THE HITS PARADE
Vladimir Guerrero's streak ended at 31 games, but there's more
Reds lefthander Ron Villone was walking up from the Metro to
Olympic Stadium, tomb of the Expos, last Saturday when he was
accosted by three Montreal fans. "They said, 'What did you do
that for? We had nothing else to look forward to,'" says
Villone, who had stopped Expos rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero's
hitting streak at 31 games the previous night by retiring him on
a grounder in the second, issuing him an intentional walk in the
fourth and teasing him with high inside stuff leading off the
seventh. In what proved be his last at bat of the game, Guerrero
got ahead in the count 3 and 0, then chased two balls out of the
strike zone, fouling out on the second.
Although Guerrero is a prodigy at 23, he is still refining his
skills, maybe still learning how to count. If he had taken one
more pitch and walked, he would have guaranteed himself--barring
a double play--another plate appearance. The hitting streak, the
longest in the major leagues since Benito Santiago's 34 games in
1987, ended with Guerrero in the on-deck circle.
Guerrero's impatience wasn't atypical. He's a first-ball,
bad-ball hitter. Until Saturday he never needed a hit in his
final at bat to preserve the streak. Only three times did his
first hit come later than the sixth inning. In five of the last
seven games of the streak, with Delino DeShields's old team
record of 21 fading in the rearview mirror and Pete Rose's
National League mark of 44 appearing on the horizon, Guerrero
settled his daily affair with hits in his first at bats. When he
singled against St. Louis on Aug. 24, running the streak to 29,
Mark McGwire urged him to tip his cap to the Olympic Stadium
crowd. In the next two games, without any prompting, the shy
Guerrero took curtain calls after his 31st and 32nd home runs.
Guerrero is the rarest of hitting hybrids, a power hitter who
makes contact. Through Sunday he had struck out only 49 times,
an average of once every 10.2 at bats, best among the 19 major
league hitters who had at least 30 homers. "He has a long swing,
but it's a level swing, a base-hit swing," says Montreal manager
Felipe Alou. Guerrero also has extraordinary plate coverage;
Phillies ace Curt Schilling has called it the best he has ever
seen. National League pitchers have been mostly working him
inside, with scant success of late: From July 27 through Sunday
his average jumped from .279 to .303.
Guerrero began the season as a potential 40-40 man--40 homers,
40 errors. He had nine miscues in the field by the end of April,
and his 16 through Sunday still led big league outfielders.
Instead he enrolled in a select 30-30 club. Last week Guerrero
joined Rogers Hornsby (1922), Joe DiMaggio (1941) and Nomar
Garciaparra (1997) as the only players ever to have a hitting
streak of at least 30 games and to have hit at least 30 home
runs in the same year.
Last Saturday, just hours after Villone had been scolded by the
fans, Guerrero hit a two-strike, two-out, two-run homer in the
bottom of the ninth, a 445-foot rainbow over the leftfield
bleachers, to beat the Reds 8-6. The new streak stood at one.
With Guerrero, there's always something to look forward to.
Hustling in Kansas City
THE ROYALS' TRIPLE THREAT
The Kauffman Stadium fence is an outfielder's big green
nightmare. The padding is so pillowy that balls nearly sink into
it. The corners, curved like a roller rink's, make chasing a
caroming ball a game of luck. Some players claim the warning
track is extra spongy, making balls bounce higher than usual.
There's a good reason for all this: The Royals traditionally
have been built around speed and hustle; Kansas City has never
developed a big, slow home run hitter. (John Mayberry, Steve
Balboni and Dean Palmer were all acquired in trades.) The
Royals' weapon of choice is the triple.
In its first 30 seasons Kansas City ranked among the American
League's top three teams in triples 26 times. This season, the
Royals' 31st, the club through Sunday led the majors with 43
triples and had four players among the league's top seven:
Rookie Carlos Febles ranked second with nine, followed by
Jermaine Dye and Joe Randa (eight apiece) and Johnny Damon
(seven). No team has had four players ranked among a league's
top 10 in triples since the 1966 Pirates. Kansas City appears
certain to match that.
The Royals may have been only 51-79, but manager Tony Muser
still had his charges running aggressively. "On this team you
watch the ball, you watch the outfielder and, if there's a good
chance of going from second to third, you go for it hard," says
Until 1995 Kauffman Stadium's fence was 10 feet farther from
home plate than it is now, and the field was a hard, slick
artificial turf. Thus, when the front office picked prospects,
it went with speed over pop. The present dimensions are a more
reachable 375 feet in left center, 400 in center and 375 in
right center, and the field is grass, but the personnel strategy
remains unchanged. "The idea has always been to get a full
roster of guys who hustle," says G.M. Herk Robinson, whose club
had hit 917 of its 1,409 alltime three-baggers at home. "That
Of the five players with the most triples for K.C., the
aforementioned quartet plus shortstop Rey Sanchez (five
triples), only Damon and Febles, currently on the 15-day
disabled list with a dislocated finger, are speedsters. Randa
makes up for limited wheels with an explosive first step out of
the box. Before a right hamstring injury knocked him out of the
lineup last week, Sanchez had surpassed 400 at bats for just the
second time in eight-plus big league seasons. Dye, who through
Sunday led K.C. with 23 home runs, insists that for him, a
triple is a fluke. "I'm a doubles hitter," says Dye, who entered
the season with one triple in 769 career at bats. "The triples
come when I hit it in a weird space or someone misplays the ball."
At Kauffman Stadium, of course, that's part of the plan.
Bobby Smith Gets His Shot
THE DEVILS RAYS' THIRD MAN
As this season began, the Devil Rays had a dilemma at third
base. On the one hand, Bobby Smith was Tampa Bay's third baseman
of the future, a player dubbed by general manager Chuck LaMar
during spring training as the Devil Rays' clear No. 1 player at
that position. On the other hand, should a fan-deprived
expansion club just let Wade Boggs, 78 hits short of 3,000
entering the season, collect dust or make history someplace
else? "It was a somewhat difficult situation to handle," says
LaMar. "We're a young team, and we want to develop young talent
like Robert. But Wade can still play."
On the surface Tampa Bay's solution worked. Smith and Boggs
began the season as a righty-lefty platoon, but after Smith, 25,
hit .151 in 86 at bats, he was sent to Triple A Durham on May
17. The 41-year-old Boggs marched on to 3,000, batting .294 and
reaching the milestone at Tropicana Field on Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, Smith--who last season hit .276 with 11 home runs and
55 RBIs and made the Topps Major League Rookie All-Star Team
while splitting third base duties with Boggs, who went on the
disabled list in April '98 for the first time in his
career--waited in Durham, playing well (.333, 14 homers, 47 RBIs
in 57 games) but frustrated that those 86 at bats earlier in the
season had been enough to determine that he needed more time on
the farm. "I knew that it wouldn't make sense to get angry,"
says Smith, "but I know I would have started hitting if I'd been
playing regularly. Timing is everything in hitting. If you don't
face major league pitching, it's hard to develop good timing."
While the Devil Rays deny that Boggs's quest for 3,000 was the
only reason he played regularly--"The guy's a .300 hitter," says
LaMar--he was benched as soon as he reached the milestone, and
Smith was inserted in the lineup. "All I want is a regular
chance to prove that I can hit here consistently," says Smith,
who was again benched last week with a .173 average in 24 games
since his recall. "Give me the opportunity to start more than 10
games in a row. I can play at this level."
The Devil Rays agree. Boggs is in the last year of his deal with
Tampa Bay, and the club probably will not pick up his option for
next season. Smith, manager Larry Rothschild insists, is still
his third baseman of the future. The future, however, will start
a season later than expected.
Korean Home Run King
A TASTE OF BIG MAC IN ASIA
It sounds--to a point--like a list of questions from a September
1998 Mark McGwire press conference: How many home runs can one
man hit? By how many can he break a seemingly unbreakable
record? Is he the greatest power hitter of all time? And why
does he like eating eels?
Lee Seung-yup, 23, the Samsung Lions' first baseman and South
Korea's answer to McGwire, has been living in the national
spotlight since late June, when he began a serious charge at the
Korea Baseball Organization's single-season home run record.
Last year Lee and the OB Bears' Tyrone Woods engaged in a
historic home run race before Lee finished at 38 and Woods, a
native of Florida who spent 10 seasons in the U.S. minor
leagues, set the league record of 42.
This season, however, while Woods has been plagued by injuries,
Lee has soared. On Aug. 2, in a game against the Lotte Giants,
he blasted his 43rd homer of the season, a 410-foot shot over
the rightfield fence that set off a national frenzy. Lee's
blasts are front-page news throughout South Korea. In addition
to publicizing Lee's taste for eel, the media have revealed such
personal tidbits as the fact that his face turns red when he
consumes alcohol, which he does rarely, and that he turns his
salary, equivalent to $93,000 this season, over to his mother,
who then gives him a monthly allowance. Also, when Lee wanted to
buy a car, his father told him an automobile could be
misconstrued as a sign of self-importance. Said Dad, "When you
need a car, I will buy you one."
In some ways the six-foot, 194-pound Lee is more Babe Ruth than
Big Mac. Like the Bambino, he began as a highly touted pitcher.
He signed with Samsung out of high school four years ago, but
the lefthanded Lee needed surgery on his pitching elbow in
January 1995. During his rehab the team worked with him on his
hitting and then kept him in the lineup all season. Lee did so
well at the plate (13 homers in '95) that he was turned into a
full-time hitter. Although he has struggled of late--he recently
went 12 games without a homer--Lee had 49 through Sunday and
needed seven more in his remaining 12 games to break Sadaharu
Oh's Asian single-season record of 55.
Though his contract ends after the 2001 season, he brushes off
talk of bringing his bat to America. "I dream of playing in the
United States," he says, "but I still have a long way to go."
THE GRASS LOOKED GREENER
Two seasons ago an injury-prone longtime member of the A's
refused to entertain Oakland's offer to discuss a contract
extension. He went on to make it clear that when the A's traded
him, he wanted to be dealt to the Angels or, if that wasn't
possible, to another winning franchise.
Through Sunday, Mark McGwire and the Cardinals were 63-68 this
season. Anaheim was 51-78.
Oakland was 71-59.
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
When the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson struck out nine Marlins
last Thursday to reach 300 strikeouts in a season for the third
time, he attained the magic number faster--in only his 29th
appearance of 1999--than any pitcher ever had. (With seven
starts remaining through Sunday, he had an outside shot at Nolan
Ryan's major league record of 383, set in 1973.) In terms of
strikeouts per nine innings, however, this had been only
Johnson's fourth-best year (12.00), which would still make it
the fourth best ever if he finishes at that rate. Here are the
single-season leaders in strikeouts per nine innings (minimum
Year Games W-L, Innings Strikeouts K's
1. Randy Johnson, 1995 30 18-2, 214 1/3 294 12.34
2. Randy Johnson, 1997 30 20-4, 213 291 12.30
3. Randy Johnson, 1998 34 19-11, 244 1/3 329 12.12
4. Nolan Ryan, 1987 34 8-16, 211 270 11.52
5. Dwight Gooden, 1984 31 17-9, 218 276 11.39
6. Pedro Martinez, 1997 31 17-8, 241 1/3 305 11.37
7. Nolan Ryan, 1989 32 16-10, 239 301 11.33
8. Curt Schilling, 1997 35 17-11, 254 1/3 319 11.29
9. Randy Johnson, 1993 35 19-8, 255 1/3 308 10.86
10. Sam McDowell, 1965 42 17-11, 273 325 10.71
in the BOX
August 28, 1999
Braves 3, Cardinals 0
Purists who bemoan the death of the complete game, which has
been rarer this season than in any other this century, should
send tapes of this Braves 13-inning win over the Cardinals
straight to the Smithsonian. Atlanta's Kevin Millwood became the
first Braves pitcher since 1976 to throw 10 scoreless innings;
he needed the extra frame because St. Louis's Darren Oliver, who
shut out Atlanta for nine, was nearly as dominant. For fans who
have forgotten, the key to lasting into the later innings--and
beyond--is getting ahead of hitters, something both Millwood and
Oliver did often. The latter threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of
the 32 batters he faced. Millwood was even sharper, getting a
quick strike against 24 of 33. With their pitch counts low, both
were throwing well even in their final innings: The Braves went
down one-two-three in the ninth, and Millwood ended his day with
two strikeouts in the 10th.
the HOT corner
Because he refused to sign a lucrative contract extension
earlier this year, second baseman Mickey Morandini (.249, three
home runs, 34 RBIs through Sunday) has been benched by the Cubs
in favor of rookie Chad Meyers. "It's not just the fact that
Chad Meyers is here," says manager Jim Riggleman, "but the fact
that Mickey didn't sign the contract that would've made him a
Cub for the future." Morandini will be a free agent in the
off-season, and not all that attractive a one....
After allowing two hits and then getting Albert Belle to ground
out to earn his 300th career save in an 8-6 win over the Orioles
on Aug. 25, 37-year-old Royals closer Jeff Montgomery said that
he expects to retire at season's end. "I'm not as reliable as I
used to be," said Montgomery (1-4, 6.95, eight saves), "and when
you don't have that confidence to close out a game, you're not
After watching eight first basemen combine to hit .241 with 10
homers, Padres general manager Kevin Towers has had enough. One
of his first priorities in the off-season will be to find a
full-timer at first; the Tigers' Tony Clark and the Dodgers'
Eric Karros are on his list....
Orioles rookie third baseman Ryan Minor has struggled (.179, two
homers, four RBIs in 27 games) in his stint replacing the
injured Cal Ripken Jr. (back spasms), but not enough to
contemplate a return to basketball. "The only time I think about
it is at the end of an 0-for-4 game, when I'm walking back to
the dugout after striking out," he says. "But every day here is
a fresh start." The 6'7" Minor, sixth on Oklahoma's alltime
scoring list, played one season in the CBA after being a
second-round pick of the 76ers in 1996....
Before acquiring closer Matt Mantei from the Marlins, the
Diamondbacks--using an assortment of relievers to finish
games--had lost 14 of 21 games. Arizona was 31-13 since Mantei's
arrival. Says outfielder Luis Gonzalez, "He's made even the fans
Arizona rookie outfielder Rob Ryan received an odd memento from
his first major league at bat: the cracked helmet of Pirates
catcher Joe Oliver. As he followed through on his first swing,
Ryan connected with Oliver's headgear. Oliver signed it, "First
big league hit."