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HE’S NOT TAKING IT EASY : Hinzo Tries to Impress Indians--Again

The bright blue and red of the Cleveland Indians is generously splashed around the Hi Corbett Field complex here, glowing from the railings, walls and doorways. The colors mix with the casual spring training atmosphere to keep the mood loose and light.

It is precisely the kind of mood that Tommy Hinzo is trying to avoid.

He was loose last year. He took things lightly last year. And he was shipped to Colorado Springs (triple-A) at the end of spring training. A bright spot in Cleveland the year before at second base, there was no Indian summer in 1988 for Tommy Hinzo. He spent the entire season in the minors.

Now, a year after his demotion, Hinzo, a Hilltop High School graduate, is trying to rebuild his path to the majors.

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“Tommy has an outstanding attitude this spring,” Cleveland Manager Doc Edwards said this week. “He realizes that when he’s here, he will be here to stay. We’re not putting the proverbial cart in front of the horse.”

Hinzo may not stick with Cleveland this spring, but at least the horse is catching up. A year ago, Hinzo was complacent when he should have been hungry. And it cost him.

“I saw an attitude this spring when he first showed up,” Edwards said. “When you see someone in training camp with a lot of fire in their eyes, and then you don’t see it the next year, it’s a big change. Sometimes we don’t see things in ourselves, and I bet Tommy didn’t last year. But this spring, I saw it again. Believe me, it’s a big change.

Until last year, Tommy Hinzo was a man who was able to recognize an opportunity, harness it and climb aboard.

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Known once as Touchdown Tommy, he set rushing records at Hilltop when football was his favorite sport. But he was a standout on the baseball diamond as well, and his father and Hilltop Coach John Baumgarten both told him he could make a career in the sport.

He took his talents to Southwestern Community College, after which he moved on to Tucson and the University of Arizona--where he played for the 1986 College World Series champions. It wasn’t the last time Tucson, a town tinted red-and-blue by the Arizona Wildcats as well as the Indians, would serve as a setting for his baseball pursuits.

Cleveland’s No. 7 pick in the June 1986 draft, Hinzo was in the majors a year and a month later. He was 23 and went two for five on July 16 against the White Sox in his first big league game. He teamed with shortstop Jay Bell to form the youngest double play combination in Cleveland history.

Then, last spring, Hinzo’s career took an abrupt turn south. The red of Tommy Hinzo’s red-hot rise to the majors faded into the blue of a lost opportunity. One line in the transactions column, and he was blown out of town.

What happened was what happens to a lot of young players. Hinzo’s ego advanced a little more rapidly than his game. He became a little too cocky.

And a serious lesson was about to be learned.

After playing 67 games in Cleveland in 1987, Hinzo figured he had it made. He was young and talented. He had started the season at Kinston (A), was promoted to Williamsport (double-A) in June and called up to the Indians in July.

A leap such as that in one season, from A ball to the majors, is almost unheard of. Hinzo did it. But then he had to deal with it.

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He went to Mexico to play winter ball in 1987, hurt a knee, sprained a thumb and returned home. His doctor told him to take it easy, and that was all Tommy Hinzo, Cleveland Indian second baseman, needed to hear.

“That’s exactly what I did,” he said. “I came into camp fat and out of shape. It was just terrible. It got time to start working, and it was a little too late. I was that bad out of shape. I figured I was planted, and there was really nobody there to contend with as far as someone to beat out for a job. I figured as long as I played defense, the job would be mine.

Something else Hinzo didn’t plan on was Julio Franco’s desire to move from shortstop to second. Franco is a solid major leaguer with a .295 career batting average, and Edwards began to listen to Franco’s pleas when he saw Hinzo’s overconfidence.

“We held Julio off as long as we could, trying to evaluate whether we’d be better off with Julio at shortstop and Tommy at second or Julio at second and Bell at shortstop,” Edwards said. “Bell had a better attitude than Tommy.”

Call it a major league learning experience for Hinzo.

“Tommy wasn’t so much out of shape last year as he didn’t have the right approach,” Edwards said. “He had always had the right approach to the game, and I think what happened to him last year happens to a lot of young people who have success early. He forgot his priorities.”

So the Indians sent him away. He started well at Colorado Springs, batting around .270 midway through the season, but finished the season batting just .232. And the man known for his defense made 19 errors.

“It was like I was on a mission in the beginning,” he said. “But then I didn’t get called up . . . I just didn’t go about things business-like.”

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In one of life’s little ironies, the road led him through Tucson again. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox finished the season here last summer, and as Tommy Hinzo drove home to San Diego after the final game last August, he did a lot of thinking. He thought about 1987, when he was the Indians’ second baseman. He thought about how quickly he had come in so little time. And he decided that if he was going to make his living at baseball, he had better start acting like it.

Said Edwards: “The good ones bounce back and are usually better ballplayers because they never forget the (minor league) experience. The guys who aren’t winners are doing you a favor because they don’t bounce back.”

Spring is a time for beginnings rather than endings, so the ending of the Tommy Hinzo story is yet to be written. He has had a good camp both offensively and defensively, batting .350 with no errors. But the Indians were so unsure of him over the winter that when they traded Franco to the Texas Rangers, they picked up another second baseman--Jerry Browne.

“We weren’t going to trade Julio without acquiring another second baseman,” Edwards said. “We didn’t know how Tommy would be this spring. You don’t know a man’s approach until a man shows up.”

Hinzo attacked this winter with more determination than ever. He worked out at Hilltop five days a week, taking 200 swings and 200 grounders a day. He also bulked up on a weight program. He’s around 190 pounds now, but it’s muscle instead of fat.

But it may take him longer than he would like to erase the damage of last spring. He’s battling Browne for the second base job and, while Edwards isn’t saying, it appears Browne has the inside track.

“Jerry Browne has had an outstanding spring,” Edwards said. “Outstanding.”

Browne is a veteran of parts of the 1986 and 1988 seasons with Texas as well as a full-season in 1987, when he batted .271.

“You do have to weigh (the experience) factor,” Edwards said. “Someone who hit .271 in a full season as opposed to someone who hit .265 in half a season.”

The scouting report reads nearly the same on Browne and Hinzo: good range, good speed, turns the double play well, average at the plate. But Browne has the edge in experience.

Luis Aguayo, a seven-year veteran signed by Cleveland as a free agent this winter, has a lock on the utility infielder role. So Browne and Hinzo are not only battling for the starting second base job; they are battling for a roster spot.

“If Jerry Browne is the starting second baseman, I will not carry Tommy Hinzo,” Edwards said. “He won’t sit on the bench. He is too young and needs to play every day. But I have a good feeling that if something happened to Jerry Browne, Tommy Hinzo would be right there.”

Said Hinzo: “I don’t know. Last year I took things for granted. I vowed I wouldn’t let it happen again. I’ll be up there sometime this year.”

Meanwhile, spring training continues, and the reds and blues continue to glow in the sweltering sun at Hi Corbett Field. The first cuts will be made in Tucson later this week.


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