Some World Series players worth weight in gold are not glittering stars. Cast-off outfielder, rookie aid A's; pair of trade pickups solidify Dodgers
Oakland, Calif. — At some point experience teaches every serious baseball observer that teams do not reach the World Series, even in this year's Fall Classic between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A's, with only their headline players producing. This is as true this year as ever, even though the actions of TV darlings like Jos'e Canseco and Dave Stewart of Oakland and Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson of Los Angeles seem custom-made for instant replay. Their managers also have to be able to call on the unsung heroes, the ``plumbers'' who keep things working without the glamour that surrounds the bigger names.
No World Series can ever be conducted without these blue-collar workers, most of whom play every day. They are the guys who will battle a wall for a fly ball, know where the cutoff man is, can steal a base in the clutch, or give themselves up at the plate to move a runner into scoring position.
Identifying just four of them in this year's Series is easy. There are no two better examples on the Dodgers than outfielder John Shelby and shortstop Alfredo Griffin. There are no two better examples on the A's than outfielder Dave Henderson and rookie shortstop Walt Weiss.
To be facetious, Shelby is the Big Noise from Lexington, Ky. His idea of a long conversation is to repeat his ZIP code twice. If you were standing on his foot in your golf spikes, John would be reluctant to say anything, because he wouldn't want to interrupt your conversation.
Shelby may not assert himself verbally, but he's the type of guy who can make a good catch or get a big hit when the situation calls for it.
Before the Dodgers got him in a trade with Baltimore in May 1987, the Orioles kept shuttling Shelby on commercial flights between Baltimore and their top farm club in Rochester, N.Y.
They liked John in the field, but they didn't think he could hit. Of course, by yanking him around so much, and never giving him a chance to put down roots, Baltimore probably never found out what he could really do.
The Dodgers, however, appear to have gotten a bargain, since he has hit 31 regular-season home runs and collected 133 RBIs in his two years with the club.
Shortstop Alfredo Griffin, who came over to the Dodgers this spring from Oakland in the trade that sent pitcher Bob Welch to the A's, has the soft hands of a pickpocket in the field. Trying to hit a ground ball past Griffin is like trying to smuggle a large diamond past Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Because of an injured hand, Alfredo did not hit for average in Los Angeles the way he did in three previous seasons in Oakland. His fielding was not affected, however, and his ability to scoop up grounders eased the minds of Dodger pitchers.
Griffin has made a much better fielder of second baseman Steve Sax by getting him to release the ball quicker on double plays, both on throws to second and on relays to first.
In the first two games of the World Series, he led both teams with seven fielding assists, and also chipped in with two hits in six trips to the plate. Maybe because outfielder Dave Henderson hit .304 this season, with 24 homers and 94 runs batted in, you don't think he really belongs in coveralls and industrial work shoes. But not only did Boston trade this journeyman to San Francisco in 1987 for a player nobody remembers anymore, the Giants released him at the end of the season. Considering Dave's .238 batting average, the Giants had no second thoughts.
According to A's batting coach Jim Lefebvre, Oakland signed Henderson as a free agent because it remembered his clutch hitting for Boston in the 1986 American League playoffs. With the Red Sox trailing the California Angels 3 games to 1 and a mere out away from elimination, Dave hit two-run homer to force extra innings, then produced a game-winning RBI with a sacrifice fly in the 11th. Boston used this emotional impetus to win the next two games and the series.
How does Lefebvre explain Henderson's emergence as a more dependable player?
``I think what you have to remember is that Henderson was really a football guy to begin with. He had size, and he could do a lot of things the National Football League could have used. But for some reason he decided to take his skills to baseball, a game he hadn't played very much.
``With us, I think he kind of took stock of himself and realized that after seven years in the majors with three different clubs, it was time to get his act together. Henderson has also benefited this year by hitting in front of Canseco. Dave gets better pitches in that situation because with Jos'e coming up they don't want to walk him. Consequently, Henderson got a lot of pitches this year he could drive. But at the same time, he provided his own motivation.''
When Oakland promoted Walt Weiss from its Tacoma farm club at the end of last season, and played him at shortstop for 16 games, the team stopped wondering what would happen to its defense if it traded Griffin away for a starting pitcher.
While Weiss is not as loose-jointed in the field as Marty Marion when he was head vacuum cleaner of the old St. Louis Cardinals, Walt has the same instincts for the baseball.
``This kid has the ability to make every play in the field under pressure,'' Lefebvre, a former major league infielder, told me. ``He can go in the hole and throw the runner out; he can throw off balance and still get the runner; and he has these quick hands that pick up ground balls as easy as you or I would pick up the newspaper.
``Weiss's strength at the plate is his ability to hit the ball all over,'' Jim continued. ``Even though he hit only .250 for us during the regular season, remember that he was a first-year player with a lot of responsibility.
``I saw Weiss play 147 games for us during 1988, and if he isn't named American League Rookie of the Year, I think I'll be more disappointed than he is.''
It remains to be seen, however, what further contributions Shelby, Griffin, Henderson, and Weiss will make in the World Series.
When you need a plumber at home and you can't get one, you can always take the family out to dinner and a movie. Managers Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers and Tony La Russa of the A's don't have that luxury, but then again, their ``plumbers'' are in uniform and already on the premises - and often quite capable of relieving a pressure situation with a gutsy play in the field or a key hit at the plate.