All-Star MVP Conine hits big-time with HR

July 16, 1995|By BUSTER OLNEY

It happened to Al Weis in the 1969 World Series, Bret Saberhagen in the 1985 World Series, and Francisco Cabrera in the 1992 playoffs. Now it's happening to Jeff Conine, who hit the pinch homer to give the National League a 3-2 win over the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Instant fame. The marginal racquetball fan might've had a better chance of recognizing Conine than the average baseball fan -- Conine and his wife are nationally known mixed-doubles

champions -- but that has changed.

Jay Leno's producers called to see if Conine might want to make a late-night appearance. His picture ran in papers all over the country. He is big-time now, his life forever altered, and he admitted after the All-Star Game that he suspected as much after rounding the bases.

"After I got back to the dugout," he said, "I thought to myself, 'Hey, if this lead holds up, I could be the All-Star MVP.' My heart was just pounding."

He was named MVP, an award that came with a price; he had to rerun his entire life for the waves of media that sought him out after the game's conclusion. He finished his interviews and went back to the hotel to sleep.

When his wife, Cindy, awoke, she found eight messages for Jeff. They went back to sleep for another two hours, and there were nine more messages waiting.

"People kept telling me," Conine said, "this could change your life. Everybody will know about you."

Conine came up through the Kansas City organization, but the Royals left him unprotected from the expansion draft in the fall of 1992 because -- and this sounds silly now -- they didn't think he would ever hit with power.

"To see him go up there in his first All-Star at-bat and go deep," said 11-time All-Star Tony Gwynn, "that's what fairy tales are made of."

Will real O's stand up?

If anybody can get a read on the '95 Orioles, please drop a line.

They lose two to the woeful Minnesota Twins, at home. They go to Chicago and sweep four and make a big trade for Scott Erickson and appear poised to take a run at Boston.

Then they come home and suddenly the anemic Royals look like the greatest offensive team this side of Cleveland. For an organization that has prided itself on consistency, the Orioles have been horribly inconsistent this year.

* Nomomania will lead to big money for the Dodgers rookie. Hideo Nomo is being paid the major-league minimum of $109,000 this year (above and beyond his $2 million signing bonus), but he could threaten to return to Japan and increase his negotiating leverage in the off-season.

"It'll be interesting," said Don Nomura, Nomo's agent. "I think we all know what kind of money Nomo is generating for the Dodgers."

Meanwhile, the search has begun for more Nomo-type mania. Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden says he is scouting around for another Japanese native, and has been in contact with Japan League teams about a trade. "I know it has never been done," Bowden said, "but we're trying to be innovative and creative. There are three or four pitchers in Japan better than Nomo, and we'd like to make a trade. We've checked with the commissioner's office, and a deal would be complicated, but legal."

The Texas Rangers think slugger Juan Gonzalez is ready to have a big second half. Through Friday, Gonzalez had missed 35 games with injuries. "I know it gives me a charge to think about it," said Texas manager Johnny Oates. Seattle manager Lou Piniella said, "He seems serious. He seems very serious. He looks focused. You can't make a mistake with that guy. You can't let him extend [his arms] on you. The ball is jumping off his bat. It's scary."

Conventional wisdom around the league is that if the voting were to take place today, Oates would be the AL Manager of the Year.

* This is why the Orioles will sign Ron Gant for next year: Owner Peter Angelos wanted Gant last year, and this year, a slugger like Gant is exactly what the disappointing Orioles offense needs. Angelos won't miss the second time around.

What a guy

San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds played to the hilt the role of tortured star when he received the trophy for most All-Star votes in the NL.

"I'm appreciative," he said. "I love it. I'm going to take that trophy home and put up all the newspaper articles about me, and then I'm going to show it to my kids when I retire, to show that some good can come out of a negative situation. I'll remember 1995, the year I went through a divorce and a whole bunch of other crud, had the media all over me, but still had something positive to come out of it."

Now that is gratitude. And fans, don't forget to vote for Mr. Bonds next year.

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