Originally created 05/30/99

Major league notebook

Now that Darryl Strawberry has, apparently, overcome one of the hurdles in his comeback to the Yankees, teammates are wondering what's next for the star-crossed outfielder. In one sense, Wednesday's developments represented good news for Strawberry, since he was able to plead no-contest to solicitation and drug-possession charges, and thereby avoid a jail-sentence. Instead, he received 18 months probation, a $456 fine and 100 hours of community service.

But there's still turbulence ahead for Strawberry, who must now answer to Major League Baseball, and, of course, George Steinbrenner. MLB's authority over the outfielder supersedes the Yankees', which means Bug Selig will decide Darryl's future first.

People familiar with Selig's thinking believe he'll impose a 60-day suspension on Strawberry, giving him credit for the 30 days of administrative leave which he's already served.

That means Strawberry would be eligible to return to the Yankees before July, assuming Steinbrenner will have him back. So far, The Boss has yet to utter a word about Strawberry, which, to the owner's credit, means he hasn't reacted emotionally.

But Steinbrenner knows he's also letting Strawberry squirm, which is no doubt his intention. Yankee officials said they would have no comment about his status, claiming he was still under MLB's jurisdiction.

The biggest factor in Strawberry's favor is the Yankees' season-long sluggishness at the plate. Since Strawberry was arrested on April 14, they're 18-18 and batting only .260. That's a 38-point dropoff in six weeks, as the Yankees have fallen into second place in the East.

Bernie Williams said, "there's something that Darryl brought to this team -- that fear that he could hit a home run at any time. Right now, we don't have that. It's not the same team without Straw.

"In the past, I'm sure many (opposing) managers would think, `we can't bring in a right-hander right now.' And that's because they were afraid of Darryl coming up. Teams don't fear us the same way now."

Tino Martinez strongly agreed with Williams, saying, "when I was with Seattle, Darryl was the one guy you worried about hitting a home run. Even when he struck out, you worried about the big swings he was taking. He's still needed here." ...

Unhappy with how their high-priced pitching staff is producing, the Dodgers fired pitching coach Charlie Hough on Wednesday and replaced him with Claude Osteen. The move came a day after a 3-2 loss to the Reds that left the Dodgers at 22-22 with seven losses in their last nine games.

The pitching staff has been a major reason for the slow start, compiling a 4.47 earned run average that's only sixth-best in the National League.

"I'm very surprised," closer Jeff Shaw said. "The unfortunate thing is that we haven't been pitching very well and he has to take the fall for us. To me, it just looks like a shakeup. I'm sad to see him go."

Despite the addition of Kevin Brown, who signed a seven-year, $105 million contract last December, the team ERA has gone up by two-thirds of a run from last season, when it was 3.81.

Hough was brought in last June to replace Goose Gregson, who had been in the organization for many years, but who did not have the respect of the pitching staff because he didn't have the big league pedigree. Hough solved that with Chan Ho Park, who went on to have an excellent second half and won 15 games overall.

Manager Davey Johnson held an extended meeting with his coaching staff before Wednesday's game, then called a team meeting to explain the switch.

"The toughest day I've had in this game -- I'm including the days when I was (fired)," Johnson said.

Johnson was close to Hough, 51, hired as pitching coach last June after serving in the same capacity with San Bernardino of the California League for two years. Johnson told his players that everyone has to share the blame for the slow start.

"I told the guys it wasn't just the pitching. It's a shortcoming of everybody in this room, myself included," Johnson said. "I lost a friend. I feel like a lost a family member, and everybody in this room is going to have to start doing what they're capable of doing so it doesn't happen again."

Hough was offered another position in the organization. ...

Arizona's Omar Daal stopped Larry Walker's hitting streak at 21 games last weekend, while throwing the 26th complete game in the 332 games ever played at Coors Field (seventh by a lefty).

"He shouldn't beat us, not in our yard, cause we're better than him," said Walker, who grounded out four times and had batted .506 in his streak. "It's no hidden secret he's not a friend of mine. The guy throws at me all the time. I don't care if I hit a line drive off his head."

Walker is still upset that on a comebacker last June, Daal held the ball, forcing Walker to run to first base. It came after Dante Bichette had admired a homer. And the previous Sunday in Phoenix, Daal hit Walker below the shoulder.

"Tell him he's not my friend either and it's no secret either," Daal said. "If he doesn't care if he hits a line drive off my head, I don't care if I hit him either. I'm not afraid of anybody. I'm not intimidated by anybody." ...

Albert Belle has nine home runs and a team-leading 31 RBI, numbers that project to well over 30 home runs and 115 RBI for the season, but Belle clearly is suffering from a lack of protection in the Orioles lineup. Belle has just one double in 153 at-bats. A year after slamming 49 doubles with the White Sox, Belle has one fewer double than utility infielder Jeff Reboulet in 101 more at-bats. He has actually been thrown out more attempting to stretch a single (twice).

Considered one of the game's most intelligent hitters, Belle has never accepted 100 walks in a season. His current pace would give him 158. Belle, the game's most prolific slugger the past eight seasons, now finds himself with the Orioles' eighth-highest slugging percentage (.458), trailing leadoff hitter Brady Anderson, Jeff Conine and Cal Ripken, among others. ...

Sammy Sosa's game-winning homer against Florida Wednesday at Wrigley Field was his 73rd in 154 games since last May 25. Mark McGwire, for what it's worth, has 59 in the same time span. Before Sosa's homer off Atlanta's Kevin Millwood last May 25, he had been just another slugger with nine home runs on the season. Who would know he was about to go on one of the greatest rolls in big-league history?

"It has been different," Sosa said this week. "It has been great for my career -- meeting a lot of people, doing a lot of endorsements. But everything that happened is not just because the year I had on the field, but also the way I am, the way I handled myself. If you don't have any charisma, and if you're not nice to your fans ... Sure, they may still say, 'You're the man.' But they won't appreciate what you do."

Sosa's endorsements includes deals with McDonalds, Fuji Films and the Spanish network, Telemundo. He is finalizing plans to join the pantheon of Chicago sporting types with their own restaurants, putting his name alongside Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka and the late Harry Caray.

Sosa's restaurant apparently will be right there on Michigan Ave., in space that has been a Bigsby and Caruthers store. But despite the upscale address, he says it will not be as pricy as Jordan's restaurant in downtown Chicago.

"It's going to be for everybody," Sosa said. "This is the way I am. I'm not looking for it to make money. This is me." ...

It is worth noting what Rick Aguilera received for waiving the no-trade clause in his contract: He received a $500,000 signing bonus, a new 1999 contract that raised his base pay from $3.25 million to $3.5 million with a $500,000 incentive for finishing a games finished incentive and also a player option for 2000 at $3.5 million, with the same $500,000 games-finished incentive he has this season.

No wonder Aguilera insists he isn't worried that he could be used as a set-up man when Rod Beck returns from elbow surgery. "I'm not concerned about that," he said. "I hope he gets back and we can both help out in the bullpen and get the job done."

Aguilera says he would have approved the deal even if Beck was healthy. "Whether I was going to come in and set up Rod or whatever, I thought it would still be a good place to play," Aguilera said. "It became more appealing, and one thing led to another." ...

Carlos Lee is no top secret. After all, Baseball America made him a cover boy this spring, when they rated him as the White Sox's top prospect. But he was not a sure thing when they promoted him from Class AAA to replace Jeff Abbott as the left fielder.

There are signs that Lee will have staying power, however. Not only is he hitting .291 with three homers and 14 RBI in 55 at-bats, but Jerry Manuel had moved him into the fifth spot in the struggling batting order. "Lee has a knack for driving in runs with clutch hits," Manuel said.

The 22-year-old native of Panama has spent his career playing third, moving to left field only a few days before being promoted. ...

Once upon a time, about 25 years ago, a Dodgers-Reds series would have drawn overflow crowds to Cinergy Field (oops, Riverfront Stadium). But even in these depressed times (Cincinnati's not nearly the baseball town it used to be, thanks to the strike, Marge, realignment, general nationwide apathy and youth soccer), everybody expected at least a smidgen of healthy atmosphere at Cinergy last week, since the Reds had won seven of their last eight and it was the locals' first look at the expensive Dodgers, who had Kevin Brown on the mound.

Well, the announced crowd was all of 18,203, prompting plenty of disappointment. On the Reds' recent six-game road trip, by comparison, they played before 40,000 or more in four games, with the smallest crowd being 21,951 in San Diego.

Barry Larkin, a Cincinnati native, recalled the glory days of the Reds-Dodgers rivalry. "That was a big, big thing growing up," he said. "Even when I first came up here to start playing (1986), it was huge. The Dodgers. It's just not like that anymore." ...

The Twins' marketing department, working overtime these days with a struggling young team, has come up with another idea for next homestand: Ex-Twins pitcher Paul Thormadsgard will honor current first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz for tying the team record for the longest last name (12 letters) in club history before the June 7 game with Cincinnati.

And in a twist, any fan whose last name is 12 letters or longer can purchase a lower level general admission ticket for $1. ...

The A's are planning a special day to honor Hall of Fame pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter on June 12 before the A's play the Dodgers at the Coliseum. Hunter, the pitching ace of the 1970s A's World Series championship teams, has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease and the day will be dedicated to raising money for the Jim "Catfish" Hunter ALS Foundation.

A portion of the money from ticket sales and all the money from a silent auction will be donated to the foundation, as will the in-stadium sale of foundation hats and shirts.

During pregame ceremonies, Hunter, a four-time 20-game winner with the A's and the owner of three World Series rings, will be joined on the field by his family and a number of former teammates, including Reggie Jackson, Bert Campaneris, Ray Fosse, Rick Monday, John "Blue Moon" Odom, Joe Rudi and Jim Pagliaroni, in addition to former A's manager Dick Williams and longtime broadcaster Monte Moore. This is the 25th anniversary of the A's third consecutive World Series win. The A's beat the Dodgers in five games. ...

After lasting only 1 23 innings last Sunday against the Marlins, Jason Schmidt tried to take himself out of the Pirates rotation. The right-hander volunteered to skip his next start so he could figure out why his fastball has all but disappeared. The Pirates decided to push Schmidt back until Tuesday, giving him nine days between starts.

"I want to say this the right way," Schmidt said after his shortest outing in three-plus seasons with the Pirates. "I don't know if it would be in my best interests to make my next start."

Schmidt was perplexed after giving up five runs and eight hits in 1 2/3 innings, including a two-run homer by Marlins pitcher Alex Fernandez. The poor outing wasn't an aberration. In his past five outings, he has pitched past the sixth inning just once. He has given up 35 hits and 18 runs in 24 1/3 innings, for a 6.66 ERA. He has struck out 10 and walked 15.

"I'm not trying to cop out," Schmidt said. "I want to do what is best for the team and me. Putting me out there right now and letting me throw 85 mph fastballs is not best."

The Pirates have noticed a 10 mph drop-off in Schmidt's velocity over his past two starts. Schmidt said one of his fastballs was clocked at 83 mph.

"That's not Jason Schmidt on the mound," he said. "That never has been me." ...

Giants pitcher Kirk Rueter grew up in tiny Hoyleton, Ill., about 60 miles north of St. Louis. The population is around 200 and there's one stop sign in the town. On Monday, Rueter invited the whole team to his house in Nashville, Ill., Hoyleton's big-town neighbor (population: 2,000). About "16 or 17" players turned out, Rueter said. They hung out in Rueter's 4,500 square foot game room, adjacent to the main house. The room is filled with video games, a full bar, a big-screen TV and a shuffleboard. "It's my dream room," Rueter said. By the way, Rueter beat St. Louis on Wednesday and is 4-0 with a 2.21 ERA in six career starts at Busch Stadium. ... Mark McGwire is starting to make his nightly appearance on the highlight shows, but will it be enough to quench the public's insatiable appetite for a repeat of last season? Will 50 or 60 homers seem pedestrian when propped up next to last year's bronze statue?

McGwire had his first two-homer game of the season last weekend in Los Angeles, where one of his bombs glanced off the roof of the left field pavilion and bounced out of Dodger Stadium, only the third player to have done that in the 38-year history of the park. The others: Willie Stargell and Mike Piazza.

During a West Coast swing last week, McGwire smacked four homers in five games. Before that, he had eight homers in a month-and-a-half. By last year's McGwiresque standards, that's a full-fledged slump. He hit one in 64 at-bats. Seven days passed between homers No. 6 and 7.

"He raised the bar last year," said Arizona third baseman Matt Williams, whose 43 homers in 1994 put him on pace to break Roger Maris' mark before the strike ended the season. "Last year was such a magical year, you certainly can't expect that every year. He's on pace to hit 50, and he will, but once you hit 70, it's expected."


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