Justice takes pains to shed soft reputation Injuries hurt production, but opportunity to be DH keeps Indian in the swing

October 14, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- There was a hyper-extended left elbow that put him on the disabled list in June and out of the All-Star Game at Jacobs Field. There is a partially torn tendon in his left knee that will require surgery after the season is over. There is a jammed shoulder hurt diving back on a pickoff play in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

Things are back to normal for David Justice.

Except for this: Justice is still playing.

A reputation for not always playing hurt during his eight years with the Atlanta Braves has been overcome during his first season with the Cleveland Indians, largely due to the luxury of being used as a designated hitter. A reputation for not always being a popular teammate also has been erased.

"David's done a great job for us all year," Indians catcher Sandy Alomar said before the series with the Orioles began.

Despite the injuries that limited him to 73 starts in left field, despite the change of leagues and position (he was a right fielder with the Braves), Justice has had one of his most productive seasons. In 139 games, he hit .329 with 33 home runs and 101 RBIs, the second-best season of his career.

"The good thing about DH-ing is that I'm not doing it because I'm a liability in the field, but because of injury," said Justice, who could move back to the outfield for road games against the Florida Marlins or Braves should the Indians advance to their second World Series in three years. "I probably take more swings than I did when I was doing both."

The jammed shoulder hasn't helped, however. He came into last night's Game 5 with five hits in 15 at-bats, but all have been singles. He hit the ball hard against Orioles ace Mike Mussina in Game 3 but got little in return.

Indians general manager John Hart has liked the returns he has gotten from Justice all season. Hart was aware of Justice's reputation for being somewhat brittle and the fact that he had played only 40 games last year after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder.

Hart sent the team's Southeast scout, Ted Simmons, to check out Justice during spring training. Simmons, a hard-nosed type during his playing career, told Hart that he should try to trade for Justice. Hart did, acquiring Justice and center fielder Marquis Grissom for Kenny Lofton and pitcher Alan Embree toward the end of spring training.

But the swap almost didn't come off. "The deal wasn't dead [at one point]," Hart said, "but it was on life support."

The trade was precipitated by Lofton's status as a free agent after this season and the need to fill a power spot in the lineup left vacated by Albert Belle's departure for the Chicago White Sox.

Of the three high-profile players the Indians traded for -- third baseman Matt Williams was the other -- Justice had the least amount of adjustment, perhaps because he is a more patient hitter than Grissom or Williams.

"I personally didn't know what kind of intense competitor he is," Hart said. "You don't know that until you live with somebody for a while. He definitely brought a little fire to this club."

Not that being a designated hitter has been easy for Justice, particularly in this roller-coaster series. When the Indians are in the field, he spends his time in the dugout, in the clubhouse or just "walking the hallways, listening to the crowd."

Just going to the World Series -- it would be his fourth -- would be a big enough deal to Justice. But the chance of playing the Braves, who need to overcome a 3-2 deficit against the Florida Marlins in the NL Championship Series, doesn't mean all that much.

"I have a lot of friends over there," he said. "But it wouldn't be a big deal."

Somehow you get the feeling that it might be a bigger deal than Justice lets on.

Something to do with erasing a reputation, deserved or not, once and for all.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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