Palmeiro, Franco not your average rivals Rangers teammates vie for batting title

September 08, 1991|By Gerry Fraley | Gerry Fraley,Dallas Morning News

ARLINGTON, Texas -- One contest ended with the loser bitter and the winner uncertain how to act.

Another competition ended with the loser silently stalking out of the locker room, the estrangement with his team having grown wider.

It is the danger of teammates competing in a batting race. Julio Franco and Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers are in the unusual situation of seeing each other as teammate and opponent. They promise not to let it come between them.

"I'm pulling for him as much as he's pulling for me," said Palmeiro, who has led a league in hitting during a season in each of the past four years. "I want him to keep going hard because that pushes me. I want both of us going hard and not let this become something of an enemy-type thing. This will make both of us better players."

Franco and Palmeiro are locked atop the American League batting race. They traded the lead three times in the last week of August, and Franco held the lead Friday at .339, with Palmeiro at .333. Boston Red Sox's Wade Boggs is at .337, and Milwaukee Brewers' Paul Molitor is also at .333.

"It's hard not to think about winning it," said Franco. "It's exciting, but we're not going to let it become just one thing. We're both going to play the game. I wish him the best, and he wishes me the best. But we're both going to go for it."

It could, Palmeiro said, come down to the final at-bat Oct. 6. That raises comparisons to two races that ended in emotional scenes.

In the past 50 years, teammates have finished 1-2 in a batting race only eight times. Two of those races went to the final at-bat: Kansas City Royals' George Brett and Hal McRae in 1976 and Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield of the New York Yankees in 1984. Neither contest ended smoothly.

The Minnesota Twins played at Kansas City in the final series of 1976, presenting a gripping scenario. Minnesota's Lyman Bostock and Rod Carew and the Royals' Brett and McRae were the AL's top four hitters. Bostock and Carew dropped back, leaving Brett and McRae to go for the title on the final day.

It came down to the last inning, with Brett batting ahead of McRae. If Brett made an out, McRae would win. If Brett had a hit, McRae needed a hit to win.

Brett hit a fly to left field, and Steve Brye never moved. The ball landed about 5 feet in front of Brye and bounced over his head for an inside-the-park homer. McRae grounded out and began screaming at Minnesota manager Gene Mauch.

Accusations were made that Mauch and the Twins wanted Brett to win because they disliked McRae's hard-but-clean style of play. More unsavory suggestions were made. The Royals' locker room presented the curious sight of owner Ewing Kaufmann comforting McRae and Brett not being sure how to act.

"I wasn't happy because my teammate was sad with the way it happened," Brett said. "I still don't know what happened.

"The whole thing was nerve-racking. I wanted to win real bad. Hal wanted to win real bad."

The ending spoiled what had been a compelling race between two teammates but did not affect the friendship or respect between the two. The Royals won the division for the first time that season, and Brett and McRae played to win first. That, McRae said, is what Franco and Palmeiro must do.

"Those two guys will like themselves if they go out and do what they're supposed to do," McRae said. "They both know how to play the game, so play the game. Play the game the way it's supposed to be played, and everything will come out fine.

"If you start to calculate every move to win a batting title, everyone will know it. And you're not going to like yourself for doing it. It'll be tarnished, and nobody wants to win a title that way. Both of those guys are good players. They don't need that kind of reputation."

There was more tension between Mattingly and Winfield. Mattingly was the young player who caught the hometown's fancy. Embroiled in fights with owner George Steinbrenner, Winfield read Mattingly's popularity as another slight.

"It was a lot easier on me than it was on him," Mattingly said. "But I think we handled it well. I don't think either of us were rooting against each other. The last couple of days were kind of hairy."

Mattingly, who did not have consecutive games without a hit in September, had six hits in his final 15 at-bats to catch Winfield. In the final game, Mattingly went 3-for-5 with a hit in his final at-bat to reach .343. Winfield went 1-for-4 to finish at .340. He did not congratulate Mattingly after the game.

Franco and Palmeiro "should have as much fun with it as they can," Mattingly said. "They should look at it as, 'If we both do good and hit .350, whatever happens happens.' They shouldn't let the pressure bring them down. They should both go for it."

After Kansas City clinched its title in 1976, manager Whitey Herzog told Brett and McRae to forget the team concept and go for the batting title. Brett and McRae had given up numerous at-bats that season with Herzog's hit-and-run style of offense.

Rangers manager Bobby Valentine hints he may cut the hit-and-run plays, which demand sacrifices by the hitter, to help Franco and Palmeiro. That would happen late, and neither would be aware of it.

Valentine also could influence the race in subtle ways. Recently, Palmeiro had the freedom to swing at a 3-0 pitch from New York Yankees flagging starter Eric Plunk. Palmeiro was 2-for-3 in that game when Valentine pulled him against left-hander Lee Guetterman. On Aug. 26, Valentine batted Franco leadoff for the first time since July 15, a move that gave him more at-bats.

"I don't know what they would do differently," Valentine said. "The worst thing they could do is do something differently from what they've been doing so far. If they're trying to get hits, they're doing what's best for the team.

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