Inside Baseball

June 03, 2001

Getting a Grip
Ryan Klesko, with newfound discipline at bat, has powered the
surprising Padres

During the off-season, Ryan Klesko, the Padres' first baseman,
hunts elk on his 9,000-acre ranch in central Oregon. He and
Braves righthander John Smoltz stalk deer on the 1,300-acre
spread they co-own near Macon, Ga. Klesko uses his house in
Corpus Christi as a hunting and fishing base. He took a fishing
trip to Costa Rica last winter and has one planned in Fiji next
winter. Oh, yeah, he surfs as often as he can whenever he's at
his San Diego residence.

As peripatetic and diverse an outdoorsman as he is off the field,
the 29-year-old Klesko, who's in his 10th big league season, long
was considered one-dimensional on it, known for an all-or-nothing
helicopter swing and little else during his eight years with
Atlanta. That has changed in San Diego, where he was dealt after
the 1999 season. "When he gets on base, it's like watching Rickey
Henderson," says Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn. "I just hope he
doesn't get hurt stealing bases."

That's not usually a concern with a 6'3", 240-pound number 3
hitter, but through Sunday, Klesko, who set a career high with 23
steals last year after never having swiped more than six, was
second in the National League, with 13 thefts. He was also
hitting .300 with 12 home runs and 46 RBIs, fifth most in the
league, and had a ninth-best .422 on-base percentage. "Ryan is
capable of having an MVP-type year," says San Diego manager Bruce
Bochy. "He's big, he's strong, he can run, and he can punish the
baseball."

The Padres' surprising run in the tumultuous NL West--their brief
hold on first place last week was (with the exception of a
one-day share in April 2000) San Diego's first since 1998, the
year it reached the World Series--has been sparked by strong
pitching and an offense centered on Klesko. Even after losing
three of four games with the Diamondbacks last week to fall two
games behind the division-leading Dodgers and Rockies, the Padres
had the league's fourth-best ERA (3.90) and the fourth-most
strikeouts, and had allowed the third-fewest walks. On offense
San Diego was the league's second-highest-scoring team (5.4 runs
per game to the Rockies' 6.3). Its attack was based on patience
at the plate (a big-league-best 223 walks), speed (52 steals,
tops in the NL) and timely hitting.

Klesko has excelled in all of those areas--plus, as his
four-homer, nine-RBI, two-game binge against the Astros last week
made clear, he has as much wallop as almost any hitter in
baseball. The power has always been there: He hit a career-high
34 home runs in 1996 and at least 20 in five of the six seasons
in which he has had at least 300 at bats. Since arriving in San
Diego, Klesko has become a more patient and studious hitter, one
who no longer tries to belt every pitch 500 feet. As a Brave he
struck out nearly twice as often as he walked. Last year his
walks (91) outnumbered his whiffs (81) for the first time.
Through Sunday he had struck out 30 times and drawn 37 free
passes, fifth most in the NL. "I've learned to study pitchers
more," Klesko says. "When I was younger, I was more of a free
swinger. I don't swing as hard as I used to on every pitch."

"You think of him as more brawn than brains, but he's a very
astute hitter," says Bochy. "He makes adjustments and uses the
whole field."

Klesko says improved workout habits over the past two years--his
girlfriend, Amy Hamrick, is his personal trainer--have made him
more effective at the plate, as have vision exercises that he
began doing last year. The drills, which he calls "eye push-ups,"
involve focusing on things like a piece of string bedecked with
multicolored beads to balance the strength of the eyes. "Since
I've been doing them, I feel I've seen the ball much better," he
says.

Klesko also enjoys a sense of maturity and confidence that comes
with getting to play every day at one position. He didn't have
that opportunity in Atlanta, where he was benched against
lefthanders and shuttled between first base and leftfield. Klesko
still struggles against lefties (.227 average, no home runs in 44
at bats), but Bochy has put him in the lineup every day. "I can
relax knowing they have that confidence in me," Klesko says. "I
feel more like a well-rounded team player."

Trade Talks Heat Up
Pitching Some Pitchers

When Rangers owner Tom Hicks ended speculation last week that
All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez would be dealt--"We're not going
to trade him. I want very much to keep him here," Hicks
said--White Sox lefthander David Wells moved front and center on
the early-season trading block. With his club 14 games behind the
Twins in the American League Central through Sunday, Chicago
general manager Ken Williams had talked to several teams,
including the Astros, Cardinals, Mets and Red Sox, in search of a
taker for the high-priced, high-risk Wells.

As attractive as a veteran lefty with a history of big-game
success might be, finding a new home for Wells wasn't going to be
easy. First, his performance has been off--he was 3-5 with a 4.54
ERA this season, and since last year's All-Star break he had won
only eight of 26 starts and had a 4.79 ERA. Second, Wells's
contract may dissuade many teams from considering acquiring him.
He'll make $9.25 million this year, and last week he threatened
to retire if his $10 million option for next season isn't picked
up. Teams such as the Red Sox, who already have the
second-highest payroll in the majors, and the Astros, who have
struggled to keep their payroll within a budget of $60 million,
might be loath to make such a financial commitment to a
38-year-old with less-than-ideal conditioning. The Mets, who
thought they had a deal with the Blue Jays for Wells in January
only to see him land in Chicago, could afford him, but their
refusal to part with prized outfield prospect Alex Escobar
derailed their talks with the White Sox.

Finally, there's Wells's testy personality. In the past two weeks
he has called Mets manager Bobby Valentine a "loser," labeled
Indians fans "low-rent scumbags" and said he would never play in
Cleveland, been photographed making an obscene gesture at the
SkyDome and allegedly exchanged head butts with a fan in a
Toronto tavern. "Wells is a real loose cannon right now," says
one American League scout. "The White Sox are trying desperately
to move him, but there aren't that many fits out there."

While Wells has drawn the most attention, here are two other
pitchers who could move soon:

Sidney Ponson, Orioles. Despite his mid-90s fastball and
above-average stuff, Ponson, a 24-year-old righthander (2-3, 4.73
ERA), has frustrated the Baltimore brass with his lack of command
and frequent losses of concentration. The Orioles, who have
spoken to the Expos about slugging third baseman Fernando Tatis,
are hunting for someone to replace the calcifying Cal Ripken Jr.,
and Ponson may be their most alluring bait.

Albie Lopez, Devil Rays. General manager Chuck LaMar will listen
to offers for nearly every Tampa Bay player, but Lopez, the Rays'
righthanded ace and a free agent after this season, is his most
attractive chip. One problem: Lopez (3-5 with a 4.28 ERA) was
winless in five starts since April 24, having allowed at least
six runs in four of them, and twice had left games with minor
injuries. "His location was awful," says one scout who watched
Lopez give up six runs in eight innings against the Angels last
Friday. Still, Lopez would draw interest from contending teams
looking for a cheaper alternative to Wells.

Base Runner's Mistake
Leading with the Head Isn't Smart

You could almost hear all of New England gasp last Thursday when
Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez, trying to beat a throw in the
ninth inning against the Yankees, heaved himself headlong toward
first base. Ramirez landed awkwardly on his chest, and as he
skidded into the bag his arms and shoulders were pulled under his
body. He was out, but that mattered less than the fact that he
walked away from the ugly-looking play uninjured.

The headfirst slide into first is to baseball players what
playing with matches is to curious kids. No matter how many times
they're told not to do it, they can't resist. Perhaps no other
play inspires more dismay in managers, because it's an invitation
to injury that can--and should--be avoided, since most coaches
agree that diving doesn't get a runner to first any quicker than
sprinting through the bag does.

"I think everybody realizes that, but you still see a lot of
smart players do it," says San Diego first base coach Alan
Trammell, who says Sparky Anderson, who managed him on the
Tigers, fined players who dived into first. "When you smell hit,
it's an act of desperation."

During a 1999 American League Division Series, Indians
centerfielder Kenny Lofton, while diving into first, suffered a
horrific injury that nearly ended his career: He separated his
left shoulder and tore his rotator cuff when he jammed his upper
body against the bag. Still, lots of players continue to take the
plunge, including such savvy veterans as Lofton's teammate
Roberto Alomar. Indians manager Charlie Manuel's response after
Alomar was called out on such a play earlier this month? A terse,
"I'd prefer he not do it."

Working Dugout Magic
Cubs' Charming Approach

Eight-game losing streaks will drive grown men to do strange
things, even on a franchise as cursed as the Cubs. With Chicago
mired in such a skid last week, Julio Zuleta, who platoons at
first base with Matt Stairs, performed a little Major
League-style black magic in the home team's dugout at Wrigley
Field in the hope that it would revive the Cubs, who were hitting
.208 during their losing streak. In the May 19 game against the
Diamondbacks, Zuleta waved a burning newspaper under each
starter's bat, rubbed them down with the bones hitters use to
harden the wood and waved apples, bananas and oranges over them.
"It's not voodoo," Zuleta said. "The bats, they get tired. I
thought they were hungry, so I put some fruit in there."

The blessing apparently paid off: Chicago beat Arizona 6-2,
reaching double figures in hits for the first time in two weeks.
Through Sunday, Zuleta had performed the dugout ritual during
every game since, and the Cubs had won seven in a row, outscoring
opponents 29-13. "Whatever it takes to win, we're going to do,"
said Zuleta.

On Deck
Ground Zero

June 1-3, the Giants at the Rockies

If San Francisco manager Dusty Baker has a nervous tic, it will
be on display in this series. The Giants, who had committed the
third-most infield errors (28) in the National League through
Sunday, will be facing the ground-ball-hittingest team in the
league. The Rockies had hit 662 grounders, and their 1.43-to-1
ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio was the league's highest. Leading
the ground attack is centerfielder Juan Pierre, who had pounded
into the dirt 77.0% of the balls he'd put in play (excluding
hits), the highest percentage in the league.

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

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Ramirez's dirty dive proved there's nothing safe, smart or pretty about going headfirst into first.

enemy Lines
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week.

The way umpires are handling this head-hunting rule is a joke.
Some don't understand the flow of the game. They gave the
Marlins' A.J. Burnett a warning [for hitting Mets pitcher Kevin
Appier last Thursday in the fifth inning of a game the Marlins
were trailing by a run]. He couldn't even throw a strike during
his no-hitter. If I were [Florida manager] John Boles, I wouldn't
have made it past that one....

The Devil Rays are a Triple A-caliber team. New manager Hal
McRae is a real brusque guy, and I'm not sure how well a lot of
the players, who were used to being coddled by Larry Rothschild,
are taking it....

The Twins are going to fade because they don't have enough
offense. Manager Tom Kelly is trying to do as much as he can
with the running game, but the loss of DH David Ortiz with a
broken right wrist really hurts, and with their budget the Twins
can't go out and get another bat. They're a 1980s turf team, and
it's tough to win like that in the American League....

The Rockies' two wins at Pac Bell last week were a good sign for
them. For Colorado any win on the road is. Rookie righthander
Shawn Chacon (3-0, 2.42 in his last four starts) has been a nice
surprise. His curveball might be the only one I've seen that
works at Coors Field....

Starting pitching dictates success. That's why the A's will be
in the playoff hunt and the Blue Jays won't, even though they
are about even now. Oakland's starters have been much better
over the last few weeks, which is why the A's have turned things
around.

in the Box
Diamondbacks 3, Padres 1
May 26

The etiquette for an in-progress no-hitter is as strict as that
for a state dinner: Don't talk to the pitcher, don't move from a
lucky seat--and don't try to break it up with a bunt. That's
according to the Diamondbacks, who were miffed that Curt
Schilling lost a perfect game with one out in the eighth inning
when San Diego's Ben Davis popped a bunt into the no-man's land
between the mound and first base. "That's chicken s---," said
Arizona manager Bob Brenly. "He has a lot to learn about how this
game is played." Added first baseman Mark Grace, "They're trying
to win, so in that respect I understand, but I wouldn't have had
the b---- to do it."

The Padres and Davis, who said it was his idea to drop the bunt,
defended the move. "If we'd been down by six, that would've been
one thing," said Davis, "but it was 2-0. I had to get on base and
bring the tying run to the plate."

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)