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From nowhere to The Show

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July 1

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter says, "They're coming in early and sitting in their seats to watch Alex Cabrera take BP. He hits balls where only McGwire hits them. It's incredible." In Boston, Morgan Burkhart was a local hero in two nights. "He is a professional hitter," says Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette of a guy who two years ago was toiling for the Richmond Roosters.

Alex Cabrera
Alex Cabrera is the latest underground hero to reach the majors.

But then, this was the week of the underground heroes. Padres rookie pitcher Brian Tollberg was the NL pitcher of the week, a guy who came out of the University of North Florida and had to pitch for the Chillicothe Paints of the Frontier League to get a shot in someone's system. In his case it was the Brewers, who shipped him to the Padres in one of those faceless minor-league deals that only Baseball America junkies see.

Cabrera, after hitting 37 homers in 54 games in El Paso and Tucson, homered and tripled in his first two major league at-bats and now is being given a shot as the 'Backs' first baseman with Erubiel Durazo -- another underground hero -- disabled. And Burkhart had four hits and three walks in his first four games for the Red Sox.

Cabrera, 28, spent six years in the Cubs farm system after signing out of Venezuela. He was third in the Midwest League in homers with 24 in '94, but was released after the '96 season. He played two years for the Mexico City Reds -- finishing third in the league in homers in '98 -- and last year nearly won the Taiwan triple crown for the China Trust Whales. "It's unbelievable how much power this guy has," says Showalter. "Is he going to do it consistently? Who knows? These days, I don't think about it, I watch. And this guy is something to watch." Incidentally, hats off to Diamondbacks international scouting director Junior Noboa, who has brought Cabrera, Durazo, Vicente Padilla and Byung-Hyun Kim into the organization in the last two years.

Then there's Burkhart, the Babe Ruth of the Frontier League. When he graduated from Central Missouri State in 1994, he couldn't get signed, so in '95 he worked as an assistant at his alma mater, worked two jobs and played for the Richmond Roosters. "I never thought about it," says the 28-year old switch-hitter. "I just loved playing baseball so much I'd have done anything to keep playing."

In his fourth season with Richmond, 1998, he batted over .400 and hit 36 homers in 80 games. Duquette and assistant Kent Qualls read his Independent League Player of the Year story in Baseball America, signed him, then watched as he hit 35 homers between Class A Sarasota and Double-A Trenton, nearly won the Mexican League triple crown over the winter, showed up for Pawtucket's spring training down from 225 to 200 pounds and hit 17 homers in little more than two months in the International League. "What's most impressive is the at-bats he gives you every time up," says one NL scout. "He reminds me of a switch-hitting Matt Stairs. He's on every pitch, he's a grinder with a great sense of the strike zone."

"What I like about these guys is that they're hungry," says Duquette. "They'd do anything to play, and we need that." The previous week, Duquette looked out and saw opposing Red Sox-Yankee left fielders named Curtis Pride and Felix Jose, who last year were teammates for the Nashua Pride of the Atlantic League.

One NL personnel director says, "We try to put two independent league players on every lower minor league club. It brings a dose of reality and an edge of energy to all the drafted, signed bonus players."

Sox sideline Pedro
When the Red Sox forced Pedro Martinez onto the DL this week with a severely strained oblique muscle, it was Duquette's message "that the long-term view is greater than the short-term." While many in the media keep saying this is the year because Sports Illustrated picked them to win it all -- just as SI picked the '88 Indians when this writer was working for the esteemed publication -- Duquette's view is that he'd rather watch 2000 drift than risk long-term damage to his franchise pitcher.

"If we can't win without Pedro for two weeks, then we're in trouble," says Duquette, whose decision means Joe Torre almost has to start David Wells in the All-Star Game.

Duquette looks at his team and says, "We're pretty well set in terms of a foundation." His five best players -- Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Carl Everett, Trot Nixon, Derek Lowe -- are all 30 or younger. This team has been hurt by the fact that several veterans like Troy O'Leary, John Valentin, Jose Offerman, Mike Stanley and Jason Varitek have had down seasons. "I made up my mind that we weren't going to unload our farm system for one big name (Sosa)," says Duquette, who opted to sign Bernard Gilkey and Sean Berry and trade one promising shortstop (Cesar Saba) to the Padres for Ed Sprague.

Padres on the mend
How good a person is Padres GM Kevin Towers? He knows he got Sprague cheap this past winter as a February signing, got service and character out of him, then had the Red Sox and Yankees bidding for him this week. Towers had comparable trades from both teams, but instead of trying to drive the price up, he went to Sprague and asked him where he wanted to play. Because of numerous friends made while playing in the Cape Cod League in his college days, Sprague chose the Red Sox, and the deal was consummated.

It should be pointed out that while the Padres have had a star-crossed season rife with injuries, Towers' offseason trades have put them in a far better position to be ready to win when they move into their new ballpark in 2002. Ryan Klesko's season is topped only by two other NL first basemen, Mark McGwire and Todd Helton, and he's happy to be home in California and finally over the wrist injuries that plagued him for two years. Bret Boone is on a 25-homer, 100-RBI pace. Then there is the Andy Ashby fleecing, in which Towers got a potential No. 2 starter in Adam Eaton and, when he's healthy, a solid 3-4 in Carlton Loewer.

With Matt Clement learning and a system loaded with pitching, the Pads should have the arms. They have Sean Burroughs for third and Phil Nevin for everywhere, two good young catchers in Wiki Gonzalez and Ben Davis and just need to find some outfield power on the market and improve their defense, possibly with a skilled shortstop.

Rocker in the Big Apple
John Rocker says he was up "between two and three" Thursday morning writing his apology to New Yorkers, and what it did was open people's minds. There will always be beered-up, steroid-juiced Rocker wannabes in the crowd who embarrass the human race, but by and large the Shea Stadium audience Thursday night proved that the actual fans are nowhere near as foul as the media perceives.

Give Rocker his due -- he dominated on Thursday. "I really felt that in my last three or four outings I was getting my rhythm and delivery back," he said after his one-inning performance. "That's coming, and will happen. What I hope now is that this can be put behind us. I hope that people will leave my teammates alone so they can go about their job of getting back to the World Series."

Rocker also addressed the notion that he is a social outcast with teammates. "I realize that there have been some critical comments, and I accept that," he says. "But I have friends on this team and hang out with them. In Montreal, there were 10 or 11 of us out together just as friends. I'm not an outcast. I realize that in the clubhouse the media thing is uncomfortable for other players, and I hope that can now pass."

Around the majors

  • The Orioles keep the fires burning for C Carlos Hernandez, but only if they can deal Charles Johnson. Syd Thrift thought he had something going with Boston for Mike Bordick (who would have played third base) and Scott Erickson, but that fell apart. The Commissioner's Office gave the O's a reprieve on their claim that Erickson shouldn't get 10/5 rights for another week because of time granted during the strike, but the Players Association is expected to get that overturned and Erickson can veto any deal. Erickson signed with the Rockies when the owners had their implemented four-year free agency system during the strike, and would likely agree to go to Colorado in a trade.

  • The Yankees and Red Sox have also been competing for Oakland 1B-DH John Jaha.

  • If you're looking ahead to the Olympics, be advised that Japan will go in as the heavy favorites, as it should have several of its top starting pitchers from the Japanese leagues on the team. If you don't appreciate how good the pitching is in Japan, Jeff Manto once said, "The percentage of quality pitches you see over a season is higher than what we face here." Lee Stevens echoed that when he played a season in Japan and turned his career around, and current Mets first baseman Mark Johnson thinks his career may have been changed, a la Stevens, by spending '99 there. "The pitching you face on a daily basis is remarkable," says Johnson. "They never give in, they force you to learn the strike zone, hit breaking balls and shorten your swing. I really believe I am a much better hitter than when I went there."

  • The Mariners keep scouting for a hitter. They turned down Al Martin because of his $5 million deal next year.

  • The testiness between Jack McKeon and Barry Larkin -- who openly criticized McKeon -- and between McKeon and the front office is spilling out publicly. Jim Bowden had Bob Boone in Cincinnati during the Cardinals series, heightening speculation and tension.

  • The Cardinals have shopped Pat Hentgen for left- and right-handed reliever help, but not to replace Dave Veres as closer. Now, the Cards have put their names in with Rangers GM Doug Melvin -- along with the Braves, Dodgers and Indians -- should Texas decide to trade John Wetteland, but the Cards say they are very happy with Veres. For now, Matt Morris will remain in the bullpen, who comes in about every third day throwing 96-mph gas. "Matt was losing some velocity at the 50- or 60-pitch mark," says Walt Jocketty, "and he's been great in this role," a role designed by Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa to help keep Morris healthy.

  • There are continued rumblings out of Pittsburgh that their disappointing season has so upset owner Kevin McClatchy that it will cost GM Cam Bonifay his job. ... Roberto Hernandez and the Devil Rays worked out a restructuring of his contract so that his next two years have more deferred salary and make him a little more attractive to buyers. "We might be interested," says one AL club's executive, "but we'd want another of their relievers in the deal to take his salary, and they don't want to trade any of those relievers."

  • The Rangers aren't really sure what to think about Esteban Loaiza, except that he has a great arm. At times, he seems like the classic tease. Then he pitches a two-inning save last weekend, goes out Thursday and dominates the A's and a couple of weeks ago came off a 2:17 rain delay and picked up two mph on the radar gun. Translation: this guy has the classic arm. There's some feeling that he could be a closer, so as several teams like the Yankees, Indians and Red Sox have tried to get in on him, Melvin is thinking of trying him at the end of games. ... While Texas this week has beaten up on Oakland and Seattle and regained life, in time they also may try Scarborough Green in center and move Gabe Kapler back to right, as the 26-year old Green may be an Otis Nixon/Tom Goodwin late bloomer who learns to utilize his greatest asset, his speed.

  • Before one gets too high and mighty about the Braves being caught with a larger catcher's box to help their receivers with Greg Maddux and Company, understand some parks don't have catchers boxes and the Shea Stadium box was as wide as Atlanta's. "(Umpire) John Shulock was out at first base (last Friday) warning us that he'd do something when he was behind the plate the next night," says Bobby Cox. So they narrowed it, and it was reported by the TBS broadcasters. Look, the Red Sox coaches measured the mounds in Philadelphia and Florida and found them to be 15 inches high, and thought it wasn't bad. Teams have tinkered with the slope down the baselines to aid or deter bunts. "It's been going on for a hundred years," says Cox, "and will be going on a hundred years from now."

  • With the entire division faced with questions, Rockies' GM Dan O'Dowd says, "If we can just figure out how to win on the road and get another quality starting pitcher, we may be able to compete." Home/road splits? At the end of June, the Rockies splits were: .348/.242 batting average, 348/146 runs runs scored, 62/20 homers, 1.043/.672 OPS. "It may be that it's so comfortable to hit at Coors and creates such a confidence level that when they get out on the road it's just the opposite," says O'Dowd. Since May 1, Colorado starters have the best road ERA in the league.

  • Frank Robinson and the due process worked out right in the Wrigley Field fiasco with the Dodgers. Robinson made it clear that players cannot go into the stands, no matter what the precedence set in the previous cases involving Reggie Smith, Jim Rice, Don Baylor and Tony Phillips. Kevin Hallinan's office forced clubs to tighten security. And when it came to fairness on the suspensions, Paul Beeston and Robinson listened, appreciated that there were two separate incidents, that the principle involved in the stands was a convicted felon with a long record whose ticket was for the upper deck and that Todd Hundley merely held the man while trying to help security. The Dodgers are in a tough race, and they know some of their actions were wrong, but they shouldn't have their playoff chances impacted because baseball wanted to make a statement. So it was all handled well, and in the end, right.

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