BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Hargrove Says Indians Can Handle It

Tommy John remembers 1979. He remembers the emotional impact of Thurman Munson's death on the New York Yankees.

"We played out the string after that," the pitcher recalled. "We really didn't have any bite or fire.

"It may have drawn the team together and given us a new realization of how fragile life is, but when it came to playing the game, we definitely didn't have our hearts in it."

The New York catcher and captain died on Aug. 2 in the crash of a private jet he was learning to fly.

A Yankee team that had won 100 regular-season games before winning the World Series in 1977 and '78, and which would win another division title with 103 victories in 1980, finished fourth in '79 with 89 wins.

The Yankees went a respectable 31-23 after Munson's death, but John, 21-9 that season, said: "We played below our capability. We went through the motions.

"I don't know if we could have beaten Baltimore (which won the American League East with 102 victories), but we played some of those games as if we were in a trance.

"We told ourselves that we wanted to win for Thurman, but the shock of his loss outweighed our determination."

Stunned by the deaths of pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, the Cleveland Indians turn to a 162-game schedule with similar determination.

"When I say we're going to be OK, those are very few words, but for me they carry a lot of meaning," Manager Mike Hargrove said in the Indians' camp the other day.

"I say those words with a lot of confidence because of the people we have. I see it. It screams out at you what they're all about."

Perhaps, but it seems unlikely that the Indians will soon shake the memory of Monday's tragedy or find a replacement for Olin as the bullpen closer.

At 27, the right-hander had become a major factor in the Cleveland renaissance. He saved 29 games with an 8-5 record and 2.34 earned-run average last season and had registered either a victory or a save in half the team's victories since the 1991 All-Star game.

The Indians will rely on relief by committee, employing Ted Power, Derek Lilliquist, Kevin Wickander and Eric Plunk, who combined to save 17 games--or 12 fewer than Olin--last season.

General Manager John Hart said a trade is unlikely, but that Mike Christopher, who saved 26 games at Colorado Springs, could get an extended look.

There are also new concerns about a rotation that was already questionable. Hart said that Bob Ojeda, who suffered severe head lacerations in the boating accident that claimed Olin and Crews, will require at least two weeks' rest, leaving his April availability as the club's No. 2 or 3 starter behind 17-game winner Charles Nagy in doubt.

"I'm not saying he'll have to start all over," Hart said of Ojeda's preparations, "but he's a lot closer to square one again.

"He's very weak. He lost a lot of blood. There's also the emotional baggage he'll have to deal with."

It is now likely that Chad Ogea, a combined 19-4 in classes A and AA last season, will be given an April trial in a rotation that includes the recycled Jose Mesa and Mike Bielecki.

All of it is a jolt to a Cleveland team that:

--Wouldn't have been training in Winter Haven, near the new Crews home on Little Lake Nellie, if Hurricane Andrew hadn't wiped out its proposed base in Homestead.

--Wouldn't have been stunned by the impact of the fatal accident if the water in a nearby lake on which Crews had preferred to fish hadn't been too low for his boat.

It was a jolt, too, to a team that is preparing to move into a new, downtown Cleveland stadium in 1994 with some of baseball's best young talent and regenerated fan support.

"I won't attempt to minimize the tragedy or the loss, but the train is still on the track, steaming a lot quicker than it was last year or the year before," Hart said of the Indians' rebuilding process.

"We've got 17 young players signed to long-term contracts. Some are starting to blossom, and some have blossomed already. We won't forget what happened this week, and we never want to forget the two players, but we've come too far to use it as an excuse."

Their bodies might be willing, but Tommy John would tell the Indians that the mind is another matter.

HIP, HIP

Bo Jackson has completed the first phase of his remarkable comeback from hip-replacement surgery, winning a roster spot with the Chicago White Sox, but his role remains hazy.

"Right now he's not in the lineup," General Manager Ron Schueler said. "He'll have to earn it. Frank Thomas is our first baseman, and George Bell is our designated hitter. George seems to think he's in competition with Bo, but he isn't. George has a job here, a role here."

The Chicago outfield also seems set, with Tim Raines in left, Lance Johnson in center and Ellis Burks in right.

Jackson probably will get two or three starts a week, replacing either Bell, who is 32 and coming off knee surgery; Raines, 33; or Burks, who is expected to need rest for the bulging disk that plagued his last two seasons with the Boston Red Sox.

Jackson is simply happy to have a uniform.

"I never doubted myself, but I didn't expect the kind of spring I had," he said. "I didn't think I'd be able to start and stop like I have, and I didn't expect to be able to run from home to first in 4.3 seconds."

THE ODYSSEY

At 45, approaching his 21st full season, Charlie Hough will have come full circle when he pitches the Florida Marlins' opener against the Dodgers in Miami on April 5.

It will be his first professional start in his hometown and the city in which many of his and wife Sharon's relatives still live.

And it will be his first start against the Dodgers, his first team.

"I went to high school 10 miles from the new ballpark (in Miami)," he said the other day. "It's going to be thrilling and I'm going to be nervous as hell, but I've already told Tommy (Lasorda) he's going to be 0-1. I just hope they use the team they used last year."

Hough referred to the Dodgers' 99 losses and 174 errors of 1992, a year in which Hough worked 176 1/3 innings for the White Sox, with a 7-12 record.

Chicago's decision to let Hough leave as a free agent "was a disappointment because I loved playing there," he said. But he didn't wait for other offers once Miami made an $800,000 proposal for '93.

"If this isn't my last year, next year probably will be," Hough said. "I mean, when was I going to get another chance to pitch in my hometown?

"I also thought it would be a lot of fun to start on the ground floor with an expansion team, and it has been.

"If I pitch well, I'll pitch next year again. If I don't, it will be real easy to retire because I've lasted a lot longer than I ever thought I would. I mean, how many line drives can you dodge?"

Hough has won 202 games since an arm injury stripped him of a fastball and he began to master the knuckleball with the Dodgers in 1969. There are six pitchers in the Florida camp--Mike Myers, Stan Spencer, Kip Yaughn, David Weathers, Robert Person and Hector Carrasco--who are younger than Hough's knuckler.

BONUS

The contract-of-the-year award goes to agent Dennis Gilbert and attorney Steve Schneider for the three-year extension they got Bret Saberhagen with the New York Mets this week. You may not have noticed, but the injury-plagued Saberhagen has averaged only seven victories a season for the last three years, with a cumulative record of 21-22.

That's far short of his Cy Young Award levels, but apparently good enough for an extension projecting to a possible $27.5 million, depending on who is counting.

The complex arrangement calls for a $2.25-million signing bonus and yearly salaries of $3.05 million, $4.05 million and $4.3 million, with a fourth option year, hinging on innings pitched, at either $5.25 million or $5.5 million.

It also guarantees Saberhagen, 29 next month, $250,000 per year between the ages of 40 and 65, includes sizable awards and innings-pitched bonuses and carries a $200,000 moving expense if he is traded. His salary would be pro-rated in event of a work stoppage.

Met Vice President Al Harazin said he put no stock in Saberhagen's recent records because of the injury factor and thought that the pitcher was 100% again.

"We know what he's capable of when healthy," Harazin said. "We also know that if we're going to be a championship club again it will be on the arms of a Doc Gooden and Bret Saberhagen."

SLEEPERS

The Philadelphia Phillies' 1992 season was enough to put a new crack in the Liberty Bell. A club-record 17 players went on the disabled list a National League-high 21 times. The Phillies used 48 players, including 24 pitchers. The projected outfield of Wes Chamberlain, Lenny Dykstra and Dale Murphy started two games. The projected rotation never made it out of spring training.

The '93 Phillies, however, might be the team to beat in a wide-open NL East.

"If Dykstra and the pitching stay healthy, we can surprise everyone," Manager Jim Fregosi said in Florida the other day. "I think we have the best offensive club in the division, and I'll match our one-through-five (starting pitchers) against anyone (in the NL East)."

Operating within limited financial parameters and frustrated by injuries that have forced an annual overhaul of the pitching, General Manager Lee Thomas has done a remarkable rebuilding job.

He doesn't have a dominant No. 1, but Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene, Danny Jackson and Ben Rivera might total 1,000 innings if physically sound, easing the burden on a suspect bullpen anchored by Mitch Williams. Also, Thomas is talking with Florida about closer Bryan Harvey, a former Angel.

The general manager acquired Milt Thompson and Pete Incaviglia to platoon in left field and Jim Eisenreich as part of a beefed-up group of reserves last winter. Thomas says the talented and temperamental Chamberlain has returned with an improved attitude, that third baseman Dave Hollins is a star in the making and that Kevin Stocker is a phenom-in-waiting, a possible midseason answer to the shortstop vacuum.

Much of the Phillies' fate, however, rests with Dykstra, who says he is in the best shape of his career. The Phillies were 76-71 when he played the last two seasons, 72-105 when he didn't.

"We were dead when he got hurt because we had no depth," Fregosi said. "Now we do."

The Phillies also have baseball's loosest clubhouse. "If you're normal around here, you're unique," Fregosi said, cracking up one morning as he listened to the gallows humor of Dykstra, John Kruk, Williams, Incaviglia and Larry Andersen. No one is immune.

The Phillies even jab the straight-laced Murphy and stoic Eisenreich, whom they call "Jeffrey Dahmer" because of his facial resemblance to the Milwaukee mass murderer.

"I've never had this much fun," Eisenreich said, accepting it all in

stride.

And Murphy?

"Well, every Mormon has a missionary obligation, and Murph is fulfilling his with this low-life team," Kruk said.

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