Minor leaguer emerges as major phenom

Tuesday, October 6, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Yankee teammates greet Shane Spencer after a 3-run HR in the Division Series.
(AP photo)

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NEW YORK -- Shane Spencer should enjoy this while he can. Because it can't last.

The law of averages does not like to be laughed at. Probability theorists can not continue to be treated with contempt. Baseball is too hard a game and too tough a business to be trifled with by some kid fresh off the farm.

Eventually, and probably pretty soon, the pitchers are going to figure out the new colossus of the New York Yankees. They are going to stop leaving so many pitches over the plate, and find some flaw that makes the man seem mortal.

Until then, the world sits in wonder.

"I'm enjoying it," Spencer said. "I can't really explain it." So far, Shane Spencer's rookie campaign most resembles those of Roy Hobbs and Joe Hardy, fictional ballplayers whose plots never placed them in the path of a split-fingered fastball or a phalanx of mini-cams.

Factual ballplayers, meanwhile, pale by comparison.

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Spencer hit 10 home runs for the Yankees in just 67 at-bats during the regular season -- a ratio not even Mark McGwire could match -- and struck two more in two starts in the Yankees' Division Series sweep of the Texas Rangers. At the relatively advanced age of 26, Spencer is suddenly smashing mistake pitches like so many pumpkins, and has left blind-sided opponents scrambling for scouting reports.

"The first time a guy goes around the league, you try to pick up his weaknesses," Cleveland pitcher Dwight Gooden said Monday. "Right now, he's not showing too much."

AAA to Big Apple

Spencer will be in left field tonight when the Yankees open the American League Championship Series against the Indians, and he is living so large that he might have to annex New Jersey to make room for his fan mail. After eight years of plodding progress through the Yankee system, Spencer now finds it necessary to check into hotels under assumed names.

"There are a lot of your buddies in Triple-A saying, "Damn, Shane is getting off,' " Chili Davis told his teammate the other day.

"I'm amazed," said Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez. "I'm glad he's on our team right now."

That Spencer is still with the Yankees after languishing so long in the minor leagues is a tribute to his perseverance and an indictment of his development. Spencer was a former 28th-round draft choice with a flimsy future. Hi place in the grand scheme was so strong he wore No. 68 in spring training.

Either of baseball's expansion teams could have had him last fall, and both of them failed to bite. Then something clicked inside Shane Spencer and he began driving pitches that had formerly fooled him. In retrospect, it seems the Bronx Bombers nearly let a bona fide slugger slip through their radar undetected.

Not in the wildest dreams

"I could never have envisioned this," General Manager Brian Cashman acknowledged. "And I'm sure Shane couldn't either."

Four times, the Yankees called Spencer up from Columbus this season. Three times, they sent him back when some more established player came off the disabled list. But when Yankee manager Joe Torre sought to rest his regulars in September, Spencer seized his opportunity with a stranglehold.

"I can't emphasize enough that eight years in the minor leagues is a slap in the face," Torre said. "When you get a chance, you want to take advantage of it."

The closest corollary to Spencer's story is that of Bob "Hurricane" Hazle, another 26-year-old rookie who hit .403 during the Milwaukee Braves' 1957 pennant drive, and promptly returned to obscurity.

"I hope this is not a one-month thing," Spencer said. "If you ask anyone who has played with me, I think they'd tell you I'm for real."

If you ask those who have played against him, they might tell you he's terrifying.

"I'll tell you one thing," Texas manager Johnny Oates said during the Division Series. "He doesn't get cheated. He knows what that piece of wood was made for, and it was not to clean off his shoes. My only question is where's he been all year?"

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.