Because of their long experience, no breakthroughs have been more stunning than those of Anderson, Burks and Finley. Each had more than 3,200 career at bats before hitting it big this year. Anderson is the trio's common link, like that Internet game in which Kevin Bacon can be associated with any actor through a chain of shared movie appearances. Anderson played with Burks in Boston in 1988 and with Finley in Baltimore in '89 and '90, when he roomed with Finley and dated his sister for seven months.
"We were the same size, played the outfield the same way and a lot of people said we looked like brothers," the 6'1", 195-pound Anderson says of the 6'1", 180-pound Finley. "I'm not surprised to see what he's doing now. He always had a quick bat and got good carry on the ball, got a lot of backspin."
Anderson, Burks and Finley have gained strength through weight training. They've bulked up on confidence, too. "That's the difference for these guys," says Finley's current teammate, Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, who batted 58 points above his lifetime average by hitting .394 in 1994. "Every hitter has to learn himself and his swing, what he can and cannot do, what pitches he can handle, the length of his stride, the path of his hands. Everyone's different. And I know Steve's 31 and only now learning to hit. That's when you get more confident. Now we're all sitting in the dugout calling him Babe Finley."
While others may wonder if Anderson, Burks and Finley are this good, they don't. As Anderson says, "I eliminate any kind of negative thinking. You succeed as a major league player because you have to believe in yourself."
Says Anderson's manager, Davey Johnson, "These guys know they belong at this level. It's not like an eight-handicap golfer finding himself two under after nine holes and going into unchartered waters, wondering if he's this good."
Alas, Johnson knows of career years. He was 30 in 1973 when, after a trade from the Orioles to the Atlanta Braves, he abandoned the opposite-field style of hitting Baltimore preferred and tried to pull more pitches, which came naturally. He also was fully recovered from a shoulder injury that had plagued him for two years. Johnson, who had never hit more than 18 home runs in a season, cranked out 43 that year. He suffered a knee injury the following spring and never again had the same success. No other player in history has had a one-season home run total that is so out of whack with the rest of his career—a 25-homer gap between his best and next-best totals.
More recently, Houston Astros catcher Rick Wilkins, who hit 30 home runs for the Chicago Cubs in 1993, has never hit more than eight in his other four seasons. Likewise, John Olerud of the Blue Jays is starting to look like as much of a one-hit wonder as The Knack. He batted .363 in '93, but he hasn't hit .300 or better in any of his other five seasons. This year he was languishing at .266 through Sunday. "It was as if everything was in slow motion for me that year," Olerud says of '93. "I saw the ball so well, and when I got my pitch, I hit it, I didn't foul it off. I had a lot of confidence. I'd like to think I can still get back there. You feel you did it before, so you should be able to do it again."
Anderson, Burks and Finley would prefer that their career years repeat themselves in seasons to come, like those of O'Neill, Darren Daulton and Dante Bichette. Daulton, who is semiretired this season from the Philadelphia Phillies because of chronically sore knees, was a career .222 hitter and had never driven in more than 57 runs when he turned 30 in 1992. But he led the National League with 109 RBIs that year, the first of three All-Star seasons. And Bichette, who had never hit more than 15 home runs in a season until he turned 29, has pounded 106 home runs in fewer than four years since then for the Colorado Rockies.
"In my mind my career is not that old. It started in '92," Anderson says, referring to his first season as a regular. "I feel like the next four or five years are my prime."
Anderson, a fitness fanatic who has a new 1,500-square-foot gym at his Lake Tahoe house and recently posed for Muscle & Fitness magazine, prepared for this season with his usual grueling training sessions, including running sprints up a local mountain road. He tied a major league record with 11 home runs in April and followed that with nine in only 73 at bats in May. So how did he handle his good fortune?