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1998 Playoffs

Pinstripe prodigy

After 9 years, Spencer enjoying overnight success

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Posted: Monday October 05, 1998 07:25 PM

  The latest bomber: Shane Spencer hit 10 home runs in 67 at-bats during the regular season and three grand slams in 10 days AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's as if Roy Hobbs stepped right out of "The Natural" and into the New York Yankees' clubhouse.

Shane Spencer has heard that sort of talk and laughs it off.

"Roy Hobbs was a movie," he said. "This is real life."

And Spencer knows all about that. The rookie slugger needed nine years to become an overnight success. That's how it goes for 28th-round draft picks.

Now, at age 26, it has all come together for the outfielder. He hit 10 home runs in 67 at-bats during the regular season and three grand slams in 10 days.

He homered in his first postseason at-bat against Texas, becoming the 27th player in major league history to do that and the first Yankee to do so since Elston Howard in 1955.

Then he hit a three-run shot among claps of thunder in the first-round clincher against the Rangers. The homer in Texas was followed by a thunderstorm.

"You could feel it get cold," Spencer said. "It was kind of weird."

Spencer was an afterthought in the 1990 draft. But he was built like a hitter and scouts liked his compact swing, so they took a shot.

The youngster drifted through the farm system, putting together ordinary seasons at Tampa, Greensboro, Oneonta and Norwich. The highlight may have come one year in Greensboro, North Carolina, when Mickey Mantle breezed through the clubhouse and was introduced to Spencer.

"There was a glow about him," the rookie remembered.

Spencer never hit a home run in 360 at-bats during his first two seasons, hardly much of an endorsement.

There were promising moments later -- 16 homers with Tampa, Fla., in 1995, 29 a year later at Norwich, Connecticut. In this era of expansion, with teams always shopping for warm bodies, Spencer never lost faith.

"I always had good years," he said. "I always knew I could do it. I just wanted a chance. I paid my dues. I figured there would always be opportunities. I heard other clubs wanted me."

By last season, Spencer had graduated to Columbus, the Yankees' Class AAA affiliate, where he hit 30 homers and 34 doubles, extra base numbers that attracted attention in New York.

When Chili Davis hurt his leg the first week of the season, the Yankees summoned Spencer.

"My first time up, I got a taste of it and I was excited to be here," he said. "After that, I was disappointed when I didn't stay."

Spencer spent the summer on the Yankees' shuttle to Columbus, Ohio, up and down four times in roster shuffles. In between the call-ups, he put together his best season, batting .322 with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs in 87 games.

By the end of August, with the Yankees tidying up their roster for the postseason, general manager Brian Cashman did a little manipulating, promoting first baseman Scott Seabol, placing him on the disabled list and using the flexibility created by the DL move to activate Spencer.

"I never thought about the postseason," Spencer said. "I just wanted a chance to play in September, maybe open some eyes for next year."

He certainly accomplished that, hitting eight homers in the month, a Yankees rookie record. During the home run record chase, the Yankee Stadium scoreboard posted updates on three sluggers -- Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Spencer.

"I didn't expect to do so good right away," he said. "It's never easy."

The long ball is a pitcher's best friend, and David Cone and David Wells took Spencer out to dinner in Texas before the third game of the series.

"We wanted to make sure we took him and kept him loose," Cone said. "Turns out he kept us loose. He was cool. He didn't seem fazed by it at all. He wasn't going to sit in his room and stare at the wall."

The grand slam spree impressed manager Joe Torre, who needed 17 years to hit three of them, something Spencer did in less than two weeks. Only seven Yankees have done that. The list includes Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

"He spent eight years in the minor leagues," Torre said. "That's probably more frightening than trying to produce in the postseason. It's an opportunity he's taking advantage of, not only to help us win now but to put him right in the mix for next year."

Which is exactly what Spencer had in mind all along.  

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