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SPECIAL SECTION / BASEBALL 2001

New Look for Leadoff Hitters

For many at the top of the order, it's a different game than the one Hall of Famer Lou Brock excelled at.

April 01, 2001|BEN WALKER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Lou Brock could hardly believe his ears.

"Not one?" he blinked. "Really?"

It's true: There was a leadoff man--Jose Offerman of the Boston Red Sox--who did not steal a single base last season. Went 0-for-8 trying, too.

There was another one--Gerald Williams of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays--who struck out three times as much as he walked.

Another one--Darin Erstad of the Anaheim Angels--reached 100 RBIs.

And last October, Derek Jeter became the first player to lead off a World Series game with a home run since Pete Rose.

Brock, who personified the role for two decades on his way to the Hall of Fame, had seen this coming for a while, long before Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs from the top spot in 1996.

"The leadoff man has become extinct, as we used to define him," the St. Louis Cardinals great said.

OK, maybe not entirely. NL Rookie of the Year Rafael Furcal, Johnny Damon, Kenny Lofton and Luis Castillo are among those doing the job just fine.

Rickey Henderson, considered the greatest ever in the No. 1 slot, is still around at 42 with the San Diego Padres.

"The idea is to get on base and score runs," Henderson said. "That's what I do."

Tim Raines is back in the majors at 41, hoping to help the Montreal Expos.

"I think teams are looking for guys that might have a little more power than they did in the past," Raines said.

No doubt. That old-fashioned leadoff man, the 5-foot-9 slap hitter in the crouch who chokes up, fouls off pitches, fakes a bunt and does anything he can to get on base, sure seems to be disappearing.

Baseball has its 21st century equals of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, the big sluggers. But where are the modern-day versions of Pee Wee and the Scooter, the players who really think a walk is as good as a hit?

"Yeah, we're a dying breed," Chuck Knoblauch said. "It's a lost art."

Knoblauch is about as pesky as they come. Takes the first pitch, might take two more. Steps in, steps out. Hits a few fouls. Keeps the at-bat alive.

"There are some people who say that if you're going to ground out, just do it on the first pitch," the New York Yankees star said. "But that's not so. If I ground out on the seventh pitch, I'm doing my job. I'm working the pitcher, giving our other hitters a look at him.

"There aren't a whole lot of us left. If your team has one, you really appreciate it. If you don't, you downplay it."

Which is exactly what Benny Agbayani does.

Built more like Babe Ruth than Vince Coleman, Agbayani occasionally finds himself at the top of the New York Mets' lineup. Though he stole 100 bases in the minors, he's known a lot more for strength than speed.

"You only bat leadoff once in a game. It's not that big of a deal," he said. "Everybody ends up batting leadoff."

A lot of times, especially in the American League, that means swinging for the fences from the first pitch.

Toronto leadoff man Shannon Stewart hit 21 home runs, along with 43 doubles. Anderson hit 19 homers for Baltimore--along with zero triples, which used to be a leadoff man's specialty.

Striking out, even 100 times, isn't so bad. Stealing bases isn't so important, either.

Red Sox manager Jimy Williams, who briefly played with Brock on the Cardinals, had no big problem with Offerman's lack of success on the bases.

"The slide step has cut down on steals across the board," Williams said. "That's changed the game a lot."

Offerman, by the way, stole a total of 63 bases in the previous two seasons. He was slowed last year by two stints on the disabled list.

And this surprising stat about Brock, the NL's all-time stolen base king: When he spurred St. Louis to the World Series championship in 1967, he drew only 24 walks while striking out 109 times.

To Maury Wills, the former Los Angeles Dodgers' leadoff man who topped the NL in steals for six straight years, it's all one big cycle.

When he broke into the majors, there were guys like Richie Ashburn and Nellie Fox, who piled up enough singles and walks to earn plaques in Cooperstown.

"Lou Brock was the beginning of the transition. He brought more power to the position, along with speed," Wills said. "Then there was Bobby Bonds, hitting all those home runs. And then Rickey Henderson began to redefine it again.

"It just keeps changing, that's all," he said. "But I'm sure leadoff hitters will always be able to identify with each other, no matter which era they come from."

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