Webster's dull ache Orioles: The catcher's physical pain is subsiding, but the hurt of being an ALCS 'scapegoat' remains as vivid as those two games in Cleveland.

January 14, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. -- Lenny Webster still winces at the leftovers of last season's pain. Doctors inserted a screw to reattach his labrum to his left shoulder, the one that left him with a "lazy arm" for the season's last two months. It's only been two weeks since he's regained sensation in the last two fingers on his right hand, such was the severity of a stretched nerve near his elbow.

These are strange sensations for a career backup catcher coming off a season that merited a guaranteed contract for the 1998 season. Nor are they the only ones.

Doctors tell Webster the shoulder should heal by late February. Hopefully, the elbow will respond to treatment. To a journeyman who did much to hold together a weary pitching staff last year, neither condition chafes as much as a painful memory rubbed raw.

Webster hit .255 with a career-high seven home runs and 37 RBIs. He nearly hit for the cycle in Florida in September with his shoulder in tatters. He committed only three errors all season. Now he sits at his kitchen table remembering last October's two games in hell, commonly mistaken for Cleveland and the American League Championship Series.

On Oct. 11, Indians outfielder Marquis Grissom ran past Webster on an abortive squeeze play in the 12th inning to win Game 3, 2-1. Webster thought the pitch was tipped by the batter, Omar Vizquel. Plate ump John Hirschbeck disagreed. One night later, a wild pitch that bounced off Webster led to two runs in an 8-7 loss that again put the catcher in the glare.

"All I could do to keep my sanity was to laugh about it," says Webster, godfather to one of Grissom's children and a neighbor of the since-traded outfielder. "It took a couple days to let it go. People were insinuating I had done something wrong. I did everything I could have done. But, man, that's gone."

Gone at least until Grissom calls to apply a well-placed needle about a play he admits was called wrong.

Webster's passed ball (later changed to a stolen base for Grissom) will forever remain the jagged signature to a game that set a playoff record for time and perhaps suspense. Mike Mussina struck out an LCS record 15 that Florida Marlins prodigy Livan Hernandez equaled the next day.

The Orioles' No. 3-6 hitters -- Eric Davis, Rafael Palmeiro, B. J. Surhoff and Cal Ripken -- went a combined 1-for-19 against seven Indians pitchers. After attempting one steal all season, sore-legged DH Harold Baines was cut down in the third inning. Grissom struck out four times before scoring the winning run after a one-out walk from Randy Myers.

A group of Orioles including Webster, Ripken, Brady Anderson and Myers reviewed a tape of the pitch before the media entered the clubhouse. It remains the only time Webster has seen a replay.

Webster says he detected a ricochet on slow motion, sending the ball to the ground. But moments after the viewing, Myers theorized his slider had handcuffed his catcher. "Usually that pitch goes from 11 o'clock to 3 o'clock. That time it went from 11 to 5," Myers said.

Webster's hurt may have receded but his memory remains vivid.

"Had he not tipped the ball I would have caught it. It's as simple as that. Did he tip the ball? Well, yeah, he tipped it," says Webster, who became more irritated after Grissom told him Vizquel had admitted fouling the pitch. "Before Game 4, I talked to Vizquel about it in the outfield. After we lost the series I said it's over with and we're going home, but I wish Vizquel would come out and tell the truth. I know what happened. He knew what happened. Why get up on a stage and lie? I really aired him out."

The incident remains fresh to some team members who still grumble about Hirschbeck's role, especially given the umpire's confrontation with Roberto Alomar the previous September. Webster never walked that street.

"I backed up Hirschbeck. I said in defense of John, he couldn't possibly have heard the ball tip with 50,000 people screaming. So they got a break. But I know what I saw and I know what I heard. For me to box a ball like that in a big game like that, I don't think so," he says.

The next night the Orioles entered the bottom of the fifth inning ahead 5-3 and left trailing 7-5. Again, Webster found himself in the middle of chaos when David Justice and Sandy Alomar scored on Arthur Rhodes' one-hop wild pitch.

Webster made a tardy throw on Justice. When the toss bounded off the runner, Rhodes retrieved the ball to make a desperation toss to third baseman Ripken covering the plate. Alomar scored as Webster was being boxed out by Justice 10 feet from the

plate.

Lightning had not only struck the same place twice. It had scorched the same guy on consecutive days.

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