Dave Justice is among those wondering what he could've done in a full year for the Atlanta Braves. Then again, he's just glad he got to play at all.
Justice, who began the season in the minors, didn't get a chance to start full-time until Dale Murphy was traded in early August. But once he broke into the lineup, he broke loose."If Dale had not been traded, I probably would still be platooning at first. I wouldn't be sitting here," Justice said Tuesday after winning the National League rookie of the year award in a near-unanimous vote.
Justice hit 28 homers, most of them after Murphy went to Philadelphia and right field opened up. Justice batted .282 with 78 RBIs in 439 at-bats in 127 games.
Justice got 23 of 24 first-place votes for 118 points. Montreal second baseman Delino DeShields got the other first-place vote and had 60 points.
Cincinnati first baseman Hal Morris (13 points) was third, followed by San Francisco pitcher John Burkett , Cubs pitcher Mike Harkey St. Louis catcher Todd Zeile and Montreal outfielders Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker
Justice, 24, joined Earl Williams (1971) and Bob Horner (1978) as Atlanta players to win the award. Two members of the Baseball Writers Association of America in each NL city voted.
The American League rookie of the year will be announced today.
While the Braves began the season touting their young pitchers, Justice did not figure prominently in Atlanta's plans, especially since the club had signed power-hitting free agent Nick Esasky.
In spring training, Justice got another blow - he was hit in the face by a ball and sustained a broken cheekbone and nose, requiring plastic surgery. When he healed, Justice started the year at Triple-A Richmond.
The Braves got off to a bad start and Esasky played only a few games before being sidelined for the rest of the year with vertigo. On May 16, Atlanta brought up Justice and put him at first base, a position he had played only a few times in his pro career.
Justice, Atlanta's fourth-round choice in the 1985 draft, had never hit more than 12 home runs for one team in a season before this year. He had hit only eight homers and was batting .243 when Murphy was traded.
The Braves made Justice to right field, and he played like the two-time Most Valuable Player he replaced.
In the outfield "my natural position . . . I was able to concentrate on my hitting," he said.
Justice went on a tear and hit .335 with 20 home runs and 49 RBIs for the rest of the season.
"I'm basically a line-drive hitter," he said. "I'm not going to change my game plan. I think about the line drive."
Justice's late surge separated him from the rest of the rookies. DeShields was solid all season, batting .289 with 42 stolen bases. Morris hit .340 with 36 RBIs in 309 at-bats and Burkett went 14-7.
Justice gave credit to Braves batting coach Clarence Jones, who made an adjustment in Justice's stance, getting him closer to the plate so he would pull more pitches.
"The swing is a natural swing. It was a matter of finding a batting stance I was comfortable with," Justice said.
"I'd hit well, but had nothing to show for it," he said. "He (Jones) told me to stay with what I was doing, getting close to the plate, and real soon I'd be right back in the thick of them (contenders for rookie of the year). I told him the last two months of the season, `I'll do it your way,' and everything he said came true."
Justice broke into the majors last season and played 16 games, batting .235 with one home run i 67 homers in 1,817 at-bats. He split time in 1986 with Class A Sumter and Class AA Greenville, hitting a total of 22 homers with 105 RBIs.
Now, Justice said, he has to develop the mental toughness to go an entire major league season.
"It's a long season; to be there every night is a task a lot of guys can't do. I don't think anybody can do it," Justice said. "The last two months of last season, I was there mentally 95 to 99 percent of the time. I felt I really came into my own.
"Now it's thinking about getting off to a good start next year, playing every day and keeping playing," the 6-foot-3 Justice said. "I only had a great two months. It's hard to know what kind of year I could have. I never have had 500 at-bats. I don't know what I can do."
Justice said his finish means he probably will return to his role as a clubhouse chatterbox, a role he played in the minors but abandoned as a major league rookie.
"I'm very vocal. I'm talkative," he said. "If I've got something that needs to be said, I'll say it."
"I can't let guys get down. I'm the kind that will go up and down the bench, keeping guys up, keeping guys ready to play," he said.