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STARS OF THE '8Os
Ron Fimrite
April 07, 1980
CALLED STRIKE TWO?
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April 07, 1980

Stars Of The '8os

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It hasn't for Paul Molitor, the Brewers' second baseman and leadoff man, who, in the opinion of many experts, is already the best all-round player in the game. An all-Big Ten shortstop at the University of Minnesota, he had rarely played second until he reached the major leagues in 1978 after only 64 games in the minors. He was ticketed for the Brewers' Triple A farm until Shortstop Robin Yount walked out of spring training camp, threatening to pursue a career as a professional golfer. When Yount returned, he injured a foot and was sidelined for the first weeks of the season. Molitor, one year off the Minnesota campus, started at short opening day and handled 10 chances flawlessly while getting a hit and driving in a run in his second big league at bat. Yount soon recovered, but Molitor was playng so well the Brewers decided to move him to second and keep him in the lineup. He hit .273 as a rookie, scored 73 runs and stole 30 bases. Last season he hit .322, scored 88 runs and stole 33 bases. He also improved dramatically as a second baseman, particularly in executing the double play, and when Yount required rest Molitor filled in for him brilliantly. This spring Molitor worked out in centerfield and, not surprisingly, mastered that position, too.

"In my opinion, he could be an All-Star at three positions-short, second or center," says Milwaukee Player-Coach Sal Bando. "His physical abilities are obvious. What makes him outstanding is his mental makeup and his maturity. After meeting him in that first camp, I could see he had it together. Here is a kid who can dominate a game."

Molitor accepts the fact that as long as Yount is around—and Yount's only 24—second base will be his destiny, but he prefers shortstop because "it is a position of leadership. It's the control position." The Brewers are indeed fortunate that Molitor, at 23, is such an agreeable and mature young man, because they have asked him to do two things he had never done before-play second and hit at the top of the order. In college he was a pull hitter with power. Now, because of the priorities of the leadoff man, he has become a spray hitter expert at getting on base. He sprays with power, though, as witness his 27 doubles, 16 triples and nine homers in 1979.

With all of his new responsibility, Molitor has retained a beguiling humbleness. "I was hoping to be a .300 hitter in the majors," he says, "but last season was beyond my highest expectations."

There is every expectation that Bob Horner, the Braves' 22-year-old third baseman, will be the power hitter of the '80s. Horner has already hit 56 homers in only 210 major league games, and he has yet to play a complete season. He joined the Braves on June 16, 1978, fresh from Arizona State, where he had been College Player of the Year, and hit a homer in his first game. He finished the year with 23 in 89 games, while batting .266, driving in 63 runs and winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. Powerfully built and personable, Horner appeared to Atlanta fans and the Braves' management as the young demigod who would lead their benighted baseball team out of the basement. Then the trouble started, and, as Horner was to lament, "They took all the fun out of everything."

Under terms of the Basic Agreement between owners and players, the Braves were obligated to pay their new star no less than 80% of his previous year's salary. No problem, said management. Horner earned only the minimum wage of $21,000 in 1978, and the Braves were prepared to pay him 100 grand. No, no, protested Horner and his agent, Bucky Woy. According to their way of figuring it, Horner's wages for '78 included the $162,000 bonus he received for signing. Thus, they contended, under the 80% rule the Braves had to pay Horner at least $146,400 in 1979. An arbitrator eventually sided with Horner, but not until the once-beloved player had missed all but a week of spring training and had been accused by team owner Ted Turner of being a fuzzy-cheeked ingrate.

When Horner took the field on opening day last year he was booed. "People couldn't understand why I would be asking for more money when I was so new," Horner says. And with the catcalls resounding in his ears, he injured an ankle in that first game and missed the next six weeks. When he finally returned he silenced his hecklers with some remarkable slugging. In 121 games he batted .314, hit 33 homers and drove in 98 runs. And after the season he and Turner shook hands and agreed on a three-year, million-dollar contract.

Atlanta fans may have had to fall back in love with Horner, but his manager, Bobby Cox, never fell out. "Bob's makeup is so good, it's unreal," says Cox. "He's tremendously strong. I believe he's probably the best young ballplayer that's going to come through the '80s."

Horner, the first draft choice of a weak team, was virtually assured a chance to play in the big leagues from the moment he was selected. Rick Sutcliffe, picked first by the Dodgers in 1974, had no such rosy prospect. Sutcliffe was just another pitcher in the system of a team with the best staff in the National League. He was not exactly lost in the shuffle, but it was apparent that, in the parlance of sport, he would be obliged to "pay his dues." He paid them in such way places as Bellingham, Bakersfield, Waterbury and Albuquerque, suffering-inevitably, it seems-a sore arm along the way. By last spring his prospects didn't seem to have improved much, because the Dodgers had a surfeit of starting pitchers with Burt Hooton, Don Sutton, Rick Rhoden, Doug Rau, Andy Messersmith and Bob Welch. "Consequently," said Manager Tommy Lasorda, "we felt that, rather than keep this youngster [ Sutcliffe is 23] around, it would probably be better for him if we sent him out where he would pitch on a regular basis."

Ah, but luck, as it will, intervened, in the form of arm ailments, slow starts and general disorder in a Dodger camp that ordinarily functions with military precision. On the day before the season opened, the Dodgers released righthander Pete Broberg and moved Sutcliffe onto the major league roster. "I was surprised," Sutcliffe' says. "Anybody who knew anything about the Dodgers knew that it'd be impossible to make the club last year. In fact, during the last couple of weeks in spring training, the team had a cartoonist draw a picture of the 25 guys who'd be on the team and the five extras who had a shot at making the team. I wasn't even in the cartoon."

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