Inside Baseball

July 09, 2000

Fading Reds
Cincinnati's springtime pennant optimism has turned sour in
summer

Shortly after the Cardinals thumped the Reds 12-3 last Thursday,
the mood in the Cincinnati clubhouse was gloomy. The Reds, 8 1/2
games back in the National League Central when first-place St.
Louis came to town four days earlier, had been looking at the
series as a chance to close ground on the front-runners.
Instead, the Cardinals escaped with a split, leaving the Reds in
dire straits as they embarked on a 13-game stretch during which
they would face the Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Indians and
Rockies. "It was a missed opportunity," said Cincinnati manager
Jack McKeon. "On the other hand we showed the Cardinals we can
play with them. We held our own."

Such was the state of the Reds, who held a half-game lead over
St. Louis on June 5 but at week's end had lost 16 of their next
24. They were grasping for moral victories in a rapidly
deteriorating season. Compare that attitude to the one on
display in spring training when the Reds, losers to the Mets
last October in a one-game playoff for the National League wild
card, were talking like champions. After the off-season
acquisitions of Ken Griffey Jr. and Dante Bichette, shortstop
Barry Larkin guaranteed a division title and general manager Jim
Bowden strutted around like a proud papa. "You can take a
positive out of this if you want," Larkin said after Thursday's
loss, "but the reality is, we gained no ground."

Things didn't improve over the weekend, when the Reds won two of
their first three games in Arizona but still failed to improve in
the standings. The reasons for Cincinnati's funk are myriad. The
starting rotation, as expected, has been weak; lefthander Denny
Neagle (7-2, 3.78 ERA through Sunday) was the only seasonlong
starter with an ERA under 5.00. The shaky bullpen (its 4.37 ERA
was over a run higher than last year's) has failed to make up for
the starters' shortcomings.

The biggest reason for the Reds' struggles, however, was that the
cast of young players who had surprisingly strong seasons a year
ago has not picked up where it left off. First baseman Sean
Casey, 26, who hit a team-high .332 and knocked in 99 runs in
1999, began this season on the disabled list after breaking his
right thumb in spring training. Eager to return to the lineup, he
came back in late April without taking a minor league rehab
assignment and has failed to regain his stroke; through Sunday he
was hitting .247 with only four homers and 20 RBIs. Second
baseman Pokey Reese, 27, has been in a six-week slump that
dropped his average from .328 on May 14 to .269; his on-base
percentage had sunk to .337, and he was dropped last week from
the leadoff spot to eighth in the order. Last year's Rookie of
the Year, righthanded reliever Scott Williamson, 24, had a
respectable 3.21 ERA and six saves in eight chances but has been
alarmingly wild; he was tied for the major league lead with 13
wild pitches and had walked an average of 7.1 batters per nine
innings. In his last 13 outings Williamson had allowed 13 runs in
16 innings.

"Even when Junior was struggling, we managed to be in first
place," says catcher Eddie Taubensee, referring to Griffey's slow
start that had him hitting .209 two months into the season.
Griffey reversed field with a torrid June (.304, 12 home runs)
and was fourth in the league with 26 dingers at week's end. "Now
it's the rest of us who feel we should be doing better," adds
Taubensee, who last year had career highs of .311, 21 homers and
87 RBIs but had knocked in only 18 this season.

The Reds' woes extend into the clubhouse as well. McKeon, last
year's National League Manager of the Year, was ripped publicly
by Williamson after the righthander was brought in on June 17 to
face the Padres' lefthand-hitting Tony Gwynn. Williamson gave up
a hit to Gwynn and allowed two inherited runners to score. The
next day third base coach Ron Oester chastised Williamson in
front of the team for having blamed McKeon. After that series in
San Diego, which concluded a 1-8 road trip, the players held two
meetings in three days to make sure nobody had given up on the
season. "This season has been a very, very negative experience,"
says Larkin. He also says the team misses the leadership provided
last year by outfielder Greg Vaughn, who signed as a free agent
with the Devil Rays. "This club lacks someone who can challenge
guys in the clubhouse, get in their faces."

One challenge for the Reds is to decide if they'll be buyers or
sellers as the July 31 trading deadline approaches. Bowden says
that for now he's working overtime to acquire a starting pitcher
and that few players on the roster should be considered
untouchable if a deal will improve the team. "Watching those
other teams in the playoffs last year was tough," says outfielder
Dmitri Young. "We were so close."

That might be as close as the Reds get for a while.

Helton's Run Scoring
Quietly Chasing The Babe

It has gotten less attention than the typical Marlins-Expos
matchup, but one of the game's longest-standing records--Babe
Ruth's 177 runs scored in 1921--may be challenged this season.
Through Sunday the Rockies' Todd Helton had scored 80 times in
his team's first 77 games, putting him on pace to cross the plate
168 times. The Mariners' Alex Rodriguez (78 runs, on track for
160) and the Cardinals' Jim Edmonds (74, 150) were also in line
to do what no player has done in 51 years: score 150 runs in a
season (chart, below).

Why, in an age when offensive records have all the staying power
of henna tattoos, has so little attention been paid to a mark
that's lasted more than twice as long as Ruth's 60 homers and
Roger Maris's 61 did? "Scoring runs is important, but nobody
seems to attach much importance to it," says Giants outfielder
Barry Bonds. "What would you get if you scored 170, a cookie?"

"Runs and RBIs are the name of the game," says Cardinals manager
Tony La Russa, "but less attention is paid to substance than
style."

Ruth's mark also might be ignored because it has seemed out of
reach for so long. Indeed, 19 of the top 20 single-season run
totals came before 1940. The trend toward declining individual
run scoring coincides with a decline in on-base percentage. Ruth
led the majors with an astounding .512 on-base percentage in '21.
In '49, eight years after he set the major league record of .551,
Ted Williams had an on-base average of .490. Only three players
in the 1990s--Frank Thomas (.487) in '94 and Edgar Martinez (.479)
in '95, both strike-shortened years, and John Olerud (.473) in
'93--had on-base percentages above .470.

It's a simple equation: Home runs are up, so it takes fewer base
runners to score as many runs as before. But strikeouts are also
up and, even though walks are up too, on-base percentages are
down, and the fewer times players get on base, the fewer chances
they have to score. "Everyone's a home run hitter now, but that's
all they do," says Reds manager Jack McKeon. "Ruth hit home runs,
but he also walked a lot and hit for average. Plus he had a great
lineup behind him."

Which explains Helton's early scoring deluge: He led the National
League in hitting (.390) and on-base percentage (.483), was
eighth in walks (52) and batted third in the majors' best-hitting
and highest-scoring lineup.

Voting Irregularities
Correcting the All-Star Errors

By and large the fans' picks of All-Star Game starters were smart
ones--witness Jermaine Dye, who was the second-leading vote-getter
among American League outfielders despite playing for the
small-market Royals--and the game has always been more popularity
contest than meritocracy, anyway. Still, a few of the people's
choices were poor ones. Some players who should have been elected
will be at Turner Field on July 11 (managers' choices of reserves
were to be announced on Wednesday), but they deserve better than
a late-inning at bat in the game's showcase. Based on their
first-half performances, these five players should have the honor
of an All-Star start.

AL second base. Fans' choice: Roberto Alomar, Indians. SI's pick:
Ray Durham, White Sox. Alomar hasn't been himself in the first
half, hitting .274 and making two more errors (eight) than he did
all last season. Durham's defense has been nothing to brag about
either--his 10 errors were second most among the league's second
basemen, after Chuck Knoblauch's 15--but he's made up for it as
the spark plug of Chicago's dream season. He was third in the
league with 63 runs and had more homers (12) and RBIs (44) than
anyone in the American League at his position.

AL third base. Fans' choice: Cal Ripken Jr., Orioles. SI's pick:
Troy Glaus, Angels. It's clear that Ripken's back can't stand up
to a full season's grind anymore, so fans will have to break
their habit of automatically voting for him. They should have
practiced this year. Ripken, who's on the DL with an inflamed
lower back, has slumped most of the season and was hitting .239
at week's end. Meanwhile, Glaus has blossomed into the league's
best offensive third baseman. His 23 homers were third most in
the league.

NL outfield. Fans' choices: Ken Griffey Jr., Reds; Barry Bonds,
Giants; Sammy Sosa, Cubs. SI's picks: Bonds; Jim Edmonds,
Cardinals; Vladimir Guerrero, Expos. Picking against Junior and
Sammy, two of the game's biggest draws, is a bit like cutting
Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo out of the Three Tenors.
That said, Edmonds and Guerrero have had better all-around years.
An early MVP candidate, Edmonds has been terrific on defense and
was in the league's top 10 at week's end in batting average
(.339), homers (22), runs (74), walks (57) and on-base percentage
(.453). Guerrero has cooled a bit after bashing eight homers and
striking out only four times in April, but he was still third in
the league in hitting (.365) and sixth in RBIs (68).

AL outfield. Fans' choices: Dye, Royals; Bernie Williams,
Yankees; Manny Ramirez, Indians. SI's picks: Dye; Williams; Darin
Erstad, Angels. Coming off a season in which he hit just .253,
Erstad started hot and hasn't slowed down. Second in the league
in hitting (.371), his major-league-best 130 hits were only 18
fewer than he had all last year. He was also second among AL
outfielders with seven assists.

On Deck
Double Duty

July 8: Yankees at Mets, and Mets at Yankees

Joel Youngblood pulled off a baseball rarity on Aug. 4, 1982,
when he played an afternoon game in Chicago for the Mets, then
was traded and played in Philadelphia for the Expos later that
same day. Now players on both New York teams will take the field
in two parks on the same day when the Yanks and Mets play their
regularly scheduled 1:15 interleague game at Shea Stadium, then
schlepp across the Triborough Bridge for the nightcap to make up
last month's rainout at Yankee Stadium. It will be the first time
since 1903, when the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Superbas
split a doubleheader at Brooklyn's Washington Park and the Polo
Grounds, that two teams have played two games in two ballparks on
the same day.

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

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Instead of becoming runaway winners with Griffey, Cincinnati is falling out of the playoff chase. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

the HOT corner

Cubs catcher Joe Girardi, perturbed after watching the Marlins
complete a three-game sweep of Chicago with a 10th-inning home
run by Cliff Floyd on June 25 and then celebrate by mobbing Floyd
at home plate, lashed out at Florida's enthusiasm. "For a young
team, they have an arrogance about them," the 35-year-old Girardi
said. "When they hit home runs they show a lot of emotion."
Floyd's response? "Who gives a rat's ass what Joe Girardi thinks?
Tell Girardi that when he's a fan of the game--which will probably
be soon--to come and see us play if he wants to see [a team with]
heart."...

Frightening news for American League hitters: Blue Jays closer
Billy Koch, whose fastball regularly hits 100 mph and who also
throws a slider and a curve, has dusted off his split-fingered
fastball, a pitch he had stopped throwing after having Tommy
John surgery in 1997. Through Sunday, Koch, who throws the
splitter mainly to lefthanded hitters, had converted 17 of 21
save chances....

With righthander Freddy Garcia scheduled to return from the
disabled list this week, the Mariners suddenly have too many
quality starters for one rotation. Righthander Paul Abbott (3-0,
2.03 ERA in five June starts) is a likely candidate for the
bullpen, which already holds righthander Brett Tomko (4-2 in
eight starts this season). "I'll be honest, I don't know what
we're going to do," manager Lou Piniella says. "Usually these
things are clear-cut because somebody's struggling or hurt.
We've got no such thing." One benefit: With arms to spare,
Seattle may find it easier to acquire the lefthanded bat that
G.M. Pat Gillick has sought since spring training.

Running It Up

In the past 100 years a player has scored 150 or more runs in a
season just 18 times, but the Rockies' Todd Helton (above) leads
a group of players who might this year. (The single-season record
is held by Babe Ruth, who scored 177 times in 1921.) The last
player to reach 150 was Ted Williams in 1949, but since then only
these eight players have scored as many as 140 times. --David
Sabino

Player, Team Season Runs

Craig Biggio, Astros 1997 146
Rickey Henderson, Yankees 1985 146
Jeff Bagwell, Astros 1999 143
Lenny Dykstra, Phillies 1993 143
Larry Walker, Rockies 1997 143
Ellis Burks, Rockies 1996 142
Alex Rodriguez, Mariners 1996 141
Chuck Knoblauch, Twins 1996 140

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)