They are children of the Slugging Sixties, born between the asterisk of Maris (1961) and the cusp of Mantle (1964), when the stars were in the Houses of Killebrew and Mays. This year's rookie hitters are true baby boomers, flexing huge biceps and smashing chunks out of wooden outfield fences with line drives. They are outfielders and first basemen with wonderfully colorful names, and they evoke an era when America was a land of power hitters, not power breakfasts. Let's step up to the batting cage for a look at the six best young prospects:
Hussshhhhh! Jose Canseco of the A's is taking his swings. The sudden stillness in Phoenix Stadium suggests the old E.F. Hutton ad campaign. "When Jose goes up there, everything stops," says Oakland manager Jackie Moore, "because everyone wants to watch." Indeed, the sight of the prodigiously muscled Canseco settling into his wide-open righthanded stance—so gapingly open that his front foot rubs out the chalk line at the side of the batter's box—is galvanizing. Canseco (Con-SAY-co) is the most promising of this year's rookies, a 6'3", 225-pound, Cuban-born Roy Hobbs. He will start in leftfield for the A's, who have billed him as "The Natural" on the cover of their media guide.
Canseco, 21, has been the talk of baseball since he jumped from AA ball to AAA to the real A's last season and hit a combined .325 with 41 home runs and 140 RBIs. He has better-than-average speed, an excellent arm and such a quick, strong bat (he swings a 36-ounce model) that Oakland hitting coach Bob Watson calls him "a mixture of Willie Stargell, Dick Allen and Roberto Clemente." A's assistant to the president Bill Rigney ranks him, for sheer power, with Killebrew, Mantle and Mays. Canseco himself, worn down by constant interviews, is reluctant to talk about his talents, except to say, "I'm still at a learning stage. So far I haven't played up to my potential."
Canseco does strike out too often, but he also leaves mouths agape with his tape-measure home runs. Last September he became the 28th player in history to put a ball over the leftfield roof at Comiskey Park in Chicago (in all, he hit .302 with five homers in his 29 games with the A's), and in batting practice this spring he routinely popped 500-footers into the desert air. Five times he hit balls over the 45-foot-high wall beyond the centerfield fence in Phoenix, 430 feet from home plate. "I hope people don't expect those long ones every time," says Moore. "I'd be happy with 20 or 30 homers at 375 feet and 10 at 450 or beyond."
April 14, 1986
It took Canseco's father, Jose Sr., now an oil company territory manager, six years lo get his family out of Cuba following the 1959 revolution. Jose and his identical twin, Osvaldo, were then one year old. Although it's now hard to imagine, Jose was a skinny third baseman at Coral Park High in Miami. Osvaldo, a highly regarded pitcher-turned-outfielder, went in the second round of the 1982 draft to the Yankees, and the A's took Jose in the 15th round. That was only after A's scout Camilo Pascual threw his wallet on the table in a pre-draft meeting and offered to sign Jose out of his own pocket. Canseco didn't become a true power hitter until he took up weightlifting in late 1984 and added 35 pounds of muscle. He can now bench-press 400 pounds.
"People expect me to win Rookie of the Year easy, and also hit 30 or 40 homers," says Jose Jr. "That remains to be seen." But the general consensus is that Canseco's potential is limitless. "I haven't seen him that much," says Milwaukee coach Frank Howard, "but all my baseball buddies tell me that he has a great chance—truly, objectively, a great chance—to be baseball's next superstar. They say, 'Frank, forget all the hype. This young fellow's for real.' "
Similar awe has been expressed about Ranger rightfielder Pete Incaviglia ever since his first day of spring batting practice in Pompano Beach, Fla. That afternoon the 6'1", 220-pound rookie hit eight balls out of the park, lined a bullet off manager Bobby Valentine's back (leaving a huge red welt) and drilled a ball through the one-inch plywood outfield fence. The display helped earn Incaviglia (In-cuh-VEE-lee-uh) a starting job and put to rest any doubt that he can indeed bench-press 460 pounds. "The last time I saw a guy that strong he was hanging onto the Empire State Building with Fay Wray in his arms," says teammate Tom Paciorek.
Incaviglia, whom Valentine has nicknamed the Fat Kid, put up some hefty numbers in his three years at Oklahoma State. Last season alone he hit an NCAA-record 48 homers in just 75 games, drove in 143 runs, and batted .464 with an astounding slugging percentage of 1.140, another NCAA record. He also had an unheard-of on-base percentage of .624. Yet big-league scouting reports questioned his defense, speed, work habits and ability to make the switch from aluminum to wood bats. "Scouts are like females," sniffs Incaviglia. "They're always telling fairy tales about something. Coming out of college [they said] I couldn't hit, run, throw or catch. They made me sound like I had no head, arms or legs."
When Montreal drafted him in June, the California-born Incaviglia was brash enough to refuse to sign, noting that he didn't like cold weather. He sat out the '85 season and in November the Expos agreed to trade him to Texas. He has become the first draftee since Bob Horner, Tim Conroy, Mike Morgan and Brian Milner in 1978 to go straight to the majors. "The way Pete is," says Ranger general manager Tom Grieve, "even if we didn't think he was ready you'd almost have to keep him, because he thinks that he is."
Incaviglia's power and compact right-handed swing remind many of Horner, who in fact lives just a block away in Irving, Texas and is a good friend. Horner thinks Incaviglia will make it, and the Fat Kid, whose dad and older brother Tony played minor league ball, certainly doesn't lack the confidence. "If I'm in the big leagues this season I'm going to try to hit 40 homers and drive in 100 runs," Incaviglia said early this spring. "I like to set big goals."
The crop of rookie first basemen includes a pair of virtual clones: Wally Joyner of the Angels and Will Clark of the Giants. At 6'2" Clark has an inch on Joyner, but they both weigh 185 pounds, both are polished fielders, both throw and hit lefthanded and both have line drive power. They are bright and well-spoken, and share a Southern congeniality (Clark is from New Orleans, Joyner from Decatur, Ga.), strong college backgrounds (Clark starred at Mississippi State, Joyner at Brigham Young) and the kind of perfectionism that drove Joyner to the batting tee in disgust after his second straight four-hit game this spring.
"I don't like to compare, but Will reminds me a little of Stan Musial," says Giants manager Roger Craig. Clark's fluid stroke reminds others of Don Mattingly, while his physique and mannerisms suggest Fred Lynn. Clark himself says he has tried to model himself "after a guy like George Brett. He hits the ball to all fields, with power, for a high average. I've been sort of successful at doing that." Clark, a top hitter on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and last year's Golden Spikes award winner as the best amateur player in the country, had been ticketed for Triple A Phoenix until his .288 spring average with 16 RBIs and five home runs in 18 games forced the Giants to put him at first base.
Joyner, who like Clark seems capable of 20-plus homers a year, will probably bat third in the California order. This spring he hit .400, and had only four strikeouts in 94 plate appearances. "The only other rookie I've had with comparable ability was Richie Allen," says Angels manager Gene Mauch.
Last September Joyner was upset when he wasn't called up to the majors after a fine season at Edmonton. Fearing it might be because he had only average power, he went to the Puerto Rican winter league and began working out at a Nautilus center. Joyner added both muscle and sting, and by season's end had become only the third player ever to win the Puerto Rican triple crown (.356, 14 home runs and 48 RBIs in 54 games). Those numbers convinced the Angels they didn't need to hang on to veteran first basemen Rod Carew, Juan Beniquez and Daryl Sconiers, and they didn't. So far there are no regrets. "Wally can flat out hit," says teammate Reggie Jackson.
The Expos also have a promising rookie first baseman in 6'3", 230-pound Andres Galarraga (gah-lah-RAH-ga). Galarraga, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, hits with tremendous power and is known as the gran gato, or big cat, for his nimble, pouncing defense. He came out of high school, however, looking less like a ballplayer than an overstuffed burrito. "When I was managing Caracas," recalls Felipe Alou, the ex-big leaguer who scouted him, "the general manager of the team asked me if I wanted to see 'a fat kid who can hit hard.' He showed up and could hit all right, but I couldn't recommend someone like that to Montreal."
Eventually, Galarraga slimmed down and firmed up, and last season he belted 25 homers for Indianapolis (AAA). The Expos were so high on him that the first week of spring training they promised him a place in the starting lineup for the first 50 games of the season. But after his horrendous spring (.145 average, no extra base hits) they changed their plans. Last week Montreal acquired Jason Thompson from the Pirates; Galarraga and Thompson will platoon at first. Still, the team has confidence in Galarraga's ability. "Everyone is going to have a slump, and Andres is having his early," says manager Buck Rodgers.
Although his name sounds like it's straight out of the bayou, the Brewers' rookie first baseman, Billy Joe Robidoux, hails in fact from New England. Robidoux (ROE-bee-doe) is a 6'1", 200-pounder with limited defensive skills but a reputation for clutch hitting. Last summer at El Paso (AA) he took advantage of short power alleys to roll up a .342 average, 46 doubles, 23 homers and 132 RBIs. "He's balanced at the plate, has a short stroke, gets a good look at the ball and makes good contact," says Howard. "The only thing that might keep him from being a real high-average hitter is his lack of running speed."
Robidoux was versatile enough as a football player at Ware (Mass.) High School to place-kick, punt, play linebacker and carry the ball as a fullback—unless it was a passing down, in which case he moved to quarterback. Robidoux was drafted as a third baseman in 1982 and played that position in the Dominican league until last winter, when he developed tendinitis in his throwing shoulder and nearly gave up the ghost. Because of elbow surgery on Milwaukee first baseman Cecil Cooper, however, an opportunity arose to put Robidoux at first.
Robidoux wears, and has always worn, No. 13. "I was born on the 13th [of January], so it's kind of a lucky day for me," he says. This could be a lucky season for rookie hitters in general. If Robidoux and Co. come through, baseball could find itself in a swing era.