The struggling Blue Jays must have Gruber at third to win the American League East. His replacement, Jeff Kent, is a second baseman playing out of position. He has been a productive hitter, but his defense has been well below average. Still, it couldn't have been too encouraging for Gruber to hear his teammate Dave Winfield say recently in a taped interview on the video screen at Fenway Park, " Jeff Kent's been playing well, I mean really well. You've heard of that Wally Pipp story. It might be happening again."
The Future Is Now
A few hours before his team's game against Toronto last Friday, Indian general manager John Hart sat in his office at Cleveland Stadium, smiling. "The ticket line is backed up to the street," he said. "Last night [against Boston], we had 20,000 walk-ups. Things are beginning to happen here."
Finally, Cleveland's youth movement is showing some positive signs. Since May 24, when the Indians were 14-30, they had gone 39-35 through Sunday, the fifth-best record in the American League over that span. Their 17-13 record since the All-Star break was the best in the American League East. "I guarantee they won't finish last," said Baltimore manager John Oates on Aug. 9 after the Indians had taken two out of three from the Orioles at Camden Yards.
At week's end the Indians were still in last place, with a 53-65 record, but just barely. They have a chance to finish as high as fourth, ahead of the Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees. "Fourth would be fantastic," says Hart. "We'll blow by 70 wins. That would be a bit of a barometer. But we're still in the growth mode. This isn't just a young ball club; it's a young and talented club."
The Indians don't have a player who is making $1 million, which is the average salary in baseball today. And with an average age of 26.8, they have the youngest team in the majors. Depending on which nine they start, they have one of the youngest lineups in American League history. Second baseman Carlos Baerga (.316 through Sunday) is a future star. Pitcher Charles Nagy (12-8) is an ace. Albert Belle (23 homers) is one of the league's top power hitters. Center-fielder Kenny Lofton is brilliant defensively and has 39 steals.
Hart is the first to admit "we're not out of the woods yet." Indeed, the Indians are certain to extend their major league record of 23 consecutive seasons without a first-division finish, and they're a good bet to extend their 32-year streak of not finishing within 10 games of first. However, with their promising young players, and a new stadium scheduled to be ready by Opening Day 1994, the Indians' future finally looks bright.
The Me Generation
Lance Johnson of the White Sox had his 25-game hitting streak ended last week, but his time in the spotlight showed what a solid player he has become. In roughly one season's time, since the end of August 1991, he has hit over .300 with 41 steals. all the time playing a terrific centerfield.
However, the spotlight's glare revealed an unflattering side of Johnson too. His streak was halted on an intentional walk from Oakland's Dennis Eckersley. Johnson swung and missed at the third pitch of the walk with the score tied 1-1 in the top of the eighth. Johnson claimed that as a lefthanded batter he was a better bet to drive in a runner at third than the right-handed on-deck batter. Said A's manager Tony La Russa, "To me what he was saying is, not only wouldn't he take a walk—which is bad—but he's saying,...'I've got a streak on the line, so I'm going to swing at a bad pitch.' "