Nettles Is Settled : Padre Quite Content to Share His Hot Corner of the Infield

Times Staff Writer

"Balls," a controversial, inside look at life with the New York Yankees, put author/third baseman Graig Nettles on the best-seller list last spring.

The book recently came out in paperback, which should assure its author of a few more royalty checks.

But don't look for a sequel to "Balls," depicting the nasty, seamy side of the Padres.

Now that Nettles has settled his differences with the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in print, he plans a more relaxed, even detached couple of seasons in San Diego leading up to his eventual retirement.

"It was pretty hectic at the start of last season when I got traded by the Yankees," Nettles said.

"The trade was a hassle for me, but after I adjusted, I was pretty relaxed. I'm expecting to be more relaxed this season."

Nettles, who lives in Del Mar, doesn't appear to have any regrets about his departure from the Bronx Zoo, where his every utterance was prone to be twisted into a headline.

What a difference 3,000 miles can make. The most controversial thing that has happened to the 40-year-old third baseman this spring was a question about the condition of his right shoulder.

"I feel good," he said. "I mean, I get a stiff shoulder every spring. There was no reason for anyone to get excited when I was out for a few days (with a sore shoulder) last week.

"I know what I have to do to get myself ready. I don't see any need to burn out by June."

Although he doesn't appear to miss the uptight, pressurized atmosphere in New York, Nettles said he sees a similarity between the Yankees and Padres in a post-World Series spring.

"The atmosphere here is about the same--very optimistic, no question marks, all the positions settled," he said.

Nettles wouldn't challenge the assertion that the American League East is easily baseball's strongest division. But he can agree to that without disparaging the Padres, who he thinks are underrated by the Eastern press because they are not in a media center.

Returning to his hometown in the twilight of his career is an agreeable proposition for Nettles, who isn't burdened with playing every day.

He will share third base with Jerry Royster, the former Atlanta Brave utilityman who was signed by the Padres over the winter.

Royster, who can play half a dozen positions, is reserving most of his attention for third base this spring. But that isn't because he doubts that Nettles will be ready.

"He looks good to me," Royster said. "I think the stuff about his shoulder was overrated. He will do better than people are expecting."

Royster said the reason he is concentrating on third base is to make a strong impression on his new teammates. "I never seem to have a good spring, but I'm doing my best to show these guys I will be able to fill in at third and they won't lose a whole bunch."

Nettles will be in the lineup when the Padres are facing a right-handed pitcher, as was the case in 1984 when he platooned with Luis Salazar. Appearing in 124 games, he hit .228 with 20 homers and 65 runs batted in.

Baseball is replete with streak hitters, but Nettles belongs in a category by himself.

Catcher Terry Kennedy believes two good months can provide the basis for a good season. In the case of Nettles, a couple of good weeks can do the trick.

Consider his production during a six-game span last August.

Platooning as usual, he smashed seven homers between Aug. 11 and Aug. 22, joining such noted sluggers as Lou Gehrig, Roger Maris, Frank Howard and Reggie Jackson among the eight players with homers in six straight games.

Thanks to an earlier hot streak in June, when he hit six homers over a 16-game stretch, he was able to reach the 20-homer mark for the 11th time in the past 15 years.

Perhaps the ultimate Nettles streak was recorded in April, 1974, when he hit 11 homers in one month, which tied a major league record.

"He can carry you for a week or two when he gets in one of those streaks," Manager Dick Williams said.

"I've always been streaky," Nettles said. "That's been my history, and I'm sure I'll be that way as long as I play.

"I'd like to be more consistent, like all players. As far as numbers, I never set any statistical goals--just get to the World Series."

Nettles, who also holds the American League career record for home runs by a third baseman (319), has probably earned even more respect with his glove.

He concedes he has probably lost a step defensively, but not much more than that.

"The instincts are still there," he said. "I can still get to most of the balls that I could when I was younger.

"I can't think of a specific play I can't make anymore. I'm definitely not at the point where I would wonder about making the plays I always did."

Williams said he feels quite comfortable with the club's situation at third base.

"As a matter of fact, I feel better than I did last year," the manager said. "Royster knows his position with the club, that he is going to platoon. The other guy (Salazar) wanted to play all the time.

"I'm not worried about Nettles' shoulder. He's no 25-year-old kid, but I'm expecting him to be in the lineup against every right-hander we face."

In the event of a disabling injury to either Nettles or Royster, Tim Flannery would find employment at third base. He will also be used at second and shortstop.

"I could play second every day of the season if they asked me to," Flannery said. "And I believe I could play third every day for a month.

"Third base is easier than short. You just have to be crazy enough to throw your body in front of the ball. At short, I get mentally tired after a couple of days. There's so much going on, watching the catchers' signals and moving with every pitch."

Padre Notes

Graig Nettles drove in his first run of the spring with the first of two singles against Seattle's Jim Beattie here Wednesday. The Padres went on to post a 7-1 win over the Mariners. . . . San Diego starter Eric Show pitched six innings, extending his streak of having allowed no earned runs in 18 innings this spring. He allowed only three hits. . . . Reliever Luis DeLeon, who is rebounding strongly from arm troubles last season, extended his streak of shutout innings to 9 before being hit on the hip by a ball off the bat of John Moses. Goose Gossage replaced him and finished the game. After the game, Dick Williams said DeLeon had been struck just above the belt on the right side. There was some concern about possible muscle damage, according to Williams. Trainers were considering X-rays. The injury was believed to be similar to a hip pointer in football. There was no estimate on how long DeLeon will be out.

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