Blue Jays' Lee now loves playing shortstop, but questions linger

September 26, 1991|By The Boston Globe

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- During spring training, you may recall, the shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays, who was known previously as Manny Lee, announced that he would like to be known as Manuel in honor of his new status as the club's No. 1 shortstop.

Lee was actually not too thrilled about the move at first. He had been the starting second baseman until the team acquired spectacular Roberto Alomar and told Lee to take over at short for Tony Fernandez, who had been shipped to San Diego.

"I love it," Lee said when asked about the position Tuesday. "I feel like I've been playing there for 20 years."

Though Lee says he is happy, questions remain about whether he is the right man for the job as Toronto heads down the stretch, particularly with a serious groin pull that causes him to take therapy every day and wear a sleeve around his right thigh.

In some ways, Lee is Toronto's Luis Rivera: sometimes effective but seldom respected. The Jays shortstop has led an unsettled existence since the last day of the 1987 season, when Alan Trammell hit a ground ball between his legs (the play was inexplicably ruled a hit), ending the season and the Jays' embarrassing collapse.

Since then, Lee's name has appeared in a thousand trade rumors while he has played constantly in the shadow of incredibly talented players such as Fernandez, Kelly Gruber, and now Alomar, who seems to put on a show every night.

Toronto's 10-9 loss to the Angels on Monday night was a perfect example. In the third inning, Alomar made a play that was beyond belief, backhanding a Dave Winfield ground ball in short center, then throwing out the bewildered veteran from midair.

Lee had two hits, which earned him a spot in Tuesday night's starting lineup. But in California's seven-run first, a difficult one-hopper went off his glove in the hole and rolled into left field for a two-run single. Had he been healthier, Lee might have been able at least to stop the ball.

"He's been there all year for us," manager Gene Tenace said. "And I think his groin has been a lot better. He made some tough plays last night that really tested it."

Lee said of his injury, which he sustained in Cleveland two weeks ago, "It's fine now. I don't have any problem with it." However, Toronto players were privately critical that Lee was in the lineup Saturday when it was clear the injury prevented him from getting to a ground ball single that touched off the A's winning rally in the eighth inning.

Tenace benched Lee the next night, but only because of the cold weather in Oakland, said the manager. "He got two hits for us last night," Tenace said when asked if he was wedded to playing Lee. "I want to play the guys who are hot at this time of year."

As with Rivera, there already is speculation of what the Jays will do about the shortstop position in the off-season, whether the club will make a trade or see if hard-nosed Eddie Zosky, 23, can take the job, something he failed to do in spring training.

Zosky got a September call-up after hitting .264 at Triple A Syracuse. He was sent there after failing to make the club amid speculation that the job was his to take. "I just had a lot of negative thoughts," Zosky said of his spring. "They were saying in the papers that I had a chance to win the job, and I kept thinking to myself, 'Don't blow it. Don't make an error, don't throw this ball away.' And you can't play that way."

He said his approach has been helped by former pitcher Sam McDowell, a recovering alcoholic who is retained by Toronto to help players not just with substance abuse but also any problem relating to baseball.

"Working with Sam has helped me a lot," Zosky said. "He makes you see the positive. He can change your whole day, from the worst to the best."

Unlike spring training, when he was throwing the ball all over the place, the only question now seems to be whether Zosky will hit. In his six starts since being called up, he is 2 for 18.

Probably, though, his chance will come next year. The Jays seem committed to Lee through the end of the season, hoping that this time the ball doesn't go between his legs.

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