The Hot Corner Turns Tepid
This has been the best of years for some third basemen. San Diego's Gary Sheffield, easily baseball's top player this season, has a serious shot at becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Through Sunday he was leading the National League in hitting (.340) and RBIs (84), and with 25 home runs, was two off the league lead. "I look at him. and I swear I'm looking at Willie Mays or Hank Aaron," says Brave manager Bobby Cox. Sheffield's closest competition for the league's MVP award comes from another third baseman, Atlanta's Terry Pendleton, who won it in 1991.
Oddly enough, though, this has also been the worst of years for a number of leading third basemen. The Cardinals' Todd Zeile, who played more innings than any other National League third baseman last year, was sent on Aug. 10 to Triple A Louisville, where he is trying to regain his swing. The Giants' Matt Williams, regarded as the National League's best third baseman last season, has had a miserable year. Through Sunday his .217 average was the second lowest in the league among batting-title qualifiers, and his .282 on-base average was the second worst in the league as well. The Blue Jays' Kelly Gruber has been slowed by injuries, but even worse, he has had his courage questioned in Toronto. And Wade Boggs of the Red Sox was struggling along at .269 at week's end, 76 points below his lifetime average.
After batting .280 with a team-high 11 home runs and 81 RBIs in '91, Zeile was supposed to be a big contributor for St. Louis. When sent to Louisville, he had five homers and 36 RBIs, and after the All-Star break he had hit only .197 with no extra-base hits. "Obviously, we didn't want to send him down," says Cardinal general manager Dal Maxvill. 'it was a last-resort thing."
Zeile was surprised by the demotion but said, "It's not a death sentence. I'm not dreading it by any means. I've been there before." Zeile will almost certainly be recalled when the big league rosters expand on Sept. 1. "It doesn't matter if he goes nothing for four," says Cardinal manager Joe Torre. "It's like spring training. I told him it was not an exile. He was fighting himself. I want him to stop worrying about his batting average or letting the players down. Just go and work it out."
Williams has also been fighting himself. He went into a slump early in the season and has never really come out of it. It got so bad that from June 23 to 25, when the Giants were shut out in three straight games. Williams took extra batting practice but was told not to swing the bat. He just stood there and watched pitches cross the plate.
As for Gruber, he was the best third baseman in the American League in 1990, hitting 31 homers and driving in 118 runs. In 1991 and '92 combined, he hasn't equaled those numbers. Once the Blue Jays' most valuable and most popular player, he is now being booed by the home fans. He says injuries are the biggest reason for his poor production, but he has had so many that his teammates have wondered aloud about how badly he's hurt. Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston is so disgusted, he recently told Toronto writers, "I'm not talking about that——guy anymore. Go ask the trainers."
Last year Gruber played in 113 games. This season, through Sunday, he had played in only 77 of the Jays' 118 "m games. "He's not one who can play through injuries," says Gaston, "and he's been hurt all year."
Gruber had a knee injury earlier this season and now is playing with a neck injury. "You either fold up or play, and I want to play," he says. "If I feel good one day and terrible three days, at least I had that one day."
As for criticism that he won't play hurt. Gruber says, "No one knows how I feel but me. I just think if you have something to say, be man enough to say it to my face."