In Case You Missed It
Kirk Gibson of the Tigers, who retired from baseball in May 1992 because he thought he had lost his playing skills (and who unretired nine months later), is making a run at the first 100-RBI season of his 16-year career. He went 4 for 4 and drove in his 50th run on July 5. If he reaches the century mark, the 37-year-old Gibson will be the oldest player to drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career.
Gibson's comeback is just one of many good stories that have been overshadowed by, among other headline-grabbing developments, the assault on Roger Maris's single-season home run record by Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners, Frank Thomas of the White Sox and Matt Williams of the Giants. Here's the scoop on some of the players, teams and trends that have been similarly overlooked:
The red-hot A's. For two months they looked more like the F's, going 16-40 (.286) and falling 11 games out in the American League West. But through Sunday, Oakland had won 23 of its last 31 outings to move within three games of the first-place Rangers in the majors' weakest division. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team that had a winning percentage of less than .300 after 50 games has gone on to win a division title or pennant. (The 1974 Pirates won the National League East after losing 32 of their first 50 games, a .360 percentage.)
The A's turnaround can be attributed to the patience and leadership of manager Tony La Russa. A lot of teams would have folded in these circumstances: second baseman Brent Gates out for four weeks with a sprained right thumb, first baseman Mark McGwire sidelined seven weeks with a recurring heel injury, spark plug Rickey Henderson and stopper Dennis Eckersley only recently playing up to their ability, and a shaky starting rotation that was further weakened when highly touted rookie righthander Steve Karsay was shelved by an elbow injury.
Here's the best example of how La Russa has pieced together wins: On July 4 he used five pitchers—Steve Ontiveros, Mark Acre, Dave Leiper, Billy Taylor and Ed Vosberg—to shut out the Yankees, who had the best record in the American League.
Albert Belle. With a .357 average, 25 home runs and 76 RBIs at the All-Star break, the Indian leftfielder was among the leading candidates for the American League MVP award, but no one had heard a peep out of him because he had decided to stop talking to the media until the World Series. (If the Tribe doesn't make it, does that mean Belle will take calls at home during the Fall Classic?) Cleveland teammate Rene Gonzales calls Belle "the most intense hitter I've ever seen. And I played with a guy in the minor leagues [Mike Gates] who once took the mattress off the bed in his hotel room, put it up against the wall and hit socks into it."
Bret Saberhagen. He was on the trading block in the spring, but the Mets' asking price for the two-time Cy Young winner was so high that no team bit. Since then Saberhagen has been so good (10-4, 3.15 through Sunday) that New York may rebuild its staff around him. Saberhagen's control has been great; he has allowed more homers (12) than walks (10) in 128? innings. According to Elias the only pitchers to allow more homers than walks in a season (minimum 150 innings) were the Phils' Robin Roberts (46-40) in 1956 and the Reds' Gary Nolan (28-27) in '76.
The Streak. This year nobody was saying the play of Cal Ripken Jr. had suffered because he refuses to take a day off. Through Sunday, at which point he had played in 1,983 straight games, the Oriole shortstop was hitting .306 with 12 homers and 65 RBIs, and he had committed only six errors. A year ago, when Ripken was struggling to hit .257, detractors said he should put the team first and take a breather. By the way, Ripken has started every game in his run at Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.
The Indian rotation. The first four starters—Mark Clark (10-3), Dennis Martinez (8-4), Jack Morris (8-5) and Charles Nagy (7-5)—had combined for 33 victories at week's end, giving each of them a good shot at a 15-win season. The last time Cleveland had four 15-game winners was 1954, which also happened to be its last pennant-winning year. The Indians, who shared the American League Central lead with the White Sox at the All-Star break, have had only four 15-game winners in the last nine years.