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Jim Murray

He Takes Chances and Also Delivers

September 03, 1987|JIM MURRAY

All right, class, who was the first major leaguer to bat in more than 100 runs this season?

Was it: (1) Don Mattingly, (2) George Bell, (3) Jack Clark, (4) Andre Dawson, (5) Dave Parker, Mark McGwire or Jose Canseco?

Or was it (6) Tim Wallach?

What's that you say? You're not sure who actually was but you're positive it wasn't No. 6?

You lose. Tim Wallach was the first to crack the century mark in this year of Our Lord 1987.

Now, Tim Wallach, on the face of it, is the unlikeliest candidate for RBI leader you could find. In the first place, there are those averages--.233 last season, .246 another, a career high of .269. Sounds like an out man all the way, a guy kept around for his glove, his feet, his ability to hit behind the runner.

Actually, Tim Wallach has always been a surprising RBI man. His ribbies, as the ballplayers call them, have always been out of proportion to his batting decimals. Ordinarily, a guy who hits .233 barely hits double figures in runs batted in. Wallach had 71.

When he has hit as high as .268, a figure that rule-of-thumb would seem to call for 40-45 RBIs, Wallach had 97.

It was always said of Tim Wallach that he didn't hit the ball often, but he hit it far. This year, he's doing both. Before he hurt his back in Dodger Stadium last week, his average this season was .309, a heady 55 points above his career mark.

Wallach, whose teammates call him Eli, after the actor of the same name, has been one of the main reasons the Montreal Expos are still nominally in the division race, surprising a lot of experts who picked them for the cellar.

To give you an idea what type player Tim Wallach is, he was batting cleanup in a lineup that included, at midweek, a guy batting .334, one batting .322 and several in the .280-to-.290 range.

What has happened? What changed Wallach from a guy who will hit mistakes to one who will hit anything?

Wallach thinks it is because he finally gave up. He, in effect, finally said uncle.

"For years, the pitchers used to like to pitch me up and in," he says. "They knew I couldn't hit that pitch. They were right. But I kept trying to hit it. I didn't want to think there was a pitch--or a pitcher--I couldn't hit.

"Now, I know there is. I know I have this blind spot. I lay off that pitch and wait for my pitch."

One of the unexpected side benefits of this kind of thinking, Wallach says, is that it allows him to concentrate more at the plate.

"Good hitting is a matter of concentration. Bobby Winkles (Montreal batting coach) used to tell me, 'Don't give an at-bat away. Don't go up there to see what happens. Have a plan.'

"It used to be I just went up there swinging. If an at-bat didn't work out, you figured 'Shoot! I have four more.' Now, I concentrate. I don't waste an at-bat. I don't come back figuring, 'Heck, I went for his pitch again.' When you go up waiting for a pitch, it keeps you concentrating."

Actually, Wallach believes that has been a reason for his out-of-proportion RBI statistic.

"When I go up there with men on base I never have any trouble concentrating," he says. "I get more selective. I think 'Oh, oh, I can't drive in any runs with that pitch.' I was patient. I used to do with men on base what I do all the time now."

Pitchers love a hitter who comes out of the dugout swinging and doesn't stop till he's missed three or popped it up. But the statistics show Wallach was not that type of hitter with runners in scoring position. In one season in which Wallach got only 148 hits, he drove in 81 runs with them. And 61 hits were for extra bases. He also drove in 97 runs with only 160 hits. Although he got only 112 hits last year, he drove in 72 runs with them.

Notes his manager, Buck Rodgers: "He drove in 49 runs when two were out. He's always been a slugger. Now he's a hitter."

Wallach agrees. "When I came up to the big leagues, everybody said, 'OK, this guy has got power. He's going to hit 30 home runs and bat in 100 every year. He's going to be another Mike Schmidt.'

"Well, I'm not Mike Schmidt. And you will notice Mike Schmidt had trouble becoming Mike Schmidt. I consider Mike Schmidt the greatest third baseman who ever played the game but he had trouble hitting in the .220s early."

In fact, Schmidt had trouble hitting in the .200s. He batted .196 his first full season. The man who wasn't Mike Schmidt may yet prove to be very similar. Wallach is hitting .309 with 22 homers this season, Schmidt-like statistics.

The runs batted in statistic is held by many baseball men to be the game's most vital.

"Lots of guys can get on base; not many can drive them in," says Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda. "Tim Wallach is the most valuable player on the Montreal franchise."

Earl Weaver used to growl when he was manager of the Baltimore Orioles: "The three-run homer is still the greatest play in baseball. Makes up for a lot of stolen bases."

The RBI is Tim Wallach's stock in trade, and it is not surprising that the team's losing streak would coincide with his back injury. Most managers would agree that hit for hit, at-bat for at-bat, no one converts opportunity into scores any better than Montreal's Old Eli.

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