Pitchless Wonders

Could this be Kansas City? Well, no, actually. The Royals traded away all their most experienced position players--Gary Gaetti, Greg Gagne and Wally Joyner--in the off-season, and the 1996 team--the working definition of "small market" in these money-conscious times--is struggling to rebuild and find an identity. That translated into a 9-17 mark at month's end--Bottomsville in the American League Central--but K.C.'s A.L. opponents would do well to remember some names--Bob Hamelin, David Howard, Michael Tucker, Johnny Damon, Sal Fasano and Joe Randa. Never heard of them? Not many people have, but these solid young players, all products of the Kansas City farm system, are the club's raw, hopeful, talented future.

By contrast, some of the Rox's eager youngsters may grow frustrated waiting for the old guys to move on: Just ask outfielders Trenidad Hubbard and Quinton McCracken or shortstop Neifi Perez, who had a sensational spring training. Their time will have to come, but the club is so busy trying to put together effective pitching that the rest of the roster remains largely undisturbed and unshaken--no matter what.

In the end, pitching is still the name of the game, particularly in a season where hitters seem to hold all the cards. For the arm-weak Rockies, the most ominous divisional signs come from sunny Los Angeles, where Tommy LaSorda's "International House of Pancakes" pitching staff--Nomo to Astacio to Valdez--has already established the National League's stingiest pitching (2.71 ERA), and from reborn San Diego, where Joey Hamilton last week became the league's first five-game winner (Atlanta's John Smoltz was the second) and the Padres maintained a three-game lead in the toughened-up National League West. Meanwhile, Bill Swift and Bret Saberhagen, $10 million worth of Rockies starting staff, remain in the training room with their shoulders in slings and their hearts broken.

Naturally, this brings us to the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies. By all accounts, 1930 was a year something like 1996: Likely because the ball had just been "juiced up," the National League's collective batting average was an astonishing .303 and the New York Giants hit .319. The Phillies were busy amassing the game's second all-time leading team batting average, .315.

That didn't keep them from losing 102 of their 154 games.
How'd they do it? Same way your Colorado Rockies might lose 85 games this year--lousy pitching. For instance, Claude "Weeping Willie" Willoughby started 24 games for the Phils in 1930, made relief appearances in 17 others and finished the year with a 4-17 record and a horrendous 7.59 ERA. That year, team captain Fresco Thompson once took a lineup card to the umpire on which the pitcher's slot was filled in this way: "Willoughby and others."

But Weeping Willie was not the Phils' worst pitcher. Leo "Sugar" Sweetland went 7-15 and set the all-time record high in ERA at 7.71. The team ERA was, gulp, 6.71--but that's just four tenths of a run more than the Rockies' staff was giving up as of last week.

Opposing batters hit .350 in 1930 at Philadelphia's Baker Bowl, and a couple of the lowlights may sound grimly familiar to Colorado fans: On July 23, the Phils racked up 27 hits, including two Don Hurst home runs, against Pittsburgh but lost 16-15. The next day they went out and got beat by the Cubs 19-15.

So, then. Could this be Philadelphia, 1930? Let's hope not. But if the Rox bring some righty named Willoughby up from the Springs, shoot him, willya?

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