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SI FOR KIDS
They have the big bats again, but more important, they now have a deeper pen
By Jeff Pearlman
Indians closer Michael Jackson played his first season of professional baseball in 1984, a terrible, terrible time to be 1) named Michael Jackson and 2) named Michael Jackson and have your identity blared from a P.A. system. So Jacko II devised a plan. On one of his first days with Class A Spartanburg, then a Phillies affiliate, Jackson -- who had been called Michael all his life -- told the team's announcer to present him simply as Mike. "The last thing I wanted was to hear Thriller every time I pitched," Jackson says, laughing. "I figured I'd take care of it ahead of time."
No such luck. Spartanburg smelled a marketing bonanza, and a minor league team sensing extra attention is like Oliver Miller sensing bacon. For Jackson's first appearance it was "Entering the game, number 33, Michael Jackson" ... accompanied, of course, by a few bars of Rock with You. From that point on, Jackson could not escape the sequined-glove references, the nonstop blasting of Beat It in rival stadiums, the moonwalk requests and the not-so-humorous "How's Tito?" humor. "It was really bad for a while," he says. "I guess I should be happy Michael's not that big anymore. People know me for me."
Strangely, Jackson has spent most of his 13-year major league career -- with the Phillies, Mariners, Giants, Reds and Mariners again before joining the Tribe, in '97 -- in the setup role, an anonymous man perfecting an anonymous task. He had always wanted to finish games, but with such standouts as, ahem, Mike Schooler in front of him, where was the opportunity? It wasn't until the end of spring training last year, when Hargrove tired of closer Jose Mesa's inconsistency, that Jackson got his shot. Forty saves and a 1.55 ERA later, he's the most Dangerous Bad Pretty Young Thing in the HIStory of ... uh ... Billie Jean?
In fact, on a team loaded with offensive stars such as outfielders David Justice and Manny Ramirez and first baseman Jim Thome, it's the bullpen -- overlooked and underappreciated -- that makes Cleveland perhaps the only club with a shot at dethroning the Yankees. Last season the Indians put up pretty good offensive numbers (198 home runs, 811 RBIs) even though Thome missed 35 games with a broken hand; catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. batted only .235; and the feeble conglomerate of Joey Cora, Shawon Dunston, Enrique Wilson and David Bell manned second base. Since then the Tribe has acquired two big-time bats in second baseman Roberto Alomar (Sandy's brother) and outfielder Wil Cordero. (Alomar, who'll team with shortstop Omar Vizquel to give Cleveland the most formidable double-play combination in baseball, had a rare off year in '98.) Still, it's the bullpen that will make or break Cleveland. Last season Hargrove's collection of rubber-armed misfits had 47 saves, fourth in the league. Most important, the pen offers Hargrove flexibility. Unless the Indians pull a last-second trade, they're a team of five righthanded starters. These are good pitchers (vets Charles Nagy, Dave Burba and Dwight Gooden and two of the most promising arms around, Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright) but righties nonetheless. "When you have a deep bullpen, you can get by with all righties or all lefties starting," says general manager John Hart. "They don't have to finish."
The Indians' pen includes:
Paul Assenmacher, a cagey 38-year-old lefty with a league-high 589 appearances this decade. "With age," says Assenmacher, "comes knowledge." Like how to pitch? "Like when to sleep."
Jerry Spradlin, 31, the flamethrower righty who was acquired in the off-season from Philadelphia for righthanded starter Chad Ogea. Spradlin fanned 76 in 81 2/3 innings last year. He also plays the drums. Says Jackson, "You can never have too many characters in a bullpen."
Paul Shuey, 28, the second player chosen in the 1992 draft. He has yet to spend a full season in the majors, but the Indians still think Shuey can be their closer of the future.
Ricardo Rincon, 28, a Mexican who boasts the invaluable experience of not only having 14 saves last season but also of getting them in Pittsburgh. If you can make it there....
"If your bullpen's good, it has guys who have done and seen everything," says Assenmacher, who, having been traded over the past 10 years for both Kelly Mann and Karl Rhodes, qualifies. "There are so many situations you're going to see. Having seen them already, that helps."
LaToya couldn't have said it any better. Oops. Sorry, Michael. Mike.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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