DIAMOND NOTES: Sept. 23
Word around the Yankees is that George Steinbrenner is in his worst second-guessing mode since before Gene Michael stabilized the franchise. With a war chest flush with his own cable network mad money, if the Yankees don't win, Steinbrenner may fire a ton of money at free agents and in the meanwhile make Joe Torre and Brian Cashman squirm. How do you blame Torre and get away with it? Answer: you don't. If George signs the kind of players he signed in the '80s, the Bronx Zoo is back.
Not only was Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris' father, George, up on a high-rise six blocks away when the World Trade Center was hit, but the high-risk steel worker helped build both towers. ... "The economy is going to hit the free agents because our revenues have to be down," says one GM. "But to make things worse, the hit on the insurance industry is going to limit the length of contracts most teams can give out. That industry is in big trouble, and isn't going to take risks on players with medical histories." Which brings us back to Juan Gonzalez -- there's no way any insurance company will insure his back, so how can any team go more than two or three years?
Chan Ho Park and Scott Boras vs. the Dodgers looks as if it is will end up in free-agent divorce court because of irreparable differences. The Dodgers will try to re-sign Terry Adams.
The breakdowns of Nick Neugebauer and Ben Sheets will be blamed on Brewers pitching coach Bob Apodaca and the training staff, and Davey Lopes has publicly lobbied for Dave Stewart to be his pitching coach if he comes down from the front office.
Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty on manager Tony La Russa: "I go back a long way (to the American Association), and I believe this is his greatest managing job. We were really out of it at the trading deadline, and he held them together and helped get us back into contention. He's never managed better." And, in most years, Albert Pujols would be the MVP. ... Congratulations to former Jays manager Tim Johnson, whose Mexico City Red Devils lost in the Mexican League finals.
At one point early in the season, Shea Hillenbrand and Alfonso Soriano made a friendly wager on who'd end up with the most walks by season's end, a wager Soriano appears to have won. "You get here to the big leagues without giving a lot of thought to hitting, except to see the ball and hit it," says Hillenbrand, who clearly did not get raised in an organization with any hitting or coaching philosophies. "It's more than I ever realized, coming out of Double-A into the majors and suddenly being exposed to what pitchers can do to you if you're too aggressive. Soriano and I talked about it; look at his progress. Incredible, but he's an incredible talent." Soriano indeed was belittled before being given a chance to learn -- just check Sammy Sosa's escalating yearly walk totals for an astute learner -- and as he's rung up 18 homers and 42 steals as a rookie thrust into a new position notice that his pre-All-Star .593 OPS has jumped to .838 in the second half. Hillenbrand's has moved from .653 to .721 (through Sept. 21), but his work ethic and tenacity as a player has earned him the respect of players and draws Kerrigan's contrast "to a young Travis Fryman. He swung at everything like that when he was in Triple-A." This winter, Hillenbrand plans to again work in Mesa with hitting guru Jim Lefebvre. "He really helped me last winter," says Hillenbrand. "He doesn't change your swing, he works on principles. That's what has made Rick Down so great here. Again, no changing your swing. [Hillenbrand knows that Morgan Burkhart's bad first half at Pawtucket was due to being forced to change what got him to the big leagues, and last year someone changed David Eckstein after climbing through the system and the brains lost patience because of the ill-advised coaching.] But as I prepare to make the next step and learn to be more selective without losing my aggressiveness, I owe every bit of success to Jimy Williams. There's no way I'd be in the major leagues without him, and all his work and encouragement and advice is something I'll never forget."
As Dave Littlefield hunts for a scouting director, farm director and assistant GM in trying to overhaul the Pirates, he is sending Chad Hermansen to the Arizona Fall League to try to get his stroke back. Hermansen is out of options next spring, so a decision has to be made on his Pittsburgh future.
No one seems to know what's going to happen in Detroit, but it is evident that Phil Garner and Randy Smith are not going to continue to work together.
Two of baseball's great scouts and greatest people died this week, Houston's Leo Labossiere in Central Falls, R.I., and Boston's Joe Stephenson in Fullerton, Cal. "All you have to know about Leo," said his boss, Astros professional scouting director Paul Ricciarini, "is that he asked that all contributions go to the Central Falls Soup Kitchen. He never stopped thinking about people less fortunate than he felt he was." Big Joe was a legend, and when I once asked him who was the best prospect he ever saw, without blinking an eye he said, "Kemer (Ken) Brett -- as a center fielder. We drafted him but we needed pitching. If he'd played, he'd have been a better player than brother George, who obviously was one of the best players to ever put on a uniform." Joe's son, Jerry, was a big-league pitcher and a well-respected scout for the Dodgers and now the Red Sox, while his grandson Brian was a terrific pitching prospect whose arm injuries caught short his career in Double-A this season. Labossiere's son, Dave, is the Astros trainer.