Friday, July 28, 2000

Out of the Hot Stove League and Into the Fire: Play Moves, Controversies, Off the Field Happening and Other odd Developments That Marked the Off-Season by Bob Mason

For many baseball fans this is perhaps the most exciting time of year, a time rife with hope and expectation that this is the year for their team.* Even the diehard masochists masquerading as fans of the Red Sox and Cubs allow a faint glimmer of optimism to invade their jaded and oft-broken hearts.  If not considering themselves outright contenders, fans in every Major League city buzz with the anticipation of making a run at the postseason; maybe not the division title, but definitely the wild card. Only fans shaking off another long, cold winter in Minnesota or those preparing for the oppressive heat of summer in southern Florida can really discount themselves from even daring to dream of playing baseball this October.

The economic realities of modern Major League Baseball seem to preclude the smaller market teams from capturing the World Series title, the pennant or even their division title.  The Yankees, Braves, Mets, Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Indians are economic juggernauts that to all appearances have a stranglehold on championship aspirations, mainly through their ability to sign quality players at today's astronomical salaries.  But fans in Philadelphia, Oakland and Toronto quickly point to the 1999 Cincinnati Reds as their proof that even a comparatively small payroll can carry a team to the brink of success if the money is spent wisely and ownership allows the baseball people to do their jobs.

So as the ice melts, the buds bloom and a young man's fancy turns to love, baseball fans across the nation are coming out of hibernation and getting ready to cheer their teams to success.  Do they really have a chance to grab the crown?  The beauty of Opening Day is that every team is in first place (or last place, for you pessimists) and has an opportunity, if only mathematically, to walk away the champs.  Throughout the season ahead there will be plenty of surprises, many disappointments and even a shock or two, but if the off-season was any indication, it won't be boring.  Much happened during the four months leading to spring training that will have repercussions on the season, both on the field and in the public's perception of the game and its place in their lives.  From headline-grabbing controversies to seemingly insignificant roster moves that will have a profound effect on a team, the winter months were an important time for baseball.

First and foremost among the player moves this off-season was the trade of Ken Griffey, Jr., a move that has the city of Seattle smarting and Cincinnati thinking championship.   Getting only a pretty good centerfielder, a pitcher who refused to pitch inside and gave up 31 dingers in 170+ innings as a result, and two marginal prospects for a future hall-of-famer who just turned thirty is reminiscent of the days when owner Charlie Finley tried to dismantle his Oakland A's by trading the likes of all-star outfielder Joe Rudi for a bag of peanuts (unsalted).  The Mariners and General Manager Pat Gillick could have gotten a lot more for the man voted best player of the past decade by his peers, but they got greedy. 

At one time or another, the Reds are said to have offered number one starter Denny Neagle, Rookie of the Year Scott Williamson, highly touted catching prospect Jason LaRue, outstanding middle reliever and potential starter Dennis Reyes, .300 hitter and doubles machine Dmitri Young and closer Danny Graves.  Instead the M's backed themselves into a corner by jerking the Reds around in negotiations and Griffey in the press and ended up with Mike Cameron, a fast outfielder with a good glove and some pop in his bat, but who strikes out far too often and suffers from mental lapses and lack of concentration at times, a pair of so-so minor leaguers in infielder Antonio Perez and pitcher Jake Meyer, and Brett Tomko, a pitcher who refused Manager Jack McKeon's and Pitching Coach Don Gullett's repeated entreaties to pitch in on hitters and instead settled for giving up a home run more than once every six innings and an E.R.A. in the high fours.  Tomko was a headache the Reds were more than happy to part with, especially when they expected to give up one of their better pitchers instead.  He might do better in the more spacious Safeco Field, but his welcome was worn out in Cincinnati.

Mismanagement by the Mariners' front office appears to be the reason they got little more than table scraps for one of the game's premiere players, though many fans and sports journalists saw it differently.  They claimed Griffey blackmailed the team into trading him for so little return with his public pronouncements of wanting to play closer to his family, and later that he was receiving death threats for his trade demand and no longer felt safe playing in Seattle.  They said he owed management and the city a lot better treatment.  But what did Griffey really owe anyone?

The man can be credited with single-handedly saving baseball in Seattle. He gave the team its first nationally identifiable superstar, making them a draw on the road as well as home.  Before Griffey came along the Mariners' visits to other towns always coincided with special promotions like Cap Day or Fireworks Night in an attempt to get people to come to the game.  No one wanted to see the Mariners play.  Julio Cruz, Dan Meyer and Alvin Davis never drew anyone to the ballpark that wasn't a blood relation.  Then Griffey came along and suddenly the Mariners became a hot ticket.  His mere presence in the Mariners' line-up made mediocre players around him so much better (e.g., Jay Buhner) that suddenly the team was playoff caliber.  His name on Mariners merchandise brought in money hand over fist for his bosses, and the success he was largely responsible for allowed the team to avoid relocating to another city and even gave them the financial leverage to build a new open-air stadium.  The management of the team, and the city itself, actually owe him a great deal for keeping baseball in the Pacific Northwest and all the fiscal rewards that entails.  All Griffey owed management and the fans was a 100% effort every time he took the field.

It's puzzling why fans and writers believe he owes anyone anything.  Playing baseball, as with any professional sport, is a job for the athletes.  It's nice to talk about loyalty and giving back, and all the other warm and fuzzy stuff athletes say for public relations, but the bottom line is that this is the way these men earn their living.  If anyone else, from janitor to business executive, wants to switch jobs or move to another city, they are free to do so without the slightest bit of hoopla or controversy.  When's the last time a computer programmer got a death threat or a scathing editorial written about him for relocating?  The fact that Griffey's in a very small field of elite workers with fewer job options shouldn't limit his freedom to work where he chooses. 

And don't feel too badly for Mariners' management.  As is common practice in all sports, when a team decides a player is no longer of any use to them or too expensive, they "cut" (read: fire) him without much concern beyond their bottom line.  Sometimes the player finds another job, often not.  One thing for certain is that there won't be the same public outcry against greedy and selfish management the player gets when he decides he wants a different job.  It's said that sports today is more business than game, but it's always been that way for the owners.  The only difference these days is that the players have the freedom and the leverage to deal with management on more equal footing.

Griffey going to the Reds brought to light another interesting phenomenon of the off-season:  the superstar taking less money to play for the team he wants.  Both Griffey and Mark McGwire took far below their market value to play for the Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals, respectively, when the general trend of players has been to squeeze the last penny out of any team that desires their services.  McGwire even expressed his contempt for this tactic among his fellow players, wondering aloud how much money was enough for them.  Of course neither Griffey nor McGwire is in any danger of starving or living on the street after signing their new contracts, but as the biggest names and draws in the league along with Sammy Sosa, they have shown their fellow players that winning is more important to them than cashing in.  The discount rates they gave their teams allow management to surround their superstars with a strong supporting cast and give them a good shot at postseason success.

Most players still show a tendency to get the highest contract possible, regardless of how competitive that leaves their teams.  Mike Hampton, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and the aforementioned Sammy Sosa all seem intent on breaking the bank this next free agent season, probably driving them (as with most superstars) to the deep-pocket teams in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Cleveland.  Most big-name free agents don't allow the smaller market teams to realistically compete for their services because their financial demands are so high, leaving teams in Kansas City, Minnesota, Milwaukee and San Diego with a motley collection of rookies, cast-offs and retreads that can't compete on the field with the rich teams. 

Though the players union openly discourages players such as Griffey and McGwire from taking less to play on the team of their choice, in the long run they're probably shooting themselves in the foot.  With all but a handful of teams unable to afford that core group of star players, the competitive balance of the league becomes a shambles.  Most teams don't really have a shot at winning and that fact is reflected in attendance figures (the sound of crickets chirping could drown out the crowd noise at a Pittsburgh-Milwaukee game), which in turn lowers revenues for the teams.  Less income for the teams means less money to spend on players, which means lower salaries for the players they do sign.  The only options left for teams at that point are to keep payroll at bottom-of-the-barrel prices, a la the Florida Marlins, raise ticket prices to levels most fans can't afford, or to fold up the franchise altogether.  By limiting legitimate interest in the outcome of the season to fans of the few teams that actually have the capital to compete, the players union has shown they are willing to undercut the base of fan support and risk the future of the game as an entertainment option in the desire to earn $8 million a year instead of $6 million.

Bud Selig, with his new "Super Commissioner" powers granted by the team owners, has vowed to tackle the disparity of competition in the league.  His answers to this drastic problem include revenue sharing among the teams, something the rich teams resist, and a salary cap, which the players union openly scoffs at.  As things stand now, these issues would be at the core of yet another strike and/or lock out when the current collective bargaining agreement expires.  Somehow he managed to convince ownership to share all revenues earned from the Internet, a long-range solution that should help the poorer teams.  Realignment, with teams such as the highly reluctant Arizona Diamondbacks switching leagues, is also a pet project of his, even though it's simply a cosmetic change that serves only to distract from more serious issues.  Selig's nerdy persona belies the fact that he's perhaps the most powerful commissioner baseball has ever had, with wide-ranging powers to correct the ills of the game.  Hopefully he'll us those powers for more than maintaining the perpetual owner/player standoff and giving Jerry Reinsdorf back rubs.

Selig spent most of the off-season exercising his powers as commissioner by suspending players and fending off Pete Rose's quest for reinstatement.  His recent hesitant, emotion-filled announcement of a one-year suspension for New York Yankee designated hitter Daryl Strawberry seems odd when compared to his harsh, flippant attitude toward Pete Rose.  Selig's confidants in the commissioner's office claim his reluctance to give Strawberry, a multiple offender of baseball's drug policy, the stern punishment he deserves was because of his genuine like for the player and his concern over what might happen to him during his suspension.  It's odd that he shows such a lack of concern for Rose's problem.

Compulsive gambling is a mental illness, an addiction as real to the sufferer as any physical need for a drug.  Is it because Rose has an abrasive personality and refuses to admit his alleged misdeeds that Selig shows no concern for him?  Would it be better if he feigned repentance like Strawberry, only to turn around and give baseball another black eye by relapsing?  While gambling on baseball games Rose was managing or playing in is a serious compromise of the integrity of the game, use of performance enhancing drugs by Strawberry presents a similar dilemma.  Certainly a longtime addict like Strawberry had cocaine in his system while playing a game.  Therefore the question becomes, how many games' outcomes were affected by him while under the influence of this powerful stimulant?  How many times did he hit game-winning home runs, speed home from second with the deciding run on a shallow single to the outfield, or make a game-saving catch because of the cocaine?  All Rose could do if he bet on his team to lose while managing was make questionable personnel moves that put his team in the position to lose; the players themselves had the power over wins and losses.  Strawberry directly impacted the outcomes of games by breaking the rules.

Almost across the board, sports have a strange attitude toward gambling addiction, especially in comparison to drug addiction.  In the NFL, former quarterback and compulsive gambler Art Schlichter is something of a joke, while linebacker and cocaine abuser Lawrence Taylor is in the Hall of Fame.  Selig and his defenders constantly point to the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 as the precedent for Rose's lifetime ban from the game, never taking into account that back then mental illness was a stigma not to be admitted to, something to be ashamed of.  In this supposedly enlightened age where mental illness and addiction are known to be equally as serious as physical addiction, Selig should make the suspensions equal.  If Daryl Strawberry is suspended for only a year and then allowed to resume his livelihood, then Pete Rose should get the same sentence.  But if Selig refuses to reinstate Rose, then Strawberry should be banned for life also.
The most curious case of abuse of power by Selig and the most explosive story of the off-season came when the commissioner suspended Atlanta Braves closer John Rocker for 73 days and fined him $20,000 for his homophobic and racist comments in a Sports Illustrated interview.  Though an arbitrator later reduced the suspension to 28 days and the fine to $500, the question remains the same.  Why does Major League Baseball have the power to do anything to a player who merely exercised his First Amendment rights, however ignorantly, in a non-baseball-related context?  John Rocker was not representing the Atlanta Braves or Major League Baseball when he said all those hate-filled, despicable things, he was representing John Rocker.  The suspension he received was like an office clerk getting suspended and fined from his job for making a racist joke while having an after-hours drink at his neighborhood bar.

Selig has broad "in the best interests of the game" powers to protect the integrity of Major League Baseball.  Conversely, John Rocker has a constitutional right to say what he wants, no matter how deplorable or idiotic.  If Rocker had said those same things at a Major League Baseball facility or function, then the suspension and fine would make sense.  There's little doubt Rocker deserves comeuppance, but let it come in the form of protest from a society that should make outcasts of bigots until they sincerely change their ways.  Give the fans a chance to make their displeasure heard through boos, not violence, and by boycotting any team Rocker plays for until he shows true repentance and not the tenuous, media-friendly remorse he has shown to date.  If his viewpoints create problems in the clubhouse and cause loss of revenue because of fan boycotts, then teams will not hire him.  Selig, however, has no right to take workplace action against something that was not work-related.  As dumb as he may be, Rocker deserves the same constitutional protection all Americans take for granted.

The Rocker situation creates more than public relations headaches and team chemistry problems for the Atlanta Braves, it leaves another chink in their armor that might make them genuinely vulnerable to division opponents for the first time since the strike-shortened 1994 season.  Both the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies field potentially strong clubs this year and can make a legitimate run at the Braves if the right pieces fall into place. 

For the first time in recent years so many possible pitfalls stand in the way of the Braves annual run for the playoffs that they may finally be ripe for the picking.  Consider, for example, that the Holy Trinity of pitching, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz continue the decline they showed last year.  They were still all above-average when their final numbers were added up, but the air of invulnerability they cast over opposing batters every time they took the mound was gone.  Losing Smoltz for the year is something even the pitching-rich Braves can't afford, and another slide in Maddux's and Glavine's effectiveness is not far-fetched for pitchers hovering around 34 years of age.

As the New York Yankees showed in the World Series, the Braves line-up is less than awe-inspiring.  Gone are second baseman Bret Boone, never a favorite of Manager Bobby Cox, and first baseman/left fielder/bobbled ball specialist Ryan Klesko, replaced by outfielder Reggie Sanders and second baseman Quilvio Veras.  The Braves desperately need a leadoff hitter, so they brought in Veras to take Boone's place.  When all aspects of each player's game are weighed, however, the deal turns out to be essentially a wash.  Sanders taking Klesko's spot in the line-up has much more upside than the Veras-Boone swap, but as any Cincinnati Reds fan will attest, Sanders is notorious for getting injured both early and often.  He's the spiritual successor to former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall in letting every nick, ding, scratch or boo-boo keep him on the bench.  He's on the disabled list so often media guides list his name as "Reggie Sanders 15-day DL."  If healthy he's definitely an upgrade, but if he goes down as he usually does, do the Braves have a suitable replacement?  And the less said about the shortstop platoon of Walt Weiss and Ozzie Guillen, the better.  If it was still 1988 the Braves might have something there, but now they can count themselves among the lower echelon of teams at that position. 

The biggest question facing the Braves concerns their players returning from serious injuries.  Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez and Kerry Ligtenberg all hope to come back strong after missing most or all of last year, but each is looking at an uphill battle.  Galarraga hopes to overcome cancer and a 38 year-old body to reclaim the form that saw him hit 44 homers in 1998.  Lopez, a formidable offensive force for a catcher, is attempting to rehabilitate his problem knee and get back into the crouch 120-130 games this season.  And in the wake of the John Rocker controversy, Ligtenberg's return takes on a much more important light than management had originally hoped.  If he can come all the way back, the Braves would have the freedom to deal their controversial 1999 closer, but serious arm injuries are never easy for pitchers to overcome, especially if they rely mostly on velocity. All these questions, not to mention how Leo Mazzone will handle John Rocker after the pitching coach essentially said the pitcher would be washed up in a couple of years, must give the Mets and the Phillies hope for the coming season. 

The Mets are coming off an up-and-down season which ended when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded to force in the winning run in game 6 of the National League Championship Series.  To compete with the Braves this year, the Mets went out and got a number one starter in Mike Hampton, but downgraded elsewhere.  Todd Zeile will not make anyone forget John Olerud except when he boots yet another routine grounder or can't scoop a low throw out of the dirt.  The starting pitchers after Hampton are a collection of journeymen hoping their best years aren't in the past.  As for the outfield of Ricky Henderson, Darryl Hamilton and Derek Bell, see the previous comment on Walt Weiss and Ozzie Guillen.

The upstart Phillies have to hope a lot goes right for them to surpass the Braves and Mets.  Their line-up, led by soon-to-be superstar Bobby Abreu and third baseman Scott Rolen, has the potential to be more explosive than either of their main rivals for the division title.  If they can shore up their middle infield problems they're going to put a lot of runs on the board on a nightly basis.  As it always seems to be, though, the success or failure of the Phillies hinges on their pitching staff.  Acquiring Andy Ashby made their starting staff look pretty good until workhouse and perennial all-star Curt Schilling had shoulder surgery, delaying the start of his season until at least May.  After Ashby and new closer Mike Jackson, the pitching staff is a series of question marks.  If Randy Wolf and Paul Byrd are the real deal that goes a long way toward answering these questions, but it looks more like the Phillies will be involved in a lot of 9-7 games this season.

One acquisition that has received little fanfare but might have an effect on the postseason was the Los Angeles Dodgers signing of pitcher Orel Hershiser, putting him back in Dodger blue where he belongs.  Maybe this mature, levelheaded, team-first player can pull a bunch of whiny, overpriced underachievers over the .500 mark and into the playoffs.  Anybody who saw his display of skill and determination for the Mets in last year's NLCS knew they were watching a professional winner, just what the high-payroll, low-effort Dodgers need to help lead them back to October baseball.

The Cleveland Indians think they might have found the final piece of the puzzle when they signed pitcher Chuck Finley during the off-season.  They hope that by finally adding a quality left-handed starter to their pitching staff, they can shut down the lefties in the Yankees line-up and leapfrog them into the World Series.  But unless they plan on pitching Finley and Bartolo Colon every other game, they'll have a lot of problems even getting past the best-of-five Division Series.  Dave Burba, Charles Nagy and most likely noted head case Jaret Wright round out the Indians starting staff and the bullpen minus closer Mike Jackson returns pretty much intact from last year.  As the Red Sox will attest, this staff is hardly as intimidating as Hernandez, Cone and Clemens, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, or even Larry, Curly and Moe.  When Darren Lewis is lighting up a pitching staff like they're throwing batting practice, there are more problems than bringing in a 37 year-old pitcher can fix.

Unless the baseball gods perform a miracle at Jacobs Field this season, the offense will once again have to carry the load and bail the pitching staff out time after time.  Last season the Indians were an offensive powerhouse, scoring so many runs that they overcame the deficiencies of the pitching staff, but duplicating that feat might be harder than it seems.  Leadoff hitter and team sparkplug Kenny Lofton is coming back after his gruesome injury in the playoffs against the Red Sox last year.  A trio of unremarkable replacements are vying to take his position, if not his production.  The drop-off will be noticeable on the scoreboard.  Outfielder David Justice is on the decline, perhaps creating more time for Richie Sexson, who showed excellent production in limited at-bats last season, something he will be hard-pressed to repeat.  As usual, catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. spent a big chunk of the season on the disabled list, joined by third baseman Travis Fryman.  They will both be trying to show they're still as productive as they were pre-injury.  Couple all these factors with the fact that Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and Omar Vizquel all had career years they'll be fortunate to approach again, and the Indians appear to be headed for a decline in offense.  Unless the pitching staff can step up, the Indians are in for another postseason disappointment.

The Indians don't have much to worry about before the playoffs, though, since the rest of the teams in their division will struggle to reach the .500 mark.  The Red Sox have dreams of overtaking the Yankees and stealing their title, and miasma of mediocrity in the American League West might provide some entertainment come September, but the bulk of regular season excitement promises to come from the National League.  The Senior Circuit is home to most of the good teams with legitimate postseason aspirations.  The Braves, Mets and Phillies all eye the top spot in the East division, the Reds, Astros and Cardinals have brought in key personnel they hope will give them the edge in the Central, and the Diamondbacks are counting on their veterans to repeat last year's performances and fend off the Giants in the West.  The Dodgers, Pirates, Cubs, Rockies and even Expos appear ready for improvement, while over in the American League the A's, Rangers, Mariners and Blue Jays will battle for the honor of getting beaten by the Yankees in the Division Series. 

Most surprisingly, after years of serving as the rest of the league's best farm team, the Montreal Expos new ownership has decided the team will pay players enough to encourage them to stay with the team.  Already they have brought in players with World Series rings in pitchers Hideki Irabu and Graeme Lloyd, and they promise they will make a concerted effort to retain their young stars like outfielder Vladimir Guerrero and pitcher Dustin Hermanson.  If the Expos continue to develop Major League stars like they have in the past and actually keep them, in a few years baseball fans could all know how to say “World Series champions” in French.

On paper the best pennant race appears to be in the National League Central, where the Reds, Cardinals and Astros will pit their potent slugging line-ups led by Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell against one another.  Throw in Sammy Sosa, and this division could have four players totaling 240 home runs between them now that Bagwell's out of the cavernous Astrodome and into the allegedly hitter-friendly Enron Field. Regardless of all the screaming line drives and towering moon shots that fly over walls in the middle of the country, however, this division, as with everything else in baseball, will be decided by pitching.

The new parks in Houston and San Francisco, as is the case with most of the recently opened parks, seem built with the hitter in mind.  Expect big numbers from Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell, and some uncharacteristically high numbers from Jose Lima and Shane Reynolds.  Only Comerica Park in Detroit appears ready to boost the home team's pitching staffing, if only by pulling the usually incompetent Tigers pitchers' combined ERA under 5.00. 

Of course the fate of every pitching staff depends on the umpires actually calling a strike zone bigger than a baby's fist.  The hope of that happening hinges on the new umpires union actually following through on their professed desire to develop a harmonious relationship with the commissioner, team owners and the players by calling the game as the rule book states and not by their arbitrary interpretation or personal bias.  Ousting power monger Richie Phillips and starting a new union was a good first step.

All these idle speculations, pontifications and predications can and usually do come crashing down once a pitcher takes the mound and the home plate umpire yells "play ball" for the first time, but isn't that what makes the game so great?  The off-season wheelings and dealings create expectations and a sense of anticipation, priming baseball fans for the excitement of the season ahead.  But ultimately it's on the field where the game is decided with its strange ballet of running, catching, throwing and hitting; where the team that is somehow more than the sum of its parts hoists the winner's trophy above their heads in late October.  From the time the trees start blooming in April, straight through the heat of summer, until the leaves die and winter hovers nearby, fans watch grown men chase a little white ball through neatly trimmed grass, their emotions rising and falling with every hit, wild pitch, stolen base, error and home run.  And who would want it any other way?

* As this is written, spring training games have just begun, thus reducing the Cleveland Indians' magic number to clinch the American League Central Division to two games.

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