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Crime Pays for Curtis on the Basepaths

July 13, 1993|JIM MURRAY

You get a pretty good fix on the Angels' Chad Curtis when you know he was married in his baseball uniform.

Granted, most people get married in a tuxedo. Or, at least, a suit and tie. And it's all right for a Marine corporal of a Navy ensign to get married in uniform under crossed swords. Chad didn't even bring crossed bats.

But what was a fellow to do? The ballgame was at 1:30. The wedding was supposed to have been at 10:30 a.m., and if it had been, Chad might not even have worn cleats. But, when the nuptials were postponed until 1, he had no choice. He had to make batting practice, right?

So, what you do in that situation is, you double-park with the motor running, dash up the courthouse steps with your glove in your hip pocket, say, "I do" then gun it for the ballpark.

And what did the bride think of all this?

Chad scratches his head. "She thought I contrived it this way, but I didn't," he says.

He would have much preferred the mid-morning ceremony. That way, he would have gotten to shag fungoes as well as making BP.

Anyway, it isn't as if he got married at home plate, like Rocky Nelson, or underwater, like scuba divers do. He just didn't want to miss the national anthem at the ballpark.

Besides, he was having a good year--.307 at the plate, on his way to 64 stolen bases. He went on to lead the league in hits and stroke 14 home runs. You don't want to take a day off when you're on a roll like that. Even the franchise--Quad City in the Midwest League--was in a 90-victory groove. You don't interfere with that kind of momentum.

You know, if you wanted a name for a star ballplayer, you couldn't conjure up one better than Chad Curtis. It's a name right off the dime baseball novels of the turn of the century. Ralph Henry Barbour's heroes were named Chad Curtis. Burt L. Standish's. Frank Merriwell played with guys named Chad Curtis. It's a 19th Century baseball name, like Cap Anson or Mordecai Brown.

The trouble with Chad Curtis is, he came disguised. He looks like a second baseman. A shortstop, perhaps.

He's not. Well, not anymore. His infield days are behind him. He's a center fielder now. And if he stays one, he has a chance to be one of the best ever.

He's not big--5 feet 10. He says he's not fast, just quick. But the stats dispute him. He stole 110 bases in two minor league seasons, and he stole 43 bases as a rookie with the Angels last season. That's short of the 66 stolen by Cleveland's rookie, Kenny Lofton, last season but Lofton was setting the all-time American League rookie record and leading the league as well.

"I think I led the club in caught stealing," Curtis allows. (He didn't. He was caught 18 times in 61 attempts. Luis Polonia, who had 51 steals, was caught 21 times.)

Does the net stolen base figure--43 minus 18--indicate that crime doesn't pay, that there's too high an arrest rate?

Curtis shakes his head.

"You've got to be aggressive," he says. "I do lead the club this year in caught-stealing (at 17) but I've already stolen 37."

He's right. Pitchers and catchers have to know you have larceny in your heart. It interferes negatively with the kind of pitches they throw, the concentration they're able to bring to them. A restless baserunner is a pitcher's worst nightmare and distraction.

Vince Coleman, in his record-setting year--he stole a National League rookie-record 110 bases for St. Louis in 1985--got caught 25 times. When Rickey Henderson set the all-time record--130 steals--he got thrown out 42 times, the record for getting caught at the scene of the crime. In 1914, Miller Huggins set the American League record for getting caught. He got thrown out 36 times--and stole successfully only 32.

Chad Curtis brings more, though, than an instinct for larceny to the Angels. He is the anchor of their pennant line--catcher-pitcher-middle infielders-center fielder. No team wins a pennant without strength like that up the middle. It is the backbone of championship teams.

Curtis is not flashy, just steady. When the ball comes down, he is there. But speed is only part of it. No one has ever figured out what it is that starts a center fielder running in the direction the ball is hit--whether it's superior hearing, seeing or just basic instinct. Whatever it is, Chad Curtis seems to have it. You can hardly hit it over him--he's too fast. And if you hit it shallow, he'll probably be there, too.

He won't be a Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider or Mickey Mantle at the position. He's not a power hitter. He had 10 home runs last year.

He's more in the mold of Terry Moore, who "scored" runs for years for the championship Cardinals with his glove. Chad Curtis may run more to the likes of Moore--or Earl Combs, Curt Flood, Paul Blair or Amos Otis. A guy who is the glue in holding a pennant contender together.

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