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JIM MURRAY

Karros Gets a Head Start on Stardom

June 07, 1992|JIM MURRAY

Usually, to get a video commercial, you have to be Michael Jordan. Or Andre Agassi. You at least have to have won a batting title or two, starred in a World Series or broken a home run record.

Eric Karros starred in a TV commercial when he had been to bat exactly 14 times in the big leagues, gotten one hit, was batting a robust .071 and, as a first baseman, was no threat at all to the memory of Lou Gehrig or Gil Hodges. Or Steve Garvey.

No rookie ever broke into the big leagues before with his own commercial. Karros was beginning where most athletes leave off.

What did Madison Avenue see in him? Potential superstardom? Well, his minor league numbers were good. He never hit under .300. He drove in 101 runs at Albuquerque. But we weren't talking Mickey Mantle here. Or Stan Musial. Phil Cavarretta maybe. Then, again, maybe not.

You see, young Master Eric had not yet really seen the major league curveball. Or fastball. Or slider. He had not been 0 and 2 to some canny old major leaguer like Rob Dibble, Bret Saberhagen or Alejandro Pena.

He might have been back down in Albuquerque before the commercial came out.

But, part of his appeal to the ad agency was Karros' persona.

The pitch called for a rookie who had not yet made it to have this air about him that he fully expected to. Karros had this fresh-faced, eager young look of a kid seeing his first circus.

It's the look his idol, Pete Rose, always had and made famous--half-brash, half-rash, the expectant look of a guy who can't wait for that first pitch.

As did Rose, Karros doesn't look as if he's afraid of anything--least of all a slider on the outside corner. Karros clearly expects to be a star.

It doubtless recommended itself to the sponsors who were looking for a special approach. Advertising an economy sedan, they wanted to emphasize that rookies--like average homeowners and untried ballplayers--can't afford the Cadillacs and Mercedeses that Jose Canseco and Bobby Bonilla could.

But, now that he was a star of stage and screen (or at least the commercial sound stage), Karros had to try to get famous a more difficult way--as a Dodger, facing David Cone and Doc Gooden.

You don't get to do it over there. There's no director to yell, "Cut!" and revamp the set. Three strikes and you're out at the old ballgame. You get all day to get it right in a commercial.

In a way, he got a break on the team roster. It wasn't as if he had to buck a Garvey or a Hodges or an established first baseman, as so many rookies did in the past.

Eddie Murray was gone, the position was up for grabs. The team had brought Kal Daniels in from the outfield to have a go at it. The Dodgers had traded for Todd Benzinger. But, for the first time in a while, there wasn't an entrenched star at first base in Dodger Stadium.

This didn't mean the Dodgers handed the position to Karros on a platter. Albuquerque hitters have a habit of not duplicating their minor league numbers in the bigs. First base had been less a position than a parade--Greg Brock, Mike Marshall, Franklin Stubbs, Sid Bream. . . .

"Karros was lucky he didn't come along in the era when we had a set infield," Manager Tom Lasorda says. "I mean, we had the same four guys in the infield for 8 1/2 years--Garvey, (Davey) Lopes, (Bill) Russell and (Ron) Cey--which is still a major league record. You think how many guys came up over the years and there were no openings for them."

But Karros is only 24, and the supposition was he would be overmatched against top-grade major league pitching. Most rookies are.

At first, he was. His chief contribution to the club was Strike 3.

"I went oh for three against Cone and oh for three against Mark Gardner with six strikeouts," Karros says.

"But Cone struck out 13 and Gardner, 14," he adds. "I'm not the type of player who you're going to watch me in two or three games and say, 'This kid can play!' But if I get to play and don't spot in and out, I'm going to get my numbers."

So far, his numbers are impressive. Wherever Karros plays regularly, he hits regularly. He batted .366 in Great Falls, .303 in Bakersfield, .352 in San Antonio and .316 in Albuquerque. His homer totals rose from 12 a season to 22.

But the National League isn't Great Falls. These pitchers can throw the ball where they want it. And where you don't want it.

The Dodgers were really half-convinced that Karros was one more send-down away from becoming a major leaguer.

"We platooned him, we pinch-hit him, we spot-started him," Lasorda says. "Then we got impressed with how hard he worked. He was out there every afternoon, working on the 'Lasorda University' varsity.

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