in the second game of a
doubleheader after Nicholson had already hit four home runs.

Showalter admitted he had never ordered or seen such a move
before, but it was more than an impulsive decision. He explained
after the game against the Giants that he would have walked
Bonds with runners on second and third leading by one run, so
why not do it with the bases loaded and ahead by two? "We've got
a run to play with and Olson's just about out of gas," Showalter
said. "What do you think has a better chance of happening: Barry
getting a base hit or Olson walking the next batter? It was an
unorthodox move, but just because it hasn't been done isn't a
reason to do it or not do it. It doesn't make me right or wrong
because it worked."

As for Bonds, he addressed the situation the following day.
"I've had a whole night to think about it, and I still don't
know what to say," Bonds said.

FIRST IS SOMETIMES WORST

The first picks in the amateur draft during the '90s have had
widely diverse fates.

1990 Chipper Jones, SS, Braves
Among the elite players in baseball, hitting .336 with 15
homers and 47 RBIs through Sunday; an MVP candidate

1991 Brien Taylor, LHP, Yankees
Never fully recovered after injuring his pitching shoulder
in an off-season fight in '93; considering retirement

1992 Phil Nevin, 3B, Astros
Before trade to Angels last November, had hit .231 in 178
big league games with Houston and Detroit; now trying to
hang on as a catcher

1993 Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners
Hit .358 and finished second in '96 MVP vote; now 22 and
leading the American League with 20 homers

1994 Paul Wilson, RHP, Mets
Career stalled after shoulder surgery in '96 and hasn't
pitched in a major league game since; currently
rehabilitating on the disabled list

1995 Darin Erstad, OF, Angels
A five-tool star in the making, hitting .317 with 12
homers and 37 RBIs in just his second full big league season 1996 Kris Benson, RHP, Pirates
A promising prospect but yet to dominate above Class A;
3-5 with a 6.70 ERA at Triple A this year
1997 Matt Anderson, RHP, Tigers
After a prolonged holdout, he's off to a solid start in
his first pro season; was 1-0 with three saves and a 0.69
ERA in Class A before he was promoted to Double A
Jacksonville

THE Buzz

The Phillies spent a year wrangling with uberagent Scott Boras
over J.D. Drew, the second pick in the 1997 June draft. After
failing to sign Drew, all the team had to show for its efforts
was a compensatory pick, the 42nd selection in this week's
draft. Acting commissioner Bud Selig would like owners to change
the rules to better compensate a team that fails to sign its top
pick. "Is it fair to get the 42nd pick after all the Phillies
did [to try to sign Drew]?" Selig says. "No, it isn't." However,
some clubs--including Philadelphia--are skeptical about more
substantial compensation. Says Phillies scouting director Mike
Arbuckle, "I'm not sure clubs should be rewarded for not signing
their first rounder."

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

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)