A GIANT AMONG GIANTS
Every sandlot league in the country has a player like San Francisco closer Rod Beck: junkyard body, Fu Manchu mustache, long hair, loves to pitch. Beck himself was playing in one such league, the California Baseball Association, as late as the winter of 1988. At the time, he was in the Giants' organization, and playing in the league put him in violation of his exclusive pro contract. He did it—as a second baseman under the assumed name of Rod Roy—because, he says, "I just love to play baseball. People knew who I was. No one told."
People now know Beck, 25, as the best reliever in the National League. At week's end, he was 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA, 33 saves and 64 strikeouts in 53? innings while walking only four batters unintentionally for the Giants, the team with best record in baseball. The 33 saves is a club record, and his string of 24 saves without a blown save, which ended on Aug. 4, is a league record. "I expect this from myself," Beck says of his success. "I don't know where the strikeouts have come from, but the walks, I can do better than that."
Two years ago no one would have expected anything like this from Beck. He was picked by Oakland in the 13th round of the 1986 draft and was traded to San Francisco in March 1988 for pitcher Charlie Corbell, who injured his arm that year and never pitched again. Beck was a successful starter in the minor leagues but bombed when the Giants called him up briefly in 1991. They then sent him to Triple A Phoenix to learn to be a closer. "I was real confused," he says. "I thought they'd given up on me." Beck made the Giants' roster in 1992 as a middle reliever and pitched so well that he was named the team's stopper in June. Since the '92 All-Star break he has had, as of Sunday, a 1.30 ERA and 42 saves in 81 games. He also made the All-Star team this year.
Beck has all the necessary tools to be a closer: a 90-plus-mph fastball, a nasty slider, a darting split-fingered fastball and terrific control. Beck even looks the part of the unhittable reliever, with his menacing mustache and stare, and his unruly hair. "People think I look like this because I'm the closer now," he says. "I've looked the same way since I was 16."
Beck is 6'1" and weighs 236 pounds, which includes a noticeable gut that he is kidded about regularly. He weighed 247 pounds and had a body-fat percentage of 25.5 when he sought the services of fitness guru Mackey Schillstone in the winter of '91. Six weeks later Beck was 230 pounds, and his body fat was down to 14.7%.
Once labeled a player with a weight problem, he's now seen as a throwback, a guy who loves to pitch, especially when the game's on the line. "I'll throw every day," he says. "If my arm hurts a little, I figure it will work its way out. If I had to pay $100 for this uniform, I would. That's just the way I've always been."
THE THIRD MAN
The Rangers won three of four games from division-leading Chicago last week to help them move within 3� games of first place on Sunday. Leading the way was first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who has been one of the game's hottest hitters since mid-May. Coming off a season in which his average fell from .322 in 1991 to .268, Palmeiro was hitting .202 with three homers and 12 RBIs through the Rangers' first 31 games this year. He had lost his good opposite-field swing to left because he was trying to pull the ball too often, perhaps going for big power numbers since he will become a free agent after the season. As he struggled, it was rumored that Palmeiro—and his $4.55-million-a-year contract—might be headed to Atlanta for centerfielder Otis Nixon.
At week's end Palmeiro was batting .355 with 26 homers and 69 RBIs in the last 79 games, going back to May 12. Palmeiro now ranks in the top seven in the league in homers, slugging, doubles, hits and total bases. He's staying back on the ball more, getting his hits to leftfield but pounding homer after homer to right.