Leadoff hitters used to be little guys who slapped singles to the opposite field, bunted a lot and seldom hit a home run. Bobby Bonds smashed that mold in the early 1970s by hitting for power, Rickey Henderson followed suit in the mid-'80s, and now a lot of leadoff men do more than set the table—they clear it.
Tim Raines of the White Sox and Tuffy Rhodes of the Cubs have already had three-homer games this season to become the first true leadoff men to accomplish that feat in their respective leagues since Paul Molitor did it in 1982 (American) and Pete Rose in '78 (National). In fact, Raines, who hit his three dingers against the Red Sox on April 18, had two multi-homer games this year through Sunday.
Among the other achievements by leadoff hitters last week: Raines became the second American League player ever to reach base seven times (three hits, four walks) in an extra-innings game without making an out; Blue Jay Devon White led off a game with a home run for the 23rd time in his career; Brave Deion Sanders was among National League leaders in average (.359) and in RBIs (15); and Cardinal Ray Lankford (.342, three homers, 12 RBIs) continued to look more like the MVP candidate he was two years ago than the troubled hitter of 1993.
That's all in line with the way leadoff men have evolved as heavy-duty contributors. There's no better example of this than the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra. The runner-up in the 1993 National League MVP vote, Dykstra not only reached base 325 times last year—the second-highest total in the league in this century—but he also had 69 extra-base hits, of which 19 were homers. He followed that up by hitting six homers in 12 postseason games.
According to Oriole coach Davey Lopes, who was the Dodgers' leadoff hitter from 1972 to '81 and who himself once hit three homers in a game, the role of the leadoff man has changed because the game is now geared more to the long ball. "When you go to salary arbitration and you've hit 20 home runs out of the leadoff spot, that's outstanding," Lopes says. "What a leadoff man can do to a game is what makes him so important. It's demoralizing when a leadoff man gets on, steals a base and scores in the first inning. It's more demoralizing when he starts the game with a homer."
At week's end leadoff men had hit 41 homers this season, including five each by Raines and White and the first of Twin leadoff hitter Alex Cole's career (in 1,317 at bats). By comparison, leadoff men hit 215 homers in 1989; this season, if the current pace is maintained, they will hit about 135 more than that.
Nevertheless, the Indians' Kenny Lofton, 26, is the game's latest outstanding leadoff hitter even though he doesn't hit for power (seven homers in his two-plus seasons in the big leagues). But he does everything else well; through Sunday he was the fourth-leading hitter in the American League, at .393, and topped the majors in steals, with 11.
A high school baseball star, Lofton virtually gave up the game to play point guard at Arizona. Still, he was a 17th-round pick of the Astros in the 1988 amateur draft and, with no real hope of an NBA career, he returned to baseball. But after Lofton spent four seasons in Houston's minor league system, the Astros traded him to Cleveland for catcher Eddie Taubensee because they felt Lofton would take several more years to develop into a major leaguer. Well, he hasn't spent a day in the minors since joining the Indians, and on April 18, Houston traded Taubensee to the Reds for two minor leaguers. " Houston's loss, Cleveland's gain," Lofton says, shaking his head. "I'm a quick learner. When I put my mind to something, I'll do whatever it takes."
Last year Lofton joined Ty Cobb, Willie Wilson and Raines as the only players to hit .325 and steal 70 bases in the same season. ( Cobb did it three times.) And when the topic of power hitting by leadoff men is broached, Lofton smiles and says, "I could hit homers, but it's not my job right now."