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THINGS ARE . . .LOOKING UP. . . FINALLY : Unappreciated by Giants, Deer Breaks Out Big

April 27, 1987|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | Times Staff Writer

Rob Deer will long remember his three-run homer on Easter as the great equalizer, for reasons beyond the obvious.

Not only did it give the Milwaukee Brewers a 4-4 tie with Texas in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game Milwaukee incredibly came back to win, but the blast and ensuing celebration in County Stadium clearly made up for all those years Deer spent laboring in the minor leagues for an organization he thought didn't want him.

The entire Brewer team--everyone--met Deer at the plate after his shot into the left-field bleachers. Then, after a walk and Dale Sveum's two-run homer had given the Brewers a 6-4 win and their 12th straight victory, County Stadium erupted again.

Both Deer and Sveum took three curtain calls in response to the frenzied Brewer fans. Deer, the former Anaheim Canyon High School star, never experienced anything like this.

"It was the most exciting time of my whole life," he said. "It made up for a lot of rough times I've had in baseball."

It was the flip side to all those minor league summers in Great Falls, Mont., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Shreveport, La.

Deer spent seven long seasons in the San Francisco Giants' farm system, wondering what he had to do to play in the big leagues. He hit 147 minor league home runs and developed into a fine defensive outfielder, but he never became an everyday player with the Giants.

Even more than a year after San Francisco traded Deer to Milwaukee, Deer still has some bitter feelings toward the Giants for not showing more confidence in him.

But the memorable events of April 19 , when Deer was on top of the world instead of watching it pass him by, provided balance to a career that had seen too many miserable days.

"It was just unbelievable," said Deer, the 6-foot 3-inch, 220-pound slugger who is tied for the major league lead in home runs with eight. "It really made me appreciate the opportunity I have to be here."

All Deer ever needed was a chance. He accomplished everything he could in the minor leagues, leading the California League (Class-A), the Texas League (Double-A) and the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A) in home runs in 1981, '83 and '84, respectively.

But when he made the Giants' roster out of spring training in 1985, then-Manager Jim Davenport decided to stick with Dan Gladden, Chili Davis and Jeff Leonard in the outfield.

Deer got stuck on the bench.

He filled in at first base and in the outfield but had only 162 at-bats for the season, hitting 8 homers and knocking in 20 runs.

Deer felt trapped. He knew he could start somewhere, but who would give him the chance?

Then came the good news. In December, 1985, Deer was traded to the Brewers for two Class-A pitchers, Dean Freeland and Eric Pilkington.

Smart move, Milwaukee. Deer, in his first season as a full-time starter, hit .232 with 33 homers--fourth best in the American League--and 86 runs batted in last season.

He's off to a hot start this season with his 8 homers, 19 RBIs and a .383 batting average. He's hitting .538 (7 for 13) with runners in scoring position.

"Getting traded gave me new life," Deer said. "I was stuck in that organization, and I wasn't going to get a chance to play in San Francisco. I wanted to get out of there as bad as anyone."

Despite his statistics, Deer didn't get much attention outside of Milwaukee last year. The Brewers finished sixth in the American League East, and Deer's production tailed off in the final month of the season, when he hit only 3 homers and had 5 RBIs.

But with the Brewers winning their first 13 games of 1987 and tying the major league record, and with Deer on the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated, throwing his fist in the air as he rounded the bases on a home run, he has become quite the celebrity.

Brewer fans are calling him the Deer that made Milwaukee famous.

"Everyone has been a hero--it's just been an all-around great effort," Deer said of the Brewers' season, which continues tonight against the Angels in Anaheim Stadium.

"(April 19) was unbelievable. The night Juan (Nieves) pitched a no-hitter was incredible. There have been so many instances where we've come from behind to win games, it's been amazing."

Deer is caught up in the excitement. He's a 26-year-old in his third major league season with the enthusiasm of a 21-year-old rookie.

"After he hits a home run in a clutch situation, I think it's better staying clear of him, because he might dislocate your shoulder with a high-five," Brewer third baseman Paul Molitor said. "He really gets pumped up, which is outstanding."

But life isn't all game-winning homers and curtain calls for Deer. There is a dark side to his success. Like most classic power hitters, Deer tends to strike out. A lot.

He set a team record with 179 strikeouts last season. That's about six strikeouts for every homer. Although his present batting average might suggest that he has become more of a contact hitter this season, he really hasn't. His 20 strikeouts in 60 at-bats put him right on last year's pace.

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