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Trading Places Works Out for Randolph, Sax

The Hartford Courant

Vindication is probably not a word one could easily drag from the lips of either the New York Yankees’ Steve Sax or the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Willie Randolph.

Yet, there will have to be an immense sense of accomplishment when the two All-Stars look at each other from opposite sides of the field at Anaheim Stadium Tuesday night. After all, the two second basemen replaced one another, swapping uniforms, tradition, coasts, leagues and teams in a free-agent flip-flop overflowing with irony.

Half a season later, the irony remains. But the discomfort caused by the two free-agent signings 3,000 miles apart last winter does not. Success is curing all the yearning, the mixed emotions, the uprooted feelings both players surely suffered at the outset of 1989. And both Sax and Randolph have succeeded. Their presence as all-stars proves that.

“I just think I did the right thing,” said Sax, a four-time all-star making his first appearance as an American Leaguer. “As it turned out, it was best for both of us. Willie has played great for the Dodgers and my career has gone great in New York. That’s the way it should be.”

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“It’s sweet, real sweet just to be here,” said Randolph, a six-time all-star but first-time National Leaguer. “It’s nice to know you still can do it.”

“They are two different types of ballplayers, two different personalities,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia, also an all-star. “For them to both have made it, it gives everyone a great feeling.”

That success has made it easier for Sax, who chose to leave the Dodgers and unwittingly displaced the popular Randolph. And living his new life well has also helped Randolph’s outlook. Granted, he never wanted to leave the Bronx, but when Randolph says “I’m a Dodger, now,” one senses his heart is finally in agreement with his head.

Added to their peace of mind is the satisfaction both teams must feel. Yes, it’s only a half a season, but so far, so good. No organization has been embarrassed. No calamities have been suffered. Randolph is healthy. Sax has not disintegrated under the white-hot lights of New York. It has been mutually beneficial.

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Sax earned his All-Star berth by hitting .327 and providing so much of a spark that he made Rickey Henderson expendable. Sax has scored 49 runs and driven in another 34. He has proven to be mentally tough in a town that routinely grinds up transplants from the laid-back West Coast. That quality in Sax has not been lost on his manager, who endorsed the signing, took a lot of heat, then waited to be vindicated.

“The thing he’s done is slowly, slowly gained respect, and in a way the kind of clubhouse leadership role I expected him to take all along,” Yankee Manager Dallas Green said recently. “He didn’t come in and jump up and down ringing bells about how great he was. Just through games played and work habits, he’s let people see what kind of player he is.”

Sax, thought to be suspect defensively, has surprised. “I really didn’t know what to expect, but he didn’t get recognition as a good defensive player,” said Don Mattingly, the Yankees’ first-base Gold Glover and other all-star. “But I think he’s got good range and he turns the double play well. And he doesn’t throw the ball away.”

Randolph never had to prove such mundane things as his ability not to throw the ball away. He’s always been smooth afield, second only to the Kansas City Royals’ Frank White in his days in the American League. The Dodgers needed Randolph to do one other thing besides stay healthy: take the defense up another notch. Randolph has. He and shortstop Alfredo Griffin have given L.A. what General Manager Fred Claire calls the team’s best double play combination since the Dodgers left Brooklyn. And Randolph, never one to brag, bluntly says, “I’m playing the best defense of my life.”

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Randolph also added a big bonus by getting his offensive numbers back up after a couple of slow seasons. He ended the first half hitting .291. Randolph has driven in 22 runs and scored another 36. Randolph, who prefers to have his performance measured by on-base percentage, is satisfied with that number thus far -- .387.

And while Sax merely needed to prove he could survive, Randolph felt he had something to prove, something that baseball players in mid-life career crises must meet up with eventually. Randolph had to prove he was not through. He knew that. His family knew it, too, even 8-year-old Andre, Randolph’s son.

“Andre told me he was proud of me when I told him I was named to the team,” Randolph said. “That’s the first time my son ever told me that. I almost cried.”

So the proving was all the more sweet. And not lost on new teammates or old. “He’s just an utter professional,” Scioscia said. “It’s a pleasure to watch him play.”

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So when the two All-Stars face each other during introductions, Dodgers and Yankees will pull for both. For the sake of Randolph and the sake of Sax, the rivalry has been put on hold. This time, a Dodgers-Yankees tie more than suffices.

“It worked out for both guys,” Mattingly said. “You have to be glad for that.”


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