"He affects the whole game," says McGwire. "Pitch counts go up, and that affects the pitcher. I played with probably the best leadoff hitter ever, in Rickey Henderson. Vi�a is following in those footsteps."
Frustration Boils Over
Battery Charges In Tampa Bay
On May 17, with yet another game slipping away from the inept Devil Rays, Tampa Bay catcher Mike DiFelice stomped out to the mound to confront reliever Jeff Sparks. It was the seventh inning of what would become an 11-6 Devil Rays loss to the Rangers, and Sparks, a rookie, had just walked all three hitters he'd faced—including one with the bases loaded. DiFelice, incensed at Sparks's insistence on throwing screwballs instead of fastballs even as his control deserted him, launched into a tirade on the mound that lasted until manager Larry Rothschild stepped in and sent Sparks to the showers.
"I believe in Jeff Sparks and in our entire pitching staff," an un-apologetic DiFelice said after the game. "Whatever anger shows in those situations just shows how much you care."
Sparks's reaction? "I'm not going to make any excuses," he said. "I just sucked today."
Time for a Tune-up
It's hard to nitpick about a team that had the American League's second-best record (24-16) through Sunday, but it was clear that something was amiss with the Yankees. Runs had been hard to come by for the Bombers: They'd scored more than three times in just three of their last nine games, and their season average of 4.7 runs per game was 13th in the American League. "I'm not worried—not quite yet," owner George Steinbrenner told The New York Times early last week. "Not in the middle of May. This is a long season."
Despite the Boss's protestations, the Yankees have been conspicuous in their efforts to find a veteran bat to prop up the offense, especially by boosting production in left. Ricky Ledee, 26, who won the leftfield job in spring training, has been mired in a season-long slump and was hitting .218 with two homers and 11 RBIs through Sunday. New York has been scouting Cubs outfielder Henry Rodriguez and the Devil Rays' Jose Canseco, among others.
Still, the Yankees' lack of runs stems from a shortcoming new blood won't necessarily cure. More telling than their low ranking in runs was their low standing in the league in walks (12th, with 132) and on-base percentage (11th, .338), two categories in which they shone while winning three of the last four World Series.
The drop-off begins at the top of the order, where second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and shortstop Derek Jeter haven't been their usual patient selves. Knoblauch, who averaged a walk every 8.6 trips to the plate last season, had only eight in 135 plate appearances, and a mere three of those had come since April 18. Before he went on the disabled list last Friday, Jeter had 14 walks in 141 plate appearances, or one every 10.1 trips; he walked once every 8.1 plate appearances last year. "If you have a track record of what you can do " Knoblauch said last week, "I firmly believe that at the end of the year, you'll have done the job."