Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra is the American League MVP
Red Sox manager Jimy Williams seemed to invoke the idea of
reincarnation last Friday night in an effort to account for the
precocious instincts of his second-year shortstop, Nomar
Garciaparra. "He plays like he's been here before," Williams
said, as if Garciaparra were a second coming of Honus Wagner.
This sounded way too X-Files to a group of sportswriters who
merely wished to learn whether Williams thought Garciaparra
deserves the American League's Most Valuable Player award.
Williams diplomatically declined to answer that one, but we'll
say it: Garciaparra should be named MVP.
Look back to July 23 when the Boston offense was sputtering
badly. First baseman Mo Vaughn had already said he didn't like
hitting fourth, so Williams simply shifted Garciaparra from
third in the order to cleanup. The only shortstop to hit fourth
in more than 10 starts in the majors this season, Garciaparra
through Sunday had responded with a .352 average, eight homers
and 27 RBIs in the 22 games since Williams made the move. During
a recent 12-game road swing against the American League West
that might have jeopardized Boston's lead in the wild-card race,
Garciaparra carried the Sox by hitting three homers and knocking
in 13 runs through the first eight games. Boston finished the
trip with an 8-4 record and its wild-card lead intact.
Through last weekend Garciaparra was among the league's Top 10
in nearly every key offensive category, with a .324 average, 96
RBIs, 82 runs and 259 total bases. Garciaparra, who also has
been solid in the field, could join Cal Ripken as the only
players ever to follow a Rookie of the Year season with an MVP
one. (The Red Sox' Fred Lynn won both those awards in his
remarkable 1975 debut season.)
August 23, 1998
Garciaparra certainly isn't campaigning for the award. "How do
you even pick an MVP in a team sport?" he asks. "If I'm playing
golf or tennis and I'm beating everybody, then maybe I can say
I'm the best. In baseball you need your teammates to succeed.
Nobody ever had 100 RBIs on 100 solo home runs."
MVP voters can make an argument for other candidates. Mariners
shortstop Alex Rodriguez may become only the third player in
major league history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a
season, and his teammate Ken Griffey Jr. could still break Roger
Maris's homer record, but both play for a team that was a
disappointing 11 games below .500. Earlier in the season the
Rangers' Juan Gonzalez was chasing Hack Wilson's record of 190
RBIs, but he has struggled lately and was only 23 RBIs ahead of
Garciaparra at week's end. Gonzalez doesn't contribute nearly as
much on defense, either; he had been the Texas designated hitter
in 24 games. The Indians' Jim Thome, with 29 homers and 82 RBIs,
might have made a case for himself, but he broke his right hand
on Aug. 7 and could miss the rest of the regular season.
Just how valuable is Garciaparra to the Red Sox? Boston had a
7-9 record while he was on the disabled list with a sore right
shoulder in May. Through Sunday the Sox were 63-41 when he was
in the lineup, and many of the victories were a direct result of
his clutch hitting. "Nomar has the ability to perform when it
really counts," says Boston general manager Dan Duquette. "Lots
of players can hit homers when you're up 10-2 or down 13-1, but
Nomar gets hits in ninth innings of tie games."
Six times this season Garciaparra has had a game-winning hit in
the seventh inning or later. "I've learned to succeed in the
clutch by remembering all the times I screwed up in big moments,"
he says. "It's fun to come through with the game on the line. You
want to have that chance every night."
After one of his game-winning hits, an RBI double in the seventh
inning of an 8-7 victory over Minnesota last Thursday night,
Garciaparra, who is nothing if not a perfectionist, left the
clubhouse in a bad mood because he had committed what turned out
to be a meaningless eighth-inning error. Moments later Red Sox
reliever Jim Corsi was asked if he thought Garciaparra was
having any trouble adjusting to batting cleanup. Said Corsi, "I
don't think Nomar has much of a problem with this thing called
Gregg Olson Redux
A few years back there was a Mel Gibson flick, Forever Young,
about a pilot from the late 1930s who vanished from sight only
to reappear some 50 years later, unaged and unscathed. The movie
was unrealistic. And yet....
You're sitting next to Gregg Olson in the Diamondbacks dugout,
and Forever Young refuses to leave your head. Olson is 31 now,
but it's hard to believe. His hair, his eyes, his face all look
the same as they did in the late 1980s and early '90s when,
while pitching for the Orioles, he reached 100 saves faster than
any reliever in history. Amazingly, his arm looks the same, too.
His fastball still hits 92 mph. His curve, once the class of the
American League, still breaks like bone on cement. At week's end
he had 21 saves for the expansion Diamondbacks, highlighted by
his current run of 13 straight conversions without a blown save.
There has been much talk of the Padres' Greg Vaughn winning the
National League Comeback Player of the Year award, and rightly
so, because he has come back from a dreadful 1997. But Olson has
done something quite different. He has come back from the
The last time Olson was a competent major league closer was in
1993, his fifth full season with Baltimore, when he saved 29
games and had a 1.60 ERA. That season, however, he tore a
ligament in his right elbow and made only one appearance during
the final month. He was released in December and then watched
the Orioles sign Lee Smith a month later to replace him.
What followed was, in Olson's words, "a run of total,
frustrating hell." He signed with the Braves in 1994 and opened
the season at Triple A Richmond. After he joined the Braves in
late May he ran up a 9.20 ERA. "When I got hurt, I pitched for a
week with the torn ligament," he says. "When I came back, I
would go to the mound and do everything not to bring pain to my
arm. It changed my arm slot. Basically, I changed everything to
ease the pain, but I didn't know I was changing it."
The Braves cut him loose after the season, and he signed with
Cleveland, where his ERA in 1995 was 13.50 in three appearances
before he was sold to the Royals, sent to Omaha, called up and
let go once more. Since '96 he has pitched in Indianapolis,
Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, Omaha, Kansas City yet again
and--finally--Arizona. All told, four years, 12 stops, 13 big
league saves, and lots of rawhide hit very, very hard.
Amid the poundings and the releases and the minor league
assignments, there were a couple of epiphanies. In 1996, when he
was with Detroit, Olson learned the changeup from pitching coach
Jon Matlack. "Suddenly I had a pitch nobody expected," he says.
Then last year, after putting up a disastrous 18.36 ERA in 11
appearances with the Twins, he returned to K.C., where pitching
coach Bruce Kison helped him regain the form of his early years.
"With the Royals I started feeling like my old self," he says.
"It began coming naturally again."
Olson appeared at Arizona's camp last spring as a nonroster
invitee and made the Diamondbacks as a setup man, behind
youngster Felix Rodriguez. However, as Olson will attest, the
save is no sure thing. Rodriguez struggled and was moved to
middle relief. Arizona had an 8-31 record when, on May 14, Olson
saved his first game, a 4-1 win over the Brewers. At week's end
the Diamondbacks had gone 38-46 since then. Olson had found his
"I remember facing Gregg his rookie year, and his curveball was
absolutely nasty," says Arizona hitting coach Jim Presley, the
Mariners' third baseman in 1989. "He was pretty much unhittable.
Right now, he's almost back to that point. He's the old Gregg
Olson again, and that's a frightening thing." --Jeff Pearlman
THE MYSTERY OF THE DEAD ARM
Two of baseball's best young pitchers, the Indians' Bartolo
Colon and the Cubs' Kerry Wood, have suffered recently from what
baseball people call "dead arm." The dread malady can bedevil
pitchers of any age, but it's a cause of particular concern when
it afflicts young pitchers who, after reaching the majors and
working more innings than they ever have in one season, suddenly
hit the wall. "It's normal for young guys to get tired if they
aren't used to throwing that many innings in the minors," Cubs
pitching coach Phil Regan says. "There's also more attention on
it when a young pitcher starts off real well like Kerry did and
the expectations increase. It's normal for kids to be rushed to
the big leagues now, so you're not surprised when they hit that
Says Rockies pitching coach Frank Funk, "It's a case of asking
your arm to do more than it has ever done before, and it goes
through a stage where it gets fatigued, but it's not sore. It
just feels weak. You try to throw the ball just as hard as you
ever did. It just doesn't go that hard."
The evidence is in the numbers. After dominating National League
hitters for most of this season, Wood lost his last two games
going into Sunday's start against the Astros, pitching a total
of 10 innings and allowing 12 earned runs on 14 hits. He seemed
anything but tired against Houston however, pitching eight
innings and giving up only three hits and one run in a game
Chicago won 2-1 in 11 innings.
Colon has faltered as well, with a 6.04 ERA over one recent
four-start stretch that caused the Indians to give him an extra
day's rest before his Aug. 12 start against the Rangers. Coaches
say that hitting the wall results not only from excessive
innings but also from the improved opposition a pitcher faces
upon reaching the majors. "It's the mental part of the
competition," Indians pitching coach Mark Wiley says. "A pitcher
is suddenly facing Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey instead of Joe
Both Wood and Colon signed pro contracts at age 18, didn't have
the benefit of any college baseball innings to build their arm
strength and were rushed through their farm systems. Wood made
55 minor league starts and Colon 65 before reaching the majors.
Wood is near the career-high 151 2/3 innings he pitched last
season in the minors, and Colon already has thrown a career-high
Cubs manager Jim Riggleman considered having Wood skip a start
to regain his strength but scrapped that idea. Instead Chicago
will try to give Wood an extra day of rest and limit his pitches
between starts. A complicating factor in attempting to safeguard
Wood's and Colon's well-being is that their teams are in races
for postseason berths. Riggleman seems determined to keep Wood
in the Cubs' rotation. "Maybe Wood's arm is tired," he says,
"but he certainly throws the ball very well. When your tired-arm
stuff is at 93 to 95 miles an hour, and occasionally 97, we'll
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.
THE 500 CLUB
Let's pause from the assault on the single-season home run record
to take a longer shot: Predicting which of today's sluggers might
join the 500-career-homer club, which has only 15 members. Last
week the Mariners' Alex Rodriguez, who turned 23 on July 27, hit
his 100th dinger, becoming the fourth-youngest player, behind Mel
Ott, Tony Conigliaro and Eddie Mathews, to reach that number. But
we're confining our analysis to the 14 active 300-home-run men.
PLAYER, AGE HOMERS
Mark McGwire, 34 434
Could reach 500 as early as next season
Barry Bonds, 34 398
Will join fellow Giants Mays, McCovey and Ott
Ken Griffey Jr., 28 336
Will claim he's no homer hitter even as he threatens Aaron's 755
Albert Belle, 31 307
Barring a career blowup, should get there with homers to spare
Joe Carter, 38 389
Will be lucky to make it to 400
Jose Canseco, 34 383
A stellar 1998, but with his balky back, no way, Jose
Cal Ripken, 38 379
Even Iron Man can't will this one to happen
Fred McGriff, 34 352
Isn't the power threat he used to be
Harold Baines, 39 345
Sorry, Harold, you're just too old
Darryl Strawberry, 36 330
Would have made it but for his off-the-field troubles
Chili Davis, 38 328
Tough beans, Chili, you're too old, too
Andres Galarraga, 37 326
A late bloomer who will run out of time
Cecil Fielder, 34 319
Needs regular at bats and won't get them
Rafael Palmeiro, 33 308
A long shot for 500 long shots
All stats through Sunday.