Hitting His Stride
After a wrenching personal loss, Bernie Williams is sparking the
As World Series champions four of the last five years, the
Yankees have become experts not only in winning but also in
winning while suffering. During the 1996 season, manager Joe
Torre's brother Rocco died, and his other brother, Frank,
underwent a successful heart transplant. Two years later colon
cancer was diagnosed in designated hitter-outfielder Darryl
Strawberry. In '99 Torre underwent surgery for prostate cancer,
and over a six-week span the fathers of third baseman Scott
Brosius, rightfielder Paul O'Neill and utility infielder Luis
Sojo all died. Then, last year, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre
had a stem-cell transplant to fight off blood-plasma cancer.
This year the burden of sorrow has fallen on centerfielder Bernie
Williams, whose 73-year-old father, Bernabe, died of a heart
attack on May 13 after a prolonged bout with pulmonary fibrosis.
Throughout April and early May, Williams, a four-time All-Star
with a .304 lifetime average, struggled to keep his batting
average above .200, and he went 17 games between his second and
third home runs.
"From a production standpoint, I never worried about Bernie,"
says Torre. "At his age , it wasn't a question of him
dropping off. It was obviously a time when Bernie needed to clear
his mind and sort through some things. We all understood he would
return to form in due time."
June 24, 2001
Due time has arrived. Over 19 games, from May 27 through June 17,
Williams batted .472 with six home runs and 16 RBIs, lifting his
average from .221 to .310. As the Yankees took two out of three
games from the Mets last weekend to stay within two games of the
first-place Red Sox in the American League East, Williams led the
way with six hits, including two homers, four RBIs and two stolen
bases. With O'Neill (.257), shortstop Derek Jeter (.284, 31
RBIs), leftfielder Chuck Knoblauch (.261, 21 RBIs) and first
baseman Tino Martinez (.255) struggling and DH David Justice
(.245, 30 RBIs) on the DL with a groin strain, Williams has again
emerged as New York's best player. "I've made progress in the
last couple of weeks," he says, "getting on base more, walking
more, driving the ball to the gaps and striking out less."
Williams missed 10 games in mid-April while visiting his ailing
father in their native Puerto Rico, but he rejoined the Yankees
when Bernabe's health took a turn for the better. Then, on May
13, after a game against the Orioles, Bernie was informed that
Bernabe had suffered the heart attack. Bernie immediately flew
home but arrived too late to say goodbye. "There's no way of
getting over that," he says. "You can have temporary closure and
hide from it by playing the game, but it's always on your mind."
Williams's return to form could not have come at a better time
for New York. Through Sunday the Yankees were eighth in the
American League with a .267 team average, and their 335 runs
scored ranked fifth. Last week owner George Steinbrenner, who has
remained uncharacteristically silent during most of Torre's
tenure, spoke out, telling The New York Times, "I can't say that
I'm happy. We really haven't hit at all. From Jeter to Justice to
Knoblauch, they're not hitting. Martinez is not hitting."
Even when all the bats return to form, Torre's greatest headache
will be the Yankees' lack of pitching depth. After leaving in
the fourth inning of his start against the Mets last Friday,
lefthanded starter Andy Pettitte was placed on the 15-day DL
with a strained left groin, joining righthander Orlando
Hernandez, who's out indefinitely while recovering from surgery
on the second toe of his left foot. That leaves New York with a
temporary rotation of Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Ted Lilly,
Randy Keisler and Adrian Hernandez--the latter three with 17
major league starts among them.
"One thing that I have been impressed with is the ability of the
guys in our clubhouse to stay focussed and strong," says Lilly, a
25-year-old rookie. "There's no panic, just a sense of pride. You
feel like everything will work out."
For Williams, at least, it has started to.
Devil Rays' New Direction
They're Headed Back to the Farm
In the four weeks since Tampa Bay hired John McHale Jr. to fill
the newly created position of chief operating officer, McHale,
who was the Tigers' president and CEO for the last 6 1/2 years,
has made it clear that developing players, not importing
veterans, will again be the team's priority. Before the 2000
season, the franchise's third, general manager Chuck LaMar
abandoned the develop-from-within strategy and added $25 million
to the previous year's payroll, mostly by acquiring third
baseman Vinny Castilla, outfielders Greg Vaughn and Gerald
Williams, and pitchers Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel.
The result? The Devil Rays won only 69 games last year and, after
suffering a three-game sweep by the Marlins last weekend, fell to
a major-league-worst 21-47 this season. Of those expensive
pickups, only Vaughn, whose 17 home runs and 48 RBIs through
Sunday made him an All-Star candidate, has panned out.
"I like to think of Toronto's gradual rise as the expansion model
to follow," says McHale, noting that it took the Blue Jays nine
years to make the playoffs. "We have to let our fans know that
patience is needed, and we have to have the courage to say no to
the temptation of high-priced free agents."
In that spirit Tampa Bay will gladly say yes to a team interested
in acquiring any of the eight or so veteran Devil Rays with hefty
contracts. Vaughn ($8.5 million per year), usually Tampa Bay's
DH, lately has been seeing more time in leftfield, the better to
showcase him for a contender with outfield needs (Mariners).
Righthander Albie Lopez ($2.975 million) had a 3-9 record and
5.59 ERA through Sunday but was still getting the ball every
fifth day in case a front-runner in need of a starter (Phillies
or Yankees) was watching.
"Everyone criticizes management," says Vaughn, who takes up a
good chunk of the Devil Rays' $57 million payroll. "The truth is,
if all the guys signed last year did what they are supposed to,
no one would be talking youth movement."
The player Tampa Bay most wants to shed is Williams, who, after a
career year in 2000 (.274, 21 home runs, 89 RBIs), was batting
.207 with four homers at week's end and had recently lost his
starting job in centerfield to a platoon of Randy Winn and Jason
Tyner. Worse for the Devil Rays: Should Williams, whose 2001
salary is $3 million, reach 1,000 plate appearances with Tampa
Bay, his $4 million option for 2002 would be guaranteed. Through
Sunday, Williams had 934 over his season and a half with the
Although LaMar is still involved in personnel moves, the Devil
Rays have sharply reduced his authority since McHale's
appointment. While Tampa Bay is a bad team that averages a
league-low 14,790 fans per game, McHale's commitment to youth is
encouraging. The club's top prospect, Double A outfielder Josh
Hamilton, has star potential, and the Rays' first-round pick in
the June draft, Middle Tennessee righthander Dewon Brazelton,
could reach the majors within two years. Two rookies, second
baseman Damian Rolls (.292, 10 stolen bases) and lefthanded
starter Joe Kennedy (2-1, 5.17 ERA), appear to be keepers. Says
McHale, "Anybody who follows the players' side of baseball has
to be impressed with our young prospects."
Orioles' Jerry Hairston
Hot Hitter Plays With Fire
Contrary to appearances on the diamond, Orioles second baseman
Jerry Hairston knows the value of humility. Since being baptized
a Jehovah's Witness last July, Hairston has been knocking on
doors all over Baltimore, spreading the message of his faith. "A
lot of people say, 'Man, you look just like Jerry Hairston,'" he
says. "I tell them, 'I get that a lot, everywhere I go.' I never
want to go into people's homes and tell them, 'Hi, I'm Jerry
Hairston.' I want to keep it low-key."
Remaining inconspicuous on the field is another matter. While his
diving stops of hot grounders and backhand tosses on double plays
draw raves, Hairston, 25, also punctuates his play with
end-over-end flips of his bat after strikeouts, exasperated
shrugs during arguments with umpires and the like--touches that
haven't endeared him to opposing players. "I want to play with
fire, with enthusiasm for the game," says Hairston, whose father,
Jerry Sr., spent nearly all of 14 seasons as a designated hitter
and outfielder for the White Sox. (An uncle and a grandfather
also played in the majors.) "Sometimes it might come off as
something else. What can I say? I'm a passionate person."
Hairston's fire sometimes draws return fire. During a June 7 game
against the Yankees, Hairston slammed his bat on the ground after
popping out on a first-pitch Roger Clemens fastball, an act that
earned him a long staredown from the Rocket. In his final at bat
Hairston had to get out of the way of a Clemens fastball that
buzzed behind his head.
"I meant no disrespect to Roger; he was one of my favorite
players growing up," says Hairston. "I was mad at myself for
popping up. Besides, how many times do other major leaguers
[slam their bats]? Tino Martinez? Paul O'Neill?"
Says Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove, "When a player's
personality rubs somebody the wrong way, it's a matter of
interpretation. Bottom line, Jerry plays hard, and he plays to
Since hitting .190 in April, the 5'10", 175-pound Hairston had
batted .327, raising his season average through Sunday to .278
with four home runs, 29 RBIs and a team-high 15 stolen bases.
Hairston has excellent range defensively but needs to show more
restraint once he gets to the ball, rather than always attempting
spectacular throws. (Of his six throwing errors, only two have
come on routine balls.) For now, though, Hairston's all-out style
remains his calling card.
"I'm passionate about everything," said Hairston, pulling his
black uniform socks over scabs on both knees before last
Saturday's game against the Phillies. "The other night I was
watching the NBA Finals, just standing in front of the TV yelling
for the 76ers because I really love guys like Allen Iverson, guys
who play with heart and passion." --Daniel G. Habib
Rey of Hope
Indians at Royals, June 22-24
Annual visits from a fielding magician such as Cleveland's Omar
Vizquel have reminded Kansas City fans of what the Royals have
rarely had: a first-rate shortstop at the top of his game.
Miracles happen, even in K.C. This season Rey Sanchez, a
nondescript 10-year journeyman, has been--save for a certain
ultra-rich Texas Ranger--baseball's best all-around shortstop. A
career .273 hitter entering this season, Sanchez through Sunday
was batting .314 and had a 21-game hitting streak that ended on
June 3. His two errors were the fewest by an American League
No, the Royals aren't going anywhere, but Sanchez might be--to
the All-Star Game.
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week:
Padres first baseman Ryan Klesko is the most improved player in
baseball. He's bubbling over with confidence, and he seems
extremely relaxed when batting with runners on base. I don't
know why any righthander would pitch to him....
The meltdown has started in Philadelphia. Legit contenders
battle through adversity and have good pitching depth. The
I'm still not 100 percent sold on Mariners rightfielder Ichiro
Suzuki. I want to see how he plays through 162 games and the
playoffs with transcontinental travel. There's a chance he'll
The A's have the talent to make a run at the wild card, but they
need to get injured DH John Jaha and his big bat back into the
lineup. Also, I'm shocked by the terrible performance of
outfielder Johnny Damon. Some players use their walk year as
motivation and some guys implode under the pressure. He's
Don Baylor has done wonders with the Cubs, but my National
League Manager of the Year is Jim Tracy of the Dodgers. That
team has had key injuries, but he's kept the attitude positive.
That's something Davey Johnson couldn't do....
This season, more than any I've seen, has reinforced the idea
that good starting pitching carries a team much further than
good hitting. Look at the Cubs and the Twins. Neither lineup
scares me. But both teams can pitch.
in the Box
RANGERS 12, ASTROS 9
Houston righthanded reliever Jay Powell has a simple assignment:
Let batters hit the ball, but only on the ground. In last
Friday's game at Enron Field, Powell did his job--and failed. In
the bottom of the eighth, with runners on second and third, no
outs, and the Astros ahead 9-7, manager Larry Dierker called on
the sinkerballing Powell to face Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod bounced
the first pitch up the middle into centerfield, driving in both
runners. The next batter, Rafael Palmeiro, hit a ball back to
Powell that should have resulted in an easy double play.
Instead, Palmeiro reached first safely because Jeff Bagwell
failed to touch the bag to complete the play. The next two
hitters, Ruben Sierra and Gabe Kapler, hit ground-ball singles.
By the time Powell left, having gotten no more outs, Houston
trailed 11-9. He was booed mercilessly.
"I feel so bad for Jay," said Dierker. "We count on him to get
grounders, and he gets grounders. Sometimes they go to the
fielders, and sometimes they don't."
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Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.