Hubie Brooks was always the pressure hitter. Every player has his badge, and that was his.
He was the guy counting through the batting order in late innings, hoping that if all else failed, he would be at the plate with the game on the line. And if he was the guy up, and you looked close, you could see him smile.
“You can look at a guy and tell he wanted to be in that situation,” said former Montreal teammate Wallace Johnson. “We all looked at Hubie and knew he was one of those guys. In his walk, in his actions, we knew.”
Then came July 18, 1989. After Montreal’s 7-6 loss to Atlanta, Brooks was summoned to the clubhouse phone. It was his mother calling from Los Angeles. Brooks’ cousin and close friend had committed suicide.
She had wanted to call him before he heard it from someone else. But within hours, he was hearing it everywhere. Soon, Hubie Brooks was covering his ears.
His cousin and close friend was former Angel pitcher Donnie Moore.
“He came out after the phone call like he was in another world,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Donnie is dead.’ Then he didn’t say anything else. And we knew he was hurting. We didn’t know how long he would be gone.”
But the Expos were in first place in a tight race. And Brooks was the pressure hitter.
The next day Buck Rodgers, the Expo manager, asked if him he could play. Brooks said yes. He was used as a pinch-hitter and struck out. The next day Rodgers asked again. Brooks again said yes. He went one for three, hitting a run-scoring double.
Rodgers stopped asking. Brooks did not stop hitting. Beginning on July 20, two days after Moore’s death, Brooks went on a six-game hitting streak. The Expos won all six.
“The man persevered,” Johnson said. “Unbelievably persevered. Never said anything about the death after the first day. Just went out and played.”
Beginning next week, Hubie Brooks will officially bring that perseverance to the Dodgers as their opening-day right fielder. Those wondering whether the stress of returning to his hometown as a high-priced free agent will affect him should check last July’s videotapes.
The Dodgers have found their pressure hitter.
“It ain’t my style not to play, man,” he said last winter when asked about missing a game because of Moore’s death. “It ain’t my style not to want to be out there when it counts. Donnie always told me, ‘You can make it. You can do it.’ More than ever, when he died, I wanted to be out there.”
For such a smiling, friendly player, Brooks’ statistics are ice. Last season he was a .385 hitter with runners on base in the last three innings with his team either tied or trailing by no more than three runs. Statisticians call that a pressure situation.
In the previous eight years of his career, he averaged .347 with the bases loaded. He has hit at least .270 with runners in scoring position for seven consecutive years.
Then there was last July.
“Donnie was my mother’s brother’s kid,” said Brooks, 33, in an interview last winter as he stared into space. “But because we used to visit them so much down in Texas, we became like brothers. Losing him, that’s what it was like. It was losing a brother.”
Moore, two years older than Brooks, taught him how to throw a baseball. He later taught him to fish. And in recent years, the two spent many winter afternoons sitting, on the bank of a pond near Moore’s Orange County home, watching their lines but not watching them, doing more talking than fishing.
“I’m not a good fisherman,” Brooks said. “But that wasn’t the point. We would sit there and shoot the breeze and he would always be encouraging me. Always pumping me up.”
Last winter, for the first time since he can remember, Brooks did not go fishing.
“Why?” Brooks said. “Who would I go with? I only went because of him.”
After Brooks learned of the suicide, he spent most of the rest of the summer using that word, why?
In the beginning, it was like a throbbing headache. Later, the word became a dull background drone. But it was always there.
“I ain’t done dealing with it yet,” Brooks said. “My whole family has to come to grips with it.
“It will be there the remainder of my life. You think about him, and you think, ‘Damn, man, why?’ What was going through his head? Why didn’t he give any of us a sign? What was he trying to tell us?
“The worst part is, he’s not here to give any answers.”
Brooks said that when he left the phone after learning the bad news last July 18, he was in shock. He began calling relatives, trying to learn about funeral arrangements. He began to think about how many days he would need to be gone.
Then he decided, it wasn’t going to work. The best thing for the memory of his cousin would not be to leave the Expos in the middle of a pennant race. The best thing would be to stay and attack that race.
“That first five or six days, it was so rough, but I realized, I got to keep playing,” Brooks said, “I do everybody the most good on the field. I go crazy if I don’t play. I got to play.”
He continued playing and a strange thing happened. He was trying so hard to forget about his cousin for a couple of hours, he was playing some of his best baseball of the season.
“It was strange, but once on that field, I could only think about baseball, it actually helped my powers of concentration,” Brooks said. “When I went home at night, it was different, the memories of Donnie all came back to me again. But when I went out the next day, at least during the game the hurt feelings were gone.”
Brooks followed his initial July streak with a slump that bottomed out with a .178 average in July, then rebounded only a little to .202 in August. He said that continued grief over his late cousin had nothing to do with it. He talked as if Donnie Moore would never give such an excuse.
“No excuses,” he said. “I struggled. I tried to sacrifice myself for the team and it didn’t work. I tried to do anything I could do to help us win the pennant, and it wasn’t enough.”
He finished the season hitting .268 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs.
“You will never find me with an excuse,” he said. “Either I do it, or I don’t.
Earlier this week, when asked what he does best, the pressure hitter shook his head.
“You come up with the game on the line and it’s like, I want to be the one to finish it,” he said. “It’s like, I never want to leave anything for anybody behind me.”
It appears that pitcher Jim Gott and his surgically repaired elbow are headed for the disabled list. Although Gott allowed no runs in two innings against the New York Yankees Tuesday, his second official spring appearance, scouts clocked him at a velocity well below major-league standards. Dodger officials feel that due to a fear of reinjuring himself, Gott has yet to completely test his right elbow, which underwent ligament surgery May 12. Gott acknowledged Tuesday that his main goal was not opening day, that he wanted to feel strong during pennant race time. “I’m not trying to prove to anybody that I am healthy for spring training,” Gott said. “My goal is six months down the road.” Gott said he hoped to pitch again Friday, after which Dodger officials probably will make a decision. Gott’s absence from the opening day roster could cost him a chance to make $1 million this year. When he signed during the winter as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was given a $300,000 guaranteed salary, with $700,000 in incentive money for time spent on the 24-man roster beginning, at the latest, April 30.
Gott’s absence would also mean that the Dodgers would be carrying three unexpected pitchers. Don Aase and Jim Neidlinger are the favorites to fill two of the extra three roster spots due to the lockout--the other spot should go to outfielder John Shelby--while Jeff Bittiger is the favorite to replace Gott. Bittiger, 27, has a career 4.77 ERA in 33 major league games with Philadelphia, Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox. He was acquired from the White Sox during the winter in a trade that sent third baseman Tracy Woodson to Chicago. He allowed one run in three innings in the Dodgers’ 6-1 victory over the Yankees Tuesday, giving him a 1.80 spring ERA in five innings.
John Wetteland strengthened his bid for a fifth starter spot by throwing his best game of the spring Tuesday, holding the Yankees to two hits in four innings. He and competitor Mike Morgan are scheduled to pitch back-to-back in Saturday’s second game of the Freeway Series against the Angels. . . . Willie Randolph led the Dodgers against his old Yankee team by going four for five with two doubles and an RBI. “Players who say it means nothing to play against their old team aren’t being completely honest,” Randolph said. Eddie Murray left Tuesday’s game in the first inning after being spiked by Yankee catcher Rick Cerone. Dodger trainers said he suffered a small cut between his toes, which is not expected to keep Murray out of the lineup. He enters opening day with a 359 consecutive game streak, second-longest in baseball. . . . Dave Winfield, the Yankee outfielder recovering from back surgery, got his first hit of spring training--in his 18th at bat--a a seventh-inning single off Bittiger. . . . Tim Leary, banished to the Dodger bullpen last season before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds, was traded to the Yankees last winter and will be their opening day starter next week. “All I know is, it’s better than being in the bullpen,” Leary said. . . . The Dodgers will fly to Los Angeles after today’s game, with a private workout scheduled for Dodger Stadium Thursday, followed by this weekend’s Freeway Series.