After dreary debuts in Arizona, Diamondbacks batting stars Matt
Williams and Jay Bell are living up to expectations
In January of this year, Diamondbacks third baseman Matt
Williams married Michelle Johnson, an actress whose career has
run hot and cold but whose movie titles--when applied to her new
husband's career--are startlingly appropriate. Before last
season, expansion Arizona acquired Williams, 32 and injury
prone, and signed him for six years at $49.5 million. In 1990
Johnson appeared in Genuine Risk. Last year was a difficult one
for Williams, the 1994 National League home run champ, as he
injured both hands and, for the second time in his career,
suffered a broken foot (Body Shot, '93). Williams badly wanted
to produce for the Diamondbacks (Gung Ho, '86) but contributed
only 20 home runs and 71 RBIs (Wishful Thinking, '90). Some
wondered if his career was winding down (Slipping into Darkness,
"My wife's trying to talk me into doing movies once baseball is
over," says Williams, "but I've seen what it's like, long 14-,
15-hour days. I think this job's probably more fun."
Especially now. Williams, owner of a league-leading 46 hits, 11
home runs, 36 RBIs, 23 extra-base hits and 91 total bases
through Sunday, is, along with teammate Jay Bell, the
resuscitation story of early 1999. Last year at this time the
baseball world was mocking Arizona managing general partner
Jerry Colangelo, who--arrogantly, in the opinion of
some--lavished more than $80 million on Bell and Williams and
then watched as both staggered through bleak years. While
Williams at least could blame poor health, Bell was simply poor.
He hit 20 home runs but batted just .251 with 67 RBIs. "There
was a lot of emphasis on me and Matt, that we were supposed to
do certain things because we were veterans with good contracts,"
says Bell, who at week's end was batting .302 with 11 homers and
24 runs batted in. "It doesn't mean we had bad years, but we
didn't live up to those expectations."
May 16, 1999
Why the resurgence? Two reasons. First, except for the
contributions of first baseman Travis Lee and centerfielder
Devon White (now with the Dodgers), last year Williams and Bell
were the Arizona offense. The Diamondbacks hit .246, last in the
majors. They had 159 home runs, tied for eighth in the National
League and 29 fewer than their opponents hit. Arizona was a
typical expansion club--a couple of solid veterans surrounded by
Triple A bats. "This year we're a very good team," says Bell,
who had helped Arizona launch a league-high 49 homers. "If Matt
and I do well, great. If we don't, there's Steve Finley and Luis
Gonzalez and Tony Womack and a lineup full of veterans. There's
a lot less pressure."
Second, Williams and Bell have both made adjustments. Last
season, perhaps due to his injuries, Williams often didn't get
good wood on the ball. So he changed--spreading his legs
further, bending his knees a bit more. The stance is similar to
the one he used when he played in San Francisco from 1987 to
'96. Bell, a lifetime shortstop, has moved to second base, where
he is more comfortable (he has made only five errors in 31
games), allowing him to concentrate on offense. "I think, for
both of us, last year is forgotten," Bell says. "One thing that
drives every athlete is competition. Now that this team is
competitive, things feel good."
GRIEVOUS SLUMP IN OAKLAND
Ask the A's players, and they smile and say all the right
things. "Oh, Ben will snap out of it," or, "He's making good
contact." But ask those players whether they've ever faced the
hell that is Oakland leftfielder Ben Grieve's current baseball
lot, and the reply is usually a shrug. A grimace. An
off-the-record, "No, never."
Grieve, last year's American League Rookie of the Year, is
enduring one of the most miserable early-season runs in recent
memory. Through Sunday he was in a 6-for-49 funk, which had
dropped his batting average to an almost Randy Johnson-like
.141. "The hardest part of any slump is looking up at the
scoreboard and seeing your stats in huge numbers," says A's
first baseman-DH Jason Giambi. "I'm sure that's killing Ben."
It is. Grieve is a very soft-spoken, very thoughtful ballplayer
who of late has been reminded at least 10 times every day how
poorly he has been performing. According to Dave Hudgens,
Oakland's hitting coach, that's a large part of the problem.
"The best way to deal with a slump is to just go up and hit
without thinking about it," Hudgens says, "but it's hard to do
that when every cabdriver and high school coach is giving you
Negative reinforcement is not the only problem. Examine video of
Grieve '98 (.288, 18 home runs, 89 RBIs) and Grieve '99 (three
homers, nine RBIs), and there's one very notable difference.
Last season the lefthanded-hitting Grieve had a flow to his
swing: As he strode forward with his front leg, his hands would
bring the bat back and up. Now his bat comes back straight. As a
result, with his timing out of whack, he's been way ahead of
pitches. "I've been watching a lot of tape, trying to see what
worked then, what isn't working now," Grieve says. "There are
little things, not that easy to figure out. I'm pretty much the
same as I was--but not 100 percent."
Grieve has handled the slump well. He has been taking extra
batting practice before most games. He has met regularly with
Hudgens. He has yet to throw a helmet. The A's, 16-17 and two
games out of first in the American League West through Sunday,
have been a surprise even with Grieve's limited production. "The
guy can go 0 for 5 or 5 for 5, and he's exactly the same," says
Giambi. "He's not the type to let his troubles bring down the
Oakland manager Art Howe, an excellent contact hitter during his
10-plus major league seasons, says there's no thought of sending
Grieve down to Triple A Vancouver for rejuvenation. Last
Saturday, against the White Sox, Grieve went 2 for 4 with a
homer--his first positive sign in weeks. Who knows? Maybe he's
turning things around. Clearly, the A's are prepared to wait.
Offerman On in Boston
FILLING BIG SHOES, SO FAR
Even in the Red Sox clubhouse, which can hardly be described as
pulsating with personality these days, Jose Offerman's quietness
stands out. He slips in and out with few words to teammates. "If
you don't see him," says Boston first baseman-DH Mike Stanley,
standing six lockers from Offerman, "you don't hear him."
If Offerman is ever to let loose with an exultant yelp, last
weekend would've been a good time to do it. In the Red Sox'
ovation-filled sweep of the Angels--during which hoarse Fenway
crowds serenaded Mo Vaughn upon his homecoming to Boston and
witnessed a 15-strikeout gem by Pedro Martinez and a sparkling
major league debut by 21-year-old Red Sox righthander Juan
Pena--Offerman nearly stole the show. He went 4 for 10 and
reached base seven times in the three games, continuing a torrid
stretch at the plate that began on Opening Day. Though Offerman
went 0 for 4 on Sunday, ending a nine-game hitting streak, he
was hitting .355 at week's end, the fourth-best average in the
American League, and he ranked among the league's top five in
doubles (15), triples (four) and hits (43) and multiple-hit
games (14). He also led Boston in runs (20) and steals (seven).
Without his heroics at the top of the lineup the punchless Red
Sox, second to last in the league in homers (21) and runs (137),
wouldn't have been two games over .500 and within shouting
distance of the American League East lead.
Most surprising, Offerman, 30, had also ingratiated himself with
Boston's fickle fans, most of whom smelled blood after general
manager Dan Duquette signed him to a four-year, $26 million
free-agent contract last November. The deal was loudly
criticized by fans and some executives from other teams, who
felt Duquette grossly overpaid for Offerman, a middle infielder
who has speed and can hit .300 but is error-prone and had no
chance of filling the 40-homer, 120-RBI hole left by Vaughn's
acrimonious exit from Boston.
Offerman, who hit a career-high .315 and stole 45 bases for
Kansas City last year, also took shots from Royals manager Tony
Muser, who charged that Offerman failed to hustle. "That's O.K.,
Offy," Muser said, addressing the absent Offerman at a January
banquet in Kansas City. "Take the $26 million and go to Boston."
"Muser said I never played hard for him," says Offerman, "but
for someone who follows the game, that would be hard to believe.
With the numbers I put up for him, I must have played hard at
In the season's opening series Offerman torched the Royals for
eight hits, including four doubles and a triple, and scored five
runs in Boston's three-game sweep. Through Sunday he had played
all 30 of the Red Sox' games and had gone hitless in only five.
"From Day One in spring training he's been outstanding," says
Boston manager Jimy Williams, who has started Offerman at
second, first and DH. "He plays hard, and he has a whole bunch
The Red Sox' fast start didn't last as long as Offerman's--after
winning six of its first seven, Boston went 10-13 through
Sunday--but that early surge was enough to squelch the pining
for Mo that surely would have erupted had everyone stumbled out
of the gate. "I'm just happy Jose got off to the good start, so
he didn't have to be scrutinized," says Stanley. MO WHO?
sweatshirts were spotted in the stands at the Sox' home opener,
and the Hit Dog's return with Anaheim last weekend finally
brought closure to his ugly departure. Vaughn went 1 for 11 and
struck out six times, and by his last at bat on Sunday he was
being as lustily booed by the Fenway fans as any other opposing
player. Offerman, meanwhile, was hearing cheers. "I've never
gotten that kind of reaction from the fans," he says. "It's nice
to have it."
You might remember that during spring training, righthander
Kevin Brown, incensed that a flushed toilet had deprived him of
cold water while he was taking a shower in the Dodgers'
antiquated Vero Beach clubhouse, grabbed a bat and with a few
swift strokes smashed the offending commode. Brown apparently
found the plumbing pummeling an effective method of blowing off
steam. After he was bombed for six runs in six innings during
L.A.'s 12-3 loss to the Phillies on May 2, Brown administered
the same treatment to a urinal next to the Veterans Stadium
When the Padres arrived at the Vet the next day to begin a
three-game series, Brown's former San Diego teammates surveyed
the damage--and recognized the master's touch. "He yanked it
right out of the cinder block," marvelled Tony Gwynn, who then
posed a rhetorical question. "As soon as I saw it I said,
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
SI asked a cross section of current players, managers, coaches
and G.M.'s--all of them guaranteed anonymity in return for their
comments--who among today's players would make the best
managers. Forty-five players received votes; here are the top 10.
PLAYER, TEAM, AND POSITION VOTES
1. Cal Ripken, Orioles 3B 11
"And he may have the chance to manage in a week or so."
T2. Joe Girardi, Yankees C 4
"He'd be great at running a pitching staff."
T2. Charlie O'Brien, Angels C 4
"Charlie studies the game. He knows how to handle different
T2. Mike Macfarlane, Athletics C 4
"His knowledge and approach to the game is everything you like
to see. He seriously enjoys every minute he's on the field."
T2. Jeff Reboulet, Orioles IF 4
"Last year, I'd say Paul Molitor. Now I'd say Cal Ripken or Jeff
T2. Terry Steinbach, Twins C 4
"Has got a good grasp of everything--pitching, hitting,
controlling the game--and a great rapport with players."
T2. B.J. Surhoff, Orioles OF 4
"There has to be some sense of compassion from a manager that
this isn't an easy game, and B.J. would bring that."
T8. Jay Bell, Diamondbacks 2B 3
"Very cerebral and knows the game. You can sit and talk to him
forever about it."
T8. Tony Gwynn, Padres RF 3
"A smart player and a good communicator."
T8. Tom Prince, Phillies C 3
"He's a very bright baseball person, and he played under Jim
Leyland for seven years."
IN THE BOX
May 8, 1999
Giants 6, Brewers 4
Through Sunday the Giants were ninth in the National League in
runs scored from the seventh inning on (44) and 12th in bullpen
ERA (4.69), a mix that should bury a team that falls behind
early. Yet a three-run, sixth-inning ambush of the Brewers last
Saturday was San Francisco's 10th comeback win of 1999. Indeed,
late-game heroics had produced more than half of the Giants' 19
San Francisco starter Kirk Rueter gave up four runs in the first
but allowed just one hit in his next five innings. He then
handed off to the Giants' feast-or-famine relief corps: In the
10 comebacks the bullpen has an ERA of 2.61; in all other games,
5.47. On Saturday four relievers threw three shutout innings,
giving the Barry Bonds-less lineup time to claw back.
THE HOT CORNER
The Braves, in dire need of a closer, are hot on the trail of
the Twins' Rick Aguilera (3-1, with five saves through Sunday).
If Atlanta swings a deal with Minnesota, it will probably
include at least one of three highly touted lefthanded starters
at Triple A Richmond: Micah Bowie (3-2, 2.31 ERA with 39
strikeouts in 35 innings), Bruce Chen (3-1, 1.15 with 44
strikeouts in 39 innings) or Derrin Ebert (1-1, 3.38 )....
White Sox righthander James Baldwin is the ultimate insider: His
lifetime record in open-air stadiums is 28-31, with a 5.57 ERA;
in domes, 10-0, with a 2.90 ERA....
Things aren't going well for Bobby Bonilla, who has looked awful
in rightfield for the Mets. Bonilla has been wearing a brace on
his right knee to protect a partial tear of the posterior
cruciate ligament. In Arizona last Friday night he watched a
pair of balls sail over his head--either of which a halfway
speedy fielder probably would have caught. When asked about the
hobbled Bonilla, New York manager Bobby Valentine replied,
"Maybe you're seeing something I'm not. What balls could he have
gotten to?" Valentine says Bonilla, who was batting .159 with
two home runs, won't be placed on the DL for this injury....
According to A's first baseman-DH Jason Giambi, surprising
Oakland (two games out in the American League West) can't win
the division if No. 3 starter Jimmy Haynes doesn't start living
up to his potential. "He has all the talent in the world,"
Giambi said before last Saturday's game, "but he's never really
put it all together. Well, now we need it." Haynes, who has
lacked command of his pitches this season, promptly allowed the
White Sox five runs on nine hits in 1 1/3 innings to drop to
The Too Much Time on Their Hands Department: The Diamondbacks
recently weighed the heads of players and other team personnel
on a clubhouse scale. Assistant trainer Dave Edwards had the
heaviest noggin, at 19 1/2 pounds....
In their desperation to acquire Roger Clemens from the Blue Jays
last winter, the Rangers put together several packages that
included outfield prospect Ruben Mateo. Texas says Mateo, who
was batting .337 with 29 RBIs in 28 games with the Triple A
Oklahoma Redhawks through Sunday, is now untouchable....
Sometimes run support makes or breaks a pitcher. Sometimes it
means nothing. The Twins have scored only two runs in
righthander LaTroy Hawkins's 30 1/3 innings this season, and his
record fell to 1-5. But Hawkins can hardly complain. He had a
9.49 ERA, and opponents were batting .362 against him....
Tigers righthander Jeff Weaver (3-2, 2.48 ERA with 25 strikeouts
in 29 innings) has picked up a new nickname from teammates: Roy,
as in Rookie of the Year.