Inside Baseball

May 07, 2000

April Fools
For a number of stars, the season's first month was a cruel one

Even though Tigers first baseman Tony Clark is a notoriously slow
starter, this April was especially cruel to him. Clark, a career
.249 April hitter before this year, batted .115, knocked in only
four runs and struck out 19 times in 61 at bats. Things got so
bad that manager Phil Garner benched Clark last Saturday, saying
that he would sit--and not even pinch-hit--for a few days so he
could clear his head. "Tony's been working very hard, getting
here early to hit every day," said Garner. "Mentally, he's
suffering. He needs some mental time off right now."

Before he took a seat, Clark had slid from the fifth spot in
Detroit's lineup to eighth and already had heard boos at Comerica
Park, but he and Tigers fans can at least cling to this hope: He
has experience extricating himself from prolonged early-season
slumps. Clark rebounded from a sluggish start last year (.212
through May 31) to hit .317 with 23 homers and 61 RBIs after the
All-Star break. "My approach isn't any different than it was the
second half of last year," says Clark, "but I'm taking a lot of
pitches I shouldn't take and fouling off a lot of balls. I know
what I have to do; I just haven't been able to get my body in a
position to do it."

Clark wasn't alone in the April doldrums. Here are five other
players who had stellar seasons a year ago but were still
attempting to regain their 1999 form:

--Ken Griffey Jr., Reds. A slow start from Junior isn't what the
Reds expected, particularly because Griffey owns the major league
record for home runs in April (13, in 1997) and usually thrives
early in the season. He was leading Cincinnati in home runs
(seven) and RBIs (24) through Sunday but was hitting only .217
and was pressing at the plate. "I've been swinging at bad pitches
and not being very selective," Griffey said.

--Mike Hampton, Mets. The four losses Hampton had in the opening
month, as many as he had during all of last season, when he won
22 games, weren't the most disturbing entry on his stat sheet.
More troubling was his lack of control--30 walks in 33 1/3
innings--and the fact that he was at a loss to explain his poor
performance. "I had the best stuff and the best location I've had
all year, and I still gave up too many runs," Hampton, a
southpaw, said after surrendering eight hits, three walks and six
earned runs in New York's 12-5 loss to the Rockies last Friday.
"I'm not doing anything differently than I was last year." The
loss left Hampton, acquired from the Astros over the winter for
righthander Octavio Dotel and outfielder Roger Cedeno, with a 2-4
record and a 6.48 ERA.

--Jose Lima, Astros. Lima probably wishes he'd been the pitcher
that Houston traded last winter: No one has suffered more from
the Astros' move to Enron Field. The righthanded Lima was 0-3
with an 11.65 ERA in his first three starts at the game's newest
shooting gallery; on the road he was 1-1 and had an ERA of 4.50.
After giving up a fairly high total of 30 home runs last season,
he'd already served up eight at Enron and 10 overall this year.
"It's worse than Coors Field," Lima said of Enron--and that was
before his disastrous start last Thursday, when the Cubs raked
him for four homers in the first inning and 12 runs in five
innings. The Astros only hope that Lima can keep his head amid
the onslaught. "Jose is dropping to a more sidearm delivery, and
rather than drive everything down hard to the knees, he's leaving
almost everything up," says Houston manager Larry Dierker. "He's
an emotional player, and when he's in trouble, he starts flailing
away. Instead of using his head, his emotions get the best of
him."

--Jose Offerman, Red Sox. For the season's opening two weeks he
could take solace in the fact that despite struggling to hit
.200, he was getting on base. As Boston's leadoff hitter he
walked 13 times in his first eight games. From April 13 through
30, however, he got only two free passes, and he finished the
month with a .175 average and mired in a 4-for-37 slide.

--Richie Sexson, Indians. After breaking out with 31 home runs and
116 RBIs last season, Sexson batted .215, hit just one homer and
drove in only two runs in the season's first month. He'd also
struck out in 14 of the 18 games he'd started. "Richie is a
worrier," Indians manager Charlie Manuel says, "and when he
worries, he starts to press."

After a month of underperforming, it's probable that none of
these players are ready to panic, but it may not be too early to
worry.

Paul Konerko's Emergence
Putting the Sock In the White Sox

Paul Konerko generally isn't shy about offering opinions. "He has
theories on everything, from politics to baseball to cooking,"
says White Sox teammate Jeff Abbott. "Especially hitting--after
every at bat he has an explanation for what just happened."

Theories on everything, that is, except his sudden development
into one of the American League's most dangerous hitters.
"Everybody wants to know if I learned some secret that put me
over the hump," says the 24-year-old Konerko, who through Sunday
was hitting .333 with a team-leading 22 RBIs. He was second in
the league in runs, with 24, and was tied for second in doubles
(10). "It's nothing more than getting a chance to play. There's
no secret formula I've figured out."

Thanks in no small part to Konerko's torrid start, Chicago
finished April as the highest-scoring and best-hitting team in
the majors, and it had the league's best record (17-8). As a
result, the White Sox stood atop the Central Division, by two
games over the Indians, marking the first time since 1997 that
Cleveland had been out of first place so late in the season.

The emergence of Chicago has dovetailed with the coming of age of
Konerko, who was acquired from the Reds for outfielder Mike
Cameron after the 1998 season. The Dodgers' first-round pick in
the '94 draft, Konerko rocketed through the minor leagues--he hit
.323 for Albuquerque in '97 while leading the Pacific Coast
League in home runs (37) and RBIs (127)--but he struggled when he
reached the majors. In 55 games with the Dodgers in '97 and '98
he hit .212, and Los Angeles ended up sending him to Cincinnati
for closer Jeff Shaw in July '98. He didn't do much better with
the Reds, batting .219 in 26 games. "When I first saw him [in the
minors], he was a dead pull hitter," says White Sox hitting coach
Von Joshua. "He seemed like a pretty easy out."

Still, Chicago made Konerko its Opening Day designated hitter
last season. "We moved him a little closer to the plate and
emphasized going the other way, and he really started clicking,"
says Joshua. Konerko finished the year with 24 home runs, 81 RBIs
and a .294 average.

"It's relaxing to know I'm going to be in the lineup every day,
even if I have a bad game," says Konerko, who has been a first
baseman, a third baseman and a DH this season. "It doesn't matter
if I go 0 for 4. It gives me confidence knowing I'll be out there
the next day."

Not that his confidence has been tested much this season: Only
once through Sunday had Konerko gone consecutive games without a
hit, and he was batting .303 with runners in scoring position.
"You can tell he's started thinking about RBIs and not just
hitting for power," says White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. "He's
evolved into one of the leaders of this club."

Peace among Umps
The Arbiters Are Less Arbitrary

As the new umpires' union and the commissioner's office prepared
to resume negotiations this week for a collective bargaining
agreement, both sides could only hope the talks proceed as
smoothly as this season's transition to a new umpiring system
has. For the first time, the arbiters are centralized under the
commissioner, meaning the distinction between American League and
National League umps has been erased. Each of the 17 four-ump
crews has at least one ump from each league and works series in
both leagues. "If I didn't know things were changed," says Padres
manager Bruce Bochy, "I wouldn't notice any difference."

The greatest effect of the change seems to be a softening of
on-field relations. Several players and managers say their
dealings with umpires have been more pleasant and less
confrontational this year. That may be because many of their
favorite sparring partners are gone: Thirteen of the 22 umpires
who lost their jobs in last summer's misguided mass resignation
fell in the bottom half of the umpire rankings released by the
players association last spring.

Whatever the reason, the commissioner's office had such a thaw in
mind when it wrested umpire control from the leagues. "We won't
stand for anyone abusing or taking advantage of umpires," says
baseball's vice president of umpiring, Ralph Nelson, who met with
all 17 crew chiefs in Orlando in March, "but we had a
conversation about the umpires being less confrontational, about
not following guys back to the dugout and about walking away from
tense situations."

The umps' more varied assignments should help keep tensions low.
Since crews now work both leagues, they will meet up with each
team less often, helping avoid familiarity-breeds-contempt
situations. "If you have an argument with a guy, you don't have
to see him the next week," says Detroit's Gregg Jefferies. "A lot
of time that stuff would carry over throughout the season."

There's also a new spirit of cooperation among umpires, who have
been encouraged by baseball to consult one another on the field
and even to change decisions to make sure the right call is made.
Already this season several rulings have been reversed after
umpire conferences. For example, on April 22 third base umpire
Marty Foster indicated that a drive by the Cardinals' Fernando
Tatis had hit the leftfield wall and was in play. St. Louis
manager Tony La Russa argued that the ball had cleared the wall
and bounced back on the field; after a confab among the umps the
hit was ruled--correctly, according to replays--a homer. Says
Nelson, "We've already gotten many compliments from clubs who say
these guys are really hustling and working hard to make sure
calls are correct."

Once the agreement between the umps' union and baseball is
reached, standardization of the strike zone will become a top
priority. Nelson envisions a day when off-season umpiring
retreats and technology similar to the pitch-tracking graphic on
TV broadcasts are used to modify umpires' individual strike zones
so that they conform to a unified model. Until then, players are
prepared to be patient. "We all look for consistency, and we just
don't know the new guys," says Giants second baseman Jeff Kent.
"It's not their fault. You look at a called strike three and
think, That wasn't a strike before. Then you turn around and it's
an American League umpire, so you understand."

On Deck
Slowing Arizona

May 8-10: Dodgers at Diamondbacks

Los Angeles's best chance of keeping Arizona from running wild on
the bases might be to smuggle a groundskeeper into Bank One
Ballpark to hose the infield into a quagmire. Led by Tony Womack,
who topped the majors with 72 steals last year, 10 Diamondbacks
had swiped at least one base through Sunday, tying them for most
diversified running attack in the National League. Meanwhile,
Dodgers catchers Todd Hundley and Chad Kreuter had not thrown out
a single base stealer in 20 attempts, the worst performance in
the majors.

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis
from Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE The move to a new stadium has made Lima one of two Astros aces from 1999 who are struggling. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Once a dead pull hitter, Konerko has improved by learning to hit to right. COLOR PHOTO: BILL GREENBLATT/UPI

the Hot corner

Home runs by Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire in a 4-3 win over the
Phillies on Sunday enabled the Cardinals to tie the league
record for homers in a month, 55, set by the New York Giants in
July 1947. Compare that to '86, when St. Louis hit 58 all
season....

Reds outfielder Dmitri Young, a switch-hitter, batted from the
right against Mets knuckleballing righthander Dennis Springer
last week and went 4 for 5 with a home run, a double and five
RBIs. Said Young, "The way to think against knuckleballers is,
If it's high, let it fly. If it's low, let it go."...

Former Rangers star Ruben Sierra, 34, who hasn't played
in the majors since 1998, may make a comeback with reeling
Texas, loser of 15 of 24 through Sunday. Desperate for outfield
offense because of an injury to Rusty Greer, general manager
Doug Melvin is considering signing Sierra, who was hitting .362
with three homers and 12 RBIs in 15 games for the Cancun
Lobstermen of the Mexican League....

Putting a positive spin on a 6-17 start, Detroit manager Phil
Garner said, "It's not how you start but how you finish that's
important." But since baseball went to six divisions in 1994,
only the '96 Cardinals and '97 Indians have made the playoffs
after finishing a full April schedule with a losing record....

The Indians-Red Sox series that was rained out at Fenway on
April 21-23 could haunt Cleveland come September. With
doubleheaders scheduled in Boston for Sept. 20 and 21, the
Indians will play 32 games in the season's final 31 days,
including a stretch of 12 games against the Red Sox and Yankees
in 10 days.

in the BOX

April 28, 2000
Orioles 4, Rangers 3

The walk-off balk may not be the most exciting play in baseball,
but it's one of the rarest. With the score tied 3-3, Rangers
manager Johnny Oates brought in Jeff Zimmerman to pitch the
bottom of the ninth. The struggling righthander, who was an
All-Star last season, gave up a leadoff single to Cal Ripken
Jr.; pinch runner Mark Lewis then went to third on Will Clark's
double. With a 1-and-1 count on the next hitter, Greg Myers,
Zimmerman peered in for the sign from Pudge Rodriguez, then
raised his arms and straightened his back as if coming to the
set position. Halfway through the motion, however, Zimmerman
stepped off the rubber, a no-no that sent Lewis home. It was the
first time since a July 4, 1993 game in which the Braves beat
the Marlins 4-3 that a balk had ended a game. "I didn't see the
signs from Pudge, so I wanted to step off and have him go
through them again," Zimmerman said. "I guess the balk was
obvious--no one came out and argued it."

Power Pitcher

With a 3-1 record and a 2.16 ERA through Sunday, Cardinals
lefthander Rick Ankiel (right) was at the head of this year's
class of National League rookie pitchers. He had also been
smashing at the plate, with six hits, including two home runs,
in his first 12 at bats. At that pace Ankiel could challenge Wes
Ferrell's 69-year-old single-season major league record of nine
homers by a pitcher. The lefthanded-hitting Ankiel had a career
ratio of 11.0 at bats per home run. Compare that McGwire-like
figure to the next best ratios among active pitchers with at
least two career homers. --David Sabino

PLAYER AB HR ABS/HR

Rick Ankiel, Cardinals 22 2 11.0
Kerry Wood, Cubs 54 2 27.0
Alex Fernandez, Marlins 123 3 41.0
Sean Bergman, Twins 131 3 43.7
Rick Aguilera, Cubs 139 3 46.3
Jason Isringhausen, A's 97 2 48.5
Russ Ortiz, Giants 106 2 53.0
Omar Olivares, A's 214 4 53.5
Carlos Perez, Dodgers 214 4 53.5
Dennis Cook, Mets 109 2 54.5

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)