Jackson begins to feel his baseball oats; Astro pitchers sparkle
Outfielder Bo Jackson of the Kansas City Royals, who has world-class speed, and maybe a power bat to match, is not your usual rookie. Jackson is so confident of his baseball ability that even the slightest suggestion during press conferences that he might still have a few things to learn makes him bristle. Auburn University's 1985 Heisman Trophy winner is also obviously tired of being asked for an update on his interest in pro football. This question has surfaced everywhere Jackson has appeared since the Royals brought him up from their Memphis farm club earlier this month.
``There is nothing about football that I really miss,'' the No. 1 draft pick of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers told me. ``I don't know why that's so hard for everybody to understand. For the past six years it was my life and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I don't miss it. Now I'm strictly a baseball player.''
While exaggeration is commonplace in all pro sports, Jackson's boosters (meaning scouts, friends, and his minor league manager) have a tendency to talk about him as though he were already Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. He isn't -- at least not yet. But there is no ignoring his potential, which is enormous.
Jackson, who bats right-handed, seems to realize the value of being able to hit to all fields. He also has exceptional speed. From home plate to first base he's been clocked in just a shade over 3.6 seconds. That's not just fast, that's where-did-he-go speed, something only Mantle was able to do early in his career.
Scouts will tell you that any left-handed hitter who can cover that distance in 3.8 seconds is exceptional, and left-handers are already a step closer to first base when leaving the batter's box.
Already there is speculation that Bo, in time, will become baseball's first cleanup hitter to also have a legitimate chance of stealing 75 bases a season.
Jackson's first major league home run, a centerfield blast that reportedly traveled 476 feet, is called the longest ever hit by a Kansas City player in Royals Stadium.
Bo's second, against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium, may actually have been more telling, since it went to right field. This is no mean feat for a rookie who appeared to get only part of his bat on the ball.
Although Bo has all the tools to play the outfield well, he still has a lot to learn about positioning, anticipation, backing up plays, and hitting the cutoff man. And while he has a powerful throwing arm, it is not particularly accurate yet. There are also those who think his attitude needs improving.
When reporters asked Jackson recently if he expected to be part of the starting lineup next season, Bo replied: ``Some time ago I promised myself that once I got to the majors, I was going to stay there.''
Jackson also said that he preferred the consistency of major league pitchers, who are nearly always around the plate. Minor leaguers generally exhibit less control.
``The closer the ball is to the strike zone, the easier it is for me to hit,'' Bo explained. ``So far, things up here haven't been that tough.'' Great Scott! Astros clinch with a no-hitter
Houston pitcher Mike Scott's first career no-hitter, a 2-0 shutout of the San Francisco Giants last week that clinched the NL West for the Astros, was also his 18th victory of the season. The performance marked the second straight year that Scott has reached the 18-win mark. Ironically, the pitch that allowed him to retire 19 straight Giants during one stretch was a split-fingered fastball once taught him by San Francisco manager Roger Craig.
The last time a pitcher tossed a no-hitter to clinch a league or division title for his team was 1951, when the Yankees' Allie Reynolds turned the trick against Boston to secure at least a tie for the pennant.
Incidentally, Scott's no-hitter came only two days after rookie teammate Jim Deshaies set a major league record by striking out the first eight batters he faced in a 4-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the day before Scott's 13-strikeout pitching performance, veteran Nolan Ryan, 39, fanned a dozen Giants and did not allow a hit until the seventh inning in another Astros' shutout victory. Forecasting who will be '86 award winners
When the votes are tabulated soon for baseball's top awards, the following results are likely, though hardly guaranteed.
Most valuable player:
AL -- pitcher Roger Clemens, Boston
NL -- catcher Gary Carter, New York Mets
Cy Young Award winner:
AL -- Roger Clemens, Boston
NL -- Fernando Valenzuela, Los Angeles
Rookie of the Year:
AL -- first baseman Wally Joyner, California NL -- relief pitcher Todd Worrell, St. Louis
Manager of the Year:
AL -- Bobby Valentine, Texas
NL -- Hal Lanier, Houston
Best relief pitcher:
AL -- Dave Righetti, New York Yankees
NL -- Dave Smith, Houston
And what about surprise players? With 30-plus home runs, outfielder Rob Deer of the Milwaukee Brewers has probably been the biggest in the American League. He had only 162 at-bats and 8 homers with San Francisco last year. In the National League, Houston third baseman Denny Walling has to be a leading candidate. Through 153 games, he had hit 13 home runs, compared with seven a year ago. Behind the hitting erosion
Asked why there are so few lifetime .300 hitters in baseball, batting coach Ben Hines of the Los Angeles Dodgers replied:
``There are several reasons, but I think the four primary ones are: (1) the dimensions of today's parks; (2) the difference in gloves; (3) the arrival of AstroTurf; and (4) the many quality relief pitchers.''
In looking at the difference in stadiums, Hines likes to compare Boston's Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium. ``Fenway is old and compact,'' he said, ``and because there is so little space there between the playing field and the stands, foul balls almost always land in the crowd.
``But in Dodger Stadium, where there is a lot of open foul territory, most of those balls are going to be caught for outs.''
Hines also said that in the old days, a glove wasn't designed to catch the ball as much as it was made to protect the hand. But today's gloves are monsters -- big, soft, and flexible. If a fielder can reach the ball, that kind of glove will hold it for him.
In Hines's estimation, the arrival of artificial turf has eliminated bad-hop grounders from many games and thereby reduced the number of gift hits.
Finally there are the relief pitchers.
``Years ago the manager stayed with his starter, even if he was tired,'' Hines said. ``Consequently, after a hitter had seen the same pitcher four or five times in the same game, he began to learn things about him that translated into base hits. Sure, relief pitchers were used, but mostly they were guys who couldn't start anymore, who were just trying to hang on and had lost their best stuff.
``Today, you not only have talented kids with fresh arms working out of a bullpen, you also have the specialty guys like Goose Gossage, Dave Righetti, and Lee Smith, who can blow a hitter away.''