There's something about leaving New York that turns players into dynamos. That's what happened to outfielder Rickey Henderson when the Yankees traded him to the Athletics in June. Ditto for outfielder Lenny Dykstra and reliever Roger McDowell, whom the Mets shipped to the Phillies the same month. Don't be surprised if the same kind of metamorphosis occurs in role player Lee Mazzilli and outfielder Mookie Wilson, now that they've moved from the Mets to the Blue Jays.
Both players have made impressive starts. Mazzilli, who was picked up by Toronto after being released by the Mets, hit a homer in his first Blue Jay game, on Aug. 2. Wilson, who was traded to the Jays for pitcher Jeff Musselman, stretched a routine single into a double in the same game and then scored from third on a shallow sacrifice fly. Mazzilli gives the Blue Jays a solid clutch-hitter on the bench, and Wilson provides the speed Toronto needs to strengthen its outfield, which has been a critical weakness ever since the Jays moved to the cavernous SkyDome. More important, the two former Mets are stable, respected veterans who can and will say what's on their minds. "Now we have three legitimate leaders in [pitcher] Mike Flanagan, Mazzilli and Wilson," says one Blue Jay official. "This may be the best internal mix we've ever had."
In the last eight months, the Mets have unloaded six of their most aggressive competitors: Dykstra, McDowell, Mazzilli, Wilson, infielder Wally Backman (to the Twins), and pitcher Terry Leach (to the Royals). Vice-president Joe McIlvaine says that all the Mets need to get back on top in the National League East is for outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds and pitchers Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda to "perform at their normal levels for two months." That may be asking a lot of Strawberry. After telling reporters earlier in the week, "I don't know how much longer HoJo [ third baseman Howard Johnson] And I can keep carrying this team," he pushed his laughable average up to .234. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog won two games last week by deciding to walk Johnson and pitch to Strawberry. In both cases, Strawberry popped up for the final out.
How important is character? Last season Detroit manager Sparky Anderson dismissed it by saying, "Character is 40 home runs." But now he acknowledges that letting veteran designated hitter Darrell Evans go and trading infielder Tom Brookens to the Yankees earlier this year has had a negative impact on his team.
Oakland manager Tony La Russa says, "Talent is far and away the most important factor on a team. But the right mix of personalities is a must on a good team." The player La Russa turns to for leadership is designated hitter Dave Parker. When sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire were both out with injuries in April, Parker inspired the team, both on and off the field. As Canseco puts it, "The clubhouse picks up every day when he walks in." And let's not forget Henderson. In his first 38 games with Oakland, he had 48 hits, scored 42 runs and drove in 21 more.
Milwaukee is another team that understands the importance of character. After the Brewers acquired 40-year-old pitcher Jerry Reuss (8-6, 5.23 ERA through Sunday) from the White Sox last week, general manager Harry Dalton said that the famous Reuss sense of humor was a key factor in the decision. "We don't have anyone like this," Dalton said. "He can really help us, even if he doesn't pitch as well as he has for the White Sox."
The threat of a new league loomed over major league baseball last week. Agents who represent nearly half the players met in New York with Players Association director Donald Fehr to discuss a venture that has already attracted the interest of investor Donald Trump and others. "They have a lot of money and some good ideas, but whether or not one can advise a player to jump is another matter," says one agent of the new league. "There are a number of questions that haven't been answered and probably won't be soon, but the message is, Remember the Continental League."
At this point, the proposed league is nothing more than a bargaining chip the Players Association may use in its coming contract negotiations, especially if the owners threaten to lock out the players in 1990. The specter of a new league could give the Players Association the leverage to force expansion, just as the emergence of the Continental League did in the late '50s and early '60s. The proposed league could also turn into a useful bargaining tool for such recent draftees as former LSU pitcher Ben McDonald, though college baseball players don't have the same marquee value as their counterparts in football or basketball. The USFL could sell football stars Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker to national television. But who outside of Louisiana has ever heard of McDonald?