Lima conspiracy theories are mile wide of the plate

On Baseball

August 30, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

There's another scandal brewing in the chase to break Roger Maris' single-season home run record, and it has been growing right under our noses all season.

Did you know that most of the pitchers who have served up Mark McGwire's 54 home runs have been American-born?

Think about it. McGwire was born in Southern California. He played at USC. He's the kind of freckle-faced All-American hero that opposing American-born pitchers would be proud to join in the history books. So every home run that he has hit against a patriotic American-born pitcher is suspect. Right?


Of course, but it is no more ridiculous than the suspicion that Dominican-born pitcher Jose Lima served up a homer to Sammy Sosa last week because he wanted to help his countryman break Maris' record.

The charge -- which called into question Lima's integrity simply because he was born in the same country as Sosa -- makes even less sense than that fanciful scenario involving McGwire, for a number of reasons.

Reason No. 1: Lima is a sub-.500 career pitcher who just this year has emerged as a front-line starter for the first-place Houston Astros. He's got his own career to worry about.

Reason No. 2: The issue was raised because Lima threw two fastballs to Sosa in a 13-2 game, but that's exactly what a pitcher is supposed to do in a blowout -- challenge the hitters.

Reason No. 3: The Astros have a big lead in the NL Central, but they still could benefit from knocking the Cubs out of the postseason, since it would increase their chances of drawing the wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs.

If there are any conspiracy theory types still remaining, there are more plausible reasons for pitchers to serve up the ball to McGwire, especially in the cities that are drawing a significant financial benefit from his tremendous popularity.

The Pittsburgh Pirates piled up one of the largest three-day attendance totals in club history for McGwire's weekend visit. It didn't hurt Sunday and Monday's attendance when he homered in Saturday's game.

Does anyone really think that Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy kicked the wall of the owner's box when McGwire homered? No, everyone wants to see him hit one now. But that doesn't mean that opposing pitchers will endanger their own careers -- and subjugate their athletic egos -- to help him.

This issue will rise again when either McGwire or Sosa gets closer to the record. Somebody somewhere will quote an unnamed pitcher admitting that he would groove the pitch for No. 62 just to be included on one of the most replayed videotapes in the history of sports.

Maybe there are some guys out there who would do that, but it would be ridiculous to blame Sosa or McGwire for getting close enough to test the integrity of their opponents.

Both have earned their moment in baseball history -- and the benefit of the doubt.

Playoff considerations

The Astros have the worst record of the three National League division leaders, but if they can close strong and overtake the San Diego Padres, they would have a chance to draw the wild-card team in the playoffs.

The Atlanta Braves likely will finish with the best record in the league, and the New York Mets lead the tight NL wild-card race. If the Mets end up in the playoffs, the division winner with the second-best record would draw them in the Division Series.

That would position the Astros favorably for a run at the World Series.

"I think Houston is the team to beat in the National League this year," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said recently. "A lot of us in this clubhouse thought Randy Johnson would wind up in New York or Cleveland. But when Houston got him, guys were saying, 'Whoa.' They are going to be tough, very tough."

The Braves still have to be considered a solid favorite to emerge from the National League playoffs, but they aren't taking anything for granted after last year's upset loss to the eventual-champion Florida Marlins.

"Last year, Florida went out and traded for 10 guys and beat us. This year Houston went out and got Moises Alou and Randy Johnson to try and beat us," said pitcher John Smoltz. "If I'm sitting in their clubhouse, I'd be thinking, 'We can beat the Braves.' "

It can't be that tough

In his first year as a bullpen closer, Tom Gordon has 38 saves and is closing in on the Red Sox record (40). He also needs just four more in a row to break Jose Mesa's single-season record for consecutive successful save opportunities (38).

His success illustrates why relief pitchers have never gotten the same level of respect as starting pitchers -- particularly when they become eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Gordon was a solid-but-unspectacular starting pitcher who has made the most of a late-career change in direction. The guy he beat out for the Red Sox closer's job -- veteran Dennis Eckersley -- did the same thing, spending half his career as a starter.

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