Justice new man this season that's not good, say teammates

April 07, 1991|By Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke,Los Angeles Times

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Before the age of satellit television and baseball card shows, it would take a good baseball player years to become a celebrity.

Apparently, Dave Justice has done it in two months.

Oops. That's David Justice.

"I've always been known as David," Justice announced upon arriving for spring training as the sudden star of the Atlanta Braves. "That's just the way it is."

So, the Braves' media guide and posters and all those baseball books are wrong? So, even his friends in his hometown of Cincinnati are wrong?

"We have always called him Dave," said boyhood buddy Churby Clowers quizzically. "I think we still do."

For two months last year, they could have called him Goliath. In a streak that left baseball awe-struck, Justice hit 20 home runs from Aug. 7 until the end of the season.

It was a streak powerful enough to cloud the memory of the man Justice had replaced in right field. If you think that was no big deal, then you've never heard of Dale Murphy.

It was a streak that gave Justice 28 homers and 78 runs batted in for the season, while giving reporters the impetus to vote for him as National League rookie of the year.

But more than anything else, according to teammates this spring, it was a streak that gave Justice an attitude.

It was a streak, they say, that caused an intelligent, sensitive 24-year-old man to change more than just his first name.

"Complete different person," one teammate said recently. "It's like we don't even know him anymore."

It's not that he arrived wearing gold chains and high-top spikes, after the fashion of Darryl Strawberry or Eric Davis.

It was how he showed up.

The man who tiptoed into right field last Aug. 4, after the Braves had traded the popular Murphy, is beginning his first season as a full-time major leaguer with a swagger:

* "Sweet Swing" vanity plates grace his new Mercedes, which he parks in the circular driveway in front of the team's hotel.

"There must be 1,400 parking spaces, and he keeps it up there?" one veteran Brave asked.

* Teammates have seen him brush off autograph seekers, which he did not do last season.

Last winter, perhaps not coincidentally, his marketing representative said Justice's top rookie status allowed him to nearly double his $102,500 salary by appearing at such things as baseball card shows.

"Last year, he would have been begging to sign autographs," another player said. "And now look at him."

* Justice has started keeping a little black book of people he is blackballing.

Reporters interviewing him are asked to spell their names, which he inserts into an electronic diary. If Justice does not like their stories, those names go into a file that reminds him never to speak to that reporter or newspaper again.

Already one national newspaper is in that blackball file. And that story was, by most accounts, complimentary.

"A lot of people said the story made me look good, but I found some things in it that I didn't like, and that is that," Justice said. "Never talking to that guy or his newspaper again."

Several times during a recent interview, he repeated a warning.

"You better write exactly what I say, how I say it," he said. "Because if you don't, I will never talk to you again. Never."

* Justice absolutely refuses to talk about last season's heroics. He is so emphatic when he says this, he waves his hands as if shooing the memories away.

"I am not talking about last season," he proclaimed. "That is over with. I am tired of talking about it. Don't ask me about August. This is March. Ask me about March."

The problem with stardom, said Justice, is people. There are too many people who want too much.

"I've been on NBC, CNN, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and everybody thinks they know me," Justice said. "Everybody wants to talk to me. Everybody wants something from me. If everybody knows too much about you, pretty soon you can't go anywhere unnoticed, and I can't deal with that."

He sighed.

"I never, ever thought it would be like this," he said. "After two days here, I couldn't stand to look at anybody with a pen. It's not that I'm a jerk, but sometimes, I need to focus on my job."

He paused and added: "If you know me, fine. If you don't know me, that's fine too."

Many National League pitchers can be excused for still not knowing him. In a six-year professional career, Justice has played in only 143 major league games.

He has only 490 at-bats, 29 homers, 81 RBI.

When they see him this season, they may treat him differently than last season. You know what they say about the. . . .

"I don't know what 'sophomore jinx' means," Justice said. "Really, what are people talking about?"

Sitting next to him in the Braves' spring training clubhouse recently was Ron Gant, who heard that remark and winced.

"I don't know what it means either . . . but it happened to me," said Gant, an outfielder who was named comeback player of the year in the National League last season after having been a strong candidate for rookie of the year in 1988.

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