Sunday, June 15, 1997
Goodwin finds hitting niche

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Curtis Goodwin does not compute. Only last year he was overmatched, a slap hitter prone to strikeouts, a regular passenger on the Indianapolis shuttle, a ballplayer stuck between obscurity and oblivion.

That was then. Today, Goodwin leads the Reds with a .329 batting average. He had two more hits in Saturday's 5-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox and is up to .375 on the current homestand. He has emboldened Jim Bowden to dump Ruben Sierra, and he convinced Ray Knight to shift Deion Sanders from center field to left. He has spread a little sunshine in a season of prevailing gloom.

It may be a mirage, but it is starting to look as if the guy can play. "When they gave me a chance (in May), they said I'd have four or five days to win the job,"Goodwin said Saturday. "I didn't need that many. I just had to know my role."

Goodwin joined the Reds when they dumped David Wells' salary on Baltimore on the day after Christmas 1995, and he figured to be their center fielder until the second coming of Eric Davis. When Davis moved on, Goodwin expected his delayed break had come due. Then the Reds signed Sierra and Sanders. A sensitive prospect might have developed a persecution complex.

"With Curtis, it's a matter of feeling he belongs,"Knight said. "It's more of an emotional thing than physical. When we got him, he thought he was going to play. And then we signed Deion. And he came to spring training, and he almost felt defeated."

Defeated? Curtis Goodwin's spring bespoke unconditional surrender. He went 6-for-46 in Florida, which is an amazing amount of futility for a guy with good wheels. His batting average, if you can call it that, was .130. He contemplated abandoning baseball to pursue a career in the Canadian Football League.

"I almost didn't want to play any more,"he said. "But baseball's my sport, and I'm not a quitter. I was just going through a lot of stress."Goodwin's grandfather, Adolph Tuggles, died on Jan. 22. The Reds signed Deion Sanders on Jan. 30. Goodwin reported to spring training in February both distracted and discouraged.

The man who had stoked his love for baseball was gone and so was the inside track to center field at Cinergy Field.

"It looked,"Goodwin said, "like it was going to be one of those years."

It was a lot to swallow all at once, and it was a little more than Goodwin could handle at the time. Were it not for the extenuating circumstances, it might have been easy to write him off permanently as a big-league player.

But the great thing about footspeed is that it gets you a second look, and a third, and a fourth. Ted Williams liked to say that hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing in sports, but it is infinitely easier than turning a sluggard into a sprinter.

If a ballplayer can run, there will always be someone willing to work on his swing. Deion Sanders has shown that it is never too late to learn how to turn speed into singles. Goodwin has followed Sanders' lead and, of late, has surpassed him.

For five weeks now, he has seized the day, making the desperation of Reds management appear to be design.

The Reds were 11-22 before Goodwin started in left field in San Diego on May 10. They have gone 17-17 since. In the National League's dismal Central Division, this is good enough to get them back in the race.

Goodwin's range has helped solidify a weak defensive outfield, and his arm has eliminated some of the baserunning liberties taken against Sanders. His hitting has resolved - at least temporarily - the Reds' ceaseless search for a No. 2 hitter. His legs facilitate the frantic running game Knight seeks.

Goodwin has been such a surprising godsend for the Reds that instinct tells you he can't keep it up. This is a guy who never hit more than .286 in seven seasons in the minor leagues; a guy who hit .363 for Baltimore before the 1995 All-Star break, and .175 afterward.

Is he real, or is he Memorex?

"When we sent him down (in spring training), I told him, 'You're a guy who they talked about being the next Kenny Lofton, and there's no reason you can't be,' " Knight said. "When we moved Ruben, I told him, 'You're my everyday left fielder as long as you play well.' And he's played well."

Goodwin credits an adjustment in his approach for his recent surge. He has raised his average, he says, by lowering his hands. "I'm at a point where I know my stance and where I want to hit,"he said. "It can only get better, no worse."

His talent is still raw. He stole 300 bases in the minor leagues, but has been thrown out nine times against only 11 steals with the Reds. Some of this is the product of pickoffs and inexperience rather than poor jumps. Those kind of running problems can be rectified.

If a ballplayer can run, he can get all the tutoring he can take. Curtis Goodwin's speed encourages patience. Recently, he has been worth the wait.