A little defense would be music to Red Sox's ears

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Boston band called Slide has produced a hit song that's drawing raves from all parts of the city. It's called "Forgiving Buckner."

How apropos, in a season when the Red Sox cannot catch the ball and have paid dearly for their indiscretions. They are not alone: The most disappointing teams in the first days of the season -- the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Florida Marlins and Boston -- are killing themselves with their defensive lapses.

Conversely, the hottest teams in the game -- the Orioles, San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers -- are good defensively.

"We're going to catch the ball," San Diego GM Kevin Towers said last week, "and we're going to give ourselves a chance to win."

Same with the Orioles, who have established early that they almost never will beat themselves. They may go through periods when they don't hit or don't get good pitching, but they always should catch the ball. In the first nine games, the Orioles had more than twice as many double plays (11) as errors (five).

The starting infield of Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken and B. J. Surhoff committed two errors in the first eight games. Granted, it's premature to be drawing deep statistical analysis, but if they continue this pace, they'd commit only 40 errors all year, or just five more than Jose Offerman made in '95, when he was with the Dodgers.

Houston Astros manager Terry Collins said Friday that he is certain the Padres will continue to be a serious contender because of their defense, which includes Gold Glove winners at first base (Wally Joyner), third base (Ken Caminiti), left field (Rickey Henderson), center field (Steve Finley) and right field (Tony Gwynn). Catcher Brad Ausmus and second baseman Jody Reed are regarded as good defensive players, and shortstop Andujar Cedeno, terrible last year as he struggled with personal problems, is much improved.

The Padres are a West Coast and less-talented version of the Orioles: good defense, a deep lineup of solid hitters without overwhelming power, good pitching and little depth in the event of pitching injuries.

When they left Baltimore for Texas, Rangers GM Doug Melvin and manager Johnny Oates apparently took with them the philosophy of the old Orioles way -- catch the ball. Texas made just two errors in its first eight games, and won seven of those eight.

"The game is hard enough as it is," Oates said. "If you give the team extra outs, it's even harder. All we want is for these guys to make plays they're supposed to make."

The double-play combination of Kevin Elster (filling in for injured Benji Gil) and second baseman Mark McLemore is making the routine plays, and they helped their outfield defense by playing Rusty Greer in left and shifting Juan Gonzalez to right.

Cleveland will overcome its slow start and run away with the AL Central; the Indians are too good, with too much power and starting pitching, to languish for long. But the Indians and Red Sox will have poor defensive teams all year, because there's really no way they can improve trouble spots.

Indians first baseman Julio Franco has proved that winning a Gold Glove in Japan (something he did last summer) doesn't really mean a whole lot. He is a liability, particularly on short-hop throws from other infielders. But if the Indians want to keep his bat in the lineup, they have nowhere else to play him. Eddie Murray is the designated hitter and hasn't been a regular first baseman since he left the NL after the 1993 season.

The defense of second baseman Carlos Baerga has regressed, and third baseman Jim Thome, left fielder Albert Belle and right fielder Manny Ramirez never have been good fielders. Hargrove, like Boston manager Kevin Kennedy, must hope the Indians slug enough to overcome.

The Red Sox's defensive dilemma is more acute. Boston has bad fielders at first (Mo Vaughn), left field (Mike Greenwell), center (Dwayne Hosey or Troy O'Leary) and right (Jose Canseco or Kevin Mitchell).

Converted second baseman Wil Cordero played well in spring training, but now the Red Sox staff fears that an existing rotator-cuff tear has begun to hamper his throwing ability, particularly when turning the double play.

They could bench Cordero, but then would lose one of their best hitters. They could try to improve the outfield defense, but their contractual obligations severely limit their options. Trading Greenwell is all but impossible, because of his $3.7 million contract and because he's a .300 hitter who doesn't run well or hit for power.

Dumping Mitchell wouldn't make sense at this point. Benching or releasing Greenwell and picking up a good outfielder (the Milwaukee Brewers' Chuck Carr?) might be the most logical move, but they'd have to deal with the public backlash for discarding a longtime Red Sox veteran.

The Red Sox made more errors than any other AL team last year and still won the division, and GM Dan Duquette gambled that he could worsen the defense, adding sluggers Cordero and Mitchell, without hurting the team.

A mistake, thus far. But Boston is used to poor defense. Forgiving Buckner, indeed.

Getting along with the ump

A current major-leaguer tells this story of an odd first exchange with an umpire last year. The player stepped into the batter's box, and the ump said to him, "Are we homeys?"

The player, confused and not sure quite how to respond, said nothing. The pitcher threw him a pitch "a foot outside, easy."

The umpire called it a strike, and repeated his question: "Are we homeys?"

The batter, totally perplexed, remained silent. Another pitch, a // foot outside.

Strike two.

"Are we homeys?" the umpire asked, insistent.

The hitter relented. "Yeah, man, we're buddies," he told the umpires. "We're pals."

The hitter stood in and took the next pitch over the middle of the plate, a textbook strike.

Ball one, according to the ump. The catcher, listening in on the exchange, was laughing. "See what a difference that makes?" the umpire said to the hitter.

The buzz about Ordonez

New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez has become a fan favorite at Shea Stadium, where there's an air of expectation every time a ground ball is hit toward the rookie defensive whiz.

California Angels second baseman Randy Velarde, 33, is hurting in a big way, bothered by tendinitis in his knees.

Darren Dreifort, the Dodgers' No. 1 pick in 1994, is coming back strongly from reconstructive elbow surgery and is convinced he and his hard sinker will be in the big leagues by the end of the year.

Shades of Bill Veeck

Some of the great promotions at Comiskey Park this summer: Used Car Night, Stupid Human Tricks Night, Romance Night (on-field weddings, marathon kissing contest), Carnival Night (including pig races) and Boxing Night (former "Partridge Family" member Danny Bonaduce in one corner).

The San Francisco Giants have been hit so hard by injuries that at the end of their win over the Astros on April 9, left fielder Barry Bonds was playing center, corner infielder Steve Scarsone was at second base, Matt Williams played shortstop for the first time since 1991 and catcher Steve Decker played third base for the first time in his career.

Dodgers rookie Chan Ho Park is as big a happening in South Korea as Hideo Nomo is in Japan. Michael Min of the Daily Sports Chosun in South Korea says he wrote four stories on Park after the right-hander earned the first major-league victory for a Korean-born pitcher when he beat the Chicago Cubs last weekend. Ten other reporters on his staff wrote about Park as well. Said Min: "Believe me, it was history-making in Korea."

November World Series?

Considering all the snowstorms and cold that have hampered the early-season games, NL vice president Katy Feeney won't rule out the possibility that the World Series could be backed up into November in future years. "If we didn't have the extended postseason, we'd probably open April 8," she said. "We have some decisions to make regarding November vs. April. It's not being talked about now, but I never say never."

Tony Gwynn, in pursuit of his seventh batting title this year and hitting over .500, made a believer out of Florida Marlins left-hander Al Leiter on Tuesday. Said Leiter: "The first inning, I threw him a 94-mph fastball, and he ropes it. I threw him another one, and he hit a hard ground ball. I did fool him with one slider, and then I threw him a nice little Frisbee curveball, about 68 mph, and he spit on it. You can't get him out."

Bo Jackson showed up at a Chicago White Sox game, the first time since his second hip replacement surgery. "I was a little off-balance with the first one," Jackson said. "It made my leg about an inch shorter. . . . I still work out every day, but no more running and pounding. The only running I do now is after my kids."

Pub Date: 4/14/96

By the numbers

Note to the Orioles, Rangers and Padres: There have been 346 teams in this century that started 7-3, and of those, 111 went on to win a pennant or a division. Eighty-eight teams have started 8-2, and 37 of those teams have gone on to win a pennant or division. Twenty-two teams have started 9-1, and 10 of those teams have won a division or pennant.

Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn went 2-for-2 against Greg Maddux on Thursday, when San Diego ended the right-hander's streak of 18 consecutive road victories. Gwynn has a .450 career career average (27-for-60) against the best pitcher of this generation.

The Rockies collected the 200th victory in franchise history Wednesday, in their 431st game, the second-fastest start for an expansion team. The Los Angeles Angels posted their 200th victory in game No. 399.

In the Dodgers' first 10 games, shortstop Greg Gagne -- the guy they added to help the defense -- had four errors that led to nine unearned runs.

Before losing the Pirates' home opener, Denny Neagle was 6-0 with a 3.56 ERA in his last 12 starts in Three Rivers Stadium.

Atlanta outfielder Ryan Klesko didn't hit his first homer until his 68th at-bat in 1995. This year, he hit four in his first 24 at-bats.

From the Does It Sound Familiar Dept.: Florida's Kevin Brown allowed one run in his first 15 innings, and his record was 0-1.

Since The Ballpark in Arlington opened in 1994, 12 balls have been hit into the second deck of the right-field stands -- five by Mickey Tettleton.

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