For many players, the hit-and-sit role does not fit like a glove
Asked how he felt about the designated hitter rule, former
Cardinals and Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke once said, "It
seems like Satan has thrown the DH into our game." Harsh words,
given that Van Slyke was never a DH, but not at odds with the
mind-set of several current designated hitters. The Angels' Mo
Vaughn, forced into DH duty this year by a sprained left ankle,
and the White Sox's Paul Konerko, who played first base early in
the season before becoming a full-time DH last month, are just
two of the players who have deplored their roles in recent
weeks. "When you're DHing, you can't feel a part of what's going
on," says Vaughn. "The game flows when you're on the field."
Adds Konerko, "If it's between not playing and DHing, I love
DHing. If it's between DHing and first base, they're not even in
the same ballpark."
Konerko, who was batting .282 with 11 homers through Sunday,
seems comfortable in the DH slot. (He hit .315 with seven of
those homers while at DH.) That's fortunate, because Frank
Thomas, with whom Konerko switched positions on June 1, has
flourished since returning to first. In 148 at bats as a DH this
year, Thomas had hit .284 with five home runs; in 168 at bats
when playing the field, the Big Hurt's average jumped to .357
with seven homers. In Thomas's career, his average as a two-way
player (.337) is 50 points higher than it is when he's a DH.
He's not the only slugger who improves when wearing batting and
fielding gloves. Vaughn's lifetime average as a first baseman is
.309; as a DH it's .266. Boston's Mike Stanley, a former catcher
who splits time between DH and first, has hit .277 as a
defender, 26 points better than as a DH. "It's a boring
existence," he says. "So many guys have come up to me the last
couple of years and said, 'How do you do this?'"
Designated hitters also have to deal with the pressure of having
only four or five chances to help their team: A pop-up with the
bases loaded, say, can't be atoned for with a defensive gem. Of
course, some DHs realize the negative impact they would most
likely have on their teams by playing the field. Says the
Yankees' Chili Davis, who set an Angels record with 19 outfield
errors in 1988 and has played only eight games in the outfield
over the past nine seasons, "I was very happy when the Yankees
signed me and said I didn't have to bring a glove."
Ron Villone Fits In
A STARTING POINT AT LAST
The latest story in the Reds' feel-good season is the one about
a blue-collar baseball nomad who is suddenly essential to his
team's playoff hopes. Over his last seven starts--the first
seven starts of his major league career--lefthander Ron Villone
is 3-2 with a 4.66 ERA. A reliever for five teams in five
seasons, he was called on in early June to help shake up the
In his second start, on June 14, he one-hit the Mets over five
innings; in his fourth, on June 24, he one-hit the Astros over
seven; six days later, against the Diamondbacks, he permitted
one hit over eight. (He was 2-0 in those games.) On July 5 he
slumped, allowing six hits over seven innings in a 5-2 win
against the Astros. "Success is about opportunity," says
Villone, 29, who was a first-round draft choice of the Mariners
in 1992. "I've had opportunities before, but I guess I finally
decided to take advantage of it."
Converted from a starter to a closer in the Seattle system,
Villone had a fastball in the mid-90s, a decent changeup and an
emerging curve. He also had control problems, and after 19 big
league games, in which Villone went 0-2 with a 7.91 ERA, the
Mariners shipped him to the Padres as part of a deal for righty
Andy Benes in July '95. That's pretty much Villone's resume--bad
numbers followed by a deal for a bigger name. In '96 the Padres
sent Villone to the Brewers as part of the Greg Vaughn swap. In
'97 he went to the Indians in a deal for Marquis Grissom.
Then last spring Cleveland released him. Villone says he has no
hard feelings toward the Tribe. "Hopefully, Ron won't try too
hard," Reds pitching coach Don Gullett said before Villone
started against the Indians at Jacobs Field. "When you face a
team that let you go, sometimes there's the desire to prove it
was a mistake." Villone pitched well against the Indians, except
for a four-run second inning. The Reds lost 11-10, but Cleveland
G.M. John Hart, forever searching for a lefty starter, surely
noted Villone's stats. The mistake was obvious.
Dennis Martinez's Plans
ONE MORE TIME: PAN AM GAMES
Dennis Martinez was 43 when he retired from major league
baseball after pitching for the Braves in the National League
Championship Series last October; nine months later he is 45. In
documentation for the Pan Am Games, scheduled to begin on July
23 in Winnipeg, Martinez, a player-coach for Nicaragua, lists
his birth year as 1954 instead of 1955, the date listed for him
in all big league records. In the grand tradition of Hollywood,
Martinez had been fudging his age.
Now that the righthander has come clean on his birth, the only
people he will finesse are some hitters. Martinez was planning
to work an inning or two in exhibition games while grooming his
breaking ball for one key Pan Am start. "If we get to the
semifinals, against Cuba or the U.S., maybe I'll put myself in
and see if I can go four or five innings," Martinez says. "This
is the Olympic qualifier"--the top two teams will go to
Sydney--"and if that can't motivate you, nothing can."
Martinez, the winningest Latin American pitcher in major league
history, with 245 victories in 23 seasons, had planned to take a
sabbatical from baseball this season. But the man revered in his
country as El Presidente was pressed into service by the
Nicaraguan baseball federation.
Martinez, who hopes to return to the majors as a coach or scout
next season, ran the team's pre-Pan Am Games training camp and
then was asked to help manage even though he has no professional
managerial experience. "It's a challenge I like," he says.
"We'll see how I respond."
Minor League Prospects
A CALL TO YOUNG ARMS
Every fifth day in the clubhouse of the Triple A Fresno
Grizzlies, before righthander Jason Grilli takes the mound, his
pitching coach offers a reminder. "For each guy you strike out,"
Joel Horlen tells him, "you pay me five bucks."
While discussing this financial arrangement before Sunday's
All-Star Futures Game at Fenway Park (in which a team of U.S.
minor leaguers faced a team from the rest of the world), Grilli
doesn't crack a smile. He is 22, a former standout at Seton
Hall, and has a 96-mph fastball and one of Triple A's best
sinkers. In 17 games through last Saturday, he was 7-4 with a
4.70 ERA. He is a likely September call-up to the Giants. He is,
by virtue of more than just the Fenway appearance, a future
star--and in 92 innings, he had 69 strikeouts. That's $345.
"Coach is stressing something all young pitchers have to learn,"
says Grilli, who retired both batters he faced in the U.S.'s 7-0
loss to the world's future stars. "Everyone wants to see home
runs, and everyone wants to see the 15 strikeouts, but the
pitcher who survives is the one who gets a lot of grounders to
Despite career-threatening arm injuries suffered by fireballers
Matt Morris of the Cardinals and Kerry Wood of the Cubs, and
despite the financial benefits of a long career, most young
pitchers refuse to abandon the sexy high fastball for, say, the
low-and-away slider. Of the 11 pitchers on the U.S. Futures Game
roster, seven averaged more than a strikeout per inning. Indeed,
St. Louis's Rick Ankiel, Seattle's Ryan Anderson, Florida's A.J.
Burnett and Brad Penny, and Baltimore's Matt Riley--arguably
baseball's top five up-and-coming arms--all throw fastballs in
the low- to mid-90s.
"It can be a conflict," says Penny (2-7, 4.70 ERA for Double A
El Paso, with 100 strikeouts in 90 innings), who last Friday was
traded from the Diamondbacks to the Marlins as part of a deal
for closer Matt Mantei. "Strikeouts look great, and they feel
great. But if it's between striking out 10 guys and having all
pop outs and grounders, we should be smart enough to go for easy
outs. I want my career to last."
The sorry state of major league pitching (the 30 teams have a
combined 4.77 ERA, the highest figure in 69 years), has
organizations rushing along young pitchers with live arms--often
before they have learned such restraint. That's why Ankiel (3-1,
3.38 ERA at Triple A Memphis), who turns 20 on July 19, could be
in St. Louis in September. Penny, too, who probably would not
have played with the Diamondbacks until 2000, will probably
appear for the Marlins this year. Burnett, an explosive
22-year-old who was pitching Class A ball last season, almost
made Florida's Opening Day roster as the No. 5 starter. (He lost
out to Dennis Springer, a soft-toss knuckler.) Instead, Burnett
wound up at Double A Portland, where he has struggled to a 4-8
record and 5.73 ERA.
Anderson, the eccentric 6'10" lefty who is constantly compared
to Randy Johnson, also wrestles with his control, which would
hardly deter the pitching-poor Mariners from giving him a
late-season shot. "I'm anxious to make it," says Anderson (5-10,
5.11 ERA, with 103 strikeouts in 91 2/3 innings). "It's been a
Anderson is 20. These days, a long road can be awfully short.
Garry Templeton's Absence
No Interest in Star Treks
Juan Gonzalez's refusal to appear at the All-Star Game as a
nonstarter was fitting, this being the 20th anniversary of
another infamous midsummer snub. In 1979 Cardinals shortstop
Garry Templeton, miffed because fans had voted Larry Bowa to
start for the National League, eschewed the trip to Seattle's
Kingdome to be a reserve by declaring, "If I ain't startin', I
ain't departin'." Apparently Templeton's still a stay-at-home
guy. Asked to coach the U.S. team in Sunday's Futures Game at
Fenway, Templeton, who now manages the Angels' Double A
affiliate in Erie, Pa., declined, saying he wanted to spend some
time with his family.
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
THE HOT CORNER
Look for the players' association to fight baseball's plan to
have the Mets and the Cardinals open next season with a series
in Japan. Says Mark McGwire, "Major league baseball belongs in
the United States. The Japanese have Japanese baseball, so
there's no reason for us to go over there."...
Since 1988 only the '94 Dodgers have finished a season with more
blown saves than successful conversions, but the Royals and the
Orioles were on pace to do just that. At the break Kansas City
had 21 failed opportunities and 13 saves; Baltimore had 20 and
Outfielder John Wehner was planning a family vacation to Aruba
in June when the Pirates, for whom he played from 1991 through
'96, called. At the time Wehner, who had hit .227 in 53 games
for the Marlins last season, had no job prospects. Pittsburgh
sent him to Double A Altoona. Said Wehner, "Altoona is just like
Aruba, only without the beaches." The Pirates called him up on
A poll conducted by Diehard, a monthly Red Sox magazine, asked
fans to pick G.M. Dan Duquette's greatest blunder. The winner:
signing Steve Avery to a contract worth $8.7 million in 1997,
which received 44.1% of the votes. Not keeping Mo Vaughn (38.2%)
was second, Roger Clemens's '96 departure (14.7%) third....
The Marlins and pitcher Josh Beckett, the No. 2 selection in
last month's amateur draft, are nowhere close in contract talks.
Beckett is asking for a package in the $8 million range. The
Marlins are offering $3 million to $4 million.
At the All-Star break Jeff Zimmerman was having as close to a
perfect season as any relief pitcher could hope for. The Rangers
rookie had an ERA under 1.00, had given up just 18 hits in 52
1/3 innings and had won each of his eight decisions. Here are
the relievers with the best winning percentages (minimum six
PLAYER, TEAM W-L SAVES ERA
1. Jeff Zimmerman, Rangers 8-0 1 0.86
Rookie's first-half performance made him the rarest of
All-Stars: the middle reliever
2. Steve Karsay, Indians 7-1 1 2.63
Went on DL on July 3; former first-round pick had already
doubled career win total this season
3. Donne Wall, Padres 6-1 0 2.79
ERA in three years with Houston was 5.00; in the last season and
a half with San Diego, 2.56
4. Jason Grimsley, Yankees 6-1 0 4.02
Before this season former phenom hadn't thrown a big league
inning since '96
5. Mark Petkovsek, Angels 8-2 1 1.81
At week's end batters had hit just .154 against him with runners
in scoring position
6. Dennis Cook, Mets 7-2 1 2.61
Had allowed average of just 8.06 base runners per nine innings
while striking out 10.02
7. John Wasdin, Red Sox 7-3 2 3.27
Hadn't allowed more than two hits in any of his 21 appearances
since May 15
8. Danny Graves, Reds 6-3 12 3.54
Nasty Boys II. He and co-closer Scott Williamson have combined
for 13 wins in 20 decisions
9. T.J. Mathews, Athletics 6-3 1 3.89
Went on DL on July 3; only man left on Oakland roster from 1997
10. David Weathers, Brewers 6-3 2 4.09
Four of Weathers's six victories came in outings of one inning
in the BOX
Mets 9, Yankees 8
July 10, 1999
The Yankees hit six home runs last Saturday that traveled a
combined 2,392 feet. The Mets won the game in the ninth by two
inches on two plays. With two out and the bases loaded, pinch
hitter Matt Franco was frozen by Yankees closer Mariano Rivera's
0 and 2 cut fastball that appeared to blaze over the outside
corner. "My heart stopped for half a breath," said Franco. Plate
umpire Jeff Kellogg called it a ball, and Franco laced the next
pitch into right for a two-run, game-winning single.
He wouldn't have had the chance if not for another close play
three batters earlier. With one out and a runner on first,
Edgardo Alfonzo hit a fly ball that centerfielder Bernie
Williams seemed to have a bead on. But the ball glanced off
Williams's glove, turning what should have been the second out
into a double.