Stillwell's All but Cincinnati Ready

Times Staff Writer

When Dave Concepcion took himself out of the Cincinnati Reds' lineup last Thursday, Kurt Stillwell stepped in, got four hits and made a dazzling defensive play to take a hit away from Houston's Bill Doran.

"Everybody called me Wally Pipp today," Concepcion, the Reds' long-time shortstop, told reporters afterward.

Pipp, of course, is the former New York Yankee first baseman who took himself out of the lineup on June 1, 1925, and was replaced by a rookie named Lou Gehrig. Gehrig then played in a record 2,130 consecutive games.

Pipp stepped into oblivion.

So far, nobody has asked Concepcion to take that step.

Not yet, anyway.

But Stillwell, a 20-year-old rookie two years removed from Thousand Oaks High, is coming on strong. In his first spring training with the major league team, Stillwell is the talk of camp.

So much so, in fact, that Concepcion, a 16-year major league veteran who has played more games in a Cincinnati uniform than anyone other than Pete Rose, has become irritated with the media's burgeoning interest in Stillwell.

After Stillwell hit a ninth-inning home run last Sunday to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, a reporter approached Concepcion in the Reds' clubhouse.

"What do you want to talk about?" Concepcion asked him.

"Kurt," the reporter said.

Concepcion glared at him and walked away.

Concepcion wasn't in such a surly mood after Stillwell's four-hit game last week.

"Someday, I have to go," he said. "But not this year. He might be ready this year, but it's not my time to retire."

Just then, Concepcion looked up and saw equipment manager Bernie Stowe packing for the Reds' cross-state trip the next day to Vero Beach.

"Hey, Bernie," he yelled across the clubhouse, "where's my bag? I've got to make all the trips this year."

Clearly, Concepcion, 37, feels Stillwell's presence.

And sometimes it irks him.

"He's a proud man," Bruce Schoenfeld, who covers the Reds for the Cincinnati Post, said of Concepcion. "Here's a guy who felt that Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were taking attention away from him, and now everybody's talking about a kid who's never played an inning in the majors?

"He feels put out."

Maybe he should get used to it.

To the amusing accompaniment of the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show," courtesy of his whistling teammates, Stillwell met with a group of reporters last Sunday afternoon.

Pitcher Tom Browning nicknamed Stillwell "Opie," more perhaps for his affability and good nature than for any facial resemblance.

"One day I was just walking in, smiling and grinning," said Stillwell, smiling and grinning, "and he said, 'You look like Opie.' I still don't see it myself."

Stillwell, who has been promoted as Cincinnati's shortstop of the future almost from the day the Reds made him the No. 2 pick overall in the 1983 draft, said he has been made to feel welcome by his teammates, including Concepcion.

In fact, a group including Stillwell and Concepcion went fishing the other day.

"We're pretty good friends, I think," Stillwell said of his relationship with Concepcion, a nine-time all-star. "We don't go out together or anything like that, but he's been great to me.

"It's been better than I expected, I guess, because there's been some bad things said about him in the papers. But he hasn't shown any bitterness toward me. That's been kind of neat because I've idolized him since I was a kid."

But Concepcion hasn't offered him any advice, either.

"Why should he?" Stillwell said. "It's his job I'm trying to take."

At that moment, Concepcion walked across the clubhouse and shook Stillwell's hand.

"See?" Stillwell said. "He's a nice guy. He's been doing that ever since I got here, congratulating me when I do something good. And I do the same to him. So, it's been a pretty good relationship."

Rose, the Reds' player-manager, said that, no matter what happens this spring, Concepcion will be his starter when the season opens next month. "I don't see how it would ever be justified to put anybody in Davey's spot on opening day," Rose said. But Bill Bergesch, the Reds' general manager, said he told Concepcion before spring training that he'd "better be looking over his shoulder because Stillwell's right there."

If Concepcion had bothered to look before this season, he would have seen Stillwell quickly gaining on him.

Stillwell hit .552 as a high school senior and was named Southern Section 4-A Player of the Year. The Reds paid him a reported $150,000 signing bonus.

In his professional debut, less than three weeks after his 18th birthday, he got four hits and after only 1 1/2 seasons of professional experience, he was named by Baseball America magazine as the best major league prospect in the Reds' organization.

After skipping Double-A, he played only 59 games at Class Triple-A Denver last season because of a stress fracture in his right shin. Still, the league managers named him as one of the top three major league prospects in the American Assn. Then, he made up for some of the lost time last fall, batting .301 in the Florida Instructional League.

This season, he didn't know what to expect. He reported early to spring training, he said, "because I was really nervous."

He hasn't shown it, though. He's hitting .409 (9 for 22), while Concepcion is hitting .444 (8 for 18).

"Every day, I'm feeling more comfortable and relaxed out there," Stillwell said. "When I'm relaxed, I have fun, and that's when I play my best.

"I don't know if I'm ready because I only played half the season last year, but I'm feeling more ready all the time."

Bergesch said the switch-hitting Stillwell is "very much in the chase for a spot on this club." The question is, will he get enough playing time this season for the Reds to justify promoting him?

Although the Reds have a veteran utility infielder in Wayne Krenchicki, Bergesch hinted that Stillwell could fill that role. "He could spell Concepcion," he said. "He could spell Ron Oester at second. He could pinch-hit. He could pinch-run.

"He can do a lot of things, so I don't think it will hurt him to rub shoulders with the big leaguers--but we wouldn't want him to waste a season of development just sitting on the bench."

Rose said Stillwell has a "great chance" of making the team, but said he probably won't make a decision on Stillwell's status before next week.

If he goes north with the Reds next month, Stillwell said, that will be a bonus. But he said he came to camp believing that he probably would be returning to Denver for another season.

Then he started playing.

"He's tremendous," Rose said. "He's impressed everybody."

Including Concepcion, who would rather not talk about it.

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