Inside Baseball

September 06, 1998

All Seems Forgiven
On a visit to Los Angeles with the Mets, Mike Piazza got the
feeling he would be welcomed back

Mets catcher Mike Piazza needed all of one minute to remind fans
in Los Angeles of what they had been missing since the Dodgers
traded him in May. At 5:47 p.m. last Friday he stepped into the
batter's box at Dodger Stadium for the first time since the deal,
and at 5:48 p.m. he hit a batting practice pitch over the
pavilion in leftfield.

The small percentage of fans on hand who had booed Piazza when he
first stepped into the cage went silent as he exited, and the
majority, who had been cheering for him, turned it up a notch.
There was more of the same during that night's game. Every time
his name was announced or he did anything noteworthy on the
field, Piazza--who hastened his departure from L.A. by turning
down the Dodgers' six-year, $80 million contract offer at the
start of this season--was cheered by most of the 52,154 in
attendance. The message was clear: You might be greedy, Mike, but
if you want to come back, that's fine by us.

Piazza's homecoming was just one of the juicy subplots that came
west with the Mets, who arrived in Los Angeles tied with the Cubs
for the National League wild card. Earlier in the week there had
been reports that Dodgers interim general manager Tommy Lasorda
wanted to hire New York manager and longtime friend Bobby
Valentine as Los Angeles's general manager and
manager-in-waiting. (Valentine is contractually prohibited from
managing any team except the Mets until 2000.) Then one of New
York's most popular players, catcher Todd Hundley, threw in the
towel in his noble effort to play leftfield following
reconstructive right elbow surgery. Unable to catch because his
throwing arm wasn't fully recovered from the Sept. 26 operation,
Hundley went to the outfield, but his bid to return to the lineup
was a disaster.

"This season has had major soap opera after major soap opera,"
says Valentine, who laughed off the reports that he was
L.A.-bound. "We've had distractions with Todd Hundley, but to his
credit, he's tried his damnedest, and we've weathered that. We've
weathered storms of trades, we've weathered injuries, and we've
weathered hurricanes of boos in our home park."

Among those who needed shelter from the imprecations of the fans
at Shea was Piazza, acquired from the Marlins on May 22, a week
after the Dodgers traded him to Florida. Piazza had 22 RBIs in
June and July while hitting only .220 with runners in scoring
position, a big drop-off from his career average of .346 at the
start of the season. Through Sunday he had picked up the pace,
knocking in 28 runs and batting .330 (.294 with runners in
scoring position), but the cold initial reception probably
eliminated any chance the Mets had of re-signing Piazza when he
becomes a free agent after the season.

But in L.A. countless fans wore Dodgers jerseys and T-shirts
bearing his name and number 31. Souvenir stands at Dodger Stadium
still offer Piazza shirts, which sell far more briskly than those
adorned with the name and number of Piazza's All-Star replacement
from the Marlins, Charles Johnson. (One souvenir vendor had to be
informed by a colleague that they had Johnson shirts for sale.
"We have them," his coworker told him. "I don't remember ever
selling one, but we have them.")

After last Friday's game, in which he homered off Carlos Perez in
a 5-4 Mets win, Piazza said the positive reception from the fans,
to whom he twice doffed his helmet, surprised him. "I was
honored," he said. "I didn't think I'd get that response."
Whether the warm welcome opened the door for a reconciliation
between Piazza and the Dodgers remains to be seen. Piazza's close
relationship with Lasorda, who was named Los Angeles's interim
general manager on June 22, is among the factors leading to
speculation that Piazza will return to L.A. after the season.

For his part Piazza sounds as if he's sorry for having played
fiscal hardball, and he suspects the Dodgers feel the same way.
"For whatever reason, whatever happened happened, and everyone
has regrets about it," says Piazza, 29. "Not specifically about
not getting a deal done, but maybe about how the thing was
approached. This whole year for me has been one big learning
experience. Talking to friends and family, they say, 'Mike, think
about how boring your career would have been if you hadn't done
this.' Well, boring's looking pretty good right now."

Not to everyone it isn't. One of the primary complaints from
Hundley, who set the major league record for homers in a season
by a catcher (41 in 1996, one more than Piazza hit last year), is
that leftfield is "the most boring position I've ever played."
While Hundley had improved from dropping fly balls to making more
subtle mistakes, such as throwing to the wrong base, Valentine
realized that the transition to the outfield wasn't helping the
Mets make the playoffs.

After an Aug. 25 loss in San Francisco, during which Hundley
misplayed two balls, Valentine voiced his concerns to a group of
reporters, who relayed the comments to Hundley. That night
Hundley called Valentine and asked out of the lineup for the rest
of the season. The Mets placed him on the disabled list and sent
him to Triple A Norfolk for rehab. "There wasn't any point in me
going out to leftfield in a pennant race," says Hundley. "We need
an outfielder, not a guy who is getting used to playing a
position he's never played. It's not fair to the team."

Hundley's poor defensive play would have been forgiven if he had
been hitting well. "Our challenge in bringing him back wasn't to
make him a Gold Glove leftfielder," Valentine says. "It was to
get production from his bat." But Hundley hit just .162 with two
homers in 42 games, and in 16 at bats against lefthanders the
switch-hitting Hundley had one hit and 14 strikeouts. Hundley's
priority now is to get his stroke back so that he might make the
postseason roster as a pinch hitter and emergency catcher.

But unless the Mets get some production from their leftfielders
(at week's end Tony Phillips had started four of New York's last
five games in left), they might not have to worry about the
postseason. Through Sunday, Valentine had started 10 players in
left who had combined to hit .228 with nine homers and 51
RBIs--and the centerfielders and the rightfielders hadn't done
much better. Overall, New York outfielders had batted .242 with
only 46 homers.

With such forgettable numbers, the Mets say intangibles have been
a big part of their success. "The camaraderie here is as good as
any team I've been on," says lefty Al Leiter, who has played for
three World Series winners. "I would say we're not the most
talented team around. But does that mean we can't win? Absolutely
not."

There might be one more factor at play--fate. Last Saturday, an
hour or so after Toms River, N.J., won the Little League World
Series with a last-inning home run, the Mets beat the Dodgers
4-3 on Edgardo Alfonzo's ninth-inning, two-run blast. That homer
gave the Mets their major-league-leading 29th one-run victory,
and it made a winner of Leiter, who was born in Toms River.

Mabry's Reward
GONE TODAY, BEER TOMORROW

During a game in Milwaukee on Aug. 6, Brewers fan Chris Gilmartin
dogged Cardinals utilityman John Mabry mercilessly, at one point
yelling, "I didn't pay $80 to watch you hit." Mabry made
Gilmartin an offer he couldn't refuse. "If I hit a home run,"
asked Mabry, "will you buy me a beer?" Because Mabry had only six
homers in 100 games, Gilmartin enthusiastically agreed. On the
first pitch Mabry saw from Jeff Juden, he went deep.

Last week Mabry was in the Cardinals locker room sorting through
his fan mail when he opened a package containing a six-pack of
beer. "I'm sorry for not paying off my debt earlier," Gilmartin
wrote in the accompanying note. "I congratulate you for talking
the talk and walking the walk."

Ripken Turns 38
STILL TOO GOOD TO HAVE TO SIT

It was two days after Cal Ripken Jr.'s 38th birthday last week,
and there was Please Take a Rest Cal indulging in some
ungeriatric pregame behavior, bounding around the grass near the
visitors' dugout at Comiskey Park, snatching Orioles teammate
Brady Anderson's mitt, tucking it under his arm and rolling out
like a quarterback in the Delaware wing T. He slid. He dived. He
acted like a 20-year-old rookie.

Perhaps the friskiness had something to do with the Iron Man's
latest roll. Ripken, who has had 99.6% of the world's population
tell him to take a day off, has been one of Baltimore's most
productive players in the second half of the season. At week's
end he was batting .307 since the All-Star break and, helped by
an 11-game hitting streak, had raised his average 18 points, to
.276. Although his critics were numerous and vocal during the
Orioles' horrific first half, Ripken's play was key to
Baltimore's furious, but ultimately futile, run at the Red Sox in
the American League wild-card race. "Whenever he struggles--and
it's not that often--people say he should sit," says Baltimore
catcher Chris Hoiles, "but when he's in a groove, nobody admits
they were wrong."

Here's the crazy thing about Ripken: Despite 16 All-Star Game
appearances, two American League MVP awards and two Gold Gloves,
it seems--thanks in large part to the Streak, which was at 2,614
consecutive games through Sunday--few fans realize how productive
he has been. "A lot of things have been drowned out," says
Ripken, who had 12 homers and 56 RBIs for the season. "I've
become known as the guy who plays all the games, instead of for
my home runs and RBIs."

On August 21, to surprisingly little fanfare, Ripken collected
hit number 2,849, passing Brooks Robinson to become the Orioles'
alltime leader. Unless Ripken gets hurt (ha!), he could reach not
only 3,000 hits next season but also 400 home runs and 1,600
RBIs. If he attains all three milestones, he could become only
the seventh major leaguer to do so.

"To me, 3,000 is the big one," he says. "It's hard for me to
understand a number like that. It shows that your success lies in
a career, not just in a couple of good seasons. To me, that's
special."

As is Ripken.

Unseen Wonders
VLAD THE INVISIBLE

With the spotlight's glare fixed on the race to topple Roger
Maris's home run record, a couple of other noteworthy
accomplishments have passed virtually unnoticed.

Perhaps most amazing has been the play of Expos' outfielder
Vladimir Guerrero, who's fashioning a run at a sort of
second-half triple crown. From the All-Star break through Sunday,
the 22-year-old Guerrero had hit for a higher average (.358) than
Dante Bichette (.350), belted more homers (21) than Mark McGwire
(18) and driven in more runs (54) than Juan Gonzalez (35). The
question is, If you produce all that offense in Montreal, where
surely nobody will notice, does it really exist?

Also, the Reds' Bret Boone trailed the Cubs' Mickey Morandini by
.00044 in fielding average among National League second basemen.
If Boone can overtake Morandini by the end of the season, he will
become the first second baseman in major league history to lead
his league in fielding percentage for four consecutive years.
Despite his three titles, Boone, who like Guerrero has labored in
obscurity, has never won a Gold Glove.

Even certain first-ballot Hall of Famers can be overlooked--if
they play in Minnesota. On Aug. 27 Paul Molitor lined a double to
right to pass Willie Mays and move into ninth place on the
alltime hit list, with 3,284.

Alone at Last
MR. ROGERS'S NEW NEIGHBORHOOD

Thriving in anonymity--the A's average home attendance was a
league-low 15,238 through last weekend--Oakland lefthander Kenny
Rogers had run his record to 12-7 with a 3.21 ERA, fourth best in
the American League. That's six more wins and much less agony
than he had with the Yankees last season, the nadir of his
10-year major league career.

"People handle the pressure differently," lefthander Andy
Pettitte, Rogers's closest friend in New York during his two
years there, says of playing in the Bronx. "He wasn't used to the
criticism that comes along with playing here. It was a living
hell here for him."

"In New York there were times I couldn't throw a strike to save
my life," Rogers says. "My confidence is better now."

Expectations were high among Yankees fans when Rogers, coming off
a 17-win season with the Rangers, signed a four-year, $20 million
free-agent deal with New York after the 1995 season. But he got
off to a slow start after being hit in the shoulder by a line
drive during spring training, and though he would go on to win 12
games, he pitched inconsistently--his ERA was 4.68--and was shelled
in the postseason. After Rogers's dismal performance (6-7, 5.65)
last season, the Yankees were so desperate to dump him, in
exchange for third baseman Scott Brosius, that they were willing
to pay $5 million toward his salary through next season.

"The atmosphere here is different," Rogers says of playing for
the A's. "It's not the Yankees atmosphere of 'We have to win,'
though we all expect to win each day. Putting this game in its
place, in perspective, is good for me." --Paul Gutierrez

For complete scores and stats, plus up-to-the-minute news of the
home run chase, go to www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Prodigal son You can go home again. Piazza went 5 for 9 and homered for the Mets in L.A. [Mike Piazza and Charles Johnson in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Rippin' A second-half surge has quieted cries for Ripken to sit. [Cal Ripken Jr. batting]

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

Save for a short-lived appearance in the National League
wild-card race earlier this season, the Phillies haven't
provided their fans with a lot of excitement. So when
Philadelphia hyped Scott Rolen T-shirt day on Sunday, Aug. 23,
at the Vet, the least that manager Terry Francona could have
done was...well...start Rolen. Instead, after playing in 144
straight games, Rolen sat out, to the annoyance of many Phillies
fanatics. "It was the perfect time to get him some rest," said
Francona, after the Phillies lost 5-2 to the Rockies with Rolen,
last year's National League Rookie of the Year, on the bench.
"It was a day game after a night game. We were coming off a
doubleheader on Thursday." Baseball--where the fan almost
matters.

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)