Atlanta Braves Rookie Dave justice first saw Cecil Fielder in winter ball in 1987, when the two became teammates in Venezuela. "I went home after that season," recalls Justice, "and said, 'He's the best hitter I've ever seen in my life.' " Justice was 21 years old at the time and had stroked all of six home runs for Double A Greenville that summer. Which helps explain why he was playing winter ball and why he is speaking the truth now when he says, "I never expected a year like this."
He never expected to replace Dale Murphy in rightfield for the Braves or to share headlines with Cecil Fielder and the game's other fence busters by hitting 10 home runs in 12 games after Murphy was traded to the Phillies last month. Justice, who at week's end had 25 home runs and 67 RBIs in only 111 games, never expected to become the leading candidate for National League Rookie of the Year, and he certainly never expected to hear Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella say, "He reminds me of a young Ted Williams."
Such comparisons are the burden of the young slugger, which is why New York Yankee rookie Kevin Maas is quick to say, "I'm not trying to fill anybody else's shoes. I'm not going to try to be the next Babe Ruth." Maas, 25, will have to not try harder. As of Sunday, he had 18 homers in 204 at bats, and he reached 10, 13 and 15 home runs with fewer at bats than any other player in major league history.
History, however, holds warnings for such Baby Boomers. Dave Hostetler hit 12 home runs in his first 100 at bats, with the Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers in 1981 and '82—and finished his career with only 37. In 1955, Bob Speake of the Chicago Cubs hit 10 homers in his first 100 at bats and 21 the rest of his career. In 1987, Sam Horn, then with the Boston Red Sox, hit 13 in his first 123 at bats. Now a Baltimore Oriole, Horn has circled the bases only 14 times since then. Says Horn, "You have to realize that you're not going to hit a homer every day."
At times, it seems, you can't tell that to these tater tots. Twenty-year-old Juan (Igor) Gonzalez, 210 pounds of homer waiting to happen, led the American Association this season in home runs (29) and RBIs (101) in 128 games at Oklahoma City. When the Rangers called him up on Aug. 31, Gonzalez went oh-fer his first 11 at bats. After that, however, he hit four home runs in his next 38 at bats. Gonzalez has seen the last of Oklahoma City. "He shouldn't have to look back now," says Texas manager Bobby Valentine. "He should be able to look ahead."
Speaking of which, next year's American League forecast may call for baseball-sized hail. Bernardo Brito, 26, led the Pacific Coast League with 25 home runs for Portland, the Minnesota Twins' Triple A club. On Aug. 24 in Portland's Civic Stadium, Brito hit a screamer over the fence, over the bleacher seats, over the sidewalk, over a row of parked cars and onto SW 18th Avenue. The ball ricocheted off a moving car, sailed back into the park and landed in the bleachers. Consider this a travelers' advisory.