Sunday, April 27, 1997
Views on Sierra remain high

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The rap on Ruben Sierra is that he pouts when he doesn't play. It is, for contemporary baseball, a curious complaint.

The Cincinnati Reds are more accustomed to outfielders who must be coaxed into the lineup than those who resent being left out.

Given the choice, most teams prefer gamers to goldbricks. Given their brief exposure to Ruben Sierra, the Reds have not seen a problem.

''My definition of a malcontent is someone who doesn't go out and play,'' Hal Morris said after the Reds' 10-2 victory Saturday over Philadelphia. ''I've been around guys that you have to beg to get out on the field. Those are the guys that I don't want on my club. With a guy that runs out there and plays every day, I'm never going to have a complaint. And that's Ruben.''

Since 1988, the Reds have employed exactly one outfielder who played as many as 150 games in a single season (Paul O'Neill, 1991). In that same span, Ruben Sierra has done it five times. In a big-league career that dates to 1986, the 31-year-old switch hitter has spent only 15 days on the disabled list.

If he is not what he once was, neither has Sierra ever been mistaken for Kevin Mitchell. He is a big-league ballplayer who made the big money and continued to care. As Cincinnati gets to know this guy, that ought to count for something.

''I have fire in my heart for this game,'' Sierra said after hitting his first home run as a Red. ''The last two years, I wasn't approached the way I should be. I tried to do too much. It worked on my mind. But if they think I don't love baseball and that kind of stuff, that's not true. Baseball is my life.''

Four years removed from a season in which he drove in 101 runs and stole 25 bases, Sierra hit town with the taint of trouble. The Reds are his fourth team in three seasons, and the dreadful Detroit Tigers were willing to swallow more than $5 million in salary to unload him. New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who single-handedly put a smiley face on baseball last fall, ripped Sierra at length in a recent memoir.

Reds manager Ray Knight has heard it all. He has seen none of it.

''This man is not disruptive,'' Knight said. ''This man is a model player. I mean he does everything that you ask a man to do. Not one time has he ever done anything that I ever looked twice at. He hustles. He always runs everything out. He has been nothing but a positive, attitude-wise.''

The difference between pride and petulance is often a matter of perspective. At his peak, Sierra's resistance to days off was seen as devotion to duty. As his slugging slipped, his iron will became an irritant to managers who preferred alternative players.

Sierra never really changed. Like most ballplayers, his perception is shaped by his production. What makes his place with the Reds so promising is that they can ill afford to try his patience. He is the only real cleanup hitter on the roster.

''I hope he's going to be my four hitter for the whole year, drive in 90 runs, and hit 20 or more home runs,'' Knight said. ''That's what we got him to do. That's his history.

What he has done to date is hit .294, despite striking out on average once every four at-bats. Sierra has driven in only six runs, but Reds catcher Eddie Taubensee says he has seen him grow more selective. He is taking pitches he was lunging at a few weeks ago. He is starting to justify Cincinnati's confidence.

''Different organizations, they want to win, but in this game you have to know what you've got,'' Sierra said. ''You've got to have patience with the people who can do the job. You never know when they're going to explode.''

Ruben Sierra sensed his time had come Saturday morning during batting practice. He told Reds bullpen coach Tom Hume that he was going to hit a home run by the end of the day, a boast he fulfilled in the bottom of the eighth.

His three-run shot was largely superfluous, padding a Reds lead that had already reached five runs. But the sheer force of Sierra's blow - a line shot off the left-field scoreboard - was mighty impressive.

''Did I watch the fireworks?'' he said later. ''No. I watched the base. If I don't touch the base, they call me out.''