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A `kid' with the look of The Kid.

Author/s: Dave Kindred
Issue: May 8, 2000

 

We're talking baseball with Manny Mota, who could hit, who still has the all-time record of 150 pinch hits. We're sitting in the Dodgers' dugout, and Mota has a computer on his lap. His last big noise came in the 1977 National League Championship Series when he got a key pinch double in a ninth-inning rally that enabled the Dodgers to beat the Phillies in Game 3. Because Mota was 39 and Vic Davalillo (another big contributor in the rally) was 41, Charles Maher of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo, who between them are old enough to be dead ..."

Manuel Rafael Mota, alive at 62, carries a laptop because it's his coaching job with the Dodgers to pay attention to who's hitting (or not), where they're hitting it (or not) and what to do about it (in either case). "Everything is in here," Mota says, tapping the screen, "or it's in here," tapping his head.

We're talking hitting, and we're talking about Shawn Green, the Dodgers' outfielder who's 27, who hit .293 with 77 home runs and 223 runs batted in the past two seasons, who's tall and lean and good looking, who hits from the left side and moves at bat with such quickness, grace and power that, if you add it all up, you come away thinking, "Ted Williams, 50 years ago."

So if we're talking about Shawn Green, the only data Manny Mota needs comes not from his laptop but from the hard drive under his blue Dodgers cap. What he has seen is enough for him to say, "Good ballplayer. Good outfielder, great arm. Plays the game hard. Aggressive."

We're talking baseball, talking Ted Williams and Shawn Green, and Manny Mota is an expert witness. He could fall out of bed Christmas morning and line one up the middle. "Ted Williams was maybe the best," Mom says. "Shawn's young still. Shawn doesn't try to copy Ted Williams, I know. He has a style of his own. Aggressive at the plate. Uses the whole field. I like that most. The whole field, and with power."

Here Manny Mota smiles. His weathered, fleshy cheeks move up to leave his eyes narrowed. It's possible, seeing that face with that smile, to think those eyes have seen everything in baseball, even Ted Williams. He says, "Ted Williams had what Shawn has. He was a natural. Shawn's a natural."

He's a kid. Maybe not The Kid, as Williams was. But he's a baseball kid, young enough and good enough already that the graph lines of his career seem certain to rise--just as the lines once rose for another kid, John Smoltz, who on this day is in the other dugout, talking baseball, touching his scar.

It's a thin scar six inches long tracing a curve from his forearm toward his triceps muscle. Scary, but when you're' a former Cy Young winner with a 95-mph fastball and a wicked curve, by the time you're 33 you're likely to have had surgical instruments inside your elbow.

This is three times for Smoltz and the most extensive. Doctors did the Tommy John surgery in which a deteriorating elbow ligament is removed and replaced by a ligament taken from the underside of the forearm.

Smoltz is in uniform, working out, hanging with the guys, doing everything but throwing. "! got rid of the brace on the elbow because I wasn't feeling any pain of any kind. But I can't do anything. Can't play golf, can't play basketball, can't throw a football. They're telling me, `You can lift two-pound weights.' I'm doing four pounds."

He's laughing because he feels good now after suffering two years. Last season he changed his delivery to accommodate the pain, dropping to almost sidearm, occasionally even throwing a knuckleball. "You can pitch with a torn ligament as long as you can stand the pain. I couldn't stand it anymore."

The surgery was done during spring training. "The good news is, I'm two weeks ahead of schedule. The bad news is, there's no schedule. Everyone who has had this surgery says it's a year off, nothing less, maybe even a year and a half." At which point--A YEAR AND A HALF?!?--Smoltz says, "No way. I'll be at spring training."

We're talking baseball, past, present and future, and now we're in the Dodgers' clubhouse, a quiet place, a card game here and there, a player's son suiting up to work out with dad, Orel Hershiser bringing to the room a face of the past and present, Shawn Green a face of the present and furore.

Somehow, Green always looked out of place with the Blue Jays. A California high school phenom near Los Angeles, he'd hoped to be a Dodger only to be chosen by Toronto with the 16th pick of the 1991 amateur draft.

After five full seasons and parts of two others in Toronto, Green was traded to the Dodgers last winter in a deal prompted more by free-agent economics than by baseball tactics. "It's a dream come true," he says. "But I'm still going through an adjustment period from that league to this one."

Though Green has started slowly, the trade helped the Dodgers two ways--by subtracting troublesome Raul Mondesi and by adding a star once described by his friend and Jays teammate Carlos Delgado as "a left-brain guy who wonders about things."

What sort of things Shawn Green wonders about we are left to wonder. His answer: "Personal things." The answer is offered pleasantly, just as he offered with a shy smile one sentence of observation on the Ted Williams comparisons: "He's a good guy to be compared to." Which someone someday, talking baseball, will say about that great old Dodger, Shawn Green.