Looking for a Minor Miracle
Salt this name away, Rockies fans: Scott Randall.
As the club's fourth season winds down with an ineffectual bang (four Bombers with a hundred RBIs each--first time in the National League since 1929) and a resounding whimper (8 million bucks' worth of Saberhagen and Swift still on the shelf), you can sniff a hint of change in the air.
By next July, every player in Don Baylor's starting lineup will be over thirty--not too old to do the macarena, but getting a bit long in the tooth when it comes to knocking off the Braves or Dodgers or Astros in the playoffs.
By spring 1998, the Rockies' third generation of prospects will start working up to the big club. Amid the crop are two dozen pitchers, the highest priority for Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard and Dick Balderson, the vice president for player development. Want to gauge the value Rockies management puts on strong young arms? In the June draft, fourteen of the Rockies' first fifteen picks were pitchers.
So then. Scott Randall.
If you want to see the possible future of Colorado Rockies baseball--which is to say baseball with real, live talent out there on the mound as well as guys swinging tree trunks at the plate--have a look at Scott Randall, the winningest pitcher in the entire organization. Last year at Portland, he went 7-3 with a 1.99 earned run average. This season, at Asheville, North Carolina, the Rockies' affiliate in the Single-A South Atlantic League, the slender right-hander from Goleta, California, won fourteen games and lost four, and his 2.74 ERA was just about half that of the parent club's current 5.68. In 154 innings of work, he struck out 136 batters while walking only 50. Phenomenal. Especially for an eleventh-round 1995 draft choice out of Santa Barbara City College.
Granted, the Asheville Tourists' ace, age twenty, spent the second season of his professional career facing not Mike Piazza or Barry Bonds, but assorted Savannah Sand Gnats, Piedmont Boll Weevils and Hickory Crawdads. With his teammates, he endured ten-hour bus rides up to Maryland to face the Hagerstown Suns, squeaked by on $1,000 a month and kept a sharp eye on menu prices: Meal money in the Sally League comes to $15 a day. Still, it was quite a year. Randall and fellow starter Chandler Martin combined for seventeen wins in 1996 before either pitcher lost a game, and in the first half of their split season, the Tourists treated their fans at 3,400-seat McCormick Field to a runaway with the Central Division title. Their 47-20 record before the All-Star break was the best in all of baseball.
"I don't think my stuff got any better this year," Randall says. "But I got more consistent--and smarter about what pitch to throw in what situation."
On the afternoon of July 23, that pitch was mainly Randall's 88-mile-an-hour two-seam fastball, which dips out of the strike zone and induces ground balls by the dozens. After chasing a hint of rain out of the sky, Randall fought off a bout of wildness warming up in the bullpen, then threw a no-hitter against the Fayetteville Generals. He struck out eleven and allowed only one runner to reach base, on a second-inning walk. Only two Generals hit balls out of the infield, and in nine innings Randall threw just 84 pitches.
"I didn't start the day very well," he says. "But it all came together somehow."
For most twenty-year-olds, a 7-0 start, fourteen wins and a late-July no-hitter would have made a season. But Randall wasn't done yet. On August 14 in Augusta, Georgia, he pitched eight perfect and eleven hitless innings, fanning eleven opposing Greenjackets and walking only one. Asheville manager P.J. Carey pulled his weary starter in the bottom of the twelfth, and the club went on to win the game 2-1--in nineteen innings. Not very Bichette-like, no taste of the Big Cat in there. But just the kind of thing Rockies fans might learn to appreciate by, say, the year 2000.
Two days after the Augusta start, Randall came down with strep throat, lost twelve pounds while lying in bed for two weeks and hasn't pitched since. But neither a touch of tendinitis at mid-season nor a sore throat is likely to keep the young phenom from moving on and up. Why, only last week, after being named the Tourists' most valuable player, he was promptly driven to Kostas' Menswear in Asheville and fitted with a brand-new blue suit. Life in the bush leagues being what it is, he'd already moved out of his apartment.
At 6-3 and 178 pounds, Scott Randall is still a growing boy and not yet considered a power pitcher. But his current pitching coach, Stan Kyles, expects him to add fifteen or twenty pounds to his frame, two or three miles an hour to that sinking fastball and some snap to his curve. In all likelihood, he'll move up to Salem and Double-A New Haven next season. Like the Rockies' emergent Jamey Wright and another twenty-year-old farmhand, 1994 first-round choice Doug Million, Randall is one of the brightest hopes for sub-football scores at Coors Field in seasons to come. Million, by the way, went 10-8 this year at New Haven of the Eastern League with a 2.74 ERA, 139 strikeouts and a worrisome 100 walks.
Down in Asheville last week, Randall and the Tourists were locked in a soggy playoff battle with the Columbia Bombers, oft-delayed by the furies of Hurricane Fran. Mid-torrent, pitching coach Kyles found time to talk about his star pupil.
"He's still a kid," Kyles said, "but he's got good command and that great movement on his fastball. In the future, he's a perfect fit for Coors Field. A real ground-ball pitcher. He's also got the right mental makeup. He's a bulldog. A real Orel Hershiser mentality."
Sound like just the right medicine for the Rockies' exhausted official scorer? Could be, but Randall understands how far Single-A ball is from the major leagues. "If it wasn't a realistic dream, I wouldn't be here," he says, "but you never know what will happen. Or when. I haven't even begun to think yet about the big leagues, because I haven't seen the players ahead of me and I really don't know what the higher levels will bring. It all seems so far away. But maybe it can happen."
Barring disaster, Kyles believes it will. "Scotty's not a can't-miss guy," he says, "but there's something special about him. This year he got much more aggressive and confident, and he learned to trust his stuff. He's working on a change-up, and he's learning fast. Best-case scenario? In three years he'll be a third or fourth starter in the major leagues and just the kind of guy the Rockies need in their ballpark."
Looking up from third place, we can only wait and hope.
No use getting ahead of ourselves here, but the Broncos' early-season hopes of returning to the Super Bowl hinge on their visit to Kansas City a week from Sunday.
The Super Bowl? The Denver Broncos? What the hell are you smoking?
Well, to tell the truth, Marlboro Lights. And yes. Two minutes after the Broncos dispatch lowly Tampa Bay this Sunday at Mile High Stadium, thousands of people who have been hiding their old orange-and-blue jerseys up in the attic for the past five years will start making dinner reservations at Antoine's and girding up their tortured livers for a sleepless weekend in late January on Bourbon Street.
Because the Super Bowl is no longer a pipe dream. In December it might be one. Maybe even November. But for now, the new and improved Broncos are showing the world that they can play tough defense, sack quarterbacks with abandon and actually run the football. That Elway guy seems as game-tough and smart and strong as he was during the early Reagan years, and head coach Mike Shanahan is beginning to look like a genius.
Okay, so maybe the New York Jets aren't exactly the cream of the league. And maybe the Seattle Seahawks are semi-jokes who just happen to host a tough room. And maybe the Tampa Bay Bucs won't score a touchdown in their next two games, either.
So what? The Broncos will likely be rested and ready when they hit Arrowhead Stadium September 22, and if they can somehow knock off a team that went 13-3 last year before buckling in the playoffs, then who knows?
The enduring mythology, of course, holds that Elway and company can't bebop in Charlie Parker's hometown. But a glance at the record shows otherwise: Of their last ten games at Arrowhead, the Broncos have won four--in 1994, 1991, 1989 and 1987. Last year the Chiefs whacked Denver 21-7 at Mile High, but they squeaked by just 20-17 at home, and you can bet the Broncs will be primed and ready for revenge a week from Sunday.
After all, there are Oysters Bienville to be ordered at Antoine's. Early morning Sazeracs at Tujagues. And good seats waiting in the chilly confines of the Louisiana Superdome.
Is it too early to dream? Nah.
In fact, the only things standing in the way of real, authentic, unalloyed dreaming in Kansas City are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lousy team. Zero and two. Nary a touchdown on the board and Trent Dilfer at quarterback. Bad, bad team. So bad, in fact, that the last time they visited Mile High Stadium, on December 26, 1993, they knocked off their heavily favored hosts 17-10.
Just for a minute longer, then, kindly leave that old orange jersey up there with the rocking chairs and Aunt Tillie's wedding dress, willya? And hope that the Donks aren't looking ahead, either.
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