Another injury could cost Ken Griffey Jr. another year--and a
chance to restore his rep
Stay healthy--that was Ken Griffey Jr.'s mantra this spring. He
missed nearly two months last season with a torn left hamstring
and hit only 22 home runs, his lowest total since a broken left
wrist limited him to 72 games in 1995. With a full, injury-free
season he could reclaim his place among the game's elite, and in
doing that he might even lift the Reds back to respectability.
Then maybe the baseball world would see a return of the youthful
energy and enthusiasm that marked his salad days with the
Mariners. After all, as Griffey said during camp, "who smiles all
the time when they're hurt and losing?"
No one, and neither Griffey nor Cincinnati is smiling now.
Griffey hit his first homer of the season and 461st of his career
in the third inning of the Reds' 6-5 win over the Expos on
Sunday. Four innings later, while in a rundown between third and
home, he wrenched his right knee. The early diagnosis was a
partially dislocated kneecap and a partially torn patellar
tendon. As of Monday, Griffey was expected to be out for at least
three to six weeks.
It was unclear if Griffey, who returned from the hospital to
Cinergy Field on Sunday night to begin rehab, would require
surgery. "There's the outside chance he'll need an operation,"
said Reds team physician Timothy Kremchek. If he does go under
the knife, Griffey's season will almost certainly be finished.
Whether he misses six weeks or the rest of the schedule,
Griffey's career, much like Mark McGwire's before him, has been
repeatedly interrupted by injury in the prime years, inevitably
leading to the question, What if? In the five seasons between
1992 and '96, when McGwire was between the ages of 28 and 32, he
missed 363 games and was on the disabled list every season. By
retiring at 38 with 583 home runs and an irreparably damaged
right knee, McGwire lost the chance to become only the fourth
player to hit 600 dingers and the possibility of overtaking Hank
Aaron's alltime mark of 755.
In addition to 1995 and last season, Griffey, 32, spent chunks of
time on the DL in '89, '92 and '96. When he arrived in Cincinnati
before the 2000 season, he was 30 and had 398 homers. If he'd
averaged 40 a season thereafter, Griffey would have passed Aaron
before Junior turned 39, an easy enough pace for someone who
hadn't hit fewer than 48 homers since '95. For Griffey now,
breaking Aaron's mark has become a long shot, particularly if he
misses the rest of this season.
Another question is, how long will he want to play beyond the end
of his contract, which expires after the '08 season? Records
aside, injuries may deprive Griffey of the chance to regain his
status not only as the game's best all-around player but also as
one of it's most popular players. He came under fire this spring
from former Reds teammates who chastised him for a lack of
leadership and for being a divisive clubhouse presence. Ever
since Griffey engineered the trade that returned him to his
hometown, the baseball world has been waiting for a return of the
Junior--on and off the field--it revered. That wait may last
Back to Basics for Diaz
Catcher's Throws And Woes
Last year Indians catcher Einar Diaz threw out 37.8% of runners
attempting to steal against him, the best percentage in the
American League among catchers who faced 60 or more steal
attempts. In the first week of this season base stealers were 5
for 5. Diaz's throws not only failed to nail the runners but also
were wild. Against the Angels on April 2 he threw three balls
into centerfield and was charged with an error on two of them.
"He rushed his throws, which makes the ball sail to the right,"
says Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel. "He had a problem with
that last year. This is the worst I've seen him, but we're always
able to correct it."
Less than a week out of spring training, Diaz went back to
throwing school. Working with Indians catching instructor Joel
Skinner, he focused on footwork and slowing his delivery. "I did
some extra throwing, but I still have to keep working on it," he
said the day after his Anaheim disaster.
And players say spring training is too long.
Managers in the Hot Seat
It's Getting Warm Already
The firing of Tigers manager Phil Garner and general manager
Randy Smith on Monday was about as surprising as seeing the
Yankees in first place. Detroit was the only winless team in the
majors (0-6) and had been outscored 40-13, and there was little
evidence that the Garner-Smith combo could turn things around.
Scrap Iron, who managed the Brewers before coming to the Tigers
two years ago, hadn't had a winning team since 1992. Detroit
never finished better than .500 in Smith's six years.
Both men had to be feeling antsy even before the awful start,
thanks to a common threat to job security in baseball: A new
honcho in the front office. Two other skippers working with new
bosses, the Rangers' Jerry Narron and the Blue Jays' Buck
Martinez, face uncertain futures as well. Narron, who has been on
the job since last May, watched Texas go 1-5 in the season's
first week--exactly the kind of start new general manager John
Hart warned against this winter. Mindful that the Rangers had
lost 26 of their first 40 games in 2001, Hart had said, "You just
don't want to get buried like this club got buried last year."
As of Sunday, Texas was already 3 1/2 games behind the American
League West-leading A's and well on its way to interment. Blame
for the bad start can hardly be placed on Narron. Alex Rodriguez
began the season 3 for 23. Righthander Chan Ho Park, signed to a
$65 million contract in December to be the staff ace, landed on
the disabled list last week with a strained right hamstring.
Closer Jeff Zimmerman and top setup man Jay Powell aren't
expected back from injuries until next month.
Still, it would be no surprise if Hart canned Narron. There's
already a likely replacement seated next to Narron in the dugout:
Terry Francona, the former Phillies manager whom Hart brought
with him from the Indians to be bench coach. Narron can't even
count on his contract--he's signed through 2003--to save him. Owner
Tom Hicks, who also owns the NHL's Dallas Stars and who fired
Stanley Cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock in January, isn't likely
to flinch at spending the money to buy out another head man.
Martinez is in a similar position. Like Narron, he's learning to
live with a new boss, general manager J.P. Ricciardi. Since
taking over, Ricciardi has frequently talked about changing the
way Toronto is perceived by the rest of the baseball world, i.e.,
as a less-than-scrappy team that packed it in toward the end of
last season. That sounds like an indictment of the way Martinez
ran the Blue Jays last year in his first season on the job.
Ricciardi is also determined to build a team that makes working
the count and getting on base a priority. If Toronto, which was
2-3 through Sunday, is slow to buy into this approach, Martinez
could take the fall.
The New Kerry Wood
Kid K: Strikeouts Aren't Everything
During spring training righthander Kerry Wood worked extensively
with new Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild to become more
efficient on the mound. Eight pitches into Wood's first start of
the season, against the Reds on April 3, he appeared to have
taken those lessons to a laughable extreme. Wood struck out the
first two hitters he faced on three pitches and then put Ken
Griffey Jr. in an 0-and-2 hole. Griffey fought back and worked a
walk, but Wood ended the inning by blowing a fastball past Sean
Chicago won 10-3 and Wood whiffed 10, his 20th double-digit
strikeout game in his 78th career start, but with his pitch count
inflated to 104 by bouts of wildness--he walked four--his night
ended after five innings. As he has throughout his four-year
career, the righthanded Wood vacillated between dominating and
frustrating. "You have to remember that the guy is 24 years old,"
says Rothschild. "Look at other great pitchers at age 24. He's
light years ahead of them."
Indeed, Wood's age lags far behind his experience. His
20-strikeout gem in 1998 seems like ancient history, obscured by
the right elbow surgery that forced him to miss all of the '99
season and minor side and shoulder injuries that landed him on
the disabled list each of the past two years. Wood still hasn't
made 30 starts in a season.
The remaking of Kid K may not be apparent to the fan who still
sees a fastball that blazes between 95 and 97 mph, but it's
happening. It began with changes to his mechanics and repertoire.
Rothschild has helped Wood alter his delivery so that his legs
absorb more strain than his arm. Wood has cut down on the extent
to which he throws across his body, a tendency that greatly taxed
his elbow. Rothschild also altered the arm angle at which Wood
throws his breaking ball, getting him to keep his elbow outside
of his hand as he releases the pitch. "When he snapped it off the
other way," says Rothschild, "it was pretty stressful on his
That breaking ball is no longer the big-breaking slider that so
dazzled hitters. In its place he now uses a less dramatic, but
still sharp, curveball. Wood hasn't ruled out throwing the slider
again some day, but for now he's content to be a three-pitch
pitcher: fastball, curve and changeup, with a cut fastball that
he'll show hitters on rare occasions.
His weapons have changed, and so has the way he uses them. It was
hard to tell against the Reds, but strikeouts are no longer
Wood's priority. "Two years ago, if I got strike one on a guy, I
was going for the strikeout all the way," he says. "It's smarter
to try to get a ground ball, make them hit your pitch. You have
to put your pride aside."
The Cubs' goal is to reduce the amount of effort it takes Wood to
get outs, in the interest of keeping him healthy and in games
longer. Only the Indians' C.C. Sabathia (4.12) and the
Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson (4.09) averaged more pitches per
batter than Wood (4.08) last season. Little wonder that Wood has
only three complete games and has averaged only slightly more
than six innings per start. "I want more four-pitch at bats than
eight-pitch at bats," he says. "I'll take eight innings and just
three strikeouts anytime."
Who Owns Whom?
NEW YORK METS
There aren't many pitchers happy to see Piazza strolling to the
plate, but the sight has to be especially chilling for Glavine,
who's scheduled to face the Mets at Shea Stadium on April 16.
Piazza has hit .323 with six home runs and 12 RBIs in 62 at bats
against the lefthanded Glavine. No other active player has taken
Glavine deep as often, and only Barry Bonds has driven in more
runs (13) off him. Glavine has taken to pitching Piazza
carefully; he walked him four times in 16 plate appearances last
season. In New York's win over Atlanta last Saturday, Piazza
reached on an error, grounded out to the shortstop and walked in
three trips to the plate against Glavine.
in the Box
WHITE SOX 14, ROYALS 0
What suspense could there possibly be in the eighth inning of a
9-0 game? In this case the thrill of waiting to see if a Kansas
City reliever would ever throw a strike. With the game out of
reach, Royals manager Tony Muser called on 21-year-old
righthander Miguel Asencio to begin the eighth. In his major
league debut Asencio walked Kenny Lofton on four pitches and then
did the same to Ray Durham. Eight pitches later he'd walked two
more and forced in a run. Sixteen pitches. Sixteen balls. "We
were actually feeling sorry for him, even though we were
scoring," said Chicago starter Mark Buehrle.
Asencio was lifted for righthander Cory Bailey, who went to a
3-and-0 count and eventually walked the first hitter he faced.
After a single, a hit batter, a sacrifice fly and two more outs,
the White Sox had sent 10 men to the plate and scored five
runs--but had only three at bats.
Jason Giambi (right) received his official welcome to New York
last week--boos and derisive chants of "Tino! Tino!" from fans
at Yankee Stadium, who were dismayed by the $120 million man's
3-for-21 start as the successor to Tino Martinez at first base.
Those fans should heed the advice Mark McGwire gave his friend
Giambi in a phone call on Friday night: Relax. It's hardly
unheard of for a pricey free agent to struggle in his early days
with a new team. Here's how the highest-priced free agent of
each of the past six seasons (based on the total value of his
contract) fared in his first 10 games or, for a pitcher, his
first three starts in his new uniform. --S.C.
Year Player Package Start
2001 Alex Rodriguez, Rangers $252 million .297, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs
2000 Greg Vaughn, Devil Rays $34 million .308, 4 HRs, 9 RBIs
1999 Kevin Brown, Dodgers $105 million 1-1, 3.15 ERA
1998 Wilson Alvarez, Devil Rays $35 million 2-1, 3.71 ERA
1997 Albert Belle, White Sox $55 million .195, 1 HR, 5 RBIs
1996 Ron Gant, Cardinals $25 million .333, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs