Inside Baseball

September 03, 2000

September Song
It's in the season's final month that the MVP races hit full
swing

It's a fundamental debate, like liberal versus conservative or
Napster versus Metallica: What constitutes an MVP? "An MVP is who
had the best season, period," says outfielder Gary Sheffield,
who's having a terrific year for the disappointing Dodgers. "It's
not about winning or losing. It's about having a better year than
everybody else."

Counters Jeff Kent, stellar second baseman for the National
League West-leading Giants: "How can you be the most valuable if
you didn't help your team get to the playoffs? Isn't that why we
play?"

One thing that's certain about an MVP race is that it's settled
in September. Take last year: Early in the season's final month
Mets third baseman Robin Ventura was often serenaded by fans at
Shea Stadium with chants of "MVP!" By the end of September--a
month in which Ventura hit .266 with only 12 RBIs--those cheers
had quieted. The Braves' Chipper Jones clinched the award by
bashing 10 homers and driving in 22 runs in September, thereby
almost singlehandedly thwarting New York's drive to overtake
Atlanta in the National League East.

This year another Met, catcher Mike Piazza (.347 average, 33 home
runs, 101 RBIs through Sunday), appears to have a stranglehold on
the National League MVP award as September opens, but he's not
known for strong finishes: His .310 career average in September
and October, though respectable, is lower than his average for
any other month. Piazza's quest for his first MVP trophy may
depend on the fortunes of his former team, the Dodgers.
Sheffield, second in the league with 40 homers, has put up
MVP-type numbers (he also had a .331 average and 96 RBIs at
week's end), but L.A. was six games out in the West and even
further out of the wild-card chase. The Dodgers' poor showing
will cost him when ballots are cast--unless, of course, he can
haul Los Angeles closer to first place. "Right now I'd rate Gary
Sheffield and Mike Piazza one-two," says San Francisco's Barry
Bonds. "It's hard to imagine where the Dodgers would be without
Sheffield."

The American League race is more wide open. Carlos Delgado of the
Blue Jays is fast becoming the perfect candidate for both
philosophical camps: a player with startlingly good numbers who's
also carrying a team that's hanging tough in both the division
and wild-card races. Delgado finished the week tied for first in
the league in homers (38), second in hitting (.362) and third in
RBIs (117).

Two other worthy candidates, the White Sox' Frank Thomas and the
Mariners' Edgar Martinez, play for first-place teams--though
slumping Seattle's margin has wilted--but both are designated
hitters. No fulltime DH has won an MVP; in fact, only two,
Toronto's Paul Molitor in 1993 and Martinez in '95, finished
among the top three in the balloting during the '90s.

If Chicago, which had an eight-game lead over the Indians through
Sunday, cruises to the American League Central title and
maintains the league's best record, even the anti-DH bias might
not be enough to stop Thomas. He was tied for the league lead in
homers (38) and was second in RBIs (120). "He's been huge," says
Chicago manager Jerry Manuel. "He's the presence in the lineup
that we need with a young club. There's nothing else you can ask
of a hitter."

Managers' Hot Seat
Survivor: Big League Style

If no skipper is fired before Oct. 1, this will be the first
season since 1942 during which no manager is canned. Despite the
calm, however, the stage has been set for a busy winter on the
managerial merry-go-round. Several big-name skippers have taken
heat in recent weeks as their teams have slid in the standings.

Witness the Dodgers. As they've tumbled from contention, manager
Davey Johnson has heard criticism from the most ominous source:
his bosses. In early August general manager Kevin Malone absolved
the front office of blame for Los Angeles's lackluster
performance, saying Johnson was given the makings of a winning
team. "We did the things we needed to do with our moves in the
off-season and we added talent before the trading deadline,"
Malone said. Dodgers CEO Bob Daly added that he and Malone "have
been encouraging Davey to manage more aggressively."

The tensions boiled over last week. "If they're gonna [fire me],
let's do it and not wait," said Johnson in a Los Angeles Times
column that ran August 23. After meeting with Daly that
evening--and reportedly being asked whether he really wanted to
call it quits--Johnson backed off, saying, "I'm not a dead man
yet." Still, Daly has been more forceful in his public support of
Malone than of Johnson.

In Arizona there are rumblings that some players have wearied of
Buck Showalter's sweat-the-small-stuff style and that Showalter,
who still has two years and $2 million on the contract he signed
in 1995, will be fired if the Diamondbacks fail to make the
playoffs. At week's end, Arizona was 2 1/2 games behind the Giants
in the National League West and 5 1/2 behind the Mets in the
wildcard race, and managing general partner Jerry Colangelo gave
Showalter only tepid support last week, saying, "He's my manager
until he isn't."

Red Sox skipper Jimy Williams, who has a frosty relationship with
general manager Dan Duquette, last week was ripped by Boston
lefthander Jeff Fassero for having an itchy trigger finger on
pitching changes. Cincinnati's Jack McKeon has been fielding
questions about his job security since spring training, and last
week Montreal's Felipe Alou endured questions about a report that
owner Jeffrey Loria plans to replace him with Jeff Torborg.
Seattle's Lou Piniella, who's in the final year of his contract
and had seen his team lose 12 of its last 14 games, has hired an
agent for the first time in his career.

Hovering over all of this is the Giants' Dusty Baker, who has
spent much of the season, the final one on his contract, fending
off rumors that he'll be managing elsewhere next season. Of
course, he has fed those rumors by ignoring the two-year, $2.8
million extension offer the Giants made earlier this season. San
Francisco general manager Brian Sabean insists Baker has told him
that he'll be a Giant next season; given his track record in San
Francisco, Baker would be the most sought-after managerial
candidate if he becomes available.

Detroit Renaissance
Tigers Still Scratching

It would seem that by now the Tigers might be weary of analyzing
their roller-coaster season, sick of reliving their atrocious
9-23 start and comparing it with their recent hot streak.
"Actually, it's fun to come to the park and talk about winning,"
says righthander Jeff Weaver. "It's a lot better than what we
were doing."

Detroit, left for dead a month into the season, has made a
remarkable return to respectability. After bottoming out at 14
games below .500 on May 10, the Tigers had gone 55-42 through
Sunday. Their win total in that span was the second-highest in
the American League, behind the White Sox' 58. When Detroit
finally reached .500 last Thursday with a victory over the
Mariners, it marked the first time since 1993 that the Tigers had
been at the break-even point in August. "We knew we were a lot
better than that," says third baseman Dean Palmer of the horrid
start, "but it's weird--it was hard to pinpoint one reason why we
were so bad, and it's hard to find one to explain why we're
playing well now."

Indeed, the Tigers have reversed course despite having only one
pitcher (righthander Brian Moehler) reach double figures in wins,
despite having lost four first basemen (Tony Clark, Gregg
Jeffries, Robert Fick and Hal Morris) to injury and despite
having received a subpar-for-him contribution from slugger Juan
Gonzalez (19 home runs, 57 RBIs).

The turnaround started with a deep, if workmanlike, pitching
staff that has put up successively lower ERAs in every month but
July; overall Detroit, which hasn't finished in the league's top
five in pitching since 1988, was fifth with a 4.75 ERA through
Sunday.

To be sure, the staff has been aided by pitching in cavernous new
Comerica Park. Says Moehler, who was 11-7 with a 4.12 ERA, "I
learned from my first start there that even on 3-and-0 and
3-and-1 counts I can challenge hitters without worry."

That attitude has bred confidence and command: The Tigers have
issued the second-fewest walks in the league. The anchor of the
staff has been closer Todd Jones, who, since adding a slider to
his repertoire late last season, has been dominant. He finished
1999 by converting 18 of his last 20 save opportunities, and
through Sunday led the majors with 36 saves and had blown just
three chances. "I'm so much better with the slider," says Jones.
"It keeps me from having to throw fastballs in fastball counts."

Detroit's surge has also been fueled by an offense that finally
awoke after being shut out six times in its first 32 games.
Credit that, too, to the Comerica effect: Aware that trying to
hit home runs there is a futile pursuit, the Tigers have
concentrated on sending line drives to the gaps. Leftfielder
Bobby Higginson, for example, has adjusted his swing. "Two years
ago, when I was going good, I pulled everything," says Higginson,
who had rebounded from a disastrous 1999 to hit .294 with 24
homers and 83 RBIs. "Now I try to go to left when I'm pitched
that way, and I get more base hits in the gaps."

"We still have to learn how to manufacture runs, but we're
getting better," says Detroit manager Phil Garner, "and I think
Comerica makes us better hitters."

On Deck
Special K Serial

Sept. 1-3, Marlins at Diamondbacks
Preston Wilson's march to the single-season strikeout
record--through Sunday he needed 27 whiffs in the Marlins' final
33 games to break the mark of 189, set by Bobby Bonds in
1970--should pick up pace when Florida arrives in Arizona. The
Diamondbacks led the National League with 969 strikeouts, or 7.5
per game. Wilson's first series of the season against Arizona, in
July, was a resounding flop: He went 1 for 11 with four
strikeouts. The good news is that he will not face Randy Johnson,
who's not scheduled to work in the three-game series. The bad
news is that he will face Curt Schilling, against whom he's 0 for
7 with four strikeouts in his career.

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

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL With 38 homers and 120 RBIs through Sunday, Thomas has been invaluable to the White Sox. COLOR PHOTO: HERB SCHARFMAN

the HOT corner

Two years after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery, Dodgers
catcher Todd Hundley is finally a threat to would-be base
stealers. After throwing out a woeful 23.0% of runners attempting
to steal last season and only 10 of his first 51 (19.6%) this
year, since the All-Star break Hundley had caught nine of 27
(33%) through Sunday, including speedsters Luis Castillo of the
Marlins and Vladimir Guerrero of the Expos. Says Dodgers bullpen
coach Rick Dempsey, "His arm has gotten a lot stronger. He's been
giving us a chance."...

What's happened to the Mariners, who at week's end had seen
their American League West lead whittled from eight games to two
games in 14 days? "Our pitching has been horrendous, and our
defense hasn't been much better," says manager Lou Piniella, who
watched his team set a major league record by surrendering nine
or more runs in seven straight games. "They're what we've relied
on all year, and inexplicably they've gone south." Adds
outfielder Jay Buhner, who has been on the disabled list since
Aug. 22, "We're doing everything we can possibly do wrong."...

The Expos surrendered their option on the lease for land
earmarked for a new stadium last week, essentially killing any
plans for a new ballpark that would keep them in Montreal. Next
stop, northern Virginia?...

Priority No. 1 for the Giants down the stretch? Keep outfielder
Ellis Burks healthy. San Francisco was 54-31 through Sunday in
games he had started, 19-24 in games he hadn't.

The Shrinking Big Unit

Since Diamondbacks lefthander Randy Johnson ran his record to
15-2 with a complete-game win over the Cardinals on July 20,
through Sunday he'd gone 1-3 in seven starts with a 3.98 ERA.
Here are the five biggest collapses from 1920 through '99 among
pitchers, including Blue Moon Odum (right), who had six or more
starts after July 31 and who finished with 15 or more wins:

SEASON LAST 2 MONTHS
PLAYER, TEAM YEAR W-L ERA GS W-L ERA

Dutch Ruether, Reds 1920 16-12 2.47 10 0-5 4.61
Burleigh Grimes, Pirates 1929 17-7 3.13 8 1-5 5.11
Mel Harder, Indians 1936 15-15 5.17 9 1-7 7.60
Blue Moon Odom, Athletics 1969 15-6 2.92 10 1-2 4.29
Charlie Lea, Expos 1984 15-10 2.89 9 1-5 3.39

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

in the BOX

Aug. 27, 2000
Angels 10, Indians 9

One-run losses are always tough to stomach; one-run losses by a
team that had three runners cut down at the plate are
backbreakers. In the first inning, with Cleveland ahead 3-0, the
Indians' David Segui tried to score from first on Jim Thome's
double. Anaheim centerfielder Garret Anderson made a strong throw
to shortstop Benji Gil, whose relay beat Segui easily. Two
innings later Segui was nailed at the plate again, this time when
he tried to score from third on Thome's bouncer to first base.

With two outs in the seventh, after Cleveland had rallied from a
10-4 deficit to within a run, Segui singled to center. Manny
Ramirez, who spent nearly two months on the DL with an injured
hamstring, was waved home from second by third-base coach Jim
Riggleman. Anderson's throw beat Ramirez by five feet. "You have
to make them throw you out," said Riggleman. "[Anderson] made two
great throws."

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)