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Tribe Troubles Lead to June Swoon

June 28, 1996

Lately, the Cleveland Indians’ swagger has been more of a stagger.

Sure, they’re still in first place, and they’ll be well represented in Philadelphia at July’s All-Star game. But there’s something wrong with the defending American League champions.

And no, it’s not all Albert Belle’s fault.

The Indians have played sub-.500 ball for the past month. Entering their AL Central showdown series this weekend in Chicago, they were 13-18 against the White Sox, Yankees, Orioles, Rangers and Mariners this season.

Chicago, which finished 30 games behind Cleveland in 1995, has been pointing toward this weekend all year.

``They are like heavyweight champions,″ Chicago outfielder Lyle Mouton said earlier this week as the White Sox prepared for a four-game series with the Indians. ``And if we can knock them off, we’d be the champs.″

Well, the White Sox outpointed the Indians in Round 1, winning 15-10 on Thursday night after jumping to a 14-2 lead. Mouton delivered one of the early blows by hitting a home run during a six-run second. The two teams will play another four-game set in Cleveland next weekend before the break.

Following Mouton’s boxing analogy, the Indians have shown a bit of a glass jaw lately.

They were swept in four games at home last weekend by the Yankees for the first time since 1964. In the series, the Indians exposed all their weaknesses: inconsistent starting pitching, questionable baserunning, a suddenly shaky bullpen and a lack of clutch hitting. In addition, Belle has slumped since tangling with Milwaukee second baseman Fernando Vina.

Not coincidentally, the Indians are 12-13 since the Vina incident, which resulted in a two-game suspension for Belle.

If the Indians hadn’t won 100 games and run away with their division title last year, their recent slide probably would not even get a second look. But this team, loaded with talent, is not playing anywhere near its potential.

And, despite his claims that it’s way too early to consider a series crucial, Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove may change his tune if the Indians are in second place in two weeks.

Hargrove has been tinkering with his batting order. Carlos Baerga, a .305 career hitter who has slumped this season, has batted anywhere from second to seventh, and Jim Thome has spent some time in the cleanup spot.

Hargrove insists he’s just trying to find the right combination.

``I remember one year I was in Texas when Billy Martin put all the names in a hat and drew out a batting order,″ Hargrove recalled recently. ``We had Jeff Burroughs leading off.

``We’re just trying to get people in the right spots.″

Hargrove has also had to keep an eye on smooth-fielding shortstop Omar Vizquel, who is bothered by a sore right shoulder. Vizquel seems most affected on off-balance throws, where he can’t plant and push off his back leg. Those throws seem to float over to first, but Hargrove said Vizquel makes up for some of that with his quick release. Still, Vizquel is not himself and without him the Indians would be in big trouble.

Vizquel’s shoulder may require surgery, although he’s putting it off for now.

``We’ve gotten assurances from our doctors that it can’t get any worse,″ Hargrove said last week.

Hargrove better hope that applies to his team, too.

___

TO CATCH A THIEF: The New York Yankees knew they were getting a catcher with excellent defensive skills when they traded for Joe Girardi. What’s been a pleasant surprise, however, is his speed.

Girardi went into the weekend tied with Bernie Williams for the team lead with nine stolen bases _ Girardi is 9-for-9, while Williams has been caught three times.

Girardi, leading major league catchers in swipes, has already set a career high for steals. He also stole twice in a game for the first time Thursday night against Baltimore.

Much of the credit, he said, goes to new manager Joe Torre, who brought the aggressive style he used in St. Louis.

``Joe is letting me run a little bit,″ Girardi said. ``The key is you have to get on base.″

Early this season, Girardi became the first Yankees catcher to steal home since Jake Gibbs in 1968. Girardi’s steals are the most for a Yankees catcher since Thurman Munson stole 11 while catching in 1976; Munson, who played other positions that year, finished with a total of 14.

___

ALEX THE GREAT: Colorado manager Don Baylor said he’d pay money just to see New York Mets rookie right fielder Alex Ochoa throw. This week, Baylor saw Ochoa hit for free.

Ochoa has made an impressive showing since his callup from Triple-A Norfolk late last week. The 22-year-old right fielder, whose arm has been compared to the great Roberto Clemente’s, has been steady in the field and has come through in clutch situations at the plate, including driving home two key runs in a win over the Rockies.

New York manager Dallas Green may have finally found the right fielder the Mets had been looking for all season.

``Alex is here to play, when he’s here,″ Green said, hinting that Ochoa’s stay still may not be permanent. ``All he can do is continue to produce. The bottom line is performing and that’s what he’s got to do.″

Stories of Ochoa’s amazing arm strength preceded his arrival in New York. He’s used to it, though.

``My arm has overshadowed my hitting throughout my career so far,″ said Ochoa, who came to the Mets from the Orioles in last year’s Bobby Bonilla deal. ``I think I’ll show people I can do a lot with my bat.″

___

SUPERSTAR SWAP?: The Minnesota Twins are doing what many thought unimaginable: thinking about trading Kirby Puckett.

Puckett, sidelined all season with glaucoma in his right eye, will not be able to return before Aug. 1, one day after baseball’s trading deadline. Puckett has insisted he may return, but the Twins are uncertain about their superstar’s ability to play again _ ever.

That’s why the possibility has been raised about a trade for Toronto’s Joe Carter.

Carter, who will be a free agent after the season, is being shopped by the Blue Jays, who would like to trade him instead of losing him outright. The Twins would be willing to part with prospects, and they believe that would be enough to get the deal done.

The finances of such a move also seem to fit.

Carter is due to make $6.5 million this season. If Puckett doesn’t play this season, the Twins will get back half of his $6 million salary through an insurance policy. That $3 million would be almost exactly what it would take to pay Carter for half a season, and the Twins are eager to spend that insurance money to give themselves a chance to make a run at a wild card berth.

___

SAVE, PIAZZA?: Colorado goalie Patrick Roy and Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza have similar jobs.

Padded from head to toe and working in a crouch, both attempt to stop objects hurtling at them at nearly 100 miles per hour.

Now, they may be able to share some equipment.

A catcher’s mask based on the concept of a hockey goalie’s mask is the innovation of Kirt Whiteside, owner of Whiteside Manufacturing Co., Inc., in Delaware.

Whiteside, a baseball coach, got the idea while coaching in a tournament in Europe.

``I saw this catcher using a face mask like the one in the movie `Friday the 13th’ and I thought that was an intriguing concept,″ Whiteside said. ``When I got back to my office, I went out and bought one of those hockey masks. I started doing some things with the ventilation and took some of the padding out. Then I changed the cage on it and made it similar to a catcher’s mask.″

The new mask is a reconstruction of a goalie’s mask and provides more protection while weighing less.

``Safety is the issue,″ Whiteside said. ``This mask protects the entire skull, and esthetics is important, too.″

The new mask has found its way into the college ranks, and will soon be introduced at the professional level. Toronto catcher Charlie O’Brien could be the first to use the mask in a major league game if he gets baseball’s approval.

Whiteside is also working on a new style of batting helmet that offers a lifetime guarantee. The helmets will be fitted with a cage or plexiglass mask to protect the face, yet allow maximum visibility.

End advance for June 29-30

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