Originally created 05/23/00

Braves rookie turning heads



ATLANTA -- Two months into his big league career and already people are wondering how long Rafael Furcal's star will shine.

Will he be another Joe Charboneau, who burst onto the American League scene 20 years ago and vanished as quickly as a summer rainbow, or Robin Yount, who reached the majors, like Furcal, at age 19 and stretched a Hall of Fame career over the next 20 years?

"You're fascinated by a young kid who's that good," said San Diego Padres first base coach Alan Trammell, who broke in as the Tigers starting shortstop at age 19 and stayed for 20 years. "You say, is he going to last? I don't think he's going to hit .330, but I do think he's going to be fine."

Furcal, the Atlanta Braves shortstop with the bazooka arm and greyhound's speed, is the most exciting rookie to flash onto the National League stage in the last decade. After going 0-for-5 in Sunday's 12-6 win over the Padres -- only the second time in his last 14 games he's been held hitless -- his average stands at .324 and he's on pace to become the first Braves rookie since Sam Jethroe in 1950 to score 100 runs.

"Man, that dude is exciting," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "If I was him, I'd bunt at least once a game because every time he bunts, it's a double. He causes havoc. He's awesome to watch."

FLORIDA MARLINS manager John Boles already considers Furcal the league's best base-stealing threat.

After watching Furcal produce four hits and score four runs in a three-game series against the Giants last month, three-time MVP Barry Bonds said, "That little Pee Wee Herman kid kicked our butts."

Furcal hasn't removed his foot from the league's backside and he's quickly turning his skeptics into believers. There was some feeling that the league's pitchers would start catching up with him after a fast start, but just the opposite has happened. He's getting better, growing more confident, and now he's added the bunt to his arsenal and he's terrifying opposing pitchers and infielders.

"I think he'd be a pain in the butt to pitch against," Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton said. "He has a small strike zone, he's got great patience for a 19-year-old and he's got great instincts."

"He's the talk of the league," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "Anybody who sees him realizes what a talent the Braves have out there. We haven't seen him make any mistakes. You see a lot of 19-year-olds with his tools, but not his instincts. He's shown that he's ready. I don't know what the kid can't do. He could probably pitch with the arm he has. He just looks like he was born to play baseball."

What Furcal has is terrific speed and a thorough knowledge of the game. He's stolen 10 bases in 12 attempts and scored 26 runs in 36 games, while producing a .405 on-base percentage. More impressively, he's drawn 15 walks and struck out only 17 times.

FURCAL HAS DEMONSTRATED that it's virtually impossible to defense him. He bunts well, he can slap the ball by an infielder cheating on the grass and he has enough power to hit it over an outfielder's head.

"Speed can be more disruptive than a three-run homer," said ex-Braves catcher Bruce Benedict, now a New York Mets scout. "He's one of those guys who when he's on base, all the attention goes to him, not the hitter. It seems guys that can run have a dynamic impact on the game. He's very refreshing to watch because he has that speed and he uses it. He can't wait to show it to you."

Furcal has already stolen so many runs he should be arrested for grand theft. During last week's homestand, he scored from second on a double play. Then, he tagged up on a pop fly caught by the first baseman down the right field line and scored easily. Despite 50 less at-bats than most regulars, he trails only Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones in runs and his on-base percentage is the club's fourth-best.

"I'd say he's got us a run a game for the last week just on speed," Chipper Jones said. "When he gets to first base, he's not going to stay there for long."

As impressive as Furcal's speed is, it's his patience at the plate and his instincts for the game that have impressed teammates and opponents. He's averaging 3.96 pitches per at-bat and has a .457 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter, numbers that have translated into a 19-9 record with him in the lineup.

"Every time I go to the plate, I try and work the pitcher," Furcal said. "It's not surprising hitting .300 here. I hit well in the minor leagues. Every time, you've got to concentrate. I put good concentration on everything."

FURCAL, WHO LEARNED the game at the feet of his three older brothers in the Dominican Republic, accepted a $5,000 bonus from the Braves in 1996. He made the scales blush at only 130 pounds, his baseball skills were raw, but he showed astonishing speed and he was willing to work hard. Since then he's added 35 pounds to his 5-foot-9 frame, but his work ethic hasn't changed.

He was named the Appalachian League's top prospect in 1998, was tabbed the South Atlantic League's best prospect last year, then made the astounding jump from Class A to the major leagues this spring. It's not supposed to happen that way, even Andruw Jones had a taste of Class AA and Class AAA ball before arriving in the big leagues at 19, but Furcal is a special talent.

"His maturity and awareness have been a big surprise," Chipper Jones said. "He's not playing like he's 19. He's playing like he's refined his game to the point where he's got six or seven years under his belt."

Said four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, "It takes a lot of God-given ability to play at this level, but a little bit more got passed to him than everybody else."

In just two months, Furcal has turned the league on its ear and provided a homer-crazed public a glimpse into a forgotten era. Here's an even scarier thought; with little more than 100 at-bats in the big leagues, he hasn't even tapped the outer limits of his talent.

"I think speed does much more than power," left fielder Bobby Bonilla said. "The home runs are nice, but there's nothing more exciting than hitting a triple and he has that ability every time he goes to the plate. He's been exciting to watch. I know the fans love to watch him run the bases. Heck, he has us jumping up in the dugout."

Said Benedict, "It's refreshing for the league in an era of the long ball to be able to create runs with speed."

IN FACT, IT'S A LOST, unappreciated art. Not since Vince Coleman in 1985 has the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) presented its N.L. Rookie of the Year Award to a singles hitter.

Thanks to Furcal, there's a fresh breeze blowing across the National League and it's not caused by muscled-up swings.

"It's a cliche, but speed doesn't go into slumps," Chipper Jones said.

That's not news to the National League's brightest young star.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com