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Baseball
Jeff Pearlman
May 17, 1999
Desert Rebirth After dreary debuts in Arizona, Diamondbacks batting stars Matt Williams and Jay Bell are living up to expectations
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May 17, 1999

Baseball

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PLAYER, TEAM, AND POSITION

VOTES

1. Cal Ripken, Orioles 3B
"And he may have the chance to manage in a week or so"

11

T2. Joe Girardi, Yankees C
"He'd be great at running a pitching staff."

4

T2. Charlie O'Brien, Angels C
"Charlie studies the game. He knows how to handle different situations."

4

T2. Mike Macfarlane, Athletics C
"His knowledge and approach to the game is everything you like to see. He seriously enjoys every minute he's on the field."

4

T2. Jeff Reboulet, Orioles IF
"Last year, I'd say Paul Molitor. Now I'd say Cal Ripken or Jeff Reboulet."

4

T2. Terry Steinbach, Twins C
"Has got a good grasp of everything—pitching, hitting, controlling the game—and a great rapport with players."

4

T2. B.J. Surhoff, Orioles OF
"There has to be some sense of compassion from a manager that this isn't an easy game, and B.J. would bring that."

4

T8. Jay Bell, Diamondbacks 2B
"Very cerebral and knows the game. You can sit and talk to him forever about it."

3

T8. Tony Gwynn, Padres RF
"A smart player and a good communicator."

3

T8. Tom Prince, Phillies C
"He's a very bright baseball person, and he played under Jim Leyland for seven years"

3

Desert Rebirth
After dreary debuts in Arizona, Diamondbacks batting stars Matt Williams and Jay Bell are living up to expectations

In January of this year, Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams married Michelle Johnson, an actress whose career has run hot and cold but whose movie titles—when applied to her new husband's career—are startlingly appropriate. Before last season, expansion Arizona acquired Williams, 32 and injury prone, and signed him for six years at $49.5 million. In 1990 Johnson appeared in Genuine Risk. Last year was a difficult one for Williams, the 1994 National League home run champ, as he injured both hands and, for the second time in his career, suffered a broken foot (Body Shot, '93). Williams badly wanted to produce for the Diamondbacks (Gung Ho, '86) but contributed only 20 home runs and 71 RBIs (Wishful Thinking, '90). Some wondered if his career was winding down (Slipping into Darkness, '88).

"My wife's trying to talk me into doing movies once baseball is over," says Williams, "but I've seen what it's like, long 14-, 15-hour days. I think this job's probably more fun."

Especially now. Williams, owner of a league-leading 46 hits, 11 home runs, 36 RBIs, 23 extra-base hits and 91 total bases through Sunday, is, along with teammate Jay Bell, the resuscitation story of early 1999. Last year at this time the baseball world was mocking Arizona managing general partner Jerry Colangelo, who—arrogantly, in the opinion of some—lavished more than $80 million on Bell and Williams and then watched as both staggered through bleak years. While Williams at least could blame poor health, Bell was simply poor. He hit 20 home runs but batted just .251 with 67 RBIs. "There was a lot of emphasis on me and Matt, that we were supposed to do certain things because we were veterans with good contracts," says Bell, who at week's end was batting .302 with 11 homers and 24 runs batted in. "It doesn't mean we had bad years, but we didn't live up to those expectations."

Why the resurgence? Two reasons. First, except for the contributions of first baseman Travis Lee and centerfielder Devon White (now with the Dodgers), last year Williams and Bell were the Arizona offense. The Diamondbacks hit .246, last in the majors. They had 159 home runs, tied for eighth in the National League and 29 fewer than their opponents hit Arizona was a typical expansion club—a couple of solid veterans surrounded by Triple A bats. "This year we're a very good team," says Bell, who had helped Arizona launch a league-high 49 homers. "If Matt and I do well, great. If we don't, there's Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez and Tony Womack and a lineup full of veterans. There's a lot less pressure."

Second, Williams and Bell have both made adjustments. Last season, perhaps due to his injuries, Williams often didn't get good wood on the ball. So he changed—spreading his legs further, bending his knees a bit more. The stance is similar to the one he used when he played in San Fran Cisco from 1987 to '96. Bell, a lifetime shortstop, has moved to second base, where he is more comfortable (he has made only five errors in 31 games), allowing him to concentrate on offense. "I think, for both of us, last year is forgotten," Bell says. "One thing that drives every athlete is competition. Now that this team is competitive, things feel good."

Sophomore Swoon
Grievous Slump In Oakland

Ask the A's players, and they smile and say all the right things. "Oh, Ben will snap out of it," or, "He's making good contact." But ask those players whether they've ever faced the hell that is Oakland leftfielder Ben Grieve's current baseball lot, and the reply is usually a shrug. A grimace. An off-the-record, "No, never."

Grieve, last year's American League Rookie of the Year, is enduring one of the most miserable early-season runs in recent memory. Through Sunday he was in a 6-for-49 funk, which had dropped his batting average to an almost Randy Johnson-like .141. "The hardest part of any slump is looking up at the scoreboard and seeing your stats in huge numbers," says A's first baseman-DH Jason Giambi. "I'm sure that's killing Ben."

It is. Grieve is a very soft-spoken, very thoughtful ballplayer who of late has been reminded at least 10 times every day how poorly he has been performing. According to Dave Hudgens, Oakland's hitting coach, that's a large part of the problem. "The best way to deal with a slump is to just go up and hit without thinking about it," Hudgens says, "but it's hard to do that when every cab-driver and high school coach is giving you advice."

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