Slick rookies abound; homer heroics

Truth in packaging was never intended to apply to major league baseball rookies, many of whom turn out to be the product of some overactive publicity director's imagination.

But this year seems to be an exception in both the American and National Leagues. At some positions they even come in pairs -- like second baseman Steve Sax of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Johnny Ray of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Even though Sax was the only rookie named to the NL All-Star squad, Ray actually has slightly better statistics in the power department.

The Houston Astros had Johnny and let him go in a trade when they didn't think he'd ever field well enough to play every day in the big leagues. But with the help of Pirates Coach Al Monchak, who hit hundreds of ground balls to Johnny in spring training and speeded up his pivot on the double play, Ray has become a first-year star.

Another top candidate for NL Rookie-of-the-Year honors is Willie McGee of St. Louis, whose .317 average also has him in contention for the league batting crown. Brought up to the parent club after an injury sidelined the Cardinals' more highly touted rookie outfielder David Green, Willie wielded such a hot bat that they couldn't get him out of the lineup. He has come through with many big hits, including the two-out, bases-loaded triple that sparked Monday night's 7-2 victory over the Mets and kept the Cardinals on the heels of the Phillies in the tight East Division race.

Two other NL rookie outfield speedsters who have done well are Chili Davis of the San Francisco Giants and Bob Dernier of the Philadelphia Phillies. The senior circuit has also come up with two exceptional rookie pitchers in starter Bill Laskey of the Giants and relief specialist Eric Show (rhymes with wow) of the San Diego Padres.

Laskey, who has twice as many strikeouts as walks, is one of the chief reasons the Giants are currently the hottest team in baseball with eight straight victories. Show, whose sinkerball often looks like a spitter, is a former physics student who is as familiar with Albert Einstein's theory of relativity as he is with Manager Dick Williams's mandate that: If you don't throw strikes, you don't pitch.

The American League's rookie showcase isn't quite as high in numbers, but has some top performers of its own in first baseman Kent Hrbek and outfielder Tom Brunansky of the Minnesota Twins, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles, and first baseman Dave Hostetler of the Texas Rangers. All four are power hitters who have also managed to maintain respectable batting averages, with Hrbek hitting the highest and getting the most attention. But Ripkin, because of the importance of his position (shortstop) may yet push Kent a little for the title of the AL's top rookie.

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