The archetypal leadoff hitter—a scrapper who will drop a bunt or take a walk to reach first—is a dying breed. While a .400 on-base percentage has long been the benchmark for a quality number-1 hitter (chart), through last weekend only eight leadoff men with at least 100 plate appearances had achieved that percentage this season, and they included 40-year-old Brett Butler, 38-year-olds Tony Phillips (page 64) and Rickey Henderson, and 37-year-old Tim Raines.
Among the few consummate leadoff men still in their prime is the Twins' Chuck Knoblauch, who despite a sputtering start this season was hitting .287 at week's end, with a .416 on-base percentage. Knoblauch was also third in the league in stolen bases, with 29, and second in runs, with 57; in the latter category he was the only every-day leadoff man among the league's top 10. "I try to model my style on Pete Rose's, because he would do whatever it took to get to first," Knoblauch says. "I'll work the count, and I don't care if I get a hit, a walk or get hit by a pitch, as long as I'm on base. I guess you don't see that approach much anymore."
The recent trend among leadoff hitters has been for number 1 to look out for No. 1. That mind-set was eloquently expressed on May 16 by Chuckie Carr, a sometime lead-off man batting eighth that night for the Brewers. He was hitting .133 as he led off the eighth inning, but he still ignored a take sign with a 2-0 count and popped out with the Brewers trailing 4-1. Said Carr of the take sign, "That ain't Chuckie's game. Chuckie hacks on 2-0." Chuckie was released soon after that and is currently hacking in the Astros' minor league system.
The Mets' Lance Johnson also hacks a lot on 2-0, yet these days he is considered an effective leadoff hitter. Last season he had a .333 batting average but a meager .362 on-base percentage. He collected only 32 walks; however, he also had 28 doubles, 20 triples, 50 steals and 112 runs while leading off. "Everybody wants a leadoff guy who gets on base at least 40% of the time," says New York manager Bobby Valentine. "But the ultimate goal is to score a run, so maybe it's O.K. to have a guy who reaches base 36% but with lots of extra-base hits [and steals] that put him in scoring position."
Henderson, the best leadoff man in the history of baseball, who's still effective at the top of the Padres' order, is also the best at explaining the value of a good number-1 man. "I've always thought the leadoff hitter sets the tone," he says. "If the starting pitcher comes out and gets the leadoff man on one pitch, it's bad. The leadoff hitter should work the count, make the pitcher know this isn't going to be easy. If the lead-off man looks at six or seven pitches, it gives everyone a chance to see what the pitcher has: velocity, break, what pitches are working and which aren't. That's one thing almost no one understands today."
Henderson believes that the real reason for the change in leadoff hitting is economics. He cites a salary arbitration case that he lost against the A's in 1984 because, Henderson says, Oakland's reps shifted the focus away from his leadoff skills and compared his power statistics to those of other outfielders. "The game has a different theory lately," Henderson says. "The important numbers are batting average, home runs and RBIs. Those numbers are how value is computed, so everyone goes for the numbers that pay."
An Angel Finds Peace
Sometimes it's easy to look at baseball players as just names and numbers in a box score. But during the last two months in Anaheim there has been a wrenching reminder that players are human beings whose lives off the field can significantly affect their performance on it.
During lunch one day about two months ago, Angels rightfielder Tim Salmon noticed that his wife, Marci, had a swollen neck. Marci consulted a doctor, and on May 20 she underwent a biopsy. A day later the Salmons were told that she had thyroid cancer. "As soon as they said cancer, it rocked my world," Tim says. "It was a shocking revelation."
In 19 games from May 12 to June 3, Salmon suffered the worst slump of his career, hitting .203 with one home run and 17 strikeouts. "Mentally I felt I was separating [my wife's illness and my playing], but my performance sure didn't show it," he says. "My swing was terrible, and subconsciously I was letting the situation get to me." Throughout that difficult period, Salmon spoke regularly to Anaheim hitting instructor Rod Carew, who just over a year ago lost his daughter Michelle to leukemia.