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A WINNING ACT : Wallach Is Probably Playing Best Third Base in Game

March 10, 1988|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Montreal Expos call him Eli, as in Eli Wallach, the actor.

How appropriate.

Cast last year in a role he always wanted, as the Expos' cleanup hitter, the ersatz Eli responded with a performance deserving of awards and rave reviews, which he received.

In fact, there are those who believe that Timothy Charles Wallach may now be the leading man at his position.

"Mike Schmidt has been the force at third base and remains a fine player," Montreal Manager Bob (Buck) Rodgers said. "But after last year, I have to say we're into the Tim Wallach era at third base.

"At 30, he's just getting started. His best seasons are ahead of him."

Said Wallach, whose career began to blossom at Cal State Fullerton: "Even when I first came up, people were calling me another Mike Schmidt.

"It wasn't pressure as much as a level to strive for, though there will never really be another Schmidt.

"Brooks Robinson may have been the classic fielder, but Schmidt has re-defined the position, making it a combination of defense and all-around power.

"Now that I've had a comparable year, I hope I can remain in his class. But it comes down to consistency, to doing it year after year.

"I'm confident now I can continue to improve for two or three more years, then maintain it for four or five more.

"Players come into their own at different times in their lives. Hopefully, this is mine."

Now 38, Schmidt batted .293 with 35 home runs and 113 runs batted in last season, but it was Wallach who made the Sporting News and UPI National League all-star teams at third base and who won the Silver Slugger award for having the top batting average at his position.

He batted .298, 44 points higher than his career average, hit 26 home runs and drove in a club-record 123 runs, the most by a National League third baseman since Joe Torre had 137 in 1971.

He led the major leagues with 42 doubles and tied for the lead in game-winning RBIs with 16.

He led the league in runs produced--runs plus RBIs minus home runs--was 3rd in extra-base hits, 6th in total bases, 7th in hits and 10th in slugging percentage.

Of his 123 RBIs, 56 came with two outs, an impressive illustration of clutch hitting. And when teams elected to give intentional walks to the prolific Tim Raines, batting ahead of him, Wallach responded with 7 hits in 12 at-bats, a .583 batting average, and 13 RBIs.

Although he failed to regain the Gold Glove he had won in 1985, Wallach is still regarded in the defensive class of Terry Pendleton and Buddy Bell, and many thought he should have been the National League's most valuable player, considering that his surprising team finished only four games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the Eastern Division.

Andre Dawson of the last-place Chicago Cubs and Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark of the Cardinals finished ahead of him in the voting.

Wallach said he wasn't upset.

Neither, he insisted, is he disturbed by the anonymity that cloaks players in Canada.

"I kind of like it," he said. "My enjoyment comes from playing the game and I want to keep it that way. I like my privacy. I like being able to come and go as I please. I don't have the type ego where I need people around me all the time. I have no problem with the fact that I don't get offered commercials. I don't need to be recognized on the street or in a restaurant."

In fact, though Wallach has previously suggested that he wouldn't mind being traded to the Dodgers, his favorite boyhood team, or to a team with a winning tradition, such as the Cardinals, he now hopes to finish his career in Canada.

He will earn $850,000 this year and $950,000 next year, when his contract expires. He has already talked to the Expos about an extension, but it doesn't appear promising.

"It seems like every time a player has to wait until his old contract expires before attempting to sign a new one, there's a bitterness that develops," Wallach said. "I wanted to try and avoid that by signing an extension, but it's not going to happen, I guess. The club says it has a policy against extending contracts.

"Very few players spend their entire career with one club anymore, and I'd like to do that. I've enjoyed playing with the Expos, but they're apparently going to make me wait before determining if it's possible."

The 6-foot 3-inch, 200-pound Wallach walked toward the dugout after a recent workout and stopped to lift his 2-year-old son, Matthew, from a stroller being pushed by Matthew's mom, the former Lori Bickford of Garden Grove. Lori and Tim met at a college party and now make their winter home in West Palm Beach.

It could have remained in Orange County if the Angels had merely improved their $15,000 signing offer by $5,000 after they had selected Wallach in the eighth round of the 1978 draft, which followed Wallach's junior season at Fullerton.

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