Low-cost Oakland makes the grade in a sweep of the big-ticket
This is an article from the June 21, 1999 issue
During April, when the Dodgers were stumbling to a 9-10 start
and playing the lifeless baseball that has been Los Angeles's
calling card for much of the decade, first-year general manager
Kevin Malone preached patience. "We built this team for the long
haul," said Malone, who shelled out $124 million on four free
agents in the off-season and tossed around predictions that the
Dodgers would make the World Series this year almost as freely
as he did greenbacks. "If we're playing like this in June or
July, then I'll be worried."
Start fretting, Kevin. After being swept in Oakland last
weekend, the Dodgers were a season-worst three games under .500,
6 1/2 games behind the National League West-leading Diamondbacks
and busily damning their underachieving selves with faint
praise. "One good thing," said Bill Geivett, an assistant to the
G.M., "is that no one in the division has run away from us."
On the other side of the field the surprising A's, 33-29 and 3
1/2 back in the American League West, were pinching themselves,
having shown that, even if just for one early-season
interleague, intercaste series, money isn't everything. Of
course, expectations are a little different when a team has
Oakland's payroll of $23 million (26th lowest in the majors)
compared with the Dodgers' $84 million (second highest). "I just
told my assistant, 'We really needed that game,'" Oakland
general manager Billy Beane said after the A's 4-3 victory last
Saturday. "It seems like I say that after every win we get."
Los Angeles could learn from the way Oakland has been getting
those wins. Through Sunday the A's .239 average was the lowest
in the majors, and they were hitting a flimsy .212 with runners
in scoring position, but Oakland (which has the league's best
home record, 21-11) had been carried by timely hitting, an
improving defense, a solid bullpen and a pitching staff that had
the American League's third-best ERA (4.35). There was also a
sprinkling of veterans, including outfielders Tony Phillips (12
home runs) and Matt Stairs (14 homers, 42 RBIs), who have
steadied Oakland's young core during the seasonlong offensive
That sort of blend is exactly what Dodgers skipper Davey
Johnson, for all the expensive talent at his disposal, doesn't
have, especially after injuries knocked shortstop Mark
Grudzielanek and outfielders Todd Hollandsworth and Devon White
out of the lineup recently. Johnson has been frustrated by the
Dodgers' lack of depth and flexibility, as well as by a rotation
that, aside from ace Kevin Brown (7-3, 2.69 ERA), has been
flammable. Righthanders Darren Dreifort, Chan Ho Park and Ismael
Valdes and lefty Carlos Perez were a combined 16-21 with a 5.38
The pitching woes have been compounded by erratic play fueled by
the National League's fifth-worst defense and an offense that was
batting just .239 with runners in scoring position. "There was
some not-real-heads-up stuff out there," a testy Johnson said
last Saturday, after L.A. hit into four double plays and botched
a sixth-inning relay that should have cut down Oakland's John
Jaha at the plate.
Malone says he's confident the Dodgers will catch fire and is
still begging for fans to be patient, though he concedes he would
like to see a leader emerge in Los Angeles's star-studded
clubhouse. "All that s--- about leadership and chemistry is
complete bulls---," first baseman Eric Karros says. "When you're
not playing well, that's the easy way out, to say you don't have
Maybe so, but it's a good clubhouse mix as much as clutch hitting
that has the A's playing over their heads. "Our team has great
chemistry," says one Oakland player. "I'd rather be on a team
where everybody's making $180,000 than one where everybody's
making $8 million."
Rookie with a Hot Bat
B-B-B-BENNY AND THE METS
Nobody in the Mets clubhouse calls rookie outfielder Benny
Agbayani a phenom. Too often phenoms are soon-to-be has-beens,
players who come out of nowhere, hit a lot of home runs or
strike out a lot of batters in a short time and then disappear.
The 27-year-old Agbayani has hit a lot of home runs in a short
time (10 in 27 games) and through Sunday was also batting .400,
as phenomenal as you can get. There's a difference, however.
"Usually a guy as inexperienced and as hot as Benny is getting
fastballs over the plate and hitting to one part of the field,"
says New York first baseman John Olerud. "Then pitchers adjust,
and the guy comes back to earth. I've seen Benny hit the
fastball inside, the fastball outside, the curve, and he's doing
it to all fields. He doesn't look like a fluke."
If ever there was a team in need of a feel-good nonfluke, it's
the Mets. Over the past few weeks New York, a disappointing
33-29 through Sunday, had endured an eight-game losing streak
and a string of ugly, even bizarre incidents, from the sudden
dismissal of three coaches on June 5, to struggling outfielder
Bobby Bonilla's refusal to pinch-hit against the Blue Jays three
days later, to manager Bobby Valentine's suspension for sneaking
back to the dugout in disguise after being thrown out of a game
on June 9.
Agbayani, a chunky, happy-go-lucky native of Honolulu who spent
six seasons in the minors and appeared in 11 games last year
with the Mets, was a bright antidote to all this. Agbayani is
everything a quirky rookie should be: Last year he married his
wife, Niela, at home plate before the Triple A All-Star Game in
Norfolk, Va. He keeps a Hawaiian warrior mask in his locker,
reminding him to play with ferocity. Instead of finding an
apartment, he chose to live in a Marriott in Queens. "I didn't
know how long I'd be here," he says. "The hotel was easy."
Three years ago Agbayani, a 30th-round draft pick of the Mets in
1993, was mired in Double A, a reserve outfielder hitting .170
with no pop. It was, he says, the closest he came to considering
an alternative career. Following a surprise call-up to Norfolk,
however, Agbayani was teamed with Valentine, the Tides' manager
at the time. In an effort to add power to Agbayani's bat, the
two began watching tapes of Rangers sluggers Juan Gonzalez and
Ivan Rodriguez, both of whom employ leg kicks in their swings.
Agbayani, who now has a pronounced kick, hit a career-high 11
home runs the next season and another 11 in '98. "I credit Bobby
for it all," he says. "Without him, I'm still in Double A."
On Sunday, with two outs in the fifth inning against the Red Sox,
Agbayani took a 1-and-2 changeup from Mark Portugal and drove it
383 feet into the leftfield stands. The solo blast sparked the
Mets to a three-run inning and a 5-4 win. Suddenly New York
looked like a wild-card contender again, having won two of three
from Boston and six of seven since the end of its losing streak.
And as chants of "Ben-NY! Ben-NY!" rained down from the stands at
Shea, Agbayani looked very much at home.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
When the season's first round of interleague play ended on
Sunday, the National League held a 68-57 advantage over the
American. Seven teams (the Expos, Giants, Indians, Marlins,
Mets, Phillies and White Sox) went 6-3 and two teams (the
Diamondbacks and the Astros) went 4-2 for a .667 winning
percentage, facts that tells us little about who might have the
edge among the World Series contenders, the Astros, Braves,
Indians and Yankees. Thanks to a few regional rivalries
(Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox and Indians-Reds, for example),
interleague attendance was up about 20% over attendance at this
season's intraleague games, but in many ballparks the increase
was hardly noticeable, a sign that fans have become jaded by
baseball's three-year-old gift to them.
Clearly, if interleague play is here to stay--as the game's
hierarchy says it is--its format must be changed, something the
lords of baseball are dragging their feet on. Players and fans
have grown bored with the East-meets-East, West-meets-West and
Central-meets-Central matchups every season and apprehensive of
the competitive imbalance that schedule creates. "Interleague
play was set out so you'd play different divisions every year,"
says Mark McGwire. "That's the way it was described to the
players in the first place.... Every player I've talked to
doesn't like it."
Adds A's outfielder Matt Stairs, "We stay out West for all our
games. We should be able to play at Shea or at Wrigley once in a
The biggest concern is the effect that the interleague schedule
could have on playoff races. For instance, the Mets, who play the
Yankees six times, and the Reds, set for six games with the
Indians, will have tougher roads in the National League wild-card
race than say, Philadelphia, which gets to play six games against
the stumbling Orioles, and the Cardinals, who had six against the
Tigers. "If we lose the wild card by two or three games," says
Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon, "there are going to be some
people wondering if it was worth it just to draw 150,000 people
to our park [to see the Indians]."
STILL BURNING WITHOUT WOOD
When the Cubs lost flamethrowing Kerry Wood for the season (torn
right elbow ligament) in March, most observers wrote off
Chicago's chances of returning to the postseason. Yet the Cubs,
32-27 through Sunday, are in contention for a National League
playoff berth with a ragtag rotation headed by the seemingly
unimposing trio of Kevin Tapani (5-2 with a 2.51 ERA), Jon
Lieber (5-2, 3.48) and Terry Mulholland (3-2, 3.71). Manager Jim
Riggleman's staff had a 4.55 ERA, which ranked seventh in the
league, but perhaps more telling, Cubs pitchers had given up
only 167 walks (second fewest in the league), which is key for a
rotation that relies on throwing junk and getting ground ball
"Sometimes you think your staff needs improving, just because
you're so intent on getting better," says Chicago general
manager Ed Lynch. "Then you look around the league and compare.
We have one of the better staffs."
Lynch expected good results from Tapani, an underrated
35-year-old righthander who won 19 games last season, and from
the rubber-armed Mulholland, 36, who was vital as a lefty setup
man and spot starter in the Cubs' playoff run last season. The
shocker has been Lieber. When Lynch traded outfielder Brant
Brown to the Pirates last December, he acquired Lieber, a
29-year-old career sub-.500 righty who had struggled against
lefthanded batters. With Pittsburgh last year, however, Lieber's
record was deceiving: He went 8-14 with a 4.11 ERA but received
poor defensive backing and only 3.9 runs per game. "When you
know you're not going to have runs to work with, it's hard to
focus," says Cubs reliever Rodney Myers, a teammate of Lieber's
at Double A Memphis in 1993. "When we traded for Jon, I was
thinking, 'We've got ourselves a good one.'"
But this good? Upon arriving in Chicago, Lieber made a decision:
He would start regularly throwing a changeup, a pitch he had
experimented with in the past. Previously he'd relied on a
fastball and a slider. Lieber has also modified his slider so
that it breaks in harder on lefthanders. "I knew I could be O.K.
with the two pitches, doing what I was doing," he says, "but the
Cubs made a commitment to me. I wanted to make one back."
So far, Lieber has fit in well with his new teammates. In public
he comes off as a quiet guy, but he has a joking side. Deep in
his locker Lieber keeps his secret weapon: a set of Billy Bob's
Fake Teeth, jagged brown dentures that break up the clubhouse.
"They're just for fun," he says. "Sometimes you have to remind
yourself to smile." That won't be necessary, if Lieber and the
Cubs can keep it up. Knock on wood.
NOT SO SPECIAL DELIVERY
While with the Red Sox for the past two years, lefthander Steve
Avery grew frustrated with Boston's insistence that he pitch
with more of a three-quarters delivery. After joining the Reds
as a free agent last December, Avery--twice an 18-game winner
with the Braves in the early 1990s, but 16-14 with a 5.64 ERA
during his stint with the Red Sox--made it clear that his
three-quarter days were over. "I want to try to go back to the
way I used to throw," he said, referring to the over-the-top arm
motion he used with Atlanta. "It's when I had the most success."
Using his old delivery, Avery was effective in his first seven
starts for Cincinnati, going 2-3 but amassing a 2.56 ERA. Could
he be the 15- to 20-game winner of his youth? "I don't see why
not," said Reds pitching coach Don Gullett just a month ago.
Now all the gains Avery made are mysteriously gone. His
fastball, up near 90 mph at the start of the season, is again in
the high 70s, where it was with Boston. His changeup, once one
of the game's best, is thus rendered all but useless. Avery, 0-3
with a 13.94 ERA in his last four starts through Sunday, says
the drop-off has to do with poor mechanics and a loss of
strength from a recent bout of the flu. Maybe.
"I'm totally baffled over where his velocity and command went,"
says Gullett. "Before he would walk a guy or two, but he had the
arm speed and the deception on his changeup to get out of it.
Now he doesn't have it."
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
in the BOX
June 13, 1999
Orioles 22, Braves 1
Perhaps it was the pent-up demons of a frustrating season that
exploded on Sunday night for the Orioles, who won their fourth
game in a row, set a franchise scoring record and handed the
Braves their most lopsided loss since they moved to Atlanta in
1966. Baltimore also clambered out of the American League East
cellar for the first time in two months. "It's everybody feeling
good about themselves," manager Ray Miller said in explanation
for the Orioles' 25-hit assault on John Smoltz and five Braves
relievers. "We've been on the other end of that a lot."
The psychic healing was most keenly felt by third baseman Cal
Ripken, whose six hits and five runs were both more than he'd
had in a game in his previous 17 seasons. In the one night he
raised his batting average 30 points. At week's end Ripken was
hitting .367 since his May 13 return from the DL, on which he'd
spent 24 days healing his aching back and clearing his clouded
head. "I came back with a little sharper focus," Ripken said on
Sunday. "I'm enjoying the results."
the HOT corner
With his team 11 games out in the American League East through
Sunday, Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi said he wants first
baseman Carlos Delgado to be more of a clubhouse leader. The
mellow Delgado, who was named team captain last season by then
skipper Tim Johnson, wasn't thrilled by the challenge. "I'm not
going to change anything because somebody walks in the room and
gets a new job," said Delgado, who was hitting .269 with a
team-high 57 RBIs....
Although he didn't see the blowup between Orioles outfielder
Albert Belle and manager Ray Miller on TV--the two got into a
dugout shouting match after Belle failed to run out a grounder
during a June 9 game against the Marlins--White Sox skipper
Jerry Manuel, who managed Belle last season, had sympathy for
the outfielder. He said Belle's doesn't-hustle reputation is
ill-founded. "If a guy's playing a lot of games, like Albert, he
sometimes runs out of gas," says Manuel. "You're just worn down,
so it doesn't look like you're hustling. But Albert hustles,
Through Sunday, Mariners lefthander Jeff Fassero (3-7, 7.00 ERA)
had given up 23 homers this season, which puts him on track to
break the major league record of 50 set by Bert Blyleven of the
Twins in 1986....
With Sandy Alomar not likely to recover from a bone chip in his
left knee until July, the Indians are looking for another
catcher to split time with rookie Einar Diaz. One candidate is
former Reds MVP Joe Oliver, 33, who was batting .309 with five
homers and 26 RBIs for Durham (N.C.), the Devil Rays' Triple A
affiliate. Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar, who can't be
happy with the play of backup catcher Mike DiFelice (.229
average, three RBIs in 48 at bats), says Oliver is still in
Tampa Bay's plans....
During his first 10 years in the majors, from 1987 through '96,
outfielder Luis Polonia could bunt, steal and hit for average,
but he didn't consistently handle the curve. After two years
playing in Mexico, however, Polonia is back in the American
League, having been acquired by the Tigers and called up on May
26, and he says he has conquered his nemesis. "Before, the
breaking ball was the kind of pitch I struck out on or took," he
says. Batting leadoff for Detroit, Polonia was hitting .434 in
53 at bats through Sunday....
Jose Canseco told the St. Petersburg Times that he considers
World Wrestling Federation honcho Vince McMahon a genius and
suggested that baseball take a leaf from wrestling's
entertainment-first book. Among Canseco's ideas: bases that
light up upon contact and orange "bonus" baseballs that would
count for two runs per homer....
No one is suggesting that pitching and defense aren't important,
but consider that the Angels were second in the American League
in ERA (4.34) and second in fielding percentage--but stood last
in the West. Of course, Anaheim's .259 batting average was 12th
in the league....
Cubs shortstop Jose Hernandez is taking the
ballplayer-visits-hospital tradition in a new direction. With
Chicago in Colorado next week, Hernandez has arranged for a
personal tour of Denver's Alameda East Veterinary Hospital, the
setting of his favorite TV show, Emergency Vets. Hernandez is a
self-professed junkie of Animal Planet, the 24-hour channel.