General managers lost sleep trying to swing deals before the July 31 trading deadline, but the most important trade in the American League wild-card race was made two months ago. On June 12 the Blue Jays—having lost 11 of 14 to fall to 27-36 and 10 games behind the East-leading Yankees-sent reliever Dan Plesac to the Diamondbacks for righthander John Frascatore and shortstop Tony Batista. Toronto, which had just placed shortstop Alex Gonzalez on the disabled list with a right shoulder injury, grabbed Batista, 25, to shore up its infield until Gonzalez returned.
Four days after the trade for Batista, who had batted .257 in 44 games with Arizona, the Blue Jays learned that Gonzalez needed surgery and was lost for the year. Even if he'd gotten off the DL, chances are he would have had a hard time getting his job back. Toronto reeled off seven wins in Batista's first eight games at short, during which he hit .323 with three homers. Since the trade the Blue Jays had gone 35-15 through Sunday and vaulted into a tie with the Red Sox for the lead in the wild-card race. "It would have been disastrous to have Alex Gonzalez go out for the year and not have a replacement," says manager Jim Fregosi. "Tony has been very uplifting."
With five errors in 49 games, Batista has filled the hole at short as expected. To everyone's surprise, he's also continued the power surge he showed in his first week as a Blue Jay. Batista, a career .263 hitter who had a season-best 18 home runs in 106 games with the Diamondbacks last year, had hit .274 and blasted 15 homers with Toronto.
That he gets the bat on the ball at all is amazing, given his bizarre stance, with both feet on the back line of the batter's box, his chest facing the pitcher and the bat held in front of his face. As the pitcher delivers, the right-handed Batista turns and strides into the pitch. "I just wanted to open up a little bit and see the pitcher better," explains Batista, a native of the Dominican Republic who signed with the A's as a 17-year-old free agent in 1991 and was taken by the Diamondbacks in the '97 expansion draft. He says he invented the stance a couple of winters ago, during the Caribbean Series, after enduring a five-game hitless streak. When he laced a hit in his first at bat, the stance became permanent.
So might his tenure as Toronto's shortstop.
Rockies' Road Continues
Finger-pointing In Colorado
Just hours after the Rockies fired manager Don Baylor last September, rightfielder Larry Walker sounded skeptical about a new skipper's ability to overcome Colorado's shortcomings. "Who says we won't have the same country-club effect in our locker room?" the Rocky Mountain News quoted Walker as saying. "It's not really a club that wants to win half the time."
Now it appears that Walker's read on the situation was accurate. In Jim Leyland's first season as manager, the Rockies—with essentially the same roster that went 77-85 last year—was 48-63 through Sunday and mired in last place in the National League West, 14½ games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. "That team isn't fundamentally sound," said outfielder Darryl Hamilton, who, after Colorado traded him to the Mets on July 31, ripped into his former team. "A lot of guys go out there and say, 'I've got to get two or three hits, or a home run,' and forget about the big picture."
That picture is far from rosy. Rumors have flown all season that the job of Bob Gebhard, the Rockies' general manager since their inception in 1991, is in jeopardy, and that vice president of player personnel Gary Hughes, hired away from the Marlins last off-season, is waiting in the wings to take over. "We'll evaluate our people at the end of the season," says owner Jerry McMorris in a less-than-ringing endorsement of Gebhard. "We're obviously not as close to contending as we thought we were."
Getting closer won't be easy. McMorris says he's willing to spend, but with a $62 million payroll, the 11th-highest in the majors, and such high-priced players as Walker, righthander Darryl Kile, outfielder Dante Bichette and infielders Vinny Castilla and Mike Lansing all signed through at least 2000, there won't be many open roster spots this off-season. There isn't much help on the farm, either, with only three big league prospects—catcher Ben Petrick and outfielders Derrick Gibson and Edgard Clemente, all in Triple A—in the Colorado system.