Down to the Wire
With nine players hitting between .322 and .338 through Sunday, the American League batting race promises to have one of the most competitive, star-studded finishes in history. The differences among the contenders make the competition even more interesting.
Boston's Wade Boggs, who's gunning for his sixth batting crown, is joined in the race by four other veterans with lifetime averages higher than .300: Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, Milwaukee's Paul Molitor, and Rafael Palmeiro and Julio Franco, both of Texas. Two other contenders are power hitters: Cal Ripken Jr. of Baltimore and Kansas City's Danny Tartabull, the league's slugging leader. Rounding out the field are two of the best young players in the game, Chicago's Frank Thomas and Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr.
The most interesting player to watch may be Palmeiro, the Rangers' first baseman, whose .334 average at week's end was third, behind Franco and Boggs. The rap against the lefthanded-hitting Palmeiro when the Cubs traded him to Texas in December 1988 was that he was a one-dimensional hitter content to flick singles to the opposite field. Palmeiro, 26, has quieted his critics by becoming a more productive offensive force. At week's end he was on pace to finish with 28 homers, 94 RBIs and 82 extra-base hits. No American League batting champion has had that many home runs or extra-base hits since the Red Sox's Fred Lynn, in 1979.
"When I came up [in 1986], I went the other way a lot, because I had done it that way my whole life," says Palmeiro. "But since then I've adjusted to the pitchers. I've turned on the ball [and been able to pull it more]."
Palmeiro doesn't wake up in the morning and check out the batting leaders in the newspapers. When told that Boggs has been known to do that, Palmeiro said, "I guess that's the difference between Wade Boggs and myself. He plays to win a batting title. I play to be the best I can be. I'd much rather hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs than bat .340 with eight home runs and 50 RBIs."
Palmeiro says it helps to have a teammate in the batting race with him. "Julio pushes me, I push him," Palmeiro says. "I think it makes you go harder."
Palmeiro has another reason to push harder: his brother Jose. During the recent Pan Am Games in Cuba, two of the producers of the syndicated television show This Week in Baseball tracked down Jose, 36, a photographer who is living in Havana. When Rafael and his parents left Cuba for Miami 20 years ago, Jose was approaching the age for military service and thus wasn't allowed to accompany them. The brothers haven't seen each other since.
On the weekend of Sept. 14, This Week in Baseball will air the segment on the Palmeiros. In it, videotaped messages are sent from brother to brother. Rafael recently saw the message from Jose. "It was emotional," he says. "It was something else. It's been such a long time since I've seen him. To see the place where I grew up, it was pretty amazing."
Rafael wants to visit Jose and other relatives in Cuba, but says it is more likely that Jose will come to the U.S. instead. Rafael says that seeing his brother on film has given him an added incentive for the rest of the season. "He's aware now of exactly what I'm doing," says Rafael. "Knowing that, it would be extra special if I could win a batting title."