Major league baseball has had its share of steals off the diamond! The New York Yankees, for example, got Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1920 for only $100,000 - a goodly sum at the time, but still a bargain-basement price the way things turned out. The St. Louis Cardinals obtained future Hall of Famer Lou Brock from the Chicago Cubs via a six-player trade in which they gave up only a journeyman outfielder and two over-the-hill pitchers. Ty Cobb cost the Detroit Tigers $750.
At the risk of being accused of jumping to conclusions, I'm suggesting that the Milwaukee Brewers made their own super swap when they pried slugger Rob Deer away from the San Francisco Giants for two Class A pitchers.
To the surprise of everyone, including the Brewers, a guy who had never before played regularly in the majors erupted for 33 home runs (fourth best in the American League) and 86 RBIs. And this year he has picked up where he left off, ranking at or near the top in both categories with 9 homers and 22 RBIs at this writing and playing a key role in his team's surge to a big early lead in the AL East race.
Deer not only hits baseballs where nobody can catch them, he often hits them where nobody can find them. At 6 ft. 3 in. and 210 pounds, the National Football League views him as a linebacker or tight end who took a wrong turn en route to stardom.
An indication of Deer's power is that almost half of his 108 hits last year (53 to be exact) were for extra bases. As for consistency, the hard-hitting left fielder never went more than three games without a hit. And in August, when a lot of power hitters are starting to drag, he sent 11 balls whizzing out of the park.
Furthermore, though you probably won't hear it mentioned much because everything is so overshadowed by his hitting, Rob also fields his position well and has a strong and accurate throwing arm. No center fielder will ever have to carry part of his workload.
On the negative side is a history of striking out a lot, as shown by the fact that Deer led his league in this department four straight years in the minors and had a club-record 179 with Milwaukee last season. His major league career batting average of .218 (.183 with the Giants and .232 with the Brewers) is also not very impressive. But the Brewers think Rob will improve on these statistics as he gains experience.
According to batting coach Tony Muser, Deer, 26, is just beginning to learn how to take advantage of his natural ability.
``There are a lot of pluses about Rob Deer, but the one that impressed me most is that he's an athlete first and not just a baseball player,'' Muser told me. ``That's why we've been working to change him from strictly a right-handed pull hitter, who has been using only half the ballpark, into someone who can hit to all fields. We know he can do it.
``What we most want from Deer is 100 or 120 runs batted in a season,'' Tony continued. ``Now you can do this the hard way by hoping he'll hit between 45 and 50 home runs a year. Or you can try to make him more disciplined at the plate, knowing that he's still going to hit at least 30 home runs, only now you're talking about a potential for maybe 40 doubles as well.''
Added Muser on the subject of discipline:
``Last year Rob was swinging at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone. Pitchers are no dummies. They'll milk a situation like that as long as it's there. But if we can get Deer to be just a little more selective at the plate, he's going to see a lot more inside pitches he can drive for extra bases.
``One thing we don't want to do, however, is make so much of his strikeouts that he loses his aggressiveness at the plate. We don't want a defensive hitter on our hands. We know strikeouts are part of the price any free swinger pays for the long ball. But really we don't worry about Deer. He's got a great attitude and he sees the logic in things.''
San Francisco, believe it or not, had Deer in the minor leagues for seven years before he finally got into 78 games with the Giants (mostly as a pinch hitter) during the 1985 season.
Although he hit eight homers in 192 at-bats, and collected six other extra-base hits, the club's management was apprehensive about his high strikeout totals. While most people think that is why San Francisco agreed to trade Rob to Milwaukee, this native of Orange, Calif., doesn't think so.
``To me it was never more than a game of numbers with San Francisco,'' Deer explained. ``The Giants had liked nine potential major league outfielders on their roster and I was just one of them.
``Actually they had three guys [Chili Davis, Jeff Leonard, and Dan Gladden] who they were going to play regularly no matter what. The fact that I had led three different minor leagues in home runs didn't seem to be a consideration.
``In a situation like that, I did the only thing I figured I could do. I asked to be traded. And when management didn't react right away, I continued to ask them to send me to another major league club. After a while, I think they got tired of listening to me. Anyway, for me Milwaukee was a great move.''
When George Bamberger, who managed the Brewers until Tom Trebelhorn took over late in the 1986 season, was asked about Deer's potential, he replied: ``The way the guy hit for us, I couldn't believe it. A big league organization can spend years building a farm system and never find a power guy capable of 30 home runs. With us, it was like Rob fell out of the sky.''