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Defining the Leadoff Role an Ongoing Task for Wills

JIM MURRAY

July 08, 1993|JIM MURRAY

In one of the major misconstruings of a role in the scheme of things since Marilyn Monroe wanted to play a nun, Rickey Henderson has hit 61 leadoff home runs. That's leading off a game, not just an inning.

That's 61 solo home runs, circuit wallops without a man on base. That's 61 runs instead of 122 or 183.

That's not a leadoff man's function. The leadoff guy is supposed to set the table--bunt or walk or chop his way on base, steal second, go to third, score on an out.

What's the difference, you say? A run is a run?

Not really. You see, a home run with the bases empty is not devastating to a pitcher. For one thing, he can mentally congratulate himself on not giving up one with men on base. It's one run instead of two, three or four. Just as a strikeout is not always a major victory. There are times when the pitcher wants the rally-ending double play.

Just as the manager wants a rally-starting leadoff play. You can get a pitcher rattled with baserunners. Chip away at his concentration. Annoy him. Distract him. Get him out of his rhythm.

The three-run homer destroys pitchers, not the solos. And pesky baserunners make him work harder for his outs.

Sixty-one home runs, total, is not a bad career for some players. Sixty-one leading off games is a waste. Rickey Henderson hit 15 home runs last year--and five of them were leading off games. He has hit a dozen this year--and six were leading off games. That's not leading off, that's cleaning up.

I was reminded of all this when I was in Shea Stadium recently and ran into an old acquaintance at the batting cage, Maurice Morning Wills.

Maury Wills knew how to lead off a game, all right. Maury got his home runs one base at a time. Sometimes he hit as many as six a year--and some of them even got in the air. Most of them were like my tee shots. The third basemen were diving for them. A lot of them ricocheted around the outfield walls--and Maury took care of the rest. I don't believe Maury ever led off a game with a home run. He didn't hit too many of them at any time.

Maury is with the New York Mets for an interesting reason. The Mets have themselves a bona fide leadoff man in Vince Coleman. Vince can do everything a leadoff man should do. He stole 145 bases one season in the minor leagues. He has stolen more than 100 three times in the majors.

He doesn't bother opening a game with a home run. He has done it only three times in his career. Of course, he doesn't bother messing up the middle of a game with a home run, either. He has only 19 in his career.

The New York Mets, of course, are the biggest band of underachievers in the game--maybe in history. They have Cy Young pitchers, $29-million outfielders--all this and Vince Coleman, too. And they are bottoming out all of baseball--32 games under .500.

The first thing Coleman needs is a map of the strike zone. At midseason, he has walked only 20 times. He only walked 27 times last year.

A leadoff man's prime job is to get on base. A leadoff man should never strike out, offer at bad pitches. A pitcher hates to walk a leadoff man, but the leadoff man must make the pitcher work. He should put the ball in play on a 2-2 count.

Maury Wills did all of these things better than anyone else in the game. He was the quintessential leader-offer. Among other things, he became the first man in history to steal more than 100 bases in a season. Willie Mays had won the league title the year before Wills came up with 27, to give you an idea. The National League title was won one year with--get this!--16 for the year, by Stan Hack of the Cubs in 1938.

The "book" on Vince Coleman is that he is psyched by Shea Stadium, an old-fashioned course inhibiting to a man who runs for a living. He finds the basepaths slow.

But, one of the things Wills is reminding him is that he himself set the stolen-base record on the grass-dirt surface of Dodger Stadium and a National League that was all dirt.

"The Astrodome was the first of the artificial surfaces--and that didn't come in till 1965," Maury is reminding him.

There is no doubt that plastic infields have contributed mightily to the base-stealing explosion. But Wills reminds Coleman that Rickey Henderson set the record--130 bases--on the traditional grass and sand of the Oakland Coliseum, where he played 81 of his games that record year.

"You steal on pitchers, not on grounds," Maury is telling him.

The press-box view of Vince Coleman is that of an athlete who was Jesse Owens on the artificial basepaths of St. Louis but Jesse James on the natural turf of Shea. They may misjudge him, Coleman says.

"At college (Florida A&M), we had lots of guys who could run 9.4s," he says. "But I was the one who stole bases. At Macon, we had rabbits. But I was the one who stole 145 bases."

Baserunning is an art as well as a skill, Wills is reminding him.

"I know," assents Coleman. "I study the pitchers, too. You have to learn when his leg crosses over so he has to go to the plate. I study his pitches. I know that when I get on base, the batter is going to look at more fastballs than he would ordinarily. I have to figure out what his pattern is."

In other words, you're part thief, part safecracker. You need the combination first.

Vince Coleman led the league in steals six consecutive years. Only one other runner had ever done that--Maury Wills. Coleman has stolen 646 to date, 11th on the all-time list.

"You watch the pitcher's crossover leg, you watch for telltale head movements," sums up Coleman.

Adds Maury: "And you draw a throw to find out his best move."

All this is hoped to make Coleman a premier leadoff man. Then the Mets will only have eight other problems.

It is also hoped he learns not to swing at Ball 4--or Ball 3, for that matter.

And, of course, not to lead off with a home run.

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