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Tommy John Is Making Believer of Dallas Green

<i> The Hartford Courant</i>

Dallas Green finds himself in the same position other Yankees managers have faced the past two springs. No, he’s not in trouble with George. Rather, he’s in the now uncomfortable position of having to praise Tommy John, not bury him.

Saturday, one day after John allowed one unearned run in an impressive five innings against the White Sox, Green ducked and dodged being pinned down on John’s chances. Finally, though, Green laughed and asked, “You guys are really going to make me eat crow on this one, aren’t you?”

The media might not, but Tommy John may. For John felt the full weight of Green’s sometimes-brutal honesty when Green made it exceedingly clear that any thoughts John had of being a Yankee would be a waste of time. John’s age--45--would not allow it, the Yankees manager informed the media, John and anyone else who would listen.

But John, being one of those Yankees with nine lives, defied Green’s wishes by showing up anyway, thanks, in part, to his own stubbornness and to a generous benefactor named Steinbrenner. The Yankees’ owner, in the first split of the year with Green, gave John and Ron Guidry $250,000 each just for walking through the gate. Steinbrenner promised another $250,000 to each for making the team.

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John is pitching like he wants the next big check. He has not allowed an earned run in 11 innings in three exhibition games. John has struck out 11 and allowed only eight hits and three walks. “I don’t know whether I needed to be converted or not, but Tommy’s making a believer of me,” Green conceded. “I may be stubborn and I’m recognized as being tough, but I’m not closed-minded. Sometimes I’ll let baseball players make decisions for me.”

Somewhere, Lou Piniella and Billy Martin must be smiling. They, too, reluctantly opened the door to John. And they, too, watched the combination of John’s tenaciousness and the rate of attrition take down seemingly healthier, younger arms.

Guidry’s out with bone chips. John Candelaria has had fluid drained from his right knee and has not pitched since March 5. Dave Righetti has thrown only one inning, idled since March 10 because of stiffness in his shoulder.

So John is one of the healthy left-handers, young or old. And his stock has gone up. “I don’t set anything in concrete,” said Green, “but he has not pitched himself off the club or out of our thinking. We’ve got to think about him, considering the shape of our pitching staff right now.”

It’s beginning to sound like a 180-degree swing to everyone but John. Green may have to buy John a home in New Jersey, hand him Steinbrenner’s quarter million and draw up an iron-clad contract before John believes he’s home free. “The other two managers thought I could pitch,” John said. “This manager still doesn’t. It’s, ‘Yeah, you can pitch, but how old are you?’ So I haven’t talked to him about Tommy John. When a guy is that adamant (at the start), well, it’s like I’m an uninvited guest at your house. As long as I do my laundry and make sure I hang up the guest towels, I still have a bed.”

So John is driven by the proving he wants to do at Green’s expense. And he wants to do well for the managers sitting across the field. Guys such as old friends Jeff Torborg and Sammy Ellis, the White Sox manager and pitching coach, who could turn to him should the Yankees say no. But John says he doesn’t really have to prove anything to those two because “they know what I can do. . . . Sometimes it’s nice to not throw your best and have people write you off in a heartbeat.”

He still believes Green would, if given a chance. He’s probably right because, though Green may be reluctantly turning into a John believer, he is in no way a believer in 40-year-old-plus pitchers. Green’s initial disdain for John and Guidry wasn’t personal. It’s just that they represent what Green’s instincts--and baseball stats--say hurt the Yankees. Since 1985, when the Yankees had a veteran-laden staff, the early going was fine. In composites of the past three Aprils and Mays, the Yankees’ ERA was 3.72 and the record was 94-52, a good enough percentage (.644) to have won all but four of the 80 division titles in the past 20 years.

However, after June 1 the past three seasons, the Yankees’ composite ERA was 4.46 and the record 170-169. Historically, playing a tad over .500 has won nothing but the National League East in 1973.

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A major reason for the Yankees’ falloffs--staff-wide breakdowns and-or letdowns by middling to aging pitchers such as Rick Rhoden, Candelaria, Joe Niekro, Ron Guidry--and John. John’s 1988 season was indicative of how Yankees pitchers wheezed to the finish line. John was 8-3 through July, 1-5 from August on.

Thus far this spring, John has yet to pitch more than five innings, so the stamina has not been tested. Green vows to stretch John out. John also knows his fate is still dependent on the stamina as well as health of others because Green’s reluctance to load up with six-inning pitchers is real. If Green has only one six-inning pitcher, however, there’s a window of opportunity for John. Green may not yet be ready to concede a roster spot to John. What he will concede, though, is John is unique.

“And maybe,” Green said, “I didn’t take that into consideration when I was talking about Tommy John.”


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