Hope| The Classic| The Un-Natural| The Maverick|Mark Grace| The Promise| El Gato Grande| The Chainsaw| The Dirtbag
One of the New Breed of shortstops, BostonOs cleanup hitter is a throwback when it comes to humility
Red Sox manager Jimy Williams is not someone given to thoughtful remarks, but his midseason throwaway line about Nomar Garciaparra best explains the phenomenal presence of BostonOs second-year shortstop: OItOs like heOs been here before.O
Yeah, thatOs it. Make the case that Nomar played major league baseball in an earlier lifetime and understand why he never looked like a rookie, or why he was immune to the lethargy and immaturity that torpedoed so many past Rookies of the Year in their second seasons. (Where have you gone, Joe Charboneau?)
If we can believe that NomarOs taut torso (imagine a spider on andro) carries the soul of Honus Wagner, maybe it would explain how a 175-pound 25-year-old can bat cleanup for the mighty Red Sox, lead his team into the ALCS, and demonstrate the work ethic of a 20-year vet. OHe didnOt play last year like a rookie,O says Williams. OAnd he hasnOt played this year like a guy in his second year. He plays like heOs been here a long time.O
Garciaparra plays old-school, no-frills baseball. He keeps the same hat for an entire season, and wears the tiny fielderOs mitt of a bygone generation. He runs out every groundball, breaks up every double play and says nothing when he gets hit by a pitch. Even his hairstyle is from another eraNthink Ted Williams, 1939.
Teddy Ballgame himself has been out front with praise, comparing Garciaparra to a young Joe DiMaggio. GarciaparraOs teammate, Dennis Eckersley, says, OThere are a lot of good shortstops, but Nomar can do it all. This guyOs capable of being a Hall of Fame player. How do they build these new guys, anyway? ItOs unheard of. A shortstop hitting 30 jacks, knocking in 100 runs.O
These are heady days indeed for AL shortstops. SeattleOs Alex Rodriguez had the best offensive season in the history of the position, Derek Jeter is the MVP of the 114-win Yankees and ClevelandOs Omar Vizquel has us wondering if Ozzie Smith was the wizard, after all. Yet Garciaparra, who couldnOt make the All-Star team in his league of shortstop sizzle, might be the cream of the crop. Consider that in his rookie season, Nomar led the AL in hits (209) and triples (11), and ranked second in total bases (365), knocking in 98 runs from the leadoff position. He also set an AL rookie record with a 30-game hitting streak and stole 22 bases, just to prove he was not your fatherOs Red Sox star.
Forget sophomore slump. Moved to the four hole, Garciaparra knocked in 122, cranked 35 McGwires and finished among the ALOs top 10 in BA (.323), hits (195), RBI, triples, total bases, slugging and extra-base hits. ItOs standard playerspeak to say youOd rather go 0-4 and win than 3-4 and lose, but Garciaparra can make this clichZ sound believable. The space in front of his locker is a stat-free zone: Woe be to the reporter who asks about hitting streaks or home run totals. Nomar will not entertain the discussion.
OThatOs exactly how he feels,O says Williams. OHe just wants to win. If we were deaf mutes, weOd still feel the same way about him. You donOt have to talk to him or hear Nomar say anything. You just look at the way he plays, and it all jumps out at you.O
Garciaparra plays hungry and hard, every day, for six months. He gets to almost every ball at short and always takes a shot at getting the runner at first, never holding back a throw to protect his fielding stats. That partly explains his 26 errors, a number that may cost him the MVP award. Not one to curry favor by cozying up to writers, Garciaparra is cordial but avoids eye contact, and never says anything colorful or controversial.
Not that heOs dull. Trivia buffs will be happy to learn that Garciaparra was born on the same day (July 23, 1973) and in the same state (California) as Monica Lewinsky. His unusual first name is the reversal of his dadOs. Ramon-spelled-backward loves soccer so much that he considered flying to France for the World Cup during the All-Star break.
Garciaparra is fanatical to the point of obsession about his routines. He steps out of the box after every pitch and goes through an annoying series of batting-glove tugs and nervous gestures. Same sequence every time. Walk behind him going up or down the dugout steps and youOll notice he puts two feet on every step. Every time. Remember the wild-eyed soldier in Bill MurrayOs Stripes who told his boot camp brothers, OTouch my stuff and IOll kill youO? NomarOs a little like that guy.
A-Rod, Jeter and Vizquel have all benefitted from the postseason showcase. Now itOs NomarOs turn. OItOs not pressure, itOs just fun,O he says, shifting into ballplayer clichZ overdrive. OItOs all about winning. ThatOs what you go into the season preparing forNto get to the postseason. You donOt go in just hoping to have a decent season. This is where we want to get to every year. I just want to get to the World Series and win it.O
Hey, itOs not as if the Red Sox arenOt due.
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for the Boston Globe
Taking his cue from another New Yorker, the YankeesO quiet man speaks softly and carries a big stick
Tucked inside the cavernous corner locker in the Yankees clubhouse, head bowed, eyes closed, plucking the brass-wound strings of his electric guitar, Bernie Williams finds peace. ItOs a remarkable feat, under the circumstances: teammates chattering, reporters badgering, a metropolis outside clamoring with expectations. But Williams, alone with his music, is capable of regulating his emotions with near robotic efficiency.
Early on, that stoic demeanor was mistaken for lack of passion, and critics claimed he played in a daze. Even as his talent began to blossom in the mid-O90s, his lack of flash kept him in the shadows: There were no snap catches or signature struts to hang headlines on. By the end of 1996, fellow big leaguers were pointing to the Yankees centerfielder as baseballOs most underrated player. But his torrid October turned that postseason into a personal coming-out party, as Williams hit .345 with six home runs and 15 RBI, enough to earn him ALCS MVP honors. After sliding across the plate with what proved to be the winning run in Game 3, Williams even showed a rare burst of flare, popping off the ground and twisting in a perfect pirouette. The Yankees never trailed in the series again.
Williams played the catalyst in the World Series as well. His RBI single in the do-or-die third game gave the Yanks their first lead of the Series, and a two-run bomb in the eighth sealed their first win. The Yankees took four straight from the Braves and toasted their first title in nearly 20 years.
Now, as then, Williams takes little credit for his teamOs success, casting himself as an ordinary guy blessed with an opportunity to do extraordinary things. But he does admit to a quasi-compulsive drive for perfection. OWho wants to be mediocre?O he asks. OIOve worked very hard to be in this position, and IOd be a fool not to do everything in my power to make the most of it.O
Williams credits his parents for instilling in him the passion to excel, but it is his brother Hiram who helped round out his game. A natural righty, Williams was made to bat lefthanded when playing Wiffle ball with his overmatched younger brother. Now heOs one of the ALOs top hitters from both sides of the plate. OBernie has worked hard to become a complete hitter,O says hitting coach Chris Chambliss, Oparticularly from the left side, where he doesnOt have that natural strength and coordination.O
An international track champion in high school, Williams is among the leagueOs best going from first to third. In centerfield, his long, loping strides turn hard chases into graceful glides when he runs down balls in the gaps, his 6'2'', 205-pound frame seeming to skim across the grass. At the plate, he has power, discipline and a sweet stroke: 26 homers and 74 walks in just 128 games, and a league-leading .339 BA.
But WilliamsO passionate play remains at odds with his laid-back attitude, and his OrelaxedO approach often leaves teammates in a daze. OThereOs a place called BernieOs World,O says clubhouse neighbor Mike Stanton, Oand not too many people know whatOs going on in there. Including Bernie.O
OHeOs probably the most abused guy in the clubhouse,O says Tino Martinez, a distinction born not only of WilliamsO somewhat foggy disposition, but also of his remarkable sleeping habits. Derek Jeter explains: OHe shows up, sleeps, gets dressed, takes BP, sleeps, goes out and plays, then goes home and sleeps some more. Sometimes, you donOt even know heOs here.O
Williams insists accounts of his somnolent behavior are grossly exaggerated, and that what appears to be sleep is actually a state of extreme concentration: OI like to close my eyes and think about what I need to do, and get myself relaxed so I can focus on the game.O Paul OONeill isnOt buying it: OThe guyOs in his own world.O BernieOs World.
When it comes to Williams the ballplayer, though, his teammates echo near reverent respect. OBernieOs the classic leader by example,O says Martinez. OHeOs a guy other people can watch and learn from,O says Scott Brosius. OBernieOs the man,O says Jeter.
Williams has refused to allow his winter contract squabblesNheOs been playing under one-year deals since O95 and will file for free agency when the World Series endsNinterfere with the YankeesO record run. OHe called me this spring to tell me he didnOt want it to be a distraction,O says manager Joe Torre. OObviously it hasnOt been, and thatOs a credit to him as a player and a person. HeOs had plenty of chances to grumble.O
But Williams doesnOt have time to grumble. As the cleanup hitter on what some think is the best team in history, heOs got expectations to meet, teammates to inspire, GMs to impress and music to make. No wonder he needs a nap.
THE UN-NATURAL CLASSIC
It took him nine years to become an overnight success. So if heOs dreaming, donOt anybody wake him
Champagne-soaked and covered with shaving cream, Shane Spencer rolls his eyes in embarrassment. Because of a three-hour rain delay, it has been four hours since his sixth inning three-run homer gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead and all but clinched their three-game sweep over the Rangers. Joe Torre is at the mike, singing the rookieOs praises. Two days earlier, Spencer had homered in his first postseason at-bat. Then, Torre compared him with Joe Hardy, the hero in Damn Yankees who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for baseball glory. TodayOs metaphor is Robert Redford E uh, Roy Hobbs.
On a dark and stormy night, two on, two out in a tense one-run game, thunder cracking, a hard-working, heavy-hitting, blond-haired kid from nowhere steps into the box.
Cut from fiction to fact, from The Natural to Spencer, who reignited the Yanks after a late-season stall by batting .421, hitting 8 homers and driving in 21 runs in SeptemberNthus turning a cup of coffee into the toast of the town. He looks out at Rangers righthander Aaron Sele. First pitch, a hanging curve, one that ordinary September call-ups pop to short. Gone!
OWhereOs he been all year?O asked a befuddled Johnny Oates after SpencerOs Game 2 jack. Good question. OThere was nowhere to go,O says Spencer of his nine seasons in the minors. OSometimes I thought if I was with another organization, maybe I could make it. This year I was ready, and I can say I made it with the best team there ever was.O
But the best team there ever was has a damn good farm system, too. And a 28th-round pick, the 728th player taken in the 1990 June draft, has to wait his turn. OThis was his third year with 30 home runs,O says GM Brian Cashman. OHeOs our top righthanded outfielder, and we could always use a power bat in the postseason. Of course, we didnOt expect this kind of production.O
Outside Hollywood, who would? After just 27 regular season games, Spencer has already found a place in Yankee history, becoming the seventh player (and only rookie) to hit three grand slams in a season. Actually, it only took him 10 days.
Even Don Zimmer, whoOs seen just about everythingNand obviously not Damn YankeesNcan find no parallel to Spencer. OHe won the hearts of the fans in about 10 days,O Zimmer says. OBut if you produce what heOs produced, theyOll love you anywhere.O And Spencer has been loved everywhere. During a two-year stint at Class-A Greensboro, he had his own fan club. OThe signs,O recalls his mother Althea, Owere like, OThank Heaven for 47O and OSpencer, the Home Run Dispenser.O O
But the power-hitting leftfielder was more than a fan favorite, winning over coaches and players throughout his minor league career. OHeOs earned respect around this league,O says Jake Gibbs, former manager of the Florida State LeagueOs Tampa Yankees. Gibbs had Spencer in O94 andNdespite numbers (.290 BA, 8 HR, 53 RBI) that should have earned him a promotionNagain in O95.
Derek Jeter was a teammate on those Greensboro and Tampa teams, and was so impressed with SpencerOs hitting that he used to ask Shane to rub his bats. OHe said, OI know you got hits,O O remembers Spencer. OSo I gave him some of my bats and he took some home and slept with them.O Asked if heOs still looking to catch some of SpencerOs fire, Jeter says, OIOve been looking for it for the last three years.O
He got three straight spring training invitations, but no call-up until this season. How come? OEvery year it was a different thing,O says Spencer, OI needed to hit for average, or I didnOt drive in enough runs. I think I must have worked on my swing with every hitting instructor in the organization. But IOve finally found it.O
Now Spencer finds himself in the eye of a media maelstrom, with everybody asking, OHow does it feel?O Despite the hyperbole and Hall of Fame comparisons (OThe Next Mantle?O), Spencer remains the same happy-to-get-a-shot rookie he was before the homerun barrage. OSometimes you hardly know heOs there,O Torre says. OHe just walks around with this embarrassed smile.O
OYou guys keep saying itOs a dream, so I guess itOs a dream,O he told reporters before Game 3 in Texas. OI was just happy to contribute when it mattered.O Later, over the hiss of champagne spray that drenched the Yankees, Mike Stanton yelled, OWe got Shane Spencer!O as if that meant everything would be all right, and soaked the bashful rookie right in his embarrassed smile. In the interview room a few minutes later, Spencer was asked about all The Natural talk. OItOs a great movie,O he said, toweling the shaving cream from his close-cropped crew cut. OIOll have to watch it again back in New York.O
Or maybe heOll just continue to live it.
Pushing his right arm to the limit is all part of an honest dayOs work for the RangersO stoic closer
Pity the Rangers pitcher who draws John Wetteland as his pregame throwing partner. This poor soul, looking for nothing more than a simple, backyard-easy game of catch along one of the foul lines, finds himself playing Pudge Rodriguez, in a crouch, trying to handle WettelandOs best 90-plus heat, curves, sliders and change-ups with only a flimsy fielderOs glove to protect himself. Wetteland airs it out about 15-20 times before every game, his receiver looking about as happy as Kevin Bacon did in Animal House, when he responded after each paddle to his butt, OThank you sir, may I have another?O
OThatOs to condition my arm,O Wetteland says. OTo make it strong. To be able to handle working on consecutive days. When I have to pitch four straight days, my goal is to be ready on the fifth. I donOt want to ever walk into the managerOs officeNand I never haveNand say, OI canOt go today.O You throw hard, you see what you have. You work on things you had trouble with the day before. ItOs my way of staying on top of the game.O
Wetteland says he picked up the practice from Jay Howell, the DodgersO closer in the late O80s, and brought it to Montreal in O92, when his own career as a closer took shape. The program suits Texas manager Johnny Oates just fine. OIOve never seen a pitcher who can punish his arm as much as he does,O Oates says. OI mean, heOll walk on the mound the first day of spring training and throw full-blast. And he doesnOt stop all year.O
The other staple of WettelandOs pregame routine, roller hockey in the stadium corridors, is an original concept. OI work on all aspects of my game,O Wetteland says, stone-faced. OShooting, stickhandling, skating. I play hockey in the off-season.O Asked if the league is non-contact, Wetteland responds, OI play hockey in the off-season.O
WhoOs to question WettelandOs regimen? One of the most dominant and durable closers of the O90s, heOs posted 30 or more saves in every full season since O92. This year, he closed out 20 of his last 22 save chances for a Rangers record 42, and heOs pitching in his third postseason in four years. OIOve done things a lot different than most pitchers,O he says. OIOm a closer. IOm not going to run for 20 minutes like starting pitchers do. All my workouts are geared for strength and power and explosiveness. I only have one speed.O
In training, perhaps. But on the mound, Wetteland is a man of many speeds. Now that heOs 32, one AL scout says heOs lost about 5 mph off his A-plus heaterNleaving him in the low 90sNand has become more reliant on breaking stuff: a 12-to-6 curve and a hard slider. Oates doesnOt see this as a slight. OItOs to JohnOs advantage that he used to be a starter in the Dodger organization,O Oates says. OHeOs come up with a good change-up and is now a fourpitch pitcher. If he doesnOt have his good fastball, and canOt get his curve over, he can go to a slider and a change. He doesnOt have to rely on just two weapons.O
While WettelandOs physical preparation is closer-specific, his thought process is more like a starterOs. When he gets to the park each day, he asks for an update on the oppositionOs roster. If thereOs a name he doesnOt recognize, he hunts for information and comes up with a plan of attack. It could be nothing but four-seamers up. It could be nothing but sliders away. It could be a mix. The only thing it wonOt be is haphazard. The Wetteland AuraNthe poker face, the crud-stained cap, the speedskaterOs big butt and thighsNsuggests he does nothing but rear back and grunt fastballs. The Aura, however, does not interest Wetteland.
OIn Montreal, IOd hit a 98 every time out,O he says. OA couple of 99s. But even in those days, my slider was my out pitch. If IOm just pumping fastballs, IOm leaving a lot of things up to hope. IOm hoping youOre not cheating. I donOt want my percentages of success to rest on hope. I want them to be well thought-out. But once in a while IOll get caught in a jam, and IOve got no choice. IOve got to challenge and challenge and challenge. And I have no problems with challenging anybody.O
The greatest personal challenge of WettelandOs career was not in nailing down Game 6 of the O96 World Series, but in getting through the O97 seasonNthe first since he became a closer that his team wasnOt in a pennant race. OI never want to go through that again,O he says with a look of disgust. OIt was really tough coming to the yard. It makes me sick just thinking about all those people who talk about the so-called modern athlete, how he doesnOt care about winning.O Wetteland, of course, aired it out every day.
OYou cannot live on top of the baseball world,O Wetteland says, Obecause every 12 hours, the world turns. So you need to stay on top of the only thing you are capable of controllingNyour work habits. The closer needs to be available every day, and itOs up to the closer to find a way to deal. ItOs my job to take the ball.O
And to throw it hard, every day.
Forget Sammy SosaNhard as that is. This generationOs Mr. Cub knows whatOs at stake
Mark Grace has seen the almost annual June coronations, the Grant Park parties, the trophies, the rings, the T-shirts, the cigars, the copyrighted slogans. He has seen all that, and he knows this one true thing: Those raucous Bulls celebrations will seem as restrained as a Merchant-Ivory film compared to the party awaiting a Cubs championship.
OCubs fans have been teased and tortured,O says Grace. ONobody deserves a World Series more than they do. And nobody wants to do it for them more than these 25 guys. My teammates and I have the chance to make some serious Chicago history.O
Ah, the CubsNbaseballOs official rim shot. Only the Red Sox can match them for sheer misery inflicted on their fans, but at least Boston occasionally reaches the World Series before ripping out the stitches. In what amounts to a nine-decade water torture, the Cubs havenOt won the World Series since 1908 (drip), havenOt reached it since 1945 (drip E drip) and havenOt come within a Roger Ebert-width of it since losing to the Giants in the 1989 playoffs (drip E drip E drip).
Those playoffs came in GraceOs first full season, when, he says, he was too young and ignorant to appreciate what it meant to the Cubs. Evidently. He did not let a grounder roll between his legs. Or drop a flyball. Or turn a goat away at the turnstiles. Or make any of the legendary faux pas that led to Cub disasters. Instead, he attacked the playoffs the way Chris Farley attacked Rush Street, hitting a decidedly unCubs-like .647 with a home run and eight RBI in a series that quickly became Grace and Will ClarkOs personal first basepalooza. OThat series put me in WillOs class,O Grace says. OOn the whole season, I wasnOt. But for five games I was. I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
OSome guys enjoy that type of atmosphere and that type of pressure and that type of attention, and it really makes them bear down,O he says. OThey love it when every at-bat, every pitch is big. ThatOs what makes them tick. TheyOre in their element, theyOre in their comfort zone. They love the spotlight. And some players would rather be in the dentistOs chair than the big-pressure situation.O
Count Grace among the former. In his 11 seasons with the Cubs, he has turned first base at Wrigley Field into Graceland, without the jungle room. He is a four-time Gold Glove fielder and a .310 lifetime hitter with a stroke as smooth as Matt Damon in a pickup bar. Only Tony Gwynn has more hits in the O90s. ORemember the picture sequence in George BrettOs hitting book with Charlie Lau?O says Cubs third baseman Gary Gaetti. OThatOs what watching GraceOs swing is like.O
Defensively, Gaetti likens Grace to Kent Hrbek and Wally Joyner. OHe gets to balls most guys wouldnOt even try for. You know what else he does real well at first base? He cheats. HeOs real good at that.O By cheating, Gaetti means Grace is skilled at giving the impression his foot is still on first base when he actually is lunging off it for a throw. OI guess I shouldnOt say he cheats,O says Gaetti. OI guess I should say his timing is impeccable.O
Impeccable timing? Not really. Nine years, six Bulls championships and incalculable Oprah diets have passed since Grace watched the 1989 playoffs end from that loneliest of vantage points, the on-deck circle. He has endured six losing seasons, six managers and eight Octobers watching the playoffs from behind the velvet ropes. He is the only Cub remaining from 1989 and serves as the unofficial team spokesman for putting a season-opening 14-game losing streak or a cuticle-devouring season in perspective.
Perspective hasnOt been easy this year. From Sammy SosaOs home runs to Kerry WoodOs 20-K game to Brant BrownOs dropped fly to ChicagoOs playoff victory over the Giants and subsequent upset of Atlanta, this season has strained credibility even by Cubs standards. As Sosa put it, if Harry Caray had been alive to see the 1998 season, Ohe would have died again.O ItOs almost enough to make the previous nine years worthwhile.
OIOve got no chance of sleeping tonight, but I havenOt slept in three weeks anyway,O Grace said after a typical late-season victory. ODoesnOt matter when I go to bed. ItOs an hour and wake up, back to sleep for an hour and wake up again. IOm driving my girl friend crazy. But IOll get my winks later. Sleep when youOre dead.O
Nine years is enough for Grace. Nine decades is enough for Cubs fans. Time to get out of the on-deck circle and back into the batterOs box with the championship and the rings and the Grant Park parties on the line. OGracie the SwanO Beanie Baby Day doesnOt cut it.
OYou have to understand,O Grace says, Owinning is something that hasnOt happened with the Cubs much while weOve been alive. ItOs a big reason this means so much to me. I want to be a part of the team that did the unthinkable, that got the Cubs to the World Series. I want to be a part of history. And believe me, if we win, that will be big history.O
He could always hit. This season the Indians discovered he could also play baseball
An otherwise meaningless day of spring training in Winter Haven, Fla., turned ugly last March. Manny Ramirez, a huge talent with huge question marks hovering above him, strolled into the Cleveland Indians equipment room to fetch some bats that he intended to give to friends. An Indians clubhouse attendant protested this invasion of turf, and Ramirez proceeded to slap the guy in the face.
The incident threatened to turn into a firestorm. Would the Indians, long frustrated by RamirezOs inconsistent play and seemingly lax approach to his craft, suspend their young power-hitting rightfielder? Would an organization that chose to rid itself of Albert Belle rather than cope with his outbursts decide to do the same with Ramirez? Would the Indians snuff out the most dynamic symbol of the teamOs hopes for the future?
Not this time. After a quick inquiry into the particulars of the incident, Indians brass determined that though the back of RamirezOs hand was not an appropriate gesture, he had been provoked by the overzealous clubbie. End of Slapgate.
The healing began the next afternoon. Instead of playing, Ramirez spent virtually an entire exhibition game sitting next to Mike Hargrove. The daylong heart-to-heart ended with the manager backing his player and maybe saving a career. Ramirez went on to have a monster 1998. Except for Belle and those two guys who kept smashing homers, nobody was hotter in the second half than Ramirez. He hit 25 homers and drove in 74 runs after the All-Star break, including one mid-September stretch when he homered eight times in five games. He finished the year with 45 HR, 145 RBI and a .294 BA. On a club whose front office had wondered if he would ever mature, Manny Ramirez had become the Man.
Even so, of all the big-time players who might be expected to shine in the postseason, none is more of a work-in-progress. Until this season, the mention of RamirezOs name could be counted on to invoke a string of uncomplimentary anecdotes aimed at his intensity, baseball acumen and work ethicNor lack thereof. Teammates, scouts and opposing players widely swapped stores of umpires having to tell Ramirez that there were four balls and that he could go to first E of his repeatedly wandering off bases to be tagged out E of his forgetting to chase balls in the field, overthrowing cutoff men, dropping routine fly balls E of his leaving his paycheck in a shoe in the clubhouse.
Painfully shy and self-conscious about his speaking ability, the 26-year-old from the Washington Heights section of Manhattan doesnOt defend himself against charges of on-field mental lapses and apparent indifference. But this season, Ramirez has worked closely with the Indians team psychologist on strengthening his concentration and focus. ItOs helped.
Ever since the slapping incident last spring, the Indians have seen a different Ramirez emerging before their eyes. OI canOt remember ever seeing anyone as hot with the bat over a long stretch than Manny was in the second half,O says Hargrove. OBut whatOs impressed me just as much is how heOs worked in the field and on the bases. I donOt think he made a bad baserunning decision in the last three or four months. You have to remember that he never played the outfield in his life until he was drafted. ItOs taken him time, and itOs taken a lot of mistakes to get him to where he is now.O
And the work ethic? OHeOs worked his tail off this year,O says Hargrove. OHeOs become one of the better rightfielders in our league, hitting cutoff men, making great plays. MannyOs just a kid. ThereOs no telling where his talent is going to take him now that heOs started growing up.O Hall of Famer Joe Morgan has long believed Ramirez was being given a bad rap. OA kid like him is sometimes dismissed as a guy who just uses great talent to get by,O Morgan says. OBut over the last couple of years, IOve seen a hitter who is very smart up there, who goes up there on every at-bat with a good idea of what he wants to do. This guy can be as good a righthanded hitter as there is in the game.O
Indians hitting coach Charlie Manuel points out that Ramirez has developed the lethal combination of great batting mechanics and maturing physical attributes: OHeOs a lot stronger than he was a couple of years ago. HeOs strong enough now to drive balls that a few years ago he wouldnOt handle. Manny has always had as good balance as any hitter IOve seen. He rarely is not in a good hitting position. But now heOs more confident and more aggressive. He can drive pitches, inside or outside, to all fields.O
Indeed, all those people who used to snicker at RamirezOs shortcomings were saying by seasonOs end that he reminded them ofNgulp!NSammy Sosa. (Yeah, they used to say Sosa had shortcomings, too.) Ramirez likely will never hit 66 home runsNwho will? Nor become an engaging public figure like SosaNheOs too shy. But heOs traveled miles since spring training. And no oneOs wondering about his future anymore.
EL GATO GRANDE
Yeah, the Braves have been there before. But this time theyOre bringing El Gato Grande
The big, wide shoulders and broad, warm smile announce his strength, charisma and soul. When Andres Galarraga saunters into the Braves clubhouse, itOs almost as if someone backstage should be hitting the lights and cueing up the salsa band. His teammates call him Cat, which is, of course, short for Big Cat.
OHe seems like a giant,O says Walt Weiss, who has seen his 6'3", 235-pound teammate light up the room in Colorado and Atlanta. Says Braves GM John Schuerholz, OHis character and joy for life make him seem larger than he really is, and heOs a huge man.O
The Braves, of course, are as much a part of October as falling leaves. But after last seasonOs disappointing ouster by the Florida Mercenaries, and with it the realization that Fred McGriff had reached the south slope of his career, Schuerholz and Bobby Cox felt they needed a run producer, a backbone for Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko and Andruw Jones, the core of All-Stars just approaching their primes.
The Rockies hedged on giving Galarraga a three-year contract because he would turn 37 in June; Schuerholz did not. Appreciating that pride is foremost in the fabric of greatness, the Braves paid $24.75 million for the same productive presence they found in Terry Pendleton, back when the BravesO run began in 1991.
OThe Atlanta pitching is a constant,O says ex-Marlin manager Jim Leyland. OBut Galarraga changed the entire presence of their lineup. They were good, but the Big Cat makes them really good against lefthanders, in home run parks E hell, everywhere.O
But especially in the clubhouse. When Andruw JonesO attitude came into question earlier this season, Cat pulled the young outfielder aside to talk a little baseball. And when kids like Odaliz Perez and Bruce Chen joined the club in September, it was Galarraga who made them comfortable with firm pats on the back. And, of course, that smile.
OIOve watched the postseason for most of my career, and I want a ring,O Galarraga says. OI made the right decision by coming to Atlanta.O That decision broke the heart of Don Baylor, the recently fired Rockies manager whoOs credited for saving GalarragaOs career in 1992, when Baylor was the Cardinals batting coach. The Big Cat followed Baylor to Colorado, where he put up epic numbers and, in O95, made it to his only postseason. But in a big league career that began 10 years earlier in Montreal and has known ups, downs, injuries and disappointments, GalarragaOs postseason history was limited to those four Division Series games against Atlanta in O95. Eighteen at-bats and five hits. Cat wanted more. HeOs getting it in Atlanta.
ItOs no secret that the Braves are built around three great pitchersNGreg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John SmoltzNbut this is also a quiet, conservative, modest team. Kenny Lofton didnOt work out here. Sometimes when Chipper Jones says something that seems out of their time signature, the club elders call him OChirper.O When Andruw didnOt play Braves baseball, Cox yanked him out of centerfield in the middle of an inning.
OWe donOt go public very often,O Cox says, which means that when they go get a starquality player, they have to get the right kind of star. Says Lopez: OYou canOt bring what Cat brings to the clubhouse unless you are a great player. Cat is a great player.O
And not just a great OCoors LiteO player, as some people labeled him when the Braves signed Galarraga last year. OI heard some people say that my numbers were Denver numbers,O Galarraga says. OIt never bothered me. Production is more important than words.O
After leading the Braves to 106 wins, Galarraga has now batted .300 or better five of the last six seasons, and if you take his last two HR-RBI totals in Colorado, 47-150 and 41-140, and tack on his Atlanta numbers, 44-121, it is clear that altitude hardly made this man. OThen throw in what he does for the defense,O says Weiss. OWatch Cat for a week around the bag and you know how he got the nickname. He makes every infielder better.O
Galarraga has matador feet, soft hands and a dancerOs grace around the bag. He also has a strong, accurate arm and is adept at making the throw to second base on the 3-6-3 double play, a rarity for righthanded first basemen. OGalarraga and Bagwell can make that throw,O says Craig Biggio, Obecause they are totally fearless.O
That fearlessness makes Galarraga a key October presence for the Braves. OWhat Cat brought to us this season and what he brings to this postseason is hunger,O Schuerholz says. OHeOs a great player with all kinds of awards, accolades and numbers, but he believes that he needs championships to validate his career.O Says Galarraga: OI have always had fun playing baseball. But there canOt be anything more fun than playing in the World Series. I couldnOt be more proud than to help the Braves win another championship.O
Every Big Cat has his pride.
NobodyOs been pushing the Padres around since the nastiest righthander in baseball came to town
Two rules: Never talk to a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, and never talk to Kevin Brown throwing an anything-hitter. DonOt do it! First of all, he wonOt answer, and second of all, heOs already growling at himself. Tony Gwynn innocently sat next to Brown during the spring training opener this year, and he saw Brown having an argument with his own right hand. OMake a pitch, dammit!ONOMake a stupid pitch!ONOGet the ball down!O And this was in March. Imagine this week. Imagine the NLCS, and imagine a one-run game, and imagine Kevin Brown pitching on three dayOs rest, and imagine 24 other San Diego Padres covering their ears. But they wouldnOt trade him for anyone, not for Maddux or Clemens or Walter Johnson. And when he asks for about $13 million a year this winter as a free agent, they might just hand it over. Kevin Brown has given the Padres ballsNnot to mention a few strikes. They were always a low self-esteem team, and they needed someone with a perpetual game face, and itOs Brown, all right.
Like the night the team flew to Colorado, only to find construction on the airport tarmac. Their bus was directed through a narrow lane of cones, and the bus knocked the cones over, and airport security angrily pulled the bus over. And guess who met the airport cop at the door: Kevin Brown. OBrownie just said, OWhat do you want!OO Gwynn remembers. OHe said, ONo car in America couldOve gotten through them cones. Now get back in your truck and let us go about our business.O And then Brownie slammed the door shut, and the security guy didnOt say squat. And I mean the whole bus was like, OYeah, Brownie! You the man!O It was unbelievable because stuff like that happens to the Padres a lot, okay? But IOd never seen any of us talk back.O
Want more? On July 2 in Oakland, the AOs held their holiday fireworks show, and that meant the Padre bus was gridlocked in postgame traffic. OWeOre sitting there 10-15 minutes,O remembers pitcher Joey Hamilton, Oand everybody is raising hell. And Brownie says, OHell with this, let me out.O So he gets out of the bus and stops traffic in the parking lot. HeOs stepping in front of cars and holding his hands up so we can get out.O
Imagine when heOs pitching. Imagine when the dour pitching coach Dave Stewart, who is nicknamed Anthony Mason, approaches the mound with advice. Most pitchers shut up and listen, but not Brown. OA lot of times he doesnOt respond to me,O Stewart says. OI have to talk to the catcher like heOs not there.O
Or imagine when he gets beat, which only happened seven times in 35 starts this season. ThatOs usually when Brown does a little interior decorating in the clubhouse. This year, umpire Joe West tossed him out of a game at Wrigley for arguing balls and strikes, and Brown went upstairs and tore out a steel divider between two clubhouse toilets.
OIf IOm going to break something, I make sure I get away from people,O Brown says. OOne time I picked up a laundry cart with a metal bottom in it, lifted it over my head to toss it and the bottom fell out and hit me in the head. Guess I can laugh about it now.O
But you want this. You want a perfectionist. You want a pitcher who asks for the ball every other day in these playoffs. You want a pitcher with the best movement in the league, who throws sinkers at 96 mph, and who runs the bases without a warmup jacket. OWhat was it like facing him?O says Gwynn. OLike somebodyOs throwing a chain saw to the plate, and IOm supposed to try to hit it with my bat.O
You want this. You want a pitcher who, on nights he doesnOt pitch, rules the bench. If an opposing pitcher throws one in the dirt, Brown shouts, in his Georgia accent, OCheck the ball!O Every time. And itOs contagious. Now, on every pitch in the dirt, an entire Padre roster shouts in unison: OCheck the ball!O
You want this, you need this. You need this kind of edge on your team. OPeople like to see him as aNI canOt use the word Oprick,O so find a word there for meNbut he is,O says manager Bruce Bochy. OAnd he should be. HeOs all out to win.O
ThereOs an explanation. Brown grew up in rural Georgia with a tattooed father who taught him the meaning of 18-hour workdays. Gerald Brown had plowed behind mules his entire childhood, and heOd only finished the seventh grade, and heOd never seen an indoor bathroom or ridden a bus until he joined the Navy at 17. And Gerald is only now retired from the chalk mines, and this explains it. This explains why Kevin Brown won three games this season while he had the flu, won another on the day of a root canal, and why he pitched after being bitten by a stingray in the Pacific. This explains it, all right.
OThereOve been times IOm sure I havenOt been perfect to be around,O says Brown of his season in San Diego. OBut hopefully weOve all gotten something from each other.O
Playoff shares, for one.
The AstrosO gritty, win-at-all-costs second baseman is the man everyone in baseball just loves to hate
His hands are thick, coarse and unruly, not the hands of a great second baseman. They belong to a catcher, a football player, a wrestler, a carpenter, all of which the AstrosO Craig Biggio was and still is in spirit. Robby Alomar, BaltimoreOs elegant second baseman, has long, soft, smooth hands. There is nothing soft, smooth or elegant about Biggio or his game, and he likes it that way and so does his team. He is the gameOs premier second baseman and leadoff hitter, and he has arrived thereNwithout AlomarOs talentNby playing like a madman every night. And that style of play is the biggest reason the Astros are in the NLCS. Who cares if some opponents donOt like him?
Phillies pitcher Mark Portugal calls Biggio Othat little bastard.O Former Astro Ken Caminiti calls him Oa psycho.O Marlins coach Rich Donnelly calls him Othe most hated man in baseball.O And these guys love him. Others say he tries too hard to winNintentionally getting hit by pitches, barreling into bases like a member of a kickoff team.
As a high school kid growing up on Long Island, Biggio wrestled but hated it Obecause you canOt run in wrestling.O He was a quarterback who scrambled so much that he was switched to running backNOBest high school football player IOve ever seen,O says Reds pitcher Pete Harnisch. Biggio was supposed to play football at Penn State, but didnOt have the grades, so he played baseball at Seton Hall, where he had to wash his own uniform, put the tarp on the field at 3 a.m. and sometimes work out in a parking lot.
Primarily a catcher/shortstop at Seton Hall, Biggio was a full-time catcher during his swift rise through the minors. When he got to Houston in 1988, he was 22 and catching Nolan Ryan. Big Tex loved the kid because he wasnOt afraid to call a breaking ballNwhich Ryan often bouncedNwith a man at third in late innings. Somehow, someway, heOd block it. OBiggio isnOt afraid of anything,O says Portugal.
Oh, but he is. In a high school all-star game in 1982, Biggio played second for the first time. That day, lightning struck the field. Biggio was thrown in the air and knocked out. When he woke up seconds later, he was in the fetal position. The first person he saw was the shortstop. OHis sock was on fire,O Biggio says. OHe had a hole in his chest.O The shortstop died on the field. OIt took me 10 years to get over it,O he says. OFor months, when there was lightning, I went to the basement. I still have a problem with it.O
That was the only time he played second base, until 1991, when the Astros used him there for three games. The next spring, they moved him to second permanently. Astros coach Matt Galante hit Biggio countless grounders that first spring. OHe had no bad habits,O says Galante. OIt was like teaching a child to walk.O Biggio has won four straight Gold Gloves at second. He is the only player in this century to play 100 games at second base in one season, 100 games behind the plate in another.
OWhen heOs on base, we win,O says third baseman Sean Berry. OWhen heOs not, we struggle.O Biggio finished the season with a .325 average, 51 doubles, 20 homers, 123 runs, 88 RBI and 50 steals. Since Rogers Hornsby, only one NL second baseman, Joe Morgan, has been a better offensive player over a five-year stretch than Biggio.
Biggio is a working-class player with a rough-cut personality. He drives a big, black truck. HeOs a lousy dresser. As a young New Yorker, his favorite player was tough guy Thurman Munson. Playing in Detroit the first time, his first reaction was OTy Cobb played here.O He says the most vivid experience of his career came his rookie season when he saw teammate Buddy Bell between games of a doubleheader with a huge needle stuck in his knee so he could play the nightcap. In Houston, Biggio and Jeff Bagwell insist on similar commitment. Says Biggio: OIf someone dogs it here, heOs not around very long.O
If Biggio has a bad night at the plate, he goes to the indoor batting cage and beats up a hundred balls. Then itOs on to the weight room, where he lifts with Bagwell. Biggio can now bench 300. Little bastard? He weighs 190, but lists himself at 180 in the media guide, and wears a loose-fitting jersey so people donOt realize how big and strong he really is.
His face and head donOt match the rest of him. HeOs 32, but looks 25. He canOt grow a beard. (OHe wishes,O says Harnisch. OHeOs been rubbing dirt on his face for 10 years.O) He wears a size 7 hat. (OPeanut head,O says Biggio.) Being a father of two sons, he says, Ois the greatest job in the world.O But in his other job, he pulls on uniform No. 7, forgets about all the aches and pains, jams some nicotine-free smokeless tobacco under his lip and tries to tear the throat out of the enemy.
But is he a cheap-shot artist? OThatOs crap,O says Caminiti. OAnyone who says that hasnOt ever played with him. He just plays hard. He lets pitches hit him in the elbow on purpose. I tell him heOs going to get hurt bad someday doing that. And for what?O
To win. ThatOs all that counts to Biggio. There will always be time to heal.
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