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Something's Happening Here : Padres Have Confidence, Continuity in Yuma

February 21, 1988|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

YUMA, Ariz. — Spring 1987. Stanley Jefferson, late of the Bronx, N.Y., leaves San Diego and drives and drives and drives. When he has passed through what he is certain is all the desert in the Western Hemisphere, he pulls off at what he thinks is a rest area. It is Yuma.

How lucky. He's looking for the spring digs of his new team, the Padres. He asks somebody for directions.

"See that big blue water tower over there?" somebody says.

"The one with the big 'Yuma' sign on it?" he says.

"Keep driving until you reach that tower. There's your team."

Focusing on that tower, Jefferson navigates several streets until he nearly runs smack into it.

"Sure enough, I look ahead, and there is the clubhouse," Jefferson recalled.

He walks inside. Now he is really lost.

"I look around and it was kind of confusing," he said. "It was like, who is this? What is that? There was this strange tension about the place."

Spring 1988. When Stanley Jefferson arrives in Yuma this time, it is one week early.

Spring 1988. The Padre clubhouse, formerly part mystery, part mess and part memorial to 1984, jumps out at you like a new coat of paint. The craziness has been replaced by a feeling of continuity, maybe even a hint of credibility.

Who is this and what is that, indeed? This is 1987 batting champion Tony Gwynn. And that is the 1987 rookie of the year, Benito Santiago.

This is former all-star third baseman Chris Brown. And that is Chicago Cub superstation hero Keith Moreland.

This is a team that, from June 5 until the end of last season, was third-best in the National League West. And that on Larry Bowa's face is called a smile.

"In a sense, this is like my first real spring," the sophomore manager said. "I know the personalities now, I have my system in place, I'm relaxed. I know what a lot of these guys can do, and they know what's expected."

It would follow that a 1988 Padre spring-training preview would require less prediction than confirmation. Yuma will be the site of as many position fights as traffic fights.

Only among starting pitchers, middle relievers and utility infielders will there be scraps over locker space.

Barring injuries or a big wind blowing the guy or his game to Calexico, here are the jobs that can only be lost.

- Santiago at catcher.

- John Kruk at first base, with Carmelo Martinez possibly playing against some left-handed pitchers.

- Randy Ready at second base.

- Garry Templeton at shortstop.

- Chris Brown at third base.

- Tony Gwynn in right field.

- Stanley Jefferson in center field.

- Keith Moreland in left field.

- Lance McCullers as the top right-hander out of the bullpen, Mark Davis as the top left-hander, Greg Booker as a right-handed middle man.

- Mark Parent as backup catcher.

- Martinez, Marvell Wynne and Shane Mack as backup outfielders/pinch-hitters/defensive replacements.

That leaves these battles:

STARTING PITCHER: "There are six competing for five positions," Bowa said. It's not out-and-out warfare, but it's enough to make them think.

"Larry told us anybody could make the rotation, so we believe him," Eric Nolte said. "We can't afford not to."

Said Ed Whitson: "Damn right there's competition. A man would be crazy to think he comes in here and automatically has a job. They don't give a damn about what you've done in the past."

Of the five, the leaders for a spot in the opening-day clubhouse in Houston are Eric Show, Jimmy Jones, Mark Grant and Whitson. It would appear that the real battle would be for the fifth spot, between Nolte and Andy Hawkins.

Hawkins normally would be a lock for a starting job, but he was hurt by shoulder tendinitis last season and pitched just five times after July 25. Said Bowa: "If he's pitches like he's supposed to pitch, he'll be in the rotation."

Of his five post-injury appearances, four were in middle relief, which means that he also can make this team in that capacity. Either way, Hawkins is confident.

"I don't feel there's any competition for my job," he said. "I don't think either me or Show or Whitson have to prove anything."

Nolte is not in the same category. Because he has never pitched middle relief in his life, he probably is headed for Las Vegas if he does not make the rotation.

He skipped that stop last season when he was brought right to the big leagues from Double-A Wichita and was impressive despite a 2-6 record. He had a 3.21 ERA as the Padres were held to three runs or fewer in 9 of his last 10 starts.

But Nolte, 23, is counting on nothing.

"I know I'm the lowest guy out there, but I can't think about that," he said. "Shoot, I'm glad to be in a major league camp.

"I get here this year and for the first time, I've got bats with my name on them. I've got a cap that doesn't have an adjustable strap. I've got new shoes and new spikes. It's unbelievable. This makes me realize how hard I have to work to stay here."

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