Puckett unlocks slugging potential; new skipper for Mariners

Ballplayers who suddenly start having all-star years are not always tall and graceful, or candidates for the sculptor's chisel. Some have heavy metal bodies, were not previously known for their power, and have speed so deceptive that no one ever thinks of them as competent base stealers. Slide that description over 5 ft. 8 in., 200-pound outfielder Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins, the American League's Player of the Month for April, and it fits like an expensive suit from Savile Row.

Puckett, whose short, stocky legs look as though they could hold up a steel pier, now creates designer home runs. And quickly, too. Twice this season he has led off games with home runs, and his overall statistics are already far beyond anything he had achieved previously.

Until this year (his third with Minnesota), Puckett had produced only four home runs in 1,248 at-bats. However, after he put 12 balls in orbit in the Twins' first 31 games, American League pitchers are now giving Kirby the same respect they usually reserve for sluggers like Jim Rice, Don Mattingly, and Eddie Murray. And although it has since ended, his 16-game hitting streak is still the longest in the majors so far this year.

What probably unlocked Puckett's potential this year were the many hours he spent in spring training working with hitting coach Tony Oliva, who, in 1964, was the only rookie ever to lead the AL in batting.

Although Kirby made 199 hits last year, Oliva felt that a lot more than 46 should have gone for extra bases and that, considering Kirby's power potential, four home runs in 161 games was ridiculous.

So after first getting Puckett to put more trust in the quickness in his hands, Tony began moving him closer to the plate, taught him to put more weight on his back foot, and told him not to worry about getting jammed. From there they worked on patience, so that Kirby would get more pitches he could get his body rotation into and drive out of the park.

Three years ago when Minnesota suddenly found itself short of healthy outfielders, it put in a hurried call for Puckett (who was playing in Toledo) to join the team at Anaheim Stadium for a road game against the California Angels.

Unfamiliar with the two major airports closest to Anaheim, Kirby flew into Los Angeles International, some 65 miles away.

Left with fewer than 90 minutes before game time upon his arrival, Puckett took his first $86 cab ride, was rushed into the starting lineup, and promptly became only the ninth player in baseball history to get four hits in his first big-league game! Dick Williams in familiar role

Dick Williams, because he has always been so good at turning losing teams around faster than most new managers, will probably never lack for a job in baseball despite a reputation for frequently criticizing his players in public.

Williams, who last week took over the Seattle Mariners from Chuck Cottier, always seems to get the most out of whatever personnel he has at hand. When outfielder Ruppert Jones played for Dick at San Diego, he once told reporters: ``Williams is like an orchestra leader. He can take 25 guys with different personalities and skills and make them harmonize.''

Williams, who is never afraid to try new things, has led three teams (Boston, Oakland twice, and San Diego) to pennants, and his A's teams of the early 1970s went on to win two World Series. Because Dick continually bears down so hard on his players, however, three years is about his norm in any field job.

The hiring of Williams at Seattle was one of two hot managerial rumors making the rounds recently, the other one ticketing Billy Martin for Chicago. But the White Sox, after talking with Martin, have decided to stay with present manager Tony La Russa -- at least until the next traffic light changes color. Remembering Paul Richards

Former Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles manager Paul Richards, who passed on recently, always looked like someone out of a Zane Grey western. But he had a mind as quick as a switch-blade and was one of baseball's best teachers.

Richards once told me that managing was not complicated. ``All you do,'' Paul said, ``is find out what your players can and can't do. Then you hope they never get into a position where they might be called upon to do something they can't handle. It's the same old story. As a manager, you try to help the ones who are going bad and leave the ones who are going good alone.''

Often branded as a man with no sense of humor or theater, Richards amazed friends he had known for years in 1976 when he marched with the flag at the White Sox home opener, joining owner Bill Veeck and business manager Rudie Schaffer in wearing authentic costumes for a reenactment of the famous Revolutionary War fife and drum portrait. Elsewhere around the majors

Asked about the Cleveland Indians' recent 10-game winning streak, which has made them contenders -- at least for now -- in the American League East, manager Pat Corrales replied: ``Our pitching has been much better than expected. And when we opened the season against some of the best teams in the league and beat them, it really did wonders for our confidence.'' Offensively, infielders Brook Jacoby and Pat Tabler have been outstanding for Cleveland, while relief pitcher Ernie Camacho had almost as many saves (6) in April of this season as the Indians had wins (7) in April of 1985. Last year the tribe lost 102 games, victims of a team earned-run average that eventually ballooned to 4.90.

From Atlanta Braves farm director Hank Aaron, speaking before the Durham, N.C., Sports Club on drug abuse in baseball: ``On the first offense, knock them out of the game. There should be no second chance. You're talking about grown men. You're not talking about babies. Somewhere along the line, those players have to learn that you can't go around breaking the rules.''

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