Backup players used to be called "scrubbinis," and they had about the same status as batboys. But times have changed. Now the boys on the bench are referred to as "role players." And as Braves manager Russ Nixon puts it, "Pennants can be won or lost by benches."
The '88 Dodgers are a good example. They were plagued by injuries all season, but they hung on to win the pennant and the World Series in large part because of backups like Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey and Dave Anderson. "You don't win with just a good starting lineup anymore," says Phillie third base coach Larry Bowa. "For one thing, there aren't any lineups that are that good anymore. The best teams are the ones that have the most alternatives."
Many clubs have had to reexamine the way they use their benches this year because some 200 players have been placed on the disabled list since the start of the season. "I look at a bench not only as what I've got sitting there when we open the season, but also as what we have in Triple A," says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "No one has 15 prospects at that level, so clubs that acquire minor league free agents and fringe big leaguers are better off than those who don't. We signed [infielder-outfielder] Rex Hudler and [outfielder] Otis Nixon as minor league free agents, and they've become two of the best role players in the game."
What type of player is in the most demand? Everyone wants power hitters, of course. That's why outfielder Tony Armas, who was batting .290 with six homers and 16 RBIs at week's end, is so valuable to the Angels. Catchers who can play other positions, such as the Cubs' Lloyd McClendon, the Mariners' Scott Bradley and the Mets' Mackey Sasser, are also highly prized. Indeed, versatility is the key. Two of the best role players are the Athletics' Tony Phillips and the Twins' Al Newman, both of whom can switch-hit and play six positions.
According to an informal poll of managers, Oakland has the best bench by far. "You look at the A's [with all the injuries they've had to key players] and it's amazing that they're right in the race," says Toronto manager Cito Gaston. "But it's because of their bench." The secret? Oakland manager Tony La Russa makes sure his role players see a lot of action. Utility men like Phillips and Mike Gallego play so regularly that they seem like every-day players.
Other American League teams with strong benches are the Twins, Blue Jays and Royals. The deepest teams in the National League are the Mets, Expos, Dodgers and Giants. "No matter who the Giants bring up, he produces," says one scout. The latest overachiever is infielder Greg Litton, who was called up from Phoenix on June 5 and as of Sunday was hitting .303.
Who has the worst bench in baseball? Probably Detroit. A case in point was the Tigers' July 20 game against California. In the ninth inning, Detroit had runners on first and second with two out and the score 3-3. The next batter was centerfielder Gary Pettis, who had had only three RBIs all season and had stranded all 36 of the runners who were in scoring position when he came to the plate. But the only right-handed hitters on the bench were Doug Strange, who is batting .200, Mike Brumley (.225) and Matt Sinatro (.150). So manager Sparky Anderson stayed with Pettis, who struck out to kill the rally. The Tigers lost 4-3.
The day after a game against Atlanta that was interrupted by rain, Mets pitcher Bob Ojeda criticized his teammates for their lackadaisical attitude. Ojeda told a reporter, "The tarp was off and all the Braves were out there, but the only people in our dugout were me, Mackey Sasser and [trainer] Steve Garland. It made me think, Do we even want to be here and play a game today?" The day Ojeda made his remarks, New York dropped a double-header to the Astros, and the next day Mets manager Davey Johnson uncharacteristically lashed out at his players. The tirade seemed to work. Through Sunday the Mets had won their next six games.