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Inside Baseball

June 12, 2000
June 12, 2000

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June 12, 2000

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Inside Baseball

Bench Pressed
The Yankees' reserves don't have the juice of those of recent
vintage

This is an article from the June 12, 2000 issue Original Layout

For several years the bench along Yankee Stadium's first base
line was well stocked. There was Tim Raines, sitting next to
Darryl Strawberry, sitting next to Joe Girardi, sitting next to
Homer Bush, sitting next to Chad Curtis, sitting next to Luis
Sojo, sitting next to Charlie Hayes, sitting next to Mariano
Duncan. Whenever manager Joe Torre needed a proven bat or a
sound defensive replacement, he had ample resources to call on.
From 1996, the year New York won the first of its three World
Series of the '90s, through last season, the Yankees--even with
their loaded lineup--ranked fifth in the American League with 65
pinch-hit RBIs. "They always had a threat coming off the bench,"
says Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, "a guy who could hurt
you."

Now Torre has infielders Clay Bellinger and Wilson Delgado and
catcher Chris Turner, who had played in 212 major league games
among them entering the season, plus outfielder Felix Jose, a
35-year-old who suffered a strained groin in his first game in
April and hadn't played in the big leagues since 1995--hardly
the proven bench Torre has had. Even after Bellinger's pinch-hit
home run in the seventh inning beat the Braves on Sunday,
Yankees pinch batters ranked ninth in the American League with a
.235 average and had only one home run and three RBIs. "We have
a different kind of depth--more utility, more speed," says DH
Shane Spencer, "but do we have the guys who have been through it
all before? No."

In December the Yankees traded Curtis, whose .357 average was
second to Strawberry's team-leading .375 among New York's pinch
hitters in 1999, to the Rangers for two minor league pitchers.
The Yankees allowed Sojo, an underappreciated middle infielder,
to go to the Pirates as a free agent and Girardi, a team leader
and gritty veteran backstop, to sign with the Cubs. Strawberry,
who was to have been New York's DH against righthanders, was
suspended for a year in February for violating the baseball
commissioner's drug policy. Chili Davis, the switch-hitting DH,
retired. As a result the Yankees left themselves without a
late-inning power threat. (Jim Leyritz, who has nine home runs
since the start of last season, no longer can be considered such
a threat.) New York, which finished the week at 30-22 and a game
ahead of Boston, had, typically, found other ways to win, but
for the long term, its bench remains a concern.

Early in the season, while third baseman Scott Brosius and
shortstop Derek Jeter missed a combined 29 games with injuries,
Torre rushed talented yet raw rookie infielder Alfonso Soriano
into the breach. In 15 games he hit .167 with six errors and was
returned to Triple A Columbus. Turner, who wasn't even supposed
to make the Yankees coming out of spring training, had one of
the bench's few highlights last Saturday against the Braves,
replacing the injured Jorge Posada in the second inning and
hitting a solo homer in Atlanta's 11-7 win. New York signed free
agent Roberto Kelly to fill Curtis's role as fourth outfielder,
but he has been sidelined with a sprained right elbow since
April 19. Jose, a onetime A's phenom, was called up from
Columbus to take Kelly's place, but after returning from the
disabled list on May 30, he struck out looking as a pinch hitter
in the ninth inning on Saturday and, at week's end, had two hits
in eight at bats for the season.

As the Yankees search for answers, the 36-19 Braves--whose bench
often has been disastrous in the postseason, including in a 4-0
New York sweep in last year's World Series--boast one of the
National League's most potent reserve corps. "Since I've been
here," says Jones, "we've spent so much money on starting
pitching and position players, we've taken a hit on
down-the-line players. That's changed."

Atlanta signed outfielder Bobby Bonilla after he was released by
the Mets in January, thinking he might make the team as a deep
reserve; through Sunday he was batting .298 with three homers
and 14 RBIs in 113 at bats. Shortstop Walt Weiss, a backup with
the emergence of rookie Rafael Furcal, was hitting .267. Wally
Joyner fractured a bone in his right foot early in spring
training, and Reggie Sanders struggled during the early going,
yet they now provide the Braves with punch off the bench.

Atlanta tied for seventh in the league last season with 30
pinch-hit RBIs but was first this year with 19. The 2000 bench
was also batting .042 higher than last year's. "No question,
their depth makes them a much better team than last year," says
Torre. "They have more power, more speed and more guys who can
provide it."

Decrepit Devil Rays
Age-old Troubles

Although Devil Rays general managing partner and CEO Vince
Naimoli has kept a tight lip, it's hard to imagine that he's
happy with the work of Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar,
who--cranking the team's payroll up to $64.4 million--has
assembled not only one of the American League's oldest rosters
but also (not coincidentally) its most disappointing.

Through Sunday the Devil Rays, who were a league-worst 19-36 and
in last place in the East, had hit only 62 homers (12th in the
league) and driven in 267 runs (tied for 10th). That's a far cry
from the production LaMar expected when he gave 36-year-old
first baseman Fred McGriff a two-year extension on Sept. 3,
1999, got 32-year-old third baseman Vinny Castilla in a trade
from the Rockies on Dec. 13 and signed 34-year-old free-agent
leftfielder Greg Vaughn the same day. Tampa Bay was so excited
about its middle lineup of McGriff, Vaughn and Castilla, plus
35-year-old DH Jose Canseco, that it put the foursome on the
cover of its 2000 media guide, accompanied by a catchy nickname
(Hit Show 2000) and pictures of top homer quartets from each of
the past seven decades. Through Sunday the Devil Rays' foursome
had combined for 36 home runs and 122 RBIs.

"If there's anyone to blame, it's me," says LaMar, Tampa Bay's
general manager for all three of its seasons. "I can't do
anything about the injuries, but maybe we erroneously brought in
some players whose careers were going downhill. Maybe they're
not capable. I thought we could win at least 80 games with the
money we spent. We should be playing better."

With the exception of Vaughn, who through Sunday led the Devil
Rays with a .294 average and 13 home runs, much of the lineup
has been a disappointment. Castilla missed most of spring
training and the first seven games of the season with a strained
rib-cage muscle and was batting only .219 with six homers. There
were hints last season that Castilla, once one of the National
League's most feared fastball hitters, had lost some of the
speed on his swing. He hit a career-low .275 in 1999, but LaMar
was undeterred in his pursuit of him. "I still think Vinny has
life left in him," LaMar says. "He's just off to a slow start."
Maybe. But as Tampa Bay's recent trade discussions with the
Yankees about Canseco (who had seven homers before going on the
15-day disabled list, retroactive to May 25, with a sore foot)
reveal, any expectations for Hit Show 2000 have come and gone.

In his defense, LaMar notes that expansion teams--including the
Diamondbacks, who were born the same year as the Devil
Rays--must rely on veterans until a farm system is developed.
Yet while Arizona's free-agent signings, including starting
pitchers Randy Johnson and Todd Stottlemyre and outfielder Steve
Finley, have produced, Tampa Bay's have not. Along with the
disappointing sluggers, LaMar brought in two free-agent
righthanded starters: Juan Guzman, who's making $6 million, has
missed almost the entire season with tendinitis in his right
shoulder; and Steve Trachsel, only a moderate bust at $1 million
per, was 3-6 at week's end with a 5.13 ERA. "I don't make
excuses," says LaMar, "but injuries have hurt us."

By depending on older players, that's a risk the Devil Rays
chose to take.

Minor League Lifers' Debuts
Better Late Than Never

Were there ever a time to be a marginally talented, bus-loving
hanger-on, it's now. Last week the Marlins summoned righthanded
reliever Joe Strong from Triple A Calgary, and the Reds recalled
first baseman D.T. Cromer from Triple A Louisville. Strong is
37; Cromer is 29. Before this season neither had played an
inning in the majors.

Strong is the oldest player to debut in the majors since
41-year-old Diomedes Olivo joined the Pirates on Sept. 5, 1960.
Three years ago he was out of baseball, operating a forklift at
a Sears warehouse. To stay in shape, he threw balls at the
store's back wall. After hitting 96 mph with his first pitch at
a tryout, he got an offer from the Hyundai Unicorns of the Korea
Baseball Organization, for whom he pitched in '98, racking up 27
saves and a 2.95 ERA in 53 games. Signed by the Devil Rays last
season and sent to their Triple A Durham Bulls and then to their
Double A Orlando Rays, Strong was loaned in July to the Mexico
City Tigers of the Mexican League. A Marlins scout saw him
there, was impressed by his 96-mph fastball and signed him to a
minor league deal. On May 10, Strong was at home when he got a
phone call from Calgary manager Lynn Jones. "I thought, 'Uh-oh.
I'm the oldest guy, and we're losing.' Getting released went
through my mind," Strong says.

Instead, Strong was promoted. He had a 5.63 ERA in eight innings
and then was sent back down on May 25. On Sunday, after
returning to Florida earlier in the week, he pitched the eighth
and ninth innings in the Marlins' 7-2 loss to the Blue Jays,
giving up one run on two hits and a walk and striking out two.

Cromer made the Cincinnati roster out of spring training but was
sent down on April 19, even though he hit .409 with six RBIs
playing in place of injured Sean Casey. Like many minor league
lifers, Cromer--who was selected by the A's in the 11th round of
the June 1992 draft--had had his moments on the farm but had
never been given a solid opportunity to make the parent club.
After batting .329 with 30 home runs and 130 RBIs for Class A
Modesto in '96, he was named the A's minor league player of the
year but wasn't invited to train with the big club the next
spring. He hit .310 with 30 home runs and 107 RBIs for Triple A
Indianapolis last year but wasn't a late-season call-up by
Cincinnati. "When I was drafted, I didn't expect to play in the
minors for eight seasons before getting a chance," says Cromer,
who was born in Lake City, S.C., "but I have to believe the Lord
has a plan for everyone. This was his plan for me."

Cromer had doubts only once. While playing for Modesto four
years ago, he was struck in the face by a throw and suffered a
fracture of the left orbital bone, missing a month. "That's the
first time I wondered whether it was worth it," he says. "I
almost gave up." Cromer called an airline to purchase a one-way
ticket from California to South Carolina. "It was $1,200," he
says, "and I couldn't afford it. That was a sign to stick things
out."

Cromer spent two more seasons in the Oakland organization,
batting .294 with 16 home runs for Triple A Edmonton in 1998,
and then signed as a minor league free agent with the Reds. "We
got a good look at J.T. last spring, and we knew he could hit,"
says Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon, who regularly forgets that
Cromer is called D.T. "He's never been given a real chance, yet
he keeps playing. You love guys like that."

"You have to believe," says Cromer. "My life is baseball. It's
not easy to give up on your life."

On Deck
Hot Ticket

June 9-11: Brewers at Twins

There are far more scintillating interleague matchups on the
schedule this weekend--Mets-Yankees, Reds-Indians and Red
Sox-Braves, for starters--but none will separate the real fans
from the dilettantes like Milwaukee's visit to Minnesota. Will
anyone show up to see the National League's worst road draw
(through last week the Brewers had attracted an average of
25,201 when traveling) play the Twins, who had the majors'
lowest average home attendance (11,394)? Last year's series in
Milwaukee, a two-game sweep by Minnesota, drew crowds of 30,344
and 23,915 before the third game was rained out.

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

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Once a power threat in the pinch, Leyritz, 36, isn't filling that role now for New York.COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Canseco, 35, had only seven homers before going on the DL on May 28.

In the Same Ballpark

Entering last weekend's interleague games, the American and
National Leagues' ERAs were just 0.10 apart. Only twice since
the American adopted the designated hitter, in 1973, have the
two leagues finished a season closer than that. Although the
individual leader in each league, Pedro Martinez and Randy
Johnson, had ERAs through Sunday that rivaled the best of any
era, most of their fellow pitchers have been performing so
poorly by comparison that the league ERAs are approaching the
alltime highs (American, 5.04 in 1936; National, 4.97 in 1930).
Here's how this year's gap between leagues ranks among those of
the other closest seasons. --David Sabino

AMERICAN LEAGUE NATIONAL LEAGUE

YEAR LEAGUE LEADER, TEAM, ERA LEAGUE LEADER, TEAM, ERA GAP
ERA ERA
1974 3.62 Catfish Hunter, 3.63 Buzz Capra, 0.01
A's, 2.49 Braves, 2.28

1976 3.52 Mark Fidrych, 3.51 John Denny, 0.01
Tigers, 2.34 Cardinals, 2.52

2000 4.97 Pedro Martinez, 4.87 Randy Johnson, 0.10
Red Sox, 1.05 Diamondbacks, 1.41

1990 3.91 Roger Clemens, 3.79 Danny Darwin, 0.12
Red Sox, 1.93 Astros, 2.21

1975 3.79 Jim Palmer, 3.64 Randy Jones, 0.15
Orioles, 2.09 Padres, 2.24

in the BOX

June 1, 2000
Royals 13, Red Sox 11

A game in which Boston shuts down Kansas City's running game
should be an easy win for the Red Sox, right? Entering their
series with Boston last week, the Royals led the American League
with 52 steals and an 89.7% success rate. How to explain K.C.'s
win last Thursday, only the seventh game this year in which the
Royals had a runner caught stealing, and the first in which they
had two cut down?

As unlikely as two K.C. runners getting nailed--Joe Randa at
home on a double steal in the second inning and Johnny Damon at
second in the fifth--was the collapse of Boston's defense, the
league's second best going into the game. The Sox made four
errors, including two in the sixth inning, in which they gave up
nine runs, four unearned.

the HOT corner

Why the Inmates Don't Run the Asylum, Vol. XLIV: During spring
training several members of the Royals, led by leftfielder
Johnny Damon, marched into manager Tony Muser's office and
complained about Kansas City's keeping first baseman David
McCarty instead of just-released Paul Sorrento. Through Sunday,
McCarty was hitting .354 with seven homers and 20 RBIs, and
Sorrento was with the A's Triple A Sacramento club....

After failing to lay down a sacrifice bunt in a 3-1 win over the
Reds on May 28, Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo walked into
manager John Boles's office and handed him several
large-denomination bills. Says Boles, "It's the first time in my
20 years in professional baseball that I've had a player come to
me and fine himself."...

When Indians rightfielder Manny Ramirez went on the disabled
list on June 2 with a strained left hamstring, he became the
13th Cleveland player to go on the DL....

Forget the alternate realignment idea proposed by the players'
association, which would move the Astros to the American League
West. "Houston is a National League city, and it's going to
continue to be a National League city," says Astros chairman
Drayton McLane. "[Baseball] would have to have our permission to
move us, and we don't want to move."...

Rangers manager Johnny Oates, pointing out the benefits of new
stadiums: "I like tradition and all that, but it's nice to go
into a clubhouse where I can go into my office and make a phone
call, hang up my clothes or eat a sandwich that you know a rat
didn't run across the night before."...

After six months on the job, former Brewers slugger Ben Oglivie
was dismissed as the Padres' hitting coach and replaced by Duane
Espy. Oglivie, who had replaced the popular Merv Rettenmund in
December, was considered too laid-back. He was offered a job
with San Diego's Rookie League club in Peoria, Ariz. "Ben is the
nicest guy in the world," says Tony Gwynn. "He tried to do the
best he could, but as a hitting coach in this day, you have to
be more talkative."...

New Angels shortstop Kevin Stocker, claimed off waivers from the
Devil Rays on May 30, isn't the first member of his family to
work for Disney, the Anaheim owner. His brother Mike is an
animator for the company.