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Numbers Don't Lie for Major's Top Home Run Hitter : DEER DOES IT HIS WAY

September 03, 1986|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | Times Staff Writer

Some guys will do anything to play in the major leagues.

They'll spend years in the minors, toiling long, hot summers in places such as Wausau, Wichita and Waterbury for little money and even less fame.

They might make it to the big leagues, only to find themselves biding their time on the bench with an occasional pinch-hit appearance, waiting for an injury to a starter or a trade--anything that would give them a shot at playing every day.

But when all else fails, they might try the Rob Deer method, patented in April of 1985.

They lie.

After seven years in the San Francisco Giants' farm system, Deer, a 1978 graduate of Canyon High School, finally made the big league team as the Giants broke spring training.

But with Dan Gladden, Jerry Davis and Jeff Leonard entrenched in the Giants' outfield, there was no place for Deer to roam.

First base, however, was a possibility. David Green was struggling with a .064 average, so then-San Francisco Manager Jim Davenport asked the power-hitting Deer if he had ever played the position.

"Sure," Deer replied.

Deer had never played first base--not in Little League, high school or the minors.

But there he was, starting at first base for the San Francisco Giants.

"It was my only chance to get in there," Deer recalled without a hint of remorse.

Deer played about 15 games at first and, to his surprise, didn't make an error. But he didn't have an alibi for his bat. He failed to impress Davenport offensively, and Green soon returned to the lineup.

Deer did not get much playing time last year, but in December, he got his wish--a trade to the Milwaukee Brewers and a promise from Manager George Bamberger that he would be the team's starting right fielder.

That was all Deer needed.

In his first season as a major league starter, the 6-foot 3-inch, 225-pound Deer has hit 31 home runs which ties him with Oakland's Dave Kingman for the major league lead. He's batting .237 with 82 RBIs.

Deer has been one of baseball's hottest hitters since the All-Star break with 14 homers and 37 RBIs in 41 games. He had 11 homers in August.

This year, he has averaged a home run every 12.2 at-bats and an RBI every 4.6 at-bats.

Now, those statistics don't lie.

"It was more or less getting the opportunity to play every day, and seeing pitchers the second time around has helped a lot," said Deer, who turns 26 next month.

"Last year, I didn't have the chance to do the things I'm capable of doing because of the number and the quality of outfielders San Francisco had. But this year, the Brewers showed confidence in me. That's the biggest thing."

Deer has shown his appreciation by developing into one of the game's bright, new sluggers. He's a prototype home-run hitter--big, strong and rarely gets cheated on a swing. In his first at-bat this year, he hit a Tom Seaver pitch over the roof of Comiskey Park.

But he doesn't hit much for average, and he has that other distinguishing characteristic of a slugger--he strikes out a lot. In 420 plate appearances, he struck out 134 times.

"That's nobody's fault but mine," he said. "It's like Dan Marino. He throws a lot of touchdown passes, but he also throws a lot of interceptions."

Milwaukee's management doesn't seem too concerned.

"The greatest hitters of all time struck out the most," said Frank Howard, Brewer batting coach. "Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, they struck out 100 to 125 times a year, but they put the ball out of the park 30 times a year, too."

Deer said he runs into trouble when he tries to do things that are not within his capabilities. For instance, if the Brewers are down by two runs with runners on second and third, Deer might become overeager and try to put Milwaukee ahead with a long ball instead of being patient, taking three good cuts and trying to hit the ball hard somewhere.

"I'm not gonna hit a home run every at-bat," Deer said. "When I accept that, I'll be a better hitter."

Howard would rather not tamper with Deer's swing. He only tries to emphasize contact because if Deer can put the ball in play, the Brewers obviously have a much better chance of scoring.

"I feel we'd take something away from his natural swing if we tried to change him," Howard said. "With the big hitters, the peaks and the valleys are more severe. They eat filet mignon one week, the next week they're starving."

Deer may have earned a major league meal per diem last year, but the menu was rather limited. After his brief stint at first base, his duties were limited to pinch-hitting and spot-starting.

He had only 162 at-bats and hit .185 with 8 homers and 20 RBIs before San Francisco traded him to Milwaukee for two Class-A pitchers, Dean Freeland and Eric Pilkington.

Pretty good deal for the Brewers.

"I was really surprised at the trade," said Deer, who hit 147 homers in the Giants' farm system. "I felt Roger Craig (who become San Francisco's manager this season) didn't really know who I was. He never saw me play."

Deer tries not to dwell on the past, but he can't help wondering what might have happened had the Giants brought him up sooner. He was always told that to build a good house, you have to have a good foundation, but that's difficult to understand for a 21-year-old who has just hit 33 homers in Class-A.

Now, he can see why the Giants took their time.

"I signed when I was 17, but I was unaware of the competition and the hard work it took to get to the big leagues," Deer said. "I wasn't ready to play in the big leagues at 21. If I was in an organization where they needed power-hitting outfielders, it would have been different.

"I wish I was in the big leagues two or three years earlier, but I'm here now and having a good time."

That's the truth.

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