Inside Baseball

September 27, 1998

MANNY OF THE YEAR
A second-half power surge has turned the Indians' Manny Ramirez
into an MVP candidate

After Indians rightfielder Manny Ramirez drove in his 100th run
of the year, against Tampa Bay on Aug. 17, he was asked how many
more RBIs he hoped to have over the remainder of the season.
"That's it," he replied. "I'm happy with 100." That Ramirez
would admit to harboring such underwhelming aspirations hardly
surprised anyone. During his five seasons in Cleveland, the
26-year-old Ramirez has picked up a reputation for flighty,
lackadaisical play. Losing track of the count has been one of
his repeated blunders: He has headed for first base on ball
three and hung around in the batter's box on ball four. Last
year he successfully swiped second against the Tigers, only to
be tagged out while retreating to first under the mistaken
impression that the batter had fouled off the pitch.

Fears that Ramirez would become complacent after reaching the
century mark in RBIs proved to be incorrect, though. Over the
past four weeks through Sunday, he was on a tear, homering 16
times and driving in 40 runs in 27 games, while sparking talk
that his season's numbers--.301 average, 45 homers, 141
RBIs--merited MVP consideration. "I've never seen anyone as
hot," says Indians manager Mike Hargrove.

"Manny has been more aggressive lately," says hitting instructor
Charlie Manuel. "He's been hitting the ball exactly where it's
pitched. He's been real smooth."

Two homers last Saturday off the Royals' Jose Rosado were perfect
examples of that smoothness. The first came on a breaking ball,
down and in, that Ramirez pulled to left. The second came on a
changeup, low and away, that he drove over the right centerfield
fence at the 375-foot mark. With that he became only the second
player in major league history to crack eight dingers over a
five-game span. (Frank Howard of the Washington Senators did it
twice in 1968.)

What's more, Ramirez's late-season surge came at a time when
Cleveland's most consistent run producer, Jim Thome, was on the
disabled list and the Indians were limping toward their fourth
straight American League Central championship. The Indians are
encouraged that Ramirez is finally growing up. "Without a doubt
he's getting more mature," says Manuel. "Not just from an
offensive standpoint, but also in his baserunning and defense."

The 6-foot, 205-pound Ramirez is also maturing physically. "He's
definitely gotten stronger," says the 54-year-old Manuel, who
stands 6'4" and weighs 210. "Now when we wrestle, he can beat
me."

Rangers' Turnaround
AND A GLOVEMAN SHALL LEAD THEM

Arlington, Texas, is a bumper sticker town. Anytime someone
comes up with a nifty slogan--DEAR GOD LET THERE BE ONE MORE OIL
BOOM AND DON'T LET ME BLOW IT; THE ONLY MAD COW IN TEXAS IS
OPRAH--it seems half the drivers there rush to endorse it. There
are a lot of cars in Arlington, but little bumper space.

The Rangers--who, in their bid for a second American League West
crown in three years, were tied at week's end for first with the
surprisingly resilient Angels--have unintentionally come up with
what will surely become a $2.95 sticker craze. Ever since
28-year-old shortstop Royce Clayton was acquired from the
Cardinals on July 31, all anyone has been saying is "I don't
want to say anything bad about Kevin Elster, but.... "

Just listen. Texas manager Johnny Oates, following the Rangers'
5-3 win over Anaheim on Sept. 16: "Look, I don't want to say
anything bad about Kevin Elster, and I won't. But those balls
Royce is getting to...." Reliever Tim Crabtree, following a 7-6
Texas victory a day later: "Royce has more range than anyone
I've ever played with. I don't want to say anything about Kevin
Elster, but he just didn't have the range."

Again, nothing against Elster, who was released the same day as
the Clayton trade, but with a new shortstop the heretofore
mittphobic Rangers are a different team. "When he's back there,
you know balls aren't getting through," says Crabtree. "That
makes you a better pitcher."

After sweeping the two-game series with Anaheim, Texas was alone
atop its division for the first time since Aug. 13. With a $61
million payroll, the Rangers spent most of the season
underachieving, largely because of poor defense. The limited
range of Elster, 34, didn't help.

"My goal is never to have to dive," says Clayton. "I want to be
in the right position as often as possible, so every play is
pretty easy. I'm not trying to be flashy. I'd rather be really
efficient."

Upon joining Texas, following six-plus seasons in the National
League, Clayton began to collect scouting reports on every
American League team. Before each series he has studied charts
and statistics on opposing hitters' tendencies; then before each
game he has reviewed his notes with the Rangers' starting
pitcher. In last week's series against the Angels, Clayton
didn't lunge, dart or dive once. When Anaheim's Gregg Jefferies
smashed a liner between second and third, Clayton barely had to
move.

Clayton was the less-hyped part of the deal that also brought
righthander Todd Stottlemyre, a much-needed No. 3 starter, from
St. Louis. In this era of offense-minded shortstops, such as
Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, guys who make
a living with their gloves hardly register. "Everyone admires
the big hitters," says Clayton, who through Sunday was batting
.274 with the Rangers and has hit better than .280 only once,
"but if you look around, all the great teams have a solid
middle. That's why I'm here."

Mets' Unlikely Hero
TURKISH DAFFY

Twenty-five years ago the Mets were helped to the World Series
by Tug McGraw, a flaky, hyperactive reliever who atoned for an
early-season slump by pitching brilliantly down the stretch.
He's best known for having popularized the rallying cry of that
year's improbable National League champs: "Ya gotta believe!"
This year the Mets are being helped toward the postseason by
Turk Wendell, a flaky, hyperactive reliever who has atoned for
an early-season slump by pitching brilliantly down the stretch.
Wendell, an avid hunter, is best known for saying things like
"Whenever I bag a species for the first time, I cut the animal
open and I reach in and take the heart and I take a bite out of
it. It's a ritual to preserve the spirit of the animal."

Early in his career it seemed Wendell might be remembered only
for his odd ways. In addition to bizarre hunting practices, his
eccentricities have included a black licorice addiction,
brushing his teeth in the dugout between innings and ritual
rosin bag abuse, which New York fans now applaud wildly.
"Everybody's taken to that," says Wendell, who slams the bag to
the mound, generating a generous white puff of rosin before each
batter. "But I'm just doing what I do every day."

Sort of. While spiking the rosin bag might be a Wendell
trademark, brilliant pitching isn't. Until now his major league
career had been decidedly uninspiring--11-14, 4.45 ERA and 23
saves entering this season. He was traded from Chicago to New
York in August of last year, and until this June he was used
sparingly by manager Bobby Valentine. At the end of May, Wendell
had an ERA of 6.89 in 13 appearances. But Valentine has
continually shuffled his erratic bullpen, when Wendell got his
shot, he won two games, saved four and whittled his ERA to 2.92
through Sunday.

In a crucial series against the Astros last week, Wendell
pitched in all four games, saving the final two. On Sunday,
Valentine paid tribute to Wendell by trotting him out for the
seventh straight game, tying a Mets record. He was greeted with
a standing ovation and threw a 1-2-3 ninth in a 5-0 win over the
Marlins that put New York one game ahead of the Cubs for a
wild-card berth and ran Wendell's streak of consecutive
scoreless innings to 11 1/3. "We had a full house," says
Valentine. "He's pitched his heart out. I wanted him to walk off
the mound and feel some appreciation."

COLOR PHOTO: TONY TOMSIC Hot stuff Ramirez ripped number 45 against the Royals for his eighth homer in five games. [Manny Ramirez batting]

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)