Stevens Waiting for Second Chance at First
Lee Stevens had been 23 years old for less than a week, and he and his wife, Kim, were just celebrating their first anniversary. Then came the call from the Angels, and life seemed like a giddy blur.
When Wally Joyner went on the disabled list last July 16 with a fracture in his knee that would cost him the rest of the season, the Angels brought up Stevens from triple-A Edmonton.
Stevens started at first base on the first day he wore a big league uniform, and got his first hit and his first run batted in that very game. His first home run came four days later when he racked up four RBIs.
By the second week in August, he was hitting .310 and playing just about every day, a bona fide rookie sensation.
From a few corners, there were even murmurs that would have seemed like sacrilege: Trade Joyner before he becomes a free agent, and let Lee Stevens be the first baseman for years to come.
Then came the rest of the story. Stevens swooned. In his final 47 appearances, he batted .165, with only three multiple-hit games. He finished the season hitting .214, with seven home runs.
Joyner had a job. Stevens started the next season back in Edmonton.
This year is a different story, Stevens said.
Joyner, now healthy, is thriving. So is Stevens, quietly.
“I’ve learned a lot this year from what happened last year,” said Stevens, a 6-foot-4, 219-pound player who was drafted from Lawrence (Kan.) High School as the 22nd pick overall in 1986. “It motivated me. I felt I could do better. I know I’m a better hitter than that.”
He seems to be proving it. A few games into the second half of the season, Stevens is hitting .347 for the Trappers with 12 home runs.
Stevens credits some of his success to Lenn Sakata, a career .230 hitter who spent 11 seasons in the majors, mostly with Baltimore, who is now a coach with the Trappers. By his own admission, Sakata is one of those weak-hitting players who teaches by preaching, “Do as I say, not as I did.”
“I wanted him to be more aware,” Sakata said. “He was pretty much swinging and trying to hit everything, instead of being more patient and trying to look for the one particular pitch likely to be thrown frequently in that particular at-bat.”
Stevens says Sakata’s advice has helped.
“I’ve tried to learn the pitchers, and learn to look for certain pitches in certain situations rather than being geared for just one pitch,” Stevens said. “I’m learning to hit off-speed pitches.”
That is adding a necessary dimension to Stevens’ game.
Last season with the Angels, he struck out 75 times in 248 at-bats. So far this season, he has struck out 39 times in the same number of at-bats.
“He reminds me of someone like Cecil Cooper, who had to become a good breaking-ball hitter in the big leagues,” Sakata said.
With the new approach, Stevens is hitting more than 40 percentage points higher than he was when he was called up last season.
“I’m in shock that I’m hitting .340,” he said. “I always thought that someday I’d have the potential to maybe hit .300.”
But he knows his future is tied to Joyner’s, and even then, with prospect Chris Cron playing first while Stevens plays right field for the Trappers, the situation isn’t clear. Cron, 27, who played at El Dorado High and Rancho Santiago College, is hitting .276 with 10 home runs.
One thing helps. Neither Stevens nor Cron needs to harbor a malevolent wish for Joyner to suffer an injury or be traded. They only have to wait and see. Joyner will be eligible for free agency after this season.
“If he doesn’t find another team, I will,” Stevens said, not bitterly.
And if Joyner signs with the Angels again? Would they trade Stevens?
“I would think so. I would hope they would,” Stevens said. “I don’t want to come back here again. If they did sign him, I hope they’d have other plans for me. At this point, I’m on hold. I just have to believe one of us is going to have to leave.”
There is the possibility that Stevens could play in the outfield.
“I don’t think my future as an outfielder is in their plans,” he said. “They know and I know that I’m a lot better first baseman.”
When his chance comes again, Stevens thinks the story will end differently than it did the first time.
“It was the end of the year, it was the first time I’d ever been in the big leagues,” he said. “It was an extra month of playing. I got tired, physically and mentally.”
Plus, he is a changed hitter now.
"(Sakata) has taught me to be more of a hitter, not a slugger,” he said.
A resolution to Bob Hamelin’s ordeal of more than two years is on its way. The Royals’ organization has decided that his ongoing back trouble will require surgery.
“We’ve gotten a couple of opinions, and it looks like that is what will happen,” said Bob Hegman, assistant director of scouting and player development. “They’ve all agreed surgery is the recommended course of action.”
The bad news: the recovery is expected to take about one year, Hegman said.
Hamelin, a former standout first baseman at Irvine High, Rancho Santiago College and UCLA, played in 37 games this season and was hitting .189 with four home runs for the Royals’ triple-A Omaha team before he was forced to stop playing. He had missed substantial time the past two seasons because of the back injury, diagnosed as a stress fracture.
Once one of the top prospects in the organization, he now faces a long road back.
Courtney Davis was just a walk-on at UC Irvine, an outfielder who appeared in 25 of 56 games in 1989, and batted only .191.
Plenty of players with more impressive statistics don’t get a shot at pro baseball, but Davis has two valued qualities--speed and a good arm--and he was signed as a free agent.
Davis is giving it a try. But so far, it hasn’t gone so well. His first season, he hit .218 with Clinton, the Giants Class-A team in Iowa. He is batting only .203 with two home runs for Clinton this season, although he has 10 stolen bases. After starting in left field at the beginning of the season, he is a part-time player again.
“I’m struggling,” Davis said. “The Giants have been giving me ample opportunity to show my skills. It’s a matter of me putting it together.”
Lately, he has fewer opportunities.
“Since my average is one of the lowest on the team, I’m getting a chance to support the guys from the bench almost every day.”
A game between the Memphis Chicks and the Huntsville Stars last week that began on Monday night didn’t end until Tuesday night, when a couple of Orange County players put an end to it in the 20th inning, helping the Stars to a 9-7 victory.
Neither team had scored for 14 innings when James Buccheri, a former Golden West player, singled in a run for a 7-6 lead. Buccheri scored what proved to be the winning run on a single by Scott Shockey, formerly of El Toro High and Pepperdine.
The game had been suspended Monday night after 16 innings because of a league rule prohibiting the start of an inning after 12:50 a.m. local time.