Among other things, one sign that you have become a big league baseball player is that you no longer have a stranger’s signature in your glove. There are no Willie Mays Models here, no Mickey Mantle Special Editions, no Pee Wee Reese Limiteds.
Big leaguers are contractually bound to prefer nothing fancier on their defense weapons than “Rawlings” or “Wilson” or whoever is paying them. That is, most big leaguers.
One exception is Padre infielder Joey Cora. His glove is a Wayne Gretzky model.
In the dugout before Wednesday’s exhibition game with the San Francisco Giants, Cora grabs his glove, turns it over and points to some faded blue script near the back.
“See that?” he asks. “That’s Wayne Gretzky’s signature. You know what I had to go through to get that? We’re playing a minor league game in Edmonton, and I see him in the stands, and while we are batting, I send it over to get it signed. He got it back to me just before I have to go back on the field.
“Hey man, this is a big deal. This is worth some money.”
The point is not the big deal or the money, which is negligible considering the glove is so old and cracked that it looks like gardening glove. The point is that Joey Cora would proudly adorn it with a signature of one of sport’s better contradictions: a famous hockey player who is outspoken against fighting.
“That’s me,” said Cora, who will turn 24 this season. “I don’t like to fight. I am not a fighter. I don’t even like people yelling at me. I am sensitive, I know I am.
“Sometimes I wonder, if I am tougher, would things have been any different? I don’t know, but I never know, because I can never change.”
Everything else changes, though. And here, two springs after he was everybody’s phenom, everybody’s baby, Joey Cora sits, alone. His career, which has spanned four seasons in four different leagues and has included 54 games as a big-league starter, has come down to three words, which he utters with feeling:
“So now what?”
He had his chance to fight, in 1987, against the ragings of then-Manager Larry Bowa, for whom this rookie second baseman was never good enough. Bowa brought him to the big leagues from double-A and made him the Opening Day starter. Anyone who heard the screaming from San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium knows the rest.
“It was terrible,” Cora said. “Larry says so much, all the time, I did not want to come to the ballpark. And when I get there, I don’t want to be there.
“I get so down and lonely, I go home every night and try to cook, to help me forget.”
He had his chance, but he did not fight. He was quietly sent to triple-A Las Vegas on June 8 hitting just .234 with only 12 RBIs and at least as many mental mistakes. He was obviously not ready for the big leagues.
“I knew it,” Bowa said last year, “and Joey knew it.”
Cora finished out the triple-A season, played in 23 more big-league games following a September recall, then spent all of last year again in triple-A. By then, Roberto Alomar had established himself as the Padre second baseman for little less than his life span. And Cora could not fight.
So here he sits this spring, coming off a fine, all-star season in Las Vegas--.296 hitting, great fielding--and coming off the best Puerto Rican winter league season of his life, an all-star winter with a .303 average.
So here he sits, despite all that, hoping just to make the Padres as a utility man, hoping harder that he is traded somewhere.
So now what?
“I don’t know what’s going on, I have no idea anymore,” Cora said Wednesday before entering the Padres’ 8-6 loss to San Francisco in the eighth inning, just in time to draw a walk and score the Padres’ final run. He is hitting .333 this spring (3 for 9) with an RBI, and he has looked good in the field, with his only error coming on a low relay throw.
But while Bip Roberts, the other Padre utility infield candidate, has played a couple of positions, Cora has played only second. Considering that a couple of teams have asked about acquiring him, including the Chicago White Sox, he figures this may mean he has been showcased for a trade.
“If I am going to be a utility man here, you would think I would play third base and shortstop some,” he said. “It looks like I may just be playing for the man in the stands (scouts). That is fine, whatever, I will play wherever.”
And not fight it. That is the most curious thing about Cora, this lack of spite toward an organization that rushed him, this lack of anger toward the memory of Larry Bowa.
“I don’t hate Larry Bowa,” he said in answer to the first and most obvious question of all his interviews these days. “What good does it do to hate people? I look back, and I understand what Larry was going through. In a different way, he was going through the same thing as me. He was a rookie, he was trying to prove himself, he got frustrated.”
No, Cora said, he has not talked to Bowa since being sent down in June of 1987.
“But it doesn’t matter, because whenever we talked, he talked, I didn’t talk,” Cora said. “I will talk to him if I ever get a chance. I just don’t know what I’d say.”
He does know he wouldn’t curse him or berate him or get any ideas about taking a swing at him.
“You got to understand,” Cora said. “I don’t even hate the guy who stabbed me.”
Many remember the incident in 1986 when Cora, playing for double-A Beaumont, was stabbed in the stomach during a parking lot fight outside the stadium in San Antonio. The fight started because some thugs were messing with the team bus. There was much written about it and about Cora’s eight-week recovery from ensuing surgery and how he made the big leagues the following year in spite of that.
What may have been lost in the fuss, though, was that on that night in San Antonio, Cora decided he would never fight again.
“That taught me a good lesson about minding your own business and keeping a low profile,” Cora said. “That really affected me for a long time. I see Stanley Jefferson fighting with Larry Bowa the next year and I think, forget it, I fight no guys, I just do what they tell me.”
So here he sits, perhaps good enough to start another big league season with someone but wondering if maybe one chance isn’t all you ever get.
“Hey, so maybe he came up before he should have, he’s still so young,” Manager Jack McKeon said. “How many years has he been in triple-A, not even two? He should ask some other guys around here about playing in the minor leagues.
“I’m not worried about Joey. We’ve got time to do a lot of things with him.”
And when he does get another chance, and the manager happens to be someone like Larry Bowa?
“I don’t know what I’d do,” Cora said evenly. “Just hope that doesn’t happen.”
Pitcher Ed Whitson was rocked for five runs on six hits in four innings of Wednesday’s 8-6 loss to San Francisco. This included back-to-back homers by Kevin Mitchell and Candy Maldonado. But Whitson said he felt fine and had no numbness in fingers, something that bothered him last season. “The trainers thumb out (massage) the nerves in my arm before I go out there, and I am fine,” Whitson said. “The problem today was just a couple of pitches that got away.” . . . A real problem for the Padres appears to be the left side of their infield, which committed two more errors Wednesday (Carlos Baerga, Mike Brumley) to give that side 10 errors in six games. “That’s not getting by me,” said Manager Jack McKeon, who will increase his efforts this week to find a power-hitting third baseman and may still settle on Seattle’s Jim Presley if others are included in the deal. For the record, shortstop Brumley has committed three errors, shortstop Gary Green has committed two errors, shortstop Garry Templeton has committed one error. Third baseman Randy Ready has committed three errors, and Baerga blew his first one Wednesday. . . . The ones most effected by this are Brumley and Green, who are fighting for the backup shortstop job. Brumley entered camp as a virtual lock; Green wasn’t even invited until the last minute. But now the race seems to be even, and McKeon wants to take the one with the best defense, which right now is Green. “I’m not making a choice, but I’d like to have a defensive player there,” McKeon said. . . . McKeon said his regulars will begin playing as a unit Sunday in Mesa against the Chicago Cubs. By the time the club returns to Yuma at the end of next week, he said, the regulars would play two out of every three games.