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THE CALIFORNIA LEAGUE / JEFF FLETCHER

Straight Talk Helped This Veteran Find His 'A' Game

September 01, 1996|Jeff Fletcher

It wasn't merely good for Scott Richardson that he turned his season around after a horrible start.

It was absolutely necessary.

Richardson, a San Bernardino Stampede outfielder, is 25 and spending his fifth season at Class A or lower--except for a brief stop in double A last year.

The former Cal State Northridge standout could almost hear his baseball career ticking away as his average hovered around .200 in early May.

"It got to the point where I was expecting [Manager Del Crandall] to bring me in any day for that speech," Richardson said.

The speech Richardson was referring to is the one that begins, "This is the toughest part of my job, son," and ends with "Now go clean out your locker."

But the speech Richardson got was more helpful. Almost fatherly.

Crandall, a veteran of 40-plus years in professional baseball as a player, coach and manager, explained to Richardson the facts of life, er, baseball: "You are 25 years old and in A ball. You are going to have to start focusing right now if you want to move on," Crandall told him.

Richardson pinpoints his comeback to that conversation. Since he hit his low point--.209 on May 9--he has been one of the league's best hitters.

His average stayed in the .330s for much of July, but a late slump has dropped him to .307 with 13 home runs and 69 runs batted in.

He was the California League player of the week two weeks in a row in June. That was also the month he was the Dodgers' organizational player of the month, batting .455 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs. His average was the highest in minor league baseball for the month.

The Dodgers plucked Richardson out of the Milwaukee Brewers' system in the Rule 5 draft last December. Richardson was exposed because the Brewers did not place him on their 40-man roster after he batted a combined .268 in four seasons in the organization.

When the Dodgers assigned Richardson to the Cal League--a league in which he had already spent nearly two full seasons with the Brewers' affiliate in Stockton, he was disappointed, and he said that contributed to his slow start.

Now that he has lifted his average, he is simply hoping he can do the same with his career.

"There is obvious pressure because of my age," he said. "But you always hear stories about guys who play in the minor leagues for 10 or 15 years [before reaching the majors]. I'm not looking to do that, but I know I can play."

*

Which of the following Cal League players are most likely to have successful major league careers? Here's one man's opinion--with some help from managers and scouts--of the top 10 prospects who have played at least a half-season in the Cal League, with their major league teams in parentheses:

1. Miguel Tejada, Modesto (Athletics), shortstop, age 20. He's not only the best, he's the most exciting player in the league, with his combination of speed, power and outstanding defense. After he suffered a broken left thumb in July, Tejada was seen during batting practice fielding ground balls with the glove on his right hand, and he still looked good. Against the JetHawks he tagged up and scored the tying run in the ninth inning on a popup the second baseman caught in shallow center field. He's batting .280 with 20 homers and 72 RBIs and has 27 stolen bases.

2. Mike Villano, 25, San Jose (Giants), right-handed pitcher. Villano was converted from catcher before the 1995 season. He has a better than 90-mph fastball that he complements with good breaking pitches, making him a candidate to be a starter or a closer in the majors. Before he was promoted to double A in June, he was 7-1 with a 0.72 earned-run average. In 88 innings, he allowed 48 hits and struck out 133. Look for the Giants to push him as quickly as possible through the system because of his age.

3. Jose Cruz Jr., 22, JetHawks (Mariners), outfielder. In a half-season in the league, Cruz played flawlessly in the field and was consistent at the plate, batting .325 with six homers and 43 RBIs in 53 games. He missed a few weeks because of a pulled groin, but perhaps his absence showed his true value. The JetHawks were 32-21 with him in the starting lineup and 4-13 without him. Cruz, the third pick in last summer's draft, has since plowed through double A. Today he is in triple A, anticipating a major league promotion now that rosters have been expanded to 40.

4. Ben Grieve, 20, Modesto (Athletics), outfielder. Grieve, the No. 2 pick in the 1994 draft, was selected the best hitting prospect and named to the league's postseason all-star team by the same managers who didn't pick for him the midseason all-star team. Some don't like him because they say he's lazy, but they can't argue with his numbers. Before Grieve was promoted to double A in June, he was hitting .356 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs in 72 games.

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