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Calderon swings power bat in Chicago; balk calls slowing up game

Outfit him in Army combat gear, holding an M-1 rifle, and heavily-bearded outfielder Ivan Calderon of the Chicago White Sox would look like the second lead in a Harrison Ford adventure film. Send Calderon up to the plate with a bat in his hands and what you've got is one of the best kept secrets and one of the best young hitters in baseball. In his first full major league season in 1987, Ivan led the White Sox in games played, hits (159), runs scored (93), doubles (38), home runs (28), and RBIs (83), and tied with teammate Harold Baines for the best batting average at .293.

The first thing you have to wonder about the 6 ft. 1 in., 205-pound Calderon is how the Seattle Mariners, who signed him as a free agent in 1979, ever agreed to trade him to Chicago. Hitters with Ivan's kind of power are always in short supply, and this man had already banked a ton of baseballs in the stands while playing for five different minor league teams.

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Asked if he had any idea why the Mariners traded him after playing him in only 115 games over parts of three major league seasons, Calderon replied: ``It's not for me to say. They made the trade, not me. But they forgot something, because I hit well everywhere I ever played. People teach you things that help, but to me you better be born with the ability to hit.''

Although Cal Emery is still starting his first full season as White Sox batting coach, he says he has known about the 26-year-old Calderon and his quick bat for a long time.

``The first time I saw this kid was about five years ago in the Instructional League and there was never much doubt in my mind that he'd make it,'' Emery told me. ``He's not what you'd call disciplined in the sense that the ball has to be over the plate for him to swing. But he's not reckless, either. What I'm saying is that if he sees a pitch just off the plate that he knows he can drive, he's aggressive enough so that he'll go after it.

``One of the things I particularly like about Ivan is that he can have a zero day at the plate and not come apart mentally, the way some young hitters do,'' Cal continued. ``He's always back the next day, his aggressiveness still showing, his confidence still intact, and still getting a lot of good wood on the ball. Calderon is a free swinger. But along with his 100 or so strikeouts, he's probably also going to give you 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs. And I don't know a manager anywhere who won't settle for that.'' Too many balk calls?

Aside from the usual number of hits, runs, and errors, a total of 73 balks were called by umpires during baseball's first week of play. Last year, during that same period, only 19 balks were called.

A balk, according to the rule book, occurs anytime a pitcher in the set position doesn't bring his hands to a complete stop at his belt line before releasing the ball. He must also have both feet on the ground.

Although the balk rule has always been on the books, umpires in both leagues this year have been told to enforce it to the letter of the law. Previously, a hesitation by pitchers before releasing the ball was often good enough.

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One thing for sure, neither players, fans, nor umpires like this new interpretation of the balk rule. Besides, it is slowing up a game that already takes too long to play.

While the commissioner's office isn't tipping its hand yet on the balk problem, it has quitely launched its own investigation. Expect an announcement soon. Elsewhere in the majors

Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland admits that despite their fast start his surprising Pirates don't really deserve to be rated with New York or St. Louis in the National League East, but he says the team should be competitive this year. ``I think the key is to try and get this club to the point where it can go into September playing for something other than respectability,'' he says.

Here are some things you probably shouldn't know about the Cleveland Indians, who are off to a surprisingly fast start. Last American League pennant: 1954. Last World Series victory: 1948. Last time finishing higher than sixth: 1977. Last time higher than fourth: 1968. Last time within 13 games of first place at end of season: 1959. Managers since last pennant: 17. Last time club reached 2 million in attendance: 1949.

Even after Cardinal outfielder Vince Coleman steals second base he still doesn't shut off his motor - as shown by the fact that 22 of his 109 thefts last year were of third. The significance of that? Well, only 21 major leaguers stole more than 22 bases apiece in all of 1987!

Billy Martin, hired five times as manager of the New York Yankees and let go four times, says he'd like to set the record straight on one of those situations. ``Actually, I was only fired three times,'' Martin explained. ``I asked owner George Steinbrenner to let me resign in 1978 because some of the things Reggie Jackson was doing bothered me so much that I couldn't sleep.''

Left over from spring training, but not forgotten, are some quotes from Ted Williams, a special batting instructor in the camp of the Boston Red Sox. ``A ground ball is a pitcher's best friend,'' Williams said. ``You look at all the best hitters last year and I guarantee you they're the guys who got the ball up in the air. When you hit the ball on the ground, you're doing the pitcher's job for him. The best way to eliminate that is to get a little uppercut into your swing.''

With the addition of the Red Sox, Brewers and Rangers, the number of major league teams now offering alcohol-free seating sections for their fans has reached 12. The others are the Dodgers, Cubs, Braves, Twins, Mariners, Pirates, Padres, Angels, and Yankees.

The Cincinnati Reds will play host to this year's All-Star Game on July 12. The 1989 game has already been awarded to the California Angels, and the 1990 game to the Chicago Cubs, who are currently in the process of installing lights.

From Jim Frey of the Chicago Cubs, explaining his new title as vice president of baseball operations: ``I think that means I'm the general manager.''

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