Portugal has reason to feel good

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark Portugal was vindicated, but not vindictive. The Cincinnati Reds' ranking scapegoat beat baseball's best pitcher Saturday afternoon, and the only unpleasantry to escape his lips was exhaled Marlboro.

He refused repeated invitations to express bitterness toward the owner who has belittled him. He declined to scold the talk-show alarmists who believe him a bust. Portugal had the credentials to crow, having outpitched the immortal Greg Maddux, but he just leaned against his locker and lit a celebratory cigarette.

''It's been a long time since I won a ballgame,'' Portugal said after the Reds' 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves and their four-time Cy Young Award winner. ''It's a good feeling. I'd almost forgotten what it was like.''

Fueled by anger

The Reds' right-hander had not won a game since Sept. 29, and had since become a symbol for what was wrong with the Reds. He has been a high-priced, low-production pitcher whose continuing struggles underscored the franchise's short-sighted spending patterns.

For all the mindless things that come out of her mouth, Marge Schott's greatest deficiency as a baseball executive is her vision. She prefers to spend millions on mediocre major-league pitching rather than adequately funding far less expensive scouting and player development programs.

It is no coincidence, then, that the Cincinnati farm system has not produced a starting pitcher of consequence since Tom Browning. This has forced Schott to pay exorbitant prices for established but unexceptional pitchers such as Mark Portugal. Then she whines about her own waste.

''Three million dollars,'' Schott fumed in her Sports Illustrated interview. ''and he's just not worth a damn.''

Portugal's first reaction to Schott's statement was rage. ''Tell her it's $4.1 million,'' he told reporters, adding enough expletives to make George Voinovich blush. Saturday, however, through an awesome act of will, Portugal succeeded in holding his tongue.

''Marge gives me a paycheck on the first and 15th (of the month),'' he said. ''My motivation comes from the 24 guys in this clubhouse wanting to win. . . . I can't worry about what she says or what she does. When I go out on the field, I can't worry about Marge.''

Mark Portugal has lately been preoccupied with his own problems. When a starting pitcher does not win a game during the first two months of the season, he can not escape the conclusion that at least some of the blame belongs on his shoulders.

''I think the first couple of games I started, I was a little complacent, not knowing why things were going bad and not caring, really,'' he said Saturday. ''I need to have a little fire in me.''

He is not a pitcher who can succeed with pure smoke. He needs a certain amount of mirrors, too. Portugal relies heavily on his change-up, a pitch that requires an effective fastball if it is to fool hitters. Early in the season, though, Portugal's fastball and change-up were virtually indistinguishable. Privately, teammates were sniping at his stuff. Publicly, he became Cincinnati's poster boy for overpaid.

Portugal confesses to periodic lapses of concentration, to leaving the ball over the middle of the plate when it ought to be clipping the corners. This is a dangerous tendency for any pitcher, but particularly so for one without an overpowering arsenal. It is what distinguishes journeymen pitchers like Mark Portugal from the lofty likes of Greg Maddux.

''I don't question my ability to pitch,'' Portugal said. ''Sometimes I question my focus.''

Still not perfect

Even in his shining hours Saturday, Mark Portugal did not leave himself much margin for error. With two on and one out in Atlanta's sixth inning, Portugal hung a 3-2 pitch to the muscular Ryan Klesko. The Braves' young slugger mystified him by missing it.

''It was a slider that didn't break,'' Portugal said. ''It was right over the middle of the plate, but he swung through it. It's a pitch he normally deposits in the cheap seats. Right now, I don't know how he missed it.''

Mark Portugal was grateful for this narrow escape, and too glad to be goaded. He had just beaten Greg Maddux. Spite is not nearly so satisfying.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 2, 1996.