A sign on the Seattle MARINERS' clubhouse door one day in spring training read, in big letters, PHOTO DAY TOMORROW, PLEASE SHAVE. Rookie leftfielder Darren Bragg reported the next day with scruffy tufts of facial hair that vaguely resembled a family of caterpillars. But what would you expect from someone whose play encourages comparisons to Lenny Dykstra's, who believes that looking good means carrying half the infield dirt on his uniform and who is happy to escape the minor leagues in part because of their ban on chewing tobacco? "I used to put a little in so no one would see it," Bragg says. "Now I can load up."
Fact is, Bragg is the spitting image of Dykstra, the Philadelphia Phillies' fireplug centerfielder, even if Bragg, at 5'9" and 180 pounds, is listed as being one inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than the Dude. During a spring training game last year, Colorado Rocky outfielder Howard Johnson saw Bragg for the first time and shouted, "Lenny, is that you?" The Minnesota Twins' Kirby Puckett took one look and called him Little Lenny.
Bragg, 25, is flattered, though he is quick to quip, "I think I'm better-looking." More important for Seattle, the lefthanded-hit-ting Bragg plays like Dykstra. He batted .350 at Triple A Calgary last year, with 112 runs, 28 steals and a .430 on-base percentage. In short he's just the kind of player needed by the Mariners, who last season struggled against righthanded pitching and at the leadoff spot. Only the Oakland A's had a worse record (24-41) than Seattle's 28-47 in games against righthanded starters. No team in baseball had a worse batting average (.216) or worse on-base percentage (.270) from its leadoff hitters.
Bragg also could solve the Mariners' vexing problems in left-field, where they've had more destructive short-term relationships than a week's worth of Ricki Lake guests. Bragg figures to be Seattle's sixth different Opening Day leftfielder in the past six years. Centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr.—who is 2� months younger than Bragg—already has played alongside 35 leftfielders in six seasons.
Says oddly subdued Seattle manager Lou Piniella, "We're just going to put him out there and let him play." It seems Piniella still is smarting from his bold talk in spring training a year ago, when he announced the Mariners were ready to win a division title though they had had only two winning seasons in their 18-year existence and had never won more than 83 games.
"I put a little heat on them, and they didn't respond well," Piniella says, referring to Seattle's 31-44 start in 1994. The Mariners were 49-63, two games behind the first-place Texas Rangers, at the time of the strike. "We would have won it. This year I don't want to put the heat on anybody. No expectations."
Those last two words sum up the prospects of the American League Worst. The Rangers could have made the postseason last year with the 11th-best record in the 14-team American League. Every East and Central team but one, Minnesota, finished with a winning record against the West.
No wonder the ATHLETICS should challenge the Mariners for the division title this year though their ensemble appears more suited to a Hell Freezes Over retro tour than to postseason play. Oakland's training camp roster included 10 players (four were added since the end of last season) who played for the club during its 1989 world championship season: pitchers Greg Cadaret, Dennis Eckersley, Rick Honeycutt, Dave Stewart and Bob Welch; infielders Mike Gallego and Mark McGwire; outfielders Rickey Henderson and Stan Javier; and catcher Terry Steinbach. Average years of those Oakland Aged: 35.4.
No returning alumnus will have more to say about whether the A's finish first or fourth than Stewart. Oakland's starting pitching was abysmal last season. The starters' 633? innings pitched were the fewest in the majors, while their 32 wins were exceeded by everyone except Seattle (29), the Florida Marlins (31) and the San Diego Padres (32). Stewart, signed as a free agent from the Toronto Blue Jays, was immediately anointed Oakland's ace, though he was pasted for a 5.87 ERA last year and, by Oakland manager Tony La Russa's admission, is now a six-inning pitcher.
"Those days of throwing a consistent 91 [mph] are behind me." Stewart says. "But if there's a Number 1 starter out there with more guts and know-how than me. I'd like to meet him. If you say we're trying to recapture what we had in the '80s, maybe we are. We know what it takes to win."