Archive for Monday, April 10, 2006

Big leaguers just keep getting bigger

April 10, 2006

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Pedro Martinez is talking about the giants in baseball. Barry Bonds? Hardly. The Mets ace means today's trend of scouting, signing and promoting really tall players.

All over, Martinez sees the difference. Fields full of guys who seem to have stepped from another sport.

"I think there are people who don't do so well at basketball and they think, 'Let me try pitching,'" Martinez said. "There are a lot of them."

In a corner of New York's spring-training clubhouse, Martinez caught the eye of reliever Billy Wagner. Martinez winked.

"The only one it didn't work for was me - me and Billy the Kid," he said.

Both on the smallish side, they throw plenty hard. But nowadays, it sure helps to bring the height, as well as the heat.

"I think we're all looking for the stud guy, the big specimen," St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty said.

Sizing up the majors, it's true: The big leagues are getting bigger and bigger, and not only in a juiced-up sort of way.

For every mighty mite such as David Eckstein and Jimmy Rollins - All-Stars at shortstop, naturally - there's a Loek Van Mil. Haven't heard of him? He's the 7-foot-1 minor league pitcher trying to make it with the Minnesota Twins.

In the 1960s, Boog Powell and Willie McCovey were big boppers. At 6-foot-4, they'd barely get noticed now. Then there was home-run champion Frank Howard, a former Ohio State hoops star who stood out at 6-7.

A Triple-A coach for the Yankees, the man called "Hondo" has found himself eye-to-eye with current players.

"You're getting bigger, faster, stronger athletes," Howard said. "You're looking at middle infielders that are 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, 215-220 pounds. Very gifted individuals."

Check out how things have changed for the Milwaukee Brewers in the last decade.

This year, all 40 players on their roster at the start of camp were listed at 6 feet or taller. In 1996, the Brewers used 11 players who were 5-foot-11 or under.

"We've got a lot of kids who are still growing," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "They're going to get even bigger. We've got babies out there."

No one named Big Baby, though. No one anywhere in the bigs called Pee Wee, the Toy Cannon or the Baby Bull, either.

"Not too many guys around like me," said Eckstein, the Cardinals' 5-foot-7 whirlybird.

Of course, heights can be subjective. At least the ones printed in media guides, that is. Adding a couple of inches here and there, it's been done.

Yet in the search for more power at the plate and on the mound, the numbers that show up are daunting.

As in: Only 17 percent of the players on spring rosters checked in at under 6 feet. Eight teams - yes, including the Giants - listed every pitcher at 6 feet or more. And half of Tampa Bay's players were 6-3 and up.

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