Pitchless Wonders

It could be worse. This could be Boston. Or Cincinnati. Or Detroit. Or Kansas City.

As it is, Denver, the Rocky Mountain West and assorted cornfields in Nebraska probably now have the ballclub they expected to have long before they got it. A club whose two most talented and expensive starting pitchers may not play this year, and one stuck with others so inconsistent that Rockies manager Don Baylor has already worn a trench in I-25 as he ferries the sore-armed, the inept and the spiritually deflated back and forth between Denver and Colorado Springs. A power-hitting team that has, for now, ceded most of the sock to its opponents. A slow club that can't steal bases or cover Coors Field's big outfield. A club that looks like a baby in the record books--this is just season number four--but that has one of the oldest rosters in the major leagues.

Could this be Boston? The beleaguered fans of that place are accustomed to defeat, as Babe Ruth and Bill Buckner can attest, so when the hapless Red Sox, winners of their division last year, started the 1996 season 6-19 and staff ace Roger Clemens lost his first four games, Beantowners took it in stride, if not with pride. Through April 30, Boston was the worst club in baseball, and its team earned run average was a bloated 5.37.

Did we mention that, through April 30, the Colorado Rockies' team earned run average was 6.31?

Could this be Cincinnati? The disheartened Reds started their year 9-16, while owner Marge Schott made her usual contributions to team morale. When National League umpire John McSherry dropped dead from a heart attack at Riverfront Stadium on opening day, Schott complained that she "felt cheated" after the remainder of the game was postponed. She sent secondhand flowers to McSherry's funeral, and when out-of-town scores suddenly vanished from the Reds' stadium scoreboard, Schott acknowledged that she no longer wanted to pay the $300 fee to have such trifles piped in.

Did we mention that when the Rockies recalled pitcher Mike Farmer from the Springs last week, his teammates found it necessary to hold a team meeting to confront him? Farmer, you see, did a stint as a replacement player during the Major League Baseball strike of 1995, and the Rockies weren't sure they wanted him in their midst. Little matter that Farmer was 2-1, with a tidy 2.06 ERA down south--or that the reason he played "scab ball" last year was to finance an operation on his son's club foot. For their part, the Rockies said, after losing 21-9 to Montreal on April 28 and demoting shell-shocked starter Bryan Rekar and his 13.97 ERA to Triple A, they would rather have recalled David Nied from the Sky Sox. Really? Once the Rox's staff ace (which isn't saying much), the far-fallen Nied lost all of 1995 to arm problems and has an 0-4 record in the Springs this year. In his fourth effort, on April 30, he was chased out of the game within three innings, having given up eight runs on seven hits.

Nice train of thought, guys. Nice show of unity. As you dig a hole in the cellar, the thing your loyal sellout crowds really want to hear more about is the baseball strike. Try welding fenders onto Buicks for $20 an hour or carrying hod in Buffalo, then talk union!

Could this be Detroit? In all likelihood, the Tigers, who've avoided a season-long stay in the American League East basement thanks only to the greater ineptitude of the Red Sox, have the worst pitching in all of baseball. Last week their team earned run average was an impossible 7.17 (more than two runs higher than the New York Mets staff, which lost 120 games in 1962). And like the Rockies, it is a sluggish, old club whose players rely on hitting home runs in a dinger-friendly home ballpark and couldn't steal a base if Stevie Wonder was behind the plate.

Did we mention that Detroit hit 41 home runs in April, while the Rockies struck just 30? Not only that, the erstwhile Blake Street Bombers--Dante Bichette, Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla--combined for only 19 homers in the first month of the season. Slow starters? An off year for sluggers? It doesn't look that way in the rest of baseball. Out Seattle way, the Mariners set a new major-league record with 44 homers last month, and by April 30, no fewer than three players--Baltimore's Brady Anderson, San Francisco's Barry Bonds and punchless Florida's Gary Sheffield--had tied the major-league record for the month with eleven apiece. Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt did it last, in 1976.

Even in Pittsburgh, which has the budget of a Little League team, the long ball is, well, King: The Pirates hit 33 homers in April, and on April 30, Pirate Jeff King hit two of them in one inning--a solo shot and a grand slam.

But the Bombers seem to have lost their dynamite. Or their fertilizer. Or whatever it is they no longer make bombs out of. Roger Maris's single-season homer record--61 in '61, as if you needed to be reminded--will probably fall this year, but don't expect Walker or Bichette to down it. They're too tuckered out from lumbering after doubles and triples in the gaps.

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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