Cromer had doubts only once. While playing for Modesto four years ago, he was struck in the face by a throw and suffered a fracture of the left orbital bone, missing a month. "That's the first time I wondered whether it was worth it," he says. "I almost gave up." Cromer called an airline to purchase a one-way ticket from California to South Carolina. "It was $1,200," he says, "and I couldn't afford it. That was a sign to stick things out."
Cromer spent two more seasons in the Oakland organization, batting .294 with 16 home runs for Triple A Edmonton in 1998, and then signed as a minor league free agent with the Reds. "We got a good look at J.T. last spring, and we knew he could hit," says Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon, who regularly forgets that Cromer is called D.T. "He's never been given a real chance, yet he keeps playing. You love guys like that."
"You have to believe," says Cromer. "My life is baseball. It's not easy to give up on your life."
June 9-11: Brewers at Twins
There are far more scintillating interleague matchups on the schedule this weekend—Mets-Yankees, Reds-Indians and Red Sox-Braves, for starters—but none will separate the real fans from the dilettantes like Milwaukee's visit to Minnesota. Will anyone show up to see the National League's worst road draw (through last week the Brewers had attracted an average of 25,201 when traveling) play the Twins, who had the majors' lowest average home attendance (11,394)? Last year's series in Milwaukee, a two-game sweep by Minnesota, drew crowds of 30,344 and 23,915 before the third game was rained out.
Mark McGwire says it doesn't register when he comes to the plate that the left side of the infield often resembles a phone booth packed with fraternity brothers. "I never notice until I hit the ball and I think it's a base hit," says McGwire of the infield shifts that many teams employ against him. "Then I see a guy standing there."
Against the righthanded McGwire, a dead-pull hitter when he puts the ball on the ground, many teams position their short-stop deep in the third base hole and their second baseman on the third base side of second. Like most sluggers who face similar shifts—Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome also often see it—McGwire refuses to alter his hitting approach to take advantage of the spaces the shift creates.
"We're trying to play with their minds a little bit," says A's manager Art Howe, who this season has deployed the shift on the right side against the lefthanded-hitting Delgado and Thome, and on the left side against the White Sox' righthanded-hitting Carlos Lee. Those batters have gone a combined 13 for 42 with six RBIs against Oakland. None of the three tried to hit the ball the opposite way. "Those guys have pride. They're going to try to hit it through," says Howe.
Thome did give in against the Rangers in April: He tried to bunt for a base hit, but Texas starter Rick Helling threw him out. Indians manager Charlie Manuel says bunting isn't necessary; hits are there for Thome's taking. "If he cut down on his swing and hit the ball where it was pitched, he would be O.K.," Manuel says.
The strategy backfired for the A's on May 23, when they shifted against the Devil Rays' Canseco with bases loaded and no outs. Canseco cued a ground ball off the end of his bat to the right side. The ball rolled through the hole where second baseman Randy Velarde would normally have been, giving Canseco a single and two RBIs. "Just luck," Canseco says. "I was kind of fooled there."