Advertisement

Down But not Out : Demotion to Minor Leagues Proves to Be a Blessing for Dodger Shortstop Jose Offerman and Angel Reliever Mike Butcher During Major League Strike : JOSE OFFERMAN

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He evokes comparisons to Mariano Duncan, though some would argue that Jose Offerman is not as good an athlete. Duncan, the last established Dodger player to be sent to the minors, didn’t re-establish himself until he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds midway through the 1989 season. Is that what it will take for Offerman?

“I’ll prepare myself for whatever will come,” Offerman says of his future.

Since June 27, when Dodger executive Fred Claire demoted his starting shortstop to triple-A Albuquerque, Offerman has spent time regrouping. The Dukes, expecting an angry player, were surprised. Offerman says he was mad, but kept it inside. His sulky side, so predominate in Los Angeles, has never surfaced with the Dukes.

“We expected him to be angry and very reserved and he fooled everybody,” Duke Manager Rick Dempsey said. “He came here with every intention of getting his game back.”

Advertisement

After being the starting Dodger shortstop for two full seasons, Offerman still doesn’t think his demotion was altogether fair. Speaking before a game Saturday against the Las Vegas Stars, Offerman said the reason the Dodgers gave for sending him down--his poor hitting--troubled him.

“It is hard, especially for the reason they said they sent me down,” Offerman said with no trace of anger in his voice. “It’s like they didn’t give me a chance through the first half (of the season). For the time I’ve been playing as a regular, it’s unfair.

” . . . I’ve been mad, but the only way I can get over it is to try and play my game. I keep it inside.”

Offerman’s offense has improved--he is batting .337 with 21 runs batted in and eight stolen bases over 44 games, including three doubles and four triples. Dempsey says Offerman’s concentration in the field also has improved, although he has made 11 errors, most of them on routine plays. But along with the mental lapses, Dempsey says there have also been some exceptional plays.

Advertisement

“The errors are misleading--he has made some outstanding defensive plays here and has done a great job for me,” Dempsey said. “He has made some stupid errors like taking too much time and letting a ball slip out of his hands. But he has made some great plays, such as up the middle and catching balls behind second base and throwing guys out . . . and he has made outstanding plays to his right--it’s the routine plays that give him more trouble. The easy ones are where he is going to mess up.”

Only once did Dempsey discuss defense with Offerman, and very little has been said by Dempsey’s coaches. “I saw him fielding the ball one time standing up straight and I said to him, ‘You are going to make a lot more errors that way, that’s not how this organization taught you how to field.’ Jose’s work ethic has changed. Before he never expected he would have to work so hard to keep his tools in shape. But now at age 25, though that isn’t old, he realizes he has to work at it.”

There’s been enough improvement for Claire to say that Offerman is still in the Dodgers’ plans and will be back with the club in September if the strike is over. But then what?

“The manager will fill out the lineup card just like he always does,” Claire said, passing the decision on to Tom Lasorda.

Advertisement

Said Offerman: “I don’t know what will happen if I go back to L.A.”

Shortstop Rafael Bournigal has solidified the defense in Offerman’s place, but it is clear that the Dodgers do not see him there in the long term. Although Bournigal has had some clutch hits, he cannot be counted on offensively. With no backup shortstop on the bench, second baseman Delino DeShields must move to short, a position he is very uncomfortable with, when Bournigal leaves the game for a pinch-hitter. That puts Jeff Treadway at second base, and the defense suffers.

“When Delino plays shortstop we have two players who are not in their customary positions,” Claire said. “Are we stronger or weaker there defensively? I could not say we are stronger.”

There have been suspicions that Claire might try to trade Offerman, the only Dodger with a major league contract who is still getting paid. Offerman signed a two-year, $2.115-million deal in the spring, earning $515,000 this season and $1.6 million next season, and acknowledged that it is nice to be getting paychecks.

Advertisement

But Claire says he doesn’t want Offerman to go elsewhere, a move that helped Duncan, who this season was voted the starting All-Star second baseman in the National League.

“You would have to draw some comparison between the two (Offerman and Duncan), you can’t help not to,” Claire said. “These are two young players who are very talented with adjustments they have had to make to the major leagues.

” . . . I hope that Jose can do it with us. I would hate to think he would have to go somewhere else to succeed.”

To Claire, attitude is extremely important, and Offerman’s calm and hard-working demeanor while in Albuquerque should not be underestimated when it comes to giving him another chance. It is a major switch for a player who has sulked for most of two seasons after being criticized by the fans, media and privately by teammates for his defensive lapses. But through it all, Offerman always had his bat, until this season.

Advertisement

His frustration at the plate escalated to a high point when he lost his temper at Lasorda in front of a national television audience after Lasorda asked him to sacrifice with the pitcher on deck. That incident brought him under disciplinary action by the club, and he was subsequently benched for three games for the first time in his career.

Had Offerman voiced regret about the incident, maybe it would have been different. But a week later he was still wondering why Lasorda had benched him. Lasorda merely pointed to a sub-.200 batting average. Though Claire says the incident had nothing to do with the demotion, Offerman’s tantrum helped write his ticket down.

“It was a great idea to allow Jose to step back and then charge back to the majors,” Dempsey said. “Wherever he plays from this point, whether it is for the Dodgers or whoever, he realizes he will have to be a different person than he was.”

The tantrum came at a time when Lasorda was telling Offerman to hit down on the ball, much the same way he used to try and pound the philosophy into Duncan. It was also Duncan who publicly voiced his displeasure with Lasorda when he did not make the team after spring training in 1988. He had been the Dodgers’ opening-day second baseman in 1985, taking over for an injured Steve Sax, then moved to shortstop in June and started the rest of the season, including the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Advertisement

The next season though, Duncan struggled, was injured and lost his starting job. Midway through ’87 he was demoted to Albuquerque for about 10 days, but it was in the spring of 1988 that he sealed his fate with the Dodgers. When he didn’t make the team, Duncan lashed out publicly at Lasorda.

But Offerman did things differently. Instead of voicing his feelings, he arrived in Albuquerque ready to work.

“The way they respond means a lot when players get sent down,” Claire said. “It’s like getting knocked down. The issue is, do you get back up?”

In an interview about two weeks before he was sent down, Offerman, talking about the criticism and other pitfalls he had experienced with the Dodgers, said he didn’t believe there was anything left for him to go through in Los Angeles. “I don’t know that anything that happens is going to affect me anymore,” he said.

Advertisement

Saturday, when reminded of that statement, he said that it was still true. “I’m just trying to take care of what I need to do,” he said. “I’m doing my best.”


Advertisement