Inside Baseball

April 09, 2000

SAVE THE TIGER
Can Bobby Higginson reclaim his game--and will he do it in
Detroit?

Last season Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson hit just .239 with
12 home runs and 46 RBIs in 107 games. That diminished
production--from 1996 through '98 Higginson averaged .299, 26
homers, 89 RBIs and 144 games played--wasn't all that made him
seem a shell of the player he'd been. Once known as one of the
American League's most aggressive players, Higginson spent most
of 1999 in a fog. "I saw him searching for something," says
Detroit second baseman Damion Easley, "like he wasn't 100
percent confident in his abilities."

"He usually does his share of ragging in [the clubhouse]," says
Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus. "He did some, but not as much as
usual. I don't want to say he was down, but he was quieter."

Higginson admits that his pilot light flickered in 1999. "I lost
a little bit of my fire," he says. "Going to the ballpark felt
like a job. I wasn't the same player last year at all."

Higginson is at a crossroads: Was his dismal season an
aberration, or is he a former star-in-the-making who, as one
scout said last week, now plays as if he's "28 going on 58"?
Further, in whose uniform will he answer those questions? Trade
rumors, which dogged Higginson (who's actually 29) for much of
last season, arose again this spring. During the final week of
training camp, reports had him on the way to the Mariners, the
Mets or the Yankees. Last week, however, the Tigers insisted
they were not shopping Higginson, their number 3 hitter, and
interest from other teams died down, at least for now. That
bodes well for Higginson, who says fretting over possible trades
was a factor in his poor showing last year. "You give everything
you have to an organization for five years, and the moment you
start struggling, it looks to move you," he says. "I took it
personally, and I shouldn't have."

Higginson was also bothered by a sprained toe that relegated him
to the disabled list for a month before requiring season-ending
surgery in September, and by a less-than-friendly relationship
with Larry Parrish, Detroit's manager at the time, who publicly
called Higginson an overachiever who had peaked. Parrish also
criticized his outfield play. Neither should be an issue this
season: Higginson says the toe feels fine, and new skipper Phil
Garner has raved about Higginson's importance to the Tigers.
"Higgy was a bite-you-in-the-ass kind of guy two years ago,"
says Garner, who was then managing the Brewers. "We need to have
him having fun and biting again."

Higginson didn't exactly show his teeth in spring training: He
hit just .234 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 64 at bats. He
spent much of the exhibition season working on mechanical
adjustments, trying to move his hands more fluidly into a cocked
position before taking his swing, and struggled to regain his
timing. As camp wound down, he sounded as if he was also still
chewing over the possibility of a trade--and with a certain
ambivalence. "First and foremost I want to stay here," Higginson
said last week, "but maybe I should go somewhere else. Making a
fresh start wouldn't be the worst thing." Stay or go, he needs
to make one.

Lofton's Return
WAY AHEAD OF SCHEDULE

No one would have been shocked had Kenny Lofton's trudge to the
dugout during Game 5 of an American League Division Series last
October, his left arm hanging at a grotesque angle, proved to be
his final act on a baseball field. The Indians' Lofton had
dislocated his left shoulder diving into first base while trying
to beat out a ground ball. An MRI in late November revealed a
badly torn rotator cuff. "That combination in the throwing arm
is usually the kiss of death," says orthopedist James Andrews,
the shoulder guru who operated on Lofton in December. "I wasn't
even sure I could fix the tear, much less make it so he could
play again."

Two months ago Cleveland was hoping only that Lofton, 32, would
make it back sometime around the All-Star break. Yet there was
Lofton, standing in centerfield for Cleveland's opener in
Baltimore on Monday. It quickly became clear that his return was
anything but premature. In his third at bat Lofton hit a solo
home run; he wound up 2 for 4 with two RBIs. He also ended the
game by hauling in Brady Anderson's deep fly to center. Says
Andrews, who put Lofton on the same rehab program he has used
for other players with similar injuries, "In the 28 years I've
been doing this, it's the most amazing comeback I've seen."

Lofton, who offers only "divine intervention" as explanation for
his near-miraculous recovery, split time over the winter between
his home in Tucson and Andrews's rehab center in Birmingham. He
was able to swing the bat when he arrived in camp, just two
months after surgery. Three weeks ago he began a throwing
program that within 14 days had him tossing balls as far as 180
feet. Most rotator-cuff patients need at least four months
before they can even swing a golf club and close to six before
they're ready to start throwing. "Kenny told me during the
winter, 'Charlie, don't go trade for another outfielder,'"
Indians manager Charlie Manuel says. "'I'll be back before
people think I will.'"

Manuel has told the centerfielder to take it easy on
defense--"All I have to do is hit the cutoff man," Lofton
says--and Cleveland hopes his penchant for headfirst sliding is
a thing of the past. "I told him how much faster he'll get there
if he slides feetfirst," says Andrews. Clearly, Lofton is a
player committed to getting there, and back, fast.

Uniform Decision
NINE-INNING SALUTE

To honor U.S. military personnel, the Padres will suit up in
camouflage jerseys and olive caps for their April 13 game
against the Diamondbacks at Qualcomm Stadium. No word on whether
the dugout will be replaced by a foxhole.

COLOR PHOTO: V. J. LOVERO Higginson's dismal 1999, when he batted .239 and battled a toe injury, stirred up trade rumors. COLOR PHOTO: RICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS

See You Later!

The unkindest cuts are those made in the final days of camp,
when promising players--even after holding their own against big
leaguers in spring training--get caught in roster crunches and
find themselves back in the minors. Here are five late cuts
(among them Wilton Veras, right) who shouldn't fret, because
they'll be back in the majors soon.

PLAYER, AGE, POS., TEAM
Nelson Cruz, 27, RHP, Tigers

SPRING STATS
1 ER in 9 2/3 IP

WHY SENT DOWN
Detroit's bullpen already well-stocked with high-quality
righthanders

[PLAYER, AGE, POS., TEAM]
Mike Garcia, 31, RHP, Pirates

[SPRING STATS]
2.92 ERA, 15 K's in 12 1/3 IP
Despite strong spring and 1.29 ERA in seven games in
1999, couldn't crack deep relief corps

[PLAYER, AGE, POS., TEAM]
Jesus Pena, 25, LHP, White Sox

[SPRING STATS]
2.45 ERA, 5 hits in 11 IP

[WHY SENT DOWN]
Spring wildness (eight walks) convinced Chicago he needed
more seasoning

[PLAYER, AGE, POS., TEAM]
Fernando Seguignol, 25, 1B-OF, Expos

[SPRING STATS]
2 HRs, 7 RBIs 8 K's in 46 ABs

[WHY SENT DOWN]
Montreal's stacked outfield and new first baseman Lee
Stevens would keep him on bench

[PLAYER, AGE, POS., TEAM]
Wilton Veras, 22, 3B, Red Sox

[SPRING STATS]
.438 BA in 12 games

[WHY SENT DOWN]
Despite history of slow starts and injuries, John
Valentin has stranglehold on hot corner

the HOT corner

See the Expos at La Stade Olympique this season, or don't see
them at all. As of Opening Day, Montreal's local television and
radio networks, English-language and French, had refused to meet
new general partner Jeffrey Loria's demands for higher rights
fees, which means that none of the Expos' schedule will be
broadcast in Canada. Fans interested in Expos games will need a
satellite dish or Internet hookup to follow their team, or a
ticket....

Pirates lefthander Jimmy Anderson, 24, won the fifth spot in the
Pittsburgh rotation when veteran Pete Schourek was released last
week. Now Anderson, whom some say has a questionable work ethic,
has to win over his teammates, several of whom were critical of
the Pirates' decision. "We can live with Pete Schourek going out
there, even if he gives up 10 runs," said Pittsburgh
rightfielder Brian Giles. "You know he's going to throw it all
on the line. Jimmy has good stuff, but he needs to learn how to
work and make himself better. We haven't seen him make that
commitment." ...

Rightfield at new Pac Bell Park will be nothing if not
entertaining. Balls that clear the fence could land in San
Francisco Bay, and those that hit the 25-foot-high wall--a
combination of brick, simulated brick, padding and cyclone
fencing--can rebound any which way. "You probably won't see the
ball do the same thing twice in a game," rightfielder Ellis
Burks said last week after the Giants' first official workout at
Pac Bell....

Can Pedro Martinez pitch every day? The Red Sox' already shaky
staff absorbed a blow on March 28 when righthander Juan Pena was
hit on the wrist by a line drive. The impact tore the medial
collateral ligament in his right elbow, and Pena, who had a 1.62
ERA in six spring appearances, will have Tommy John surgery and
miss the season. The Boston bullpen was already shorthanded
thanks to Rod Beck's absence--he started the season on the
disabled list with an irritated nerve in his neck. The Red Sox
did get some encouraging news: Bionic man Bret Saberhagen is
recovering from off-season rotator-cuff surgery more quickly
than expected, and he could rejoin Boston by mid-May....

First campaign promise of the season: Manager Phil Garner, whose
Tigers open with a hellish six-game road trip to Oakland and
Baltimore, guaranteed last week that Detroit will return home
with a winning record.

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)