Suddenly, new set of stars streaks across majors' sky


Nobody knows exactly how it is that a ballplayer suddenly turns into a star.

You can't find the latest stardom breakthroughs listed in the transactions column. They don't break into network programming to announce them. And, these days, you can't even measure star quality by the size of a guy's paycheck.

No, this stardom stuff just kind of happens. And it is happening right now in front of your very eyes.

It is happening to California's Bryan Harvey, suddenly the best short reliever on Earth. It is happening to Toronto's Roberto Alomar, suddenly baseball's premier middle infielder this side of Barry Larkin.

It is happening to the Mets' David Cone, a man who finally seems to be figuring out how to turn that dominating stuff into victories. And it is happening to Atlanta's Ron Gant, a fellow who came back from the brink of oblivion to rank with the best outfielders in the game.

They used to be just real good players, people who caught your eye now and then. But this season, they are taking that big step up to the top of their profession.

If you hadn't noticed all that was going on, take a closer look at these four new member's of baseball's galaxy.

BRYAN HARVEY. Quick. Name the best relief pitcher in baseball.

Nope, not Dennis Eckersley. Nah, not Lee Smith. Sorry, not Rob Dibble. It's actually a guy who has never even thrown a pitch in an all-star game the practically anonymous Bryan Harvey.

If you haven't noticed what this Fu Manchued right-hander has done the last two seasons, you've been missing a show right out of the prime of Bruce Sutter. Since opening day 1991, Harvey has:

* Saved 55 games in 62 chances, the best percentage (88.7) of any reliever in baseball with more than 35 saves.

* Struck out 123 batters in only 93 innings, a ratio (11.9 per nine innings) that beats any other pitcher in either league except Dibble (12.9).

* Fanned over 100 more hitters than he has walked (123 to 21) something only one other reliever in baseball (Duane Ward) has done.

* Essentially turned the entire American League into one giant Sil Campusano. (League batting average against Harvey these last two years: .172.)

"There's no closer in the game I'd rather have than him," said one veteran superscout who has spent the last month watching the American League. "I'd take him over Dibble, over Lee Smith, over anybody."

Two things have elevated Harvey from the ranks of the nice, solid, 25-save-a-year closers to the 45-save-a-year bullpen monster he is now. One is losing nearly 20 pounds before the 1991 season. Even Harvey himself is amazed how much getting in shape has helped his endurance and consistency.

The other is just learning how to set up his awesome Sutter-esque split-fingered plummetball by using his fastball to maximum effect.

"He throws hard enough to get people out just with his fastball," says one scout. "But when he's getting that split-finger over which he is all the time now he's totally unhittable. I mean, with Eckersley, you can at least get the bat on the ball. But this guy nobody touches him."

Nobody has this season, anyhow. He has nine saves and a 0.63 ERA. And, in 14-1/3 innings, he has given up a microscopic seven hits and four walks, to go with 22 strikeouts. That's star material, folks. That's Bryan Harvey.

ROBERTO ALOMAR. It seems as if the spectacular Roberto Alomar has been around forever. So it's scary to think that he's barely 24 years old -- younger than Reggie Sanders, younger than Bret Barberie, younger than Wes Chamberlain.

Yet already, when the talk turns to the best second basemen in baseball, only two names come up Alomar and Ryne Sandberg.

"And I'll tell you what," said a National League scout. "I'd take Alomar over Sandberg, even if their ages were equal, which they're not, because this kid can do more things than Sandberg.

"He can outrun him. He covers a lot more ground in the field. He's a switch-hitter. And if you put him in Sandberg's ballpark, I'd like to see the kind of numbers he could put up."

Well, they couldn't be much better than the numbers Alomar is putting up right now. He leads the league in hitting (.395), hits (45), runs (26) and multi-hit games (14). And he isn't far behind in stolen bases (8), RBIs (23), on-base percentage (.446), total bases (61) or slugging percentage (.550).

Meanwhile, he's a Gold Glove winner at second who has cut his errors every year of his career. And this year, he is having his best defensive season ever (just one error in his first 28 games).

He used to be more of a human highlight film than a steady, star-type player. But he has grown into the kind of talent you build a franchise around.

"He's been tremendous," said Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick. "The guy can do it all. When we made the deal with San Diego, we knew we were getting a good player. But I think it's safe to say we got a little more than we bargained for."

DAVID CONE. For a long time now, people have looked on Cone as a Cy Young award-winner waiting to happen.

Well, he's happening.

A few weeks ago, Cone was dominating only the cover of the New York Post and for reasons that had nothing to do with his pitching. Now he's dominating the entire National League.

He has ripped off back-to-back shutouts, something no member of that great Mets rotation had done for eight years. He leads the league in strikeouts (with 49 in 49-1/3 innings). And the batting average against him (.182) is lower than against any other starter in baseball.

RON GANT. He plays for a team that came within a game of winning the World Series. He led that team in homers (32), RBIs (105), runs (101), doubles (35) and games played (154). And he joined Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds as the only players in history to put together back-to-back years of 30 homers, 30 steals.

Yet how much do you ever hear about Ron Gant?

Somebody else on his team (Terry Pendleton) won the MVP award. It's the Braves' great young pitchers who get all the credit for why they win. And three other players in Gant's own outfield David Justice, Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon seem to get a lot more attention.

"Well, he may not get much attention from anybody else," said one National League coach. "But I'll tell you one thing: Every player and coach in this league respects Ron Gant. That's for sure."

It was only three years ago that Gant got himself so messed up that the Braves had to send him all the way down to single-A ball to straighten himself out.

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