Padres in no mood for jokes (1992)

SAN DIEGO — As the Padres cling to their National League West championship hopes, they’re losing more than games.

They’re also losing their sense of humor.

During the Padres’ 6-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates before 18,617 Sunday afternoon at Jack Murphy Stadium, they found little to laugh about. And they took exception to the Pirates’ jocularity.

Padres starter Jim Deshaies was knocked around for 6 2/3 innings as the Pirates tallied eight hits and six runs. But he wasn’t about to sit by as Pittsburgh added insult to injury.

In the seventh inning, Deshaies was set to walk Barry Bonds intentionally. When he looked in to throw his first pitch, however, Bonds was laughing. Deshaies came off the mound and started to yell at Bonds.

As Bonds and Deshaies faced off, players from both teams came onto the field. No punches were thrown, and order was restored quickly.

“He had some sort of inside joke,” Deshaies said of Bonds. “In the heat of the moment, I wasn’t in the mood to see somebody yukking it up. I just asked him what’s so funny.”

Deshaies at first thought Bonds might be laughing at him. Deshaies suffered through his worst start of the year and dropped to 3-4. He walked six batters while struggling to find his control. Deshaies threw 125 pitches, and only 68 were strikes.

“I was just venting a little frustration and showing Barry that I didn’t appreciate it,” Deshaies said.

Bonds said the laughter was innocent. During the sixth inning, he was joking with players in the Padres bullpen about a blooper pitch Pirates starter Bob Walk threw to Gary Sheffield. He continued the joking with Sheffield the following inning.

“Sheffield started laughing, and I couldn’t hold it in,” said Bonds, who hit a two-run home run in the top of the sixth to give Pittsburgh a 4-1 lead. “I guess Deshaies thought I was laughing because they were walking me intentionally. He asked why I was laughing. I said, ‘I wasn’t even looking at you.’ Sheffield started the whole thing.”

Said Deshaies: “Goofing around the bullpen is one thing, but laughing at the plate … especially after he  hits one the inning before.”

The Pirates had both the last laugh and the first one. After Deshaies pitched three hitless innings, they opened the scoring with two runs in the fourth on four singles and a walk. Two more runs came on Bonds’ homer, then the Pirates chased Deshaies with a leadoff double by Jay Ball and the walk to Bonds. Both came around to score the Pirates’ final two runs and boost the lead to 6-1 when Jeff King singled and Don Slaughter doubled off reliever Jose Melendez.

“It was a weird game,” Deshaies said. “The first couple innings, I felt like I had great command. … I thought I should have pitched well, but I didn’t.”

But Walk did pitch well for the Pirates. He allowed just four hits and one run over eight innings to improve to 8-4. He only mistake came in the fourth inning when he tried to slip a fastball past Sheffield.

Sheffield knocked the pitch into the left-center field stands for his 29th home run. Sheffield went 2-for-4 to remain first in the league with a .336 batting average. He also took sole possession of the RBI lead with 92, one ahead of Philadelphia Phillies catcher Darren Dalton, who didn’t play Sunday.

It still appears the home-run title could be the roadblock on Sheffield’s Triple Crown quest. The third baseman is second in the league and two behind the leader. That’s not nearly as a big a problem as the fact the leader is teammate Fred McGriff.

Sheffield got within one of McGriff with his fourth-inning shot, but McGriff answered in the ninth.

Danny Cox came in to pitch the final inning for the Pirates and was greeted by Sheffield’s leadoff single. McGriff then came up and blasted a 1-0 fastball over the left-field fence for his 31st homer.

After the game, Sheffield was informed he needed only to tie for the home-run lead to win the Triple Crown. The last National League Triple Crown winner, Joe Medwick in 1937, tied for the homer lead with 31.

“Fred’s already there,” Sheffield said with a smile. “I don’t think he’s going to let me do it.”

•••

NOTES: After committing an error and going 0-for-3, Padres shortstop Tony Fernandez was pulled from Sunday’s game before the seventh inning. “I was tired. I needed a rest,” Fernandez said. “(But) I didn’t want to come to the ballpark and say I couldn’t play. Everyone would make a big deal about it.” Fernandez has missed only six games this year.

• Pittsburgh’s Barry Bonds went 2-for-2 with two RBIs on Sunday. He has 12 home runs and 29 RBIs in 35 games played at Jack Murphy Stadium. Bonds, who lives in Temecula and can become a free agent after the season, reiterated his desire to play in San Diego. “I’d love to play here,” he said. “This is the right atmosphere for me. There’s no place like home. I just like this ballpark. I love this atmosphere. It’s a great place to play baseball. If you hit it well,  you’ve got a chance for it to go out here all the time.”

Published in the Times Advocate on Aug. 31, 1992.

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Modern closer ‘evolved’ as Oakland’s Eckersley (2000)

The modern closer’s role can be traced directly back to Oakland, circa 1987. Then-A’s pitching coach Dave Duncan would love to say he had some grand plan for its creation, opening the door for 50-save seasons.

But he can’t.

“It just sort of evolved,” the Cardinals’ pitching coach said.

Duncan, who also was the pitching coach under Tony La Russa with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and now St. Louis, oversaw Dennis Eckersley’s conversion from starting pitcher to closer. Eckersley had logged more than 2,300 innings as a starter before he became a bullpen fixture with the A’s in 1987.

Duncan was an old-school catcher who was behind the plate when Rollie Fingers emerged in Oakland. Fingers was a classic “fireman” who would come in whenever he was needed. He even entered a game of the 1972 World Series in the fifth inning.

Through trial and error, Duncan realized that model was not a good fit for Eckersley.

“The limited usage allowed him to go 100 percent for one inning,” Duncan said. “I think it really helped his stuff a lot.

“The reason he was successful? He did all the things he needed to as a closer. First of all, he threw strikes. He controlled the count. He had two pitches he could throw for a strike any time, no matter what the count was. Even though I didn’t consider his delivery real unorthodox, it was a little unorthodox in comparison with other pitchers. I think that helped when a hitter only saw him once.”

Eckersley was spectacular once he made the transition from the rotation. Though 32 when he first tried the bullpen, he logged 390 saves before retiring after the 1998 season. He helped the A’s to three consecutive World Series (1988-90). Once established as a closer, Eckersley never pitched more than 80 innings in a season.

His high-water mark of 80 innings in 1992 became the standard for modern closers. Eckersley went 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 69 appearances that year. He issued only 11 walks and struck out 93 to earn American League MVP and Cy Young honors.

With Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco leading the way, the A’s provided plenty of save opportunities. And they had experienced setup men such as Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt to cover the seventh and eighth innings.

That season also marked the last time the A’s finished in first place. It wasn’t that the A’s won because of Eckersley. Rather, there was a synergy that allowed team and closer to flourish.

“We had a good team, and we had a lot of save situations,” Duncan said. “We had a good bullpen, and they were all throwing well. The combination of all those things allowed us to restrict the number of innings Dennis threw. It was the other pitchers who allowed us to hold Dennis back until the ninth inning.

“If you look at how we’re using Dave Veres now (in St. Louis), we’re probably calling on him in the eighth inning as much as the ninth. We’ve needed him to go an inning-and-a-third, an inning-and-two-thirds.”

But his bloodline still goes back to Eck.

Published in USA Today Baseball Weekly on June 28, 2000.

Williams finally makes his way home again (1992)

SAN DIEGO — He’d faced a Bob Feller fastball with a sneer. He’d faced a Rip Sewell eephus pitch with a smile.

But when he faced a group of strangers waiting to fire questions Friday, Ted Williams grew uncomfortable. He kept a smile but fidgeted as others called him the greatest this, the best that. He grew increasingly antsy when reporters asked his opinion on this, his thoughts on that.

“I never know what to say at these things,” Williams said.

While still a teenager, Williams was brash enough to say he wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. “What gall,” people said. “Who does this skinny kid from a hick town like San Diego think he is?”

Williams learned that sharing his thoughts meant potential trouble. He retreated into a small circle of family, friends and teammates. His brashness became perceived as arrogance — even long after he achieved his goal.

But was Williams talked of his childhood in North Park or greeted friends he hadn’t seen in decades, it became clear any arrogance — real or imagined — is gone.

Williams is 73, retired and the survivor of a mild stroke. This week, he is the center of attention in San Diego. He’s in town because State Route 56 has been renamed “Ted Williams Parkway.” The official dedication will be Sunday at Mt. Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos, near where he once hunted rabbits and quail.

“I asked my daughter, ‘What am I going to tell them?’ said Williams, who batted .344 and hit 521 home runs in his career with the Boston Red Sox. “I’m not running for anything. I don’t know what to say.

“Well, she thought about it. She’s a bright little girl, and she said, ‘Tell them not to forget you and to drive carefully.’ ”

If the reception Williams has received in his hometown is any indication, he needn’t fret about being forgotten. He arrived in town Wednesday and toured his old North Park neighborhood with his former playground pals. He presided over the opening of FanFest on Friday and will throw out the first pitch of Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Jack Murphy Stadium.

“These are memorable moments for me,” Williams said.

That’s about as deeply as Williams lets outsiders into his psyche. But don’t be fooled. This trip has great meaning to the Hall of Famer. He cherishes every moment — even some of the adulation.

“He pooh-poohs it at first,” said Williams’ son, John-Henry, who accompanied his dad to California. “But once things start rolling, he really enjoys himself.”

But Williams isn’t here merely to take his memories and return home to the Florida retirement village of Citrus Hills. He’s here to leave behind a few memories, too.

On Friday, Williams surprised Hoover High School baseball teammate Bob Breitbard by donating his best memorabilia to the Hall of Champions. He gave the museum, which is operated by Breitbard, one of his two American League Triple Crown trophies, two Most Valuable Player awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed upon him early this year by President Bush.

“That’s really all he’d kept,” John-Henry said. “The house is empty.”

Said Breitbard: “His greatness as a hitter is matched by his quality as a man and his loyalty to his friends.”

Williams said simply that because he grew up in San Diego and because he always has been treated well here, the Hall of Champions was the natural place to donate his most-treasured mementos.

“I love San Diego,” said Williams, who nonetheless has visited his hometown only a few times in 50 years. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d have come right back to San Diego to live.”

Instead, after retiring in 1960 — with a home run in his final at-bat — Williams remained on the East Coast. He managed the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers for a couple years, then settled in Florida. His only direct connection to the game was as a spring-training instructor for the Red Sox.

“I was playing in the East and I was hunting and fishing in the East,” Williams said. “Before I knew it, my home was in the East. I liked Florida, and I still like Florida. But (San Diego) is the garden spot of America.”

Williams credits the city for his development as a hitter His father, Sam, spent the early Depression years working as a photographer, and his mother, May, became known as “the Angels of Tijuana” for her efforts with the Salvation Army. Williams, meanwhile, was organizing pickup games in North Park. “Teddy Ballgame” was on the loose.

“I’ve always said that if it weren’t for the great luck that I had to be in San Diego and to have lived where I could play baseball 12 months a year …” Williams said without having to complete his thought.

“I was (playing) a block from where I lived, so I played till 9 at night and I played as early as I could. At Garfield Grammar School, I got there before the janitor in the morning because I could get in the (equipment) closet with him and get the balls and bats and wait for the kids to come.

“Had I not become a pretty good hitter, I don’t know what the excuse would have been. I know I hit more balls and thought about it more and had more opportunity than any person I know.

“I think of Harmon Killebrew, a great home-run hitter and Hall of Famer, and I think, ‘Just how good was this guy?’ He hit more home runs than anybody else in the American League right-handed, and he lived in Idaho. I know they don’t play baseball more than three months a year in Idaho.”

The time spent on the San Diego playgrounds started paying off early. Williams already was developing into a local legend by the time he joined the Hoover baseball squad.

“At Hoover, he hit over .700,” Breitbard said. “We had a short right-field fence, and he’d just pop ’em. They probably would have been singles in a  regular ballpark, but he’d pop ’em for home runs.

The beginnings of Williams’ dead-pull swing that later led to the Boudreau shift? That piece of strategy — in which the fielders shifted to the right side of the field to stop the left-handed Williams from pulling the ball — was a decade away when Williams started hammering pitchers professionally.

While still a student at Hoover, Williams signed with the Red Sox and joined the minor-league Padres in the 1936 seasons. Williams ran out of high school eligibility that spring but wasn’t due to graduate until the following January. Williams’ mother didn’t want him bouncing around the country before completing his education. Because the Red Sox were affiliated with the Padres, they won out.

Williams enjoyed his two years playing at Lane Field downtown, where he’d entertain the crowd by knocking batting-practice homers into the waterfront rail yards.

“In 20 swings, I’d hit maybe 10 out,” Williams said. “Well, the pitchers were watching, too, and I wouldn’t get anything to hit in the game. Pretty soon, I just started hitting line drives.”

Published in the Times Advocate on July 11, 1992.

Hurst shrugs off big inning (1992)

YUMA, Ariz. — Bruce Hurst wasn’t in a talking mood. Seven-run innings can have that effect on a pitcher.

Hurst pitched five innings Sunday afternoon for the Padres against the Milwaukee Brewers. In four of those innings, he held the Brewers scoreless. In one, the first, he gave up seven runs, all earned.

So, Bruce, did you get the ball up a little?

“I don’t know. I guess.”

Did you make any adjustments?

“No.”

How do you feel about your spring?

“I don’t know how I feel.”

Some pitchers would do a little soul-searching after suffering through Hurst’s first-inning fate. The left-hander faced 11 batters, allowed six hits (including three doubles and a triple) and walked two batters. He accounted for all the Padres’ runs allowed in their 7-3 loss to Milwaukee at Desert Sun Stadium.

But Hurst simply didn’t want to think about his performance, much less analyze it.

“I pitched poorly in the first inning, got going a little after that,” he said. “That’s that. I didn’t change my mechanics. I’m not frustrated. I’m not going to worry about it.”

Why not?

“I don’t think about where I’m at (in spring),” said Hurst, who turns 34 Tuesday. “I don’t have a little chart and check little check marks as I go. I don’t think that way. I just sit back and I don’t think about it. It’s not that important anyway.”

Having Hurst pitching well in exhibition games may not be important, but it would be comforting for the Padres. A starting rotation seen as a strength during the winter suddenly has become a source of concern.

Ed Whitson is at home in Ohio with orders not to throw a ball for 10 days because of an elbow injury. Andy Benes made his first “A” game start Saturday after having minor abdominal surgery shortly before camp started. And Greg Harris has struggled throughout the spring, outdoing Hurst in one start by allowing 10 runs in one inning.

For his part, Hurst, whom manager Greg Riddoch says is the likely Opening Day starter, has a 7.86 spring training ERA, having allowed 16 runs (14 earned) in 16 innings. He is 0-2, has allowed eight walks and has struck out only three batters.

But, according to Hurst, spring training isn’t about statistics.

“It’s to get in shape and get going,” he said. “Bob Welch two years ago, what was his ERA? About what mine is now probably, and he went out and won 27 games. I saw (former Red Sox teammate John) Tudor do the same thing one spring, and he pitched marvelous.

“I’ve seen guys go out there and light the world on fire in spring training and not get an out all year long. I mean, how many rookie sensations have we had in spring training and then they hit a buck-80? So I don’t worry about it.”

Neither, apparently, does Riddoch. He believes Hurst simply is taking a little longer than usual to regain his arm strength. After going 15-11 through Sept. 17 last season, Hurst missed the final three weeks with a sore pitching elbow. He then spent much of the winter resting the elbow rather than following his standard workout schedule.

“I think the time he spent off this winter because of not finishing the season last year — he usually plays long toss for a month in the winter, and he didn’t do that — his arm strength is going to be a little bit further away,” Riddoch said. “It’s taking a little bit longer.”

Hurst concedes he isn’t as strong as he’d like to be.

“That’s the only thing that’s concerned me about the spring,” he said.

But if Hurst’s concern about his arm strength turns into worries about his seven-run inning, he can find comfort by turning to the cubicle next to his, where Harris dresses. Harris bounced back from Wednesday’s 10-run fiasco to pitch five innings of three-hit ball just three days later.

Harris expects Hurst to bounce back in his next start, too. But even if Hurst struggles in his final two spring starts, he won’t bring his troubles into the season, Harris said.

“You know Hurstie will be there, no doubt,” Harris said.

Published in the Times Advocate on March 23, 1992.