Back from the Dead
In baseball, perhaps more than in any other professional sport, a player who has been released, buried or overlooked often rises to make a valuable contribution to a team. This season is no exception in that regard.
Braves outfielder Otis Nixon was a lifetime .228 hitter before 1991, which is one reason the Expos sent him to Atlanta for two minor leaguers shortly before the end of spring training. But at week's end Nixon was third in the National League in stolen bases, with 32—he set a league record with six steals in a 7-6 loss to the Expos on Sunday—and was hitting .357. He credits his success to Hal McRae, the Royals manager and former Expo hitting coach. "I had a tremendous relationship with him," says Nixon. "He has meant more to me than anyone else. He made me believe in what I could do."
Mike Felder was released by the Brewers in the off-season and signed by the Giants as a free agent to be their fourth outfielder. At week's end he was hitting .285, 38 points above his lifetime average, with 12 steals. All of which has served to soften the blow to the Giants of losing leftfielder Kevin Mitchell, who went on the disabled list with a knee injury on June 3.
Probably the best forgotten-man story this year is that of Juan Samuel, the Dodgers' second baseman. Samuel, 30, filed for free agency last November, but L.A. didn't make him an offer. Interest in him among other teams was also minimal. The Dodgers later offered Samuel salary arbitration, but, according to some reports, the offer was made only so that they would be compensated with a draft choice if another club signed him.
No other team did, so Los Angeles was stuck with Samuel. Now six months later the Dodgers are happy that they were. Through Sunday, Samuel was hitting .335, second best in the league, and was tied for the team lead in RBIs with 35. He had 20 extra base hits and 10 steals, reviving memories of the Samuel who averaged 50 steals and 69 extra base hits for the Phils from 1984 to '87.
"We were prepared to lose Juan. We were not going to get in the bidding on a multiyear contract because he was coming off a down year," says Dodger general manager Fred Claire. "But the reports that we offered him arbitration to get the compensation, that's not true. Did we make a serious effort to keep him? No. Did we have an interest in keeping him? Very definitely. When he accepted arbitration [in December], I was delighted."
It's hard to find out what Samuel thinks of his success because he isn't talking to the media this season. It's part of his no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy attitude. It's a radical change for Samuel, who was a convivial and fun-loving player during his glory years in Philadelphia. In 1989 the Phillies moved him from second base to an unnatural position, centerfield, and then traded him to the Mets, for whom he also played centerfield. He didn't like New York and batted .228 in 85 games there. He lost his zest for the game.
He was traded to the Dodgers in December 1989 and started '90 as the centerfielder and leadoff man—two unnatural positions for him. In L.A., as in New York, he was constantly told to change his stance, walk more, strike out less, be more aggressive, be less aggressive. He was not a good outfielder, so he was moved back to the infield. The position switches and incessant advice got to him.
This spring he told The Philadelphia Inquirer that his days of doing whatever he was told were over. "I ended up hurting myself," he said. "I don't think like that now. No more. I'm a new person."