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THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
The Manager of the Year Awards, which are handed out by the Baseball Writers' Association, are nebulous honors at best. They usually go to skippers who have orchestrated startling turnarounds or have ignited talented teams that had lost their spark. But superior managing is more than a one-year magic trick. It's a long process that involves not only creating a winning team but also keeping it from falling apart when times get tough.
That's why Oakland's Tony La Russa gets my American League vote this season, for what I believe is the best managerial performance in more than a decade. It's much tougher to win the second time around. Indeed, no team in the 1980s has won a pennant and finished first in its division the following season. But the Athletics, who finished the week 4� games in front in the American League West, are well on their way to doing just that.
The A's had every reason to fold this year. They not only were coming off a pennant-winning season but also had lost many of their best players to injuries, including MVP outfielder Jose Canseco, closer Dennis Eckersley, shortstop Walt Weiss and starter Bob Welch. But La Russa pasted together a winner by taking full advantage of his bench. He will use anyone anytime, and a role player such as Mike Gallego can be just as important in La Russa's scheme of things as, say, hard-hitting third baseman Carney Lansford. Says Lansford, "Tony asks for no less than nine hard innings every day. And he gets it, no matter who he plays. When you go to see the A's, you may not see them play well, but they will play hard."
ZEN OF HITTING
Coaches can talk all they want about the value of patience at the plate, but some players will never learn to be selective, because as California hitting coach Deron Johnson says, "It's just not in their nature." The best example? In Johnson's mind, it's Angel centerfielder Devon White. "Devo should be one of the great players," says one of his teammates. "But he gets himself out twice a game because he swings at absolutely everything. Why throw him a strike?" According to Stats, Inc., White had swung at and missed more pitches through Sept. 9 (315) than anyone in the American League except strikeout leader Bo Jackson (383). But, of course, White, with 12 homers through last weekend, is nowhere near the slugger Jackson is with 31.
Then there are those batters who can't hit the breaking ball. That's what everybody said about Giants third baseman Matt Williams when he was sent down to Triple A Phoenix on May 1 after batting .130 with only two homers. But he must have learned something in the minors. After hitting 26 homers in 76 games for the Firebirds, Williams returned to the Giants on July 24 and, since then, he has 14 home runs with 33 RBIs in 45 games. Says one scout, "It used to be that he'd swing and miss at 10 straight breaking balls. Now he'll miss the first nine and foul the 10th off. But he can turn around the fastball with anyone."
Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who was hitting .227 at week's end with only one RBI over his last 12 games, admits that 1989 has been "a stink year" for him. But those words can't excuse his slovenly performance. At the plate, he looks as if he has no idea who is pitching, much less what that pitcher might be trying to do. In the field, he's a disgrace: He rarely changes position; he's lackadaisical while chasing down fly balls; and he misuses a decent arm by throwing without regard to cutoff men. In the last two seasons he has had just eight assists.
The Mets are planning to pick up the option on Strawberry's contract for 1990, but they haven't decided whether to sign him to a longer deal to prevent him from becoming a free agent after the '90 season. Don't hold your breath. "If he's really adamant about being on the West Coast, we'll see what happens," says Mets senior vice-president Al Harazin, referring to Strawberry's remark two years ago that he would like to play on a California team with his boyhood pal, Cincinnati outfielder Eric Davis. Earlier this year, the Dodgers were rumored to be eyeing Strawberry, and the Padres have expressed interest in Davis, who can become a free agent in the fall of'90.