Raines's splashy return to action amazes; prompts lively ball talk

The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but when they sing about the Raines in Montreal, it usually means stormy weather (and an early shower) for the opposing pitcher. Think about it. Free-agent outfielder and 1986 National League batting champion Tim Raines misses all of spring training, sits out the first month of the season, and then re-signs with Montreal. Got to be some rough edges, right? In fact, most players would be sandpapering their hitting stroke for a month.

But at New York's Shea Stadium, with his first swing in his first 1987 at-bat, Raines hits a triple. To prove it was no fluke, he goes on to collect four hits in five trips to the plate, including a game-winning grand slam home run in the tenth inning. Then three days later he belts a seventh-inning homer to beat the Atlanta Braves.

All this from a man whose spring training consisted of participating in a women's aerobic's class, working out with his former high school team, and playing in one simulated game in Florida.

Wondering how any player could come back practically cold and do so well, I sought out Manny Mota, batting instructor of the Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball's all-time leader in pinch hits. Mota was so good at steering the ball into places where nobody could field it that even at age 42 he managed to hit .429 coming off the bench.

``First you have to remember that Tim Raines is very talented natural hitter,'' explained Manny. ``He has a short, disciplined stroke; he has good reflexes; he doesn't need a lot of time.

``What he needs mostly is to make sure he has his rhythm before he plays,'' Mota continued. ``My guess is that the high school kids who pitched to him probably threw between 80 and 86 miles an hour, not unusual today. A chance like that is all a talent like Raines ever needs to get ready.''

Another interesting aspect of Raines's return was all this sudden long-ball power in a man who had been the quintessential line-drive hitter throughout his six previous big-league seasons, with just 48 homers in 3,372 previous at-bats.

Before Mota could answer my question on that one, though, we were joined by former major league pitcher Don McMahon, who had been listening in.

``The reason Raines and everybody else is hitting more home runs is because the baseball has been deliberately juiced up to please the fans,'' said Don, who is now a special assignment scout for the Dodgers. ``One year I worked for the company that makes baseballs, and they have a thing called a wobble-winder. Basically, it's a device that controls how tightly the twine is wound around the ball before the cover is put on. And the tighter the twine, the farther the ball is going to travel.

``Back in April, I was with the Dodgers when they played the San Francisco Giants in Candlestick Park,'' McMahon related. ``Remember now, I pitched in relief for the Giants for several years. On those occasions between games when I felt I wasn't getting enough work, I stayed sharp by throwing batting practice.

``Altogether during workouts like that, I probably threw over 30,000 batting practice pitches, and I can't recall anyone ever hitting a ball into Candlestick's upper deck off me. And I was pitching to a guy like Willie McCovey.

``Well, I'm watching [pitcher] Fernando Valenzuela taking batting practice before the game with the Dodgers and in just a few minutes he's hit three balls into Candlestick's upper deck. Listen, there is so much rabbit in the ball this year that if you hold it up to your ear you can hear it's heart beat!'' Elsewhere in the majors

Manager Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers on the leverage needed to perform his job:``Any big league manager who doesn't have the authority to trade or send any of his players to the minor leagues without having to consult his general manager is operating under a handicap. With today's high salaries and long-term guaranteed contracts, that's one of the few weapons left that a manager can use to keep his players in line. Believe me, that's a necessary power for a manager if he's going to win consistently.''

If the price isn't too high, the New York Yankees would like to take a flyer on troubled Houston Astros' shortstop Dickie Thon, who has never been quite the same ballplayer since being beaned two years ago. The Yankees think a change of scenery might help Thon get his batting eye back, and, of course, acquiring him would give the New Yorkers some high-quality infield insurance.

City officials say that Toronto's under-construction, retractable domed stadium, scheduled to begin operations in April 1989, will be like nothing ever seen in the sports world before. It will seat approximately 54,000 for major league baseball, and 56,000 for football. With the stadium's retractable roof in its open position, 100 percent of the baseball field and 91 percent of its theater-like seats will be out in the open. The roof can be opened or closed at the press of a button in about 20 minutes. Stadium cost is an estimated $160 million.

This is how general manager Jack McKeon of the San Diego Padres, whose entire 11-year catching career was spent in the minor leagues, describes himself as a batter: ``I was a three-way hitter - right, left, and seldom. I was so consistent that I almost always hit my weight, which at that time was about 175!''

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