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FINDING THE GROOVE\ NEWLY RICH SLUGGERS HAVE CONTACT PROBLEMS

FINDING THE GROOVE\ NEWLY RICH SLUGGERS HAVE CONTACT PROBLEMS

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NEW YORK - It's as much art as profession: trying to hit a moving, spinning, speeding baseball with a roundish, polished piece of ash wood. And if Ted Williams, hailed for having done it better than anybody else, considered it ``the most difficult single thing in sports,' think how much more difficult it is for anybody else.

Particularly for anybody who's trying too hard to do it. As Bobby Bonilla discovered.The night the New York Mets opened the season in St. Louis the 29-year-old slugger with the $29 million contract opened with two home runs. Off that performance, it seemed that maybe he would be different, that maybe he wouldn't struggle under the burden of trying to justify all the millions he had collected as a free agent.

Throughout the free-agent era, several sluggers have struggled as newly minted multimillionaires, especially early in the first season after joining a new team. Dave Winfield with the Yankees. Darryl Strawberry with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And this year Bobby Bonilla.

After those two opening-night homers, Bonilla didn't hit another homer until recently when he finally found what he was searching for: the same swing he used in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. When the Mets returned to Shea Stadium for their current series with the Cincinnati Reds, he had crashed three homers and driven in 11 runs in his previous six games.

But what exactly had Bonilla found in studying videotapes of his swing last season?

``Batting left-handed,' the switch-slugger explained, ``I was holding my bat out over my shoulder instead of holding it closer to my neck. Right-handed, I was holding my hands four or five inches higher. It's as simple as that.'

Tom McCraw, the Mets' batting coach, had one word to describe Bonilla's problem: tension.

``Hold your arm out straight. Feel the tension,' McGraw said. ``But if you bend your arm, no tension.'

Reflecting on his slump, Bonilla acknowledged that the tension in his arms had been created by the tension in trying to justify to all the Mets' fans his five-year, $29 million contract.

``You can say, 'It's not going to happen to me,' ' he said, ``but you just want to do so well, you're trying to do things you didn't do before. You're trying to hit a three-run homer with nobody on.'

Bonilla had asked the Pirates for tapes of last season's games, but the tapes never arrived.

Understandably, maybe the Pirates simply didn't want to help a National League East rival. Whatever the reason, Jay Horwitz of the Mets' front office finally asked Major League Baseball Productions to put together some tapes of Bonilla's at-bats with the Pirates last season.

``The tapes were shipped to us in Los Angeles,' Horwitz recalled. ``Bobby studied them in the umpires room at Dodger Stadium.'

Bonilla's sudden splurge lifted his stats on the road this season to .333 with 5 homers and 25 runs batted in. But at Shea Stadium, he has yet to hit a homer while batting .161 with only four runs batted in.

``I feel like I know what I'm doing now,' he said, ``but I've got to do it here.'

Some tension obviously still exists for Bobby Bonilla to produce at Shea Stadium. But the tension hasn't been quite the same for another newly minted multimillionaire, Danny Tartabull of the Yankees, who was out of sight and out of mind during a stay on the disabled list. The $25.6 million outfielder is hitting home runs now, most notably a grand slam in a nine-run inning last Monday but Don Mattingly seems to be surrounded by more tension than Tartabull.

Slow starts have been normal for Mattingly, but ever since his aching back dropped him to .256 in 1990, he has never regained the power that produced 35 homers in 1985.

When struggling in other years, the Yankee first baseman would remind himself, ``Stay back, stay back,' meaning wait for the pitch, don't lunge at the baseball.'

But even videotapes might not be enough to help Don Mattingly find what Bobby Bonilla found.

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