Advertisement
Share

All’s Right With Him : Cory Snyder Finds a Home With the Dodgers After an Up-and-Down Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He had become a utility player in almost everyone else’s mind, but it was a label Cory Snyder never accepted.

Not while he dusted the bench in Cleveland, or during his dog days in Chicago or Toronto, or even in his early days last season with San Francisco, before the Giants finally gave him a chance to play again.

But even there, he played every position except catcher and pitcher. In a game of labels, that sealed it.

Even when he ran onto the field at Dodger Stadium during opening-day introductions in April, he refused to believe what he was hearing:

“Cory Snyder, utility player.”

In all his years in baseball, he had never heard a reserve introduced that way. Infielder, outfielder, pitcher, sure. But utility player?

Advertisement

Tina Snyder, hurrying to her seat for the start of that game, stopped in her tracks. That’s how they were introducing her husband?

For three weeks last winter, Snyder thought the label had been peeled off. The Dodgers had signed him to a two-year, $3-million contract to play third base, or, at least to compete for the job. But on Christmas Day, Snyder got a call from a friend, who asked him if he had heard the news.

The Dodgers had signed Tim Wallach. Snyder, once again, was on the bench.

During spring training, old pal Brett Butler had a few new names to call Snyder. Forget Corndog, a named coined in error by Butler’s daughter, Stefanie. Snyder’s nickname was Cor-dog, but Stefanie’s version was better and stuck.

“I was calling him ‘Mutt,’ and ‘Scrub,’ ” said Butler, whose friendship with Snyder dates to their years with the Cleveland Indians, 1986-87.

“I told him: ‘You’ll play everywhere,’ ” Butler said. “And Cory kept saying, ‘No way, man. I’m going to start.’ ”

So it was with good reason that on a beautiful day in Denver recently, the man who had taken Darryl Strawberry’s job in right field sat in a hotel lobby and smiled, but not because he had displaced Strawberry.

Cory Snyder not only is in the starting lineup again, but for the first time in three seasons, he is thought of as a starter--even if he can start just about anywhere.

*

There could have been an explosion, so volatile was the Dodgers’ outfield situation. There still might be, but Snyder won’t be part of it. To their credit, both Snyder and Strawberry handled the right-field situation without creating a stir.

Snyder, who went to right field when Strawberry was put on the disabled list May 13, faced a daily interrogation by reporters.

“Every day I came to the park and it was, ‘How long do you think you are going to play?’ ” Snyder said. “It was, ‘You know Darryl is coming back. You know this is temporary.’ I mean, it’s been the Darryl and Cory show.

“Finally one day I said to myself, ‘I know Darryl is coming back, and I’m going to take advantage of it now.’ ”

In the 19 games that Strawberry was sidelined, Snyder batted .369, with three home runs and 11 runs batted in, raising his average from .256 to .324. He hit three homers within five days shortly before Strawberry was reactivated.

For once, Snyder’s timing could not have been better. Three games after Strawberry went out to try to strengthen his surgically repaired back, the Dodgers went on an 11-game winning streak, with Snyder playing a major role.

When Strawberry returned from a rehabilitation assignment June 3, ready to play, Snyder was batting .314, and his throwing arm--or the fear of it--was stopping runners cold. Snyder played error-free.

Strawberry was batting .141, with four home runs and 10 RBIs, when he was put on the disabled list. He had been struggling in the field as well.

So it was no surprise that the Dodgers were in no hurry to activate him. And when the Dodgers didn’t get around to activating Strawberry until after the game on June 4, it was clear that Snyder had a job.

“What’s a guy have to do to stay in the lineup?” Manager Tom Lasorda asked.

Strawberry was sent to left field on June 5, Lasorda saying it would be better on Strawberry’s back not to make the long throws. But Strawberry said he was uncomfortable in left field, where he played poorly, and asked Lasorda to move him back to right.

Lasorda thought it over.

“So Darryl comes back and I’m still out there and Tommy asks me if I would mind playing left field,” Snyder said. “I could say, ‘No way!’ but I didn’t. Tommy said, ‘Look, we need his bat and he feels more comfortable.’ I say, ‘Fine, I’ll play left field. I’ll catch if I have to, I just want to play.’

“I can’t go into Tommy’s office and say, ‘OK, I know Darryl is back, but play me anyway.’ I don’t make up the lineup card, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it.”

But it wasn’t long before Strawberry was struggling in right field, too, and eventually he resigned himself to going back on the disabled list and letting his back heal, however long it may take.

Snyder went back to right field.

“I was a little surprised at first when he left me out there,” Snyder said. “I mean, Darryl is like it in L.A. And I still get remarks from the fans in the stands, like, ‘Where’s Darryl?’

“It’s been Darryl’s position for the last few years, and it’s not totally comfortable--it’s like being in someone else’s territory.

“This has been tough on Darryl. But there isn’t a day he doesn’t stop by my locker and shake my hand.”

Hanging in Snyder’s locker is a simple piece of paper with three words written on it-- Desire, Dedication and Determination. They are words his father, James, had him write down before he went off to Brigham Young University, and Snyder still carries them close to his soul.

“And before I go out on the field every day, I tell myself, ‘You are having fun, and you want to set a good example to those who are watching,’ ” he said.

*

Snyder knows all about back injuries. He suffered one during the middle of the 1989 season after diving for a ball. Right after that, his career nose-dived.

He began to struggle at the plate, then began pressing because of it. Then in 1990, the situation deteriorated when an adverse relationship developed between Snyder and Cleveland team officials.

At his low point, he was told by one official that he was not a team player.

“I asked him why, and he told me because all I did was go to the park, play, and after the game, just went home,” Snyder said.

“I’m Mormon, and I don’t drink, but does that mean I’m not a team player?”

But even after Snyder has spent an hour telling about his difficulties in Cleveland, he later worries about what he said.

“That sounds like Cory,” Butler said. “He doesn’t ever want to offend anybody. But what happened to Cory happens to every player at one point, when they butt heads with an official or an instructor. Cory started pressing at the plate, he lost his swing, and they started sitting him. You can’t sit Cory or he goes stale.”

Before 1990, Snyder had not only been a starter, he had been a star, at every level.

At Canyon Country Canyon High, he was a pitcher and a shortstop, and earned a four-year scholarship to BYU as a starting pitcher. But after he homered in his first three swings, he was back at short. He was the first player in NCAA history to hit 20 or more home runs in three consecutive seasons. As a junior, he batted .450 with 27 homers and 85 RBIs.

During the 1984 Olympics--played at Dodger Stadium--he was the starting third baseman for the U.S. team and batted .400 with two home runs and 20 RBIs.

He was Cleveland’s first pick in the 1984 draft--the fourth pick overall--and spent only one full season in the minors, playing third base before becoming the starting right fielder for the Indians in 1986. He hit 24 home runs in his rookie season and finished fourth in the American League rookie-of-the-year voting. In his next two seasons, he averaged 29 home runs.

But if Snyder’s 1990 season was tumultuous, 1991 was worse. The Chicago White Sox, who had traded for him before the season began, dealt him to the Toronto Blue Jays in midseason. And before the season was over, he was down in triple-A Syracuse, still trying to find his swing. In five years, he had four hitting instructors.

He asked Toronto for his release, and decided to go back to the basics, things he had learned from his dad. Only this time, he did it on his own.

At Tina’s urging, Snyder set up a batting cage in their back yard and put himself on a workout schedule. Snyder’s father, who had long since stepped aside as his son’s coach, sent him articles about athletes who had battled back.

Snyder’s relationship with his father had been strained since the start of his major league career. Snyder said the strain was caused by a couple of misunderstandings with the Indians, who said Snyder’s father was meddling.

Near the end of Snyder’s stay in Cleveland, his father stopped attending games.

Snyder’s off-season determination paid off when the Giants invited him to spring training in 1992 and he made the team. He went on to bat .269 with 14 home runs and 57 RBIs in 124 games. Still, he wasn’t re-signed by the Giants, who had their sights set on Barry Bonds.

Most of Snyder’s 91 starts with the Giants were in right field. His arm is regarded as one of the best in the major leagues. Players say, however, that if you think his arm is good now, you should have seen it when he played in Cleveland.

Snyder says his relationship with his father is great again. And along with Butler, Snyder has other friends on the team, guys to have dinner with after the games, or to have lunch with, just like in his first years in Cleveland.

Lasorda has even included Snyder in one of his frequently uttered phrases: “If you don’t like Cory Snyder, you don’t like Christmas.”

Well, Snyder didn’t like last Christmas a whole lot. But he’s liking life now.


Advertisement