A Minor Sensation : Is Coomer the Real Deal, or Is He Merely Leverage to Use Against Wallach?
They call him Boomer Coomer, and why not?
In his last two minor league seasons, including a year and a half of triple A, Coomer has driven in 224 runs with 48 home runs, 71 doubles and 332 hits for a cumulative average of .329.
Released by the Oakland Athletics and traded by the Chicago White Sox, Ron Coomer has boomed into contention as the Dodgers’ third baseman of the future.
After eight minor league seasons.
He carries 210 pounds on his 5-foot 10-inch frame, prompting a National League scout watching a recent game in the Arizona Fall League to say that Coomer looks a little like the Pillsbury doughboy in the field, with about as much range.
Coomer’s defense--he has made 14 errors in 33 games in Arizona--has skeptics raising their eyebrows when the Dodgers talk about using Coomer at third if Tim Wallach is not re-signed as a free agent in this winter of labor uncertainty.
“No matter what you do, there are going to be critics,” Coomer said recently. “My priority right now is to play well defensively, but I don’t see it as a big problem.
“The Dodgers have me on a program to trim body fat with the purpose of improving my range and making me more explosive as a runner, but my game has always been home runs and RBIs, and I have to maintain my strength to do that. I can’t get down to 170 or 180 and do it. I mean, people are always going to have their own opinions, but I don’t see defense holding me back.”
Neither does Dodger Vice President Fred Claire, who some believe is merely using a little negotiating leverage on Wallach when he touts Coomer as a viable option.
Nevertheless, Claire said he has told Coomer that if Wallach is not re-signed--the Dodgers have rejected two of Wallach’s proposals but will meet with him and agent Alan Meersand again this week--then Coomer and Dave Hansen will compete for the third base job, providing the camps open.
Otherwise, Claire said, Coomer will have to beat out Wallach or make the team as a reserve.
“It’s his time and he knows it,” Claire said, referring to Coomer’s age and offensive accomplishments of the last two years.
“He’s a dedicated worker who has gotten a bad rap about his fielding. He has good hands and a strong enough arm. It’s not fair to portray him as a defensive liability or disaster. I’m not claiming he’s a gold glove third baseman, but if he (fulfills his offensive credentials) he should be able to play at this level. I’m confident he can be a good major league third baseman.”
Ken Macha, the former Angel coach who is managing Coomer’s team, the Tempe Rafters, said he has no question about Coomer’s ability to hit major league pitching, but wonders about the range.
“I really believe he’ll be able to hit,” Macha said. “He has pop to all fields and can handle the breaking ball. I think my concern would be the Dodgers’ concern. The ball has a way to find you, no matter where you’re playing. Ron has good hands, but he needs to work on his agility and quickness.”
The right-handed-hitting Coomer drove in 123 runs at triple-A Albuquerque last year, batting .338 with 34 doubles and 22 home runs after hitting a cumulative .319 with 26 homers and 101 RBIs at double-A Birmingham and triple-A Nashville with the White Sox organization in 1993.
“I had sent (scout) Gary Sutherland into Birmingham to look at a White Sox pitcher that year, and he phoned to tell me that there was a guy there who could really swing the bat and we should consider getting him if the opportunity presented itself,” Claire said.
The opportunity arose when the White Sox, with Robin Ventura at third and out of options on Coomer, designated him for assignment. Claire recalled Sutherland’s report and traded pitcher Isidro Marquez for Coomer in December 1993. Boomer went to Albuquerque and improved on his ’93 numbers to the extent that he is confident of being ready for the majors and would probably ask to be traded if the Dodgers determined he wasn’t.
“I don’t think I have anything more to prove at that level,” he said of triple-A. “I’m sure there would be other major league teams needing a third baseman or someone to come off the bench. I’d much rather stay with the Dodgers than go back to Albuquerque, no matter what my role is in L.A.”
Coomer’s Arizona statistics--.293 average, three home runs and 15 RBIs--have been somewhat disappointing. But his recent wedding, the tiring season at Albuquerque--including the playoffs and a Pacific Coast League championship--and the emphasis on defense have disrupted his focus some, Macha said. Coomer also has been working with Dodger batting coach Reggie Smith to shorten his swing in an attempt to develop more consistency.
Said Claire: “I recently asked Reggie which of our players did he think had the best understanding of the swing and he answered Wallach, because of all the work he has had to do to get back to his previous level. I asked him which player in the organization would have the best understanding and he answered Coomer. I was really impressed.”
Smith’s answer might not have been surprising since Coomer has plenty of opportunity to work on his swing at a baseball academy he owns in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, where he often works out with his neighbor, Carlton Fisk, the former catcher who has been providing keys to help Coomer concentrate.
“I feel fortunate to be able to consider him a close family friend and someone I can call day or night to talk through situations,” Coomer said.
A knee injury that ultimately required surgery in 1989 hampered Coomer’s development with Oakland, which had signed him in 1987, and with Carney Lansford and Scott Hemond ahead of him, he was released by the A’s and signed with the White Sox, who installed Ventura at third in 1990.
“I knew no one was going to push out Robin Ventura, but I also knew the White Sox needed third basemen at their higher classifications and I needed a place to play on a regular basis so that I could prove to another organization that I was ready to move up,” Coomer said. “It really worked out well.”
Maybe even better than he could have imagined when he spurned interest from Japan to accept being traded to the Dodgers. He is closer to the majors than he has ever been.
“What more could anyone ask than to have the general manager tell you that you’ll have the opportunity to fight for a job?” he asked. “The fact that I’m older than most rookies and more mature from a baseball standpoint can only work to my advantage.”
The opportunity, of course, could be erased by continuation of the strike next spring. Coomer said that as great as the Dodgers have been to him, and as much as he has longed for this opportunity, he will not cross a picket line.
“I’m trying to stay positive,” he said. “I’m thinking we’ll have spring training and we’ll have a season. My greatest disappointment came last September when I was wrapping up the best year of my career and expected to be rewarded and finally reach the majors by being called up by the Dodgers for the final month of the season, and maybe even the playoffs. (The strike washed out the season after Aug. 12.) That was very frustrating for my family and myself.
“However, I think it would be very tough for a young player to break with the union and cross the line next spring. I don’t think that would be the best way to attain my goal.”
Rick Dempsey, the Albuquerque manager, said Coomer is definitely ready to attain it, even if he isn’t the ultimate picket at third base.
“He doesn’t have the outstanding quickness of a Brooks Robinson or Buddy Bell, but he can play in the big leagues,” Dempsey said.
“If he makes contact as consistently as he did in Albuquerque, he has a great opportunity to be a starter. . . . I also think he’d be outstanding coming off the bench. If you had Wallach at third and Coomer as a right-handed hitter behind him, it would be a great situation.”
The Dodgers might know this week if they will have Wallach. Boomer Coomer likes his situation either way.
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