Friday, July 28, 2000

Zisk Issue # 3

Intro

The Zisk Staff's Baseball 200 Predictions (Please Note: They Were Made BEFORE the Season Began)

Rants from the Upper Deck: Mid-Season Edition by Steve Reynolds

This Column's Topic Has Yet to be Determined by Joe Knox

Film Review: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Steve Reynolds and Mike Faloon

Andy Ashby and Ambivalent Ravings by Josh Rutledge

A Tale of One City and Two Baseball Teams (or, How the 1999 New York Baseball Season Really Belonged to the Mets) by Mike Faloon

Take Me Out to...Baseball Songs by Steve Reynolds

Rocker Ruined My Off-Season by Steve Reynolds

4 Fans, 1 Shirt by Mike Faloon

Out of the Hot StoveLeague and Into the Fire: Play Moves, Controversies, Off the Field Happeningand Other Odd Developments that Marked the Off-Season by Bob Mason

35 Years at the Dome...(No) Thanks for the Memories! by Kip Yates

What Baseball Fans Do in the Off-Season by Mark Hughson



 

The Zisk Staff's Baseball 2000 Predictions (Please NOte: They Were Made Before the Season Began)

ESPN will yak about too many Ken Griffey Jr. yacks, or just far too many yacks in general.

Angels General Manager Bill Stoneman will make a trade deadline deal for Mike Morgan to anchor the rest of the rotation for the rebuilding years that lay ahead.

The Indians will lose in the first round of the playoffs again because of lack of pitching.  GM John Hart will blame somebody else.

The failure of overrated hired guns Andy Benes, Darrell Kile, and Pat Hentgen will drive vegetarian Tony Larussa to eat a cow.

Dante Bichette will already have eaten the cow.

Ricky Henderson will not do what Ricky Henderson does not want to do.

Braves relief pitcher John Rocker will say something stupid, this time about Chipper Jones’ girlfriend, sparking nationwide empathy for Hooters’ girls.

Davy Lopes will wonder just what in the hell did he get into. more than a few times.

Jose Lima breaks dugout at new Enron field in Houston while banging a bat during rallies. The visitor dugout was already destroyed by Carlos Perez.

The Cincinnati Reds will offer Trey Griffey, Junior's six-year-old son, a 10-year $150-million contract.

J.D. Drew will continue to embarrass the game of baseball.

Ordonez-Lopez II will be aired on pay per view after the fracas that ensues from a hard slide into second.

Detroit GM Randy Smith will declare a mulligan on the whole thing. ",Really guys. I was just fooling around. Can I have Kapler back. No? How about Cordero. Can I at least have my dignity back?"

Phil Garner will learn the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Albert Belle will refuse to talk to anymore candyass reporters right around April 10th.

Yankees, Indians, Rangers, Red Sox.

Mets, Astros, Giants, Cards.

Yankees over the Astros in 6.

Kip Yates
 
 
I am tall and lanky.  To make up for it, I make my predictions short and sweet.  I gaze into my crystal baseball and see...dang!  I can't see anything...must be a rain delay...oh man, now what?  I guess i'll just have to make stuff up!  I close my eyes, concentrate... these are my visions...

1.  Chuck Knoblach will commit an error

2.  Rickey Henderson will steal second base

3.  Randy Johnson will strike someone out

...phew!  That took a lot of pyschic energy...I'm beat...It was tough, but MY predictions will prove to be 100% accurate!  I rule the magical world of baseball prophecy!

Mark Hughson


AL EAST

Yankees: With the Straw gone, at least they won’t have to bother with that non-alcoholic champagne.

Red Sox: The Brothers Martinez will keep ‘em in it through the summer.

Blue Jays:  Ask David Wells if he thinks they’ll miss Shawn Green.

Orioles: The roster looks like an AARP convention.

Devil Rays: Will probably post scores higher than the Buccaneers, but will lose more than the Lightning.

 
AL CENTRAL

Indians: Reuniting Lance Johnson and Jim Riggleman doesn’t bode well for team chemistry. [Ed note: Johnson was released before the season began]

White Sox: The kids can play, but can Frank still hit?

Royals: Quick. Name 3 pitchers in their starting rotation. Thought so.

Tigers: Juan Gonzalez has never been much of a team player, which shouldn’t matter in Detroit since they don’t have much of a team.

Twins: The ’91 Series wasn’t filmed in black and white. It just feels that way.


AL WEST

Rangers:  Best of a sorry field.

Athletics:  Could contend. In this division.

Mariners: They weren’t going anywhere even WITH Junior. Without? Forget it.

Angels: Having traded Jim Edmonds, they could finish in the Pacific Coast League. 
 

NL EAST

Braves: Even without Smoltz, these guys know how to win. Except in October.

Mets: Hampton will help. Think he can manage?

Phillies:  If Schilling’s healthy, they could… finish third.

Expos: The Canadiens have a better chance at winning a World Series title.

Marlins:  Worst team this side of Minnesota.
 

NL CENTRAL

Reds:  Barry Larkin probably shouldn’t be running his mouth, but the fact is I agree with him.

Astros: Could be in trouble if they have to start the season with Doc Gooden in the rotation.

Cubs: Realistically, they will probably finish lower. But good things tend to follow Don Baylor around

Cardinals: Will probably finish higher, but still won’t make the post-season, so who cares?

Pirates:  Do the Indians have any more Brian Giles-types they wanna give away?

Brewers: Give Bernie Brewer a bat. Or let him pitch. Anything would be an improvement
 

NL WEST

Diamondbacks:  Should walk away with this cupcake division, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Dodgers: Won’t be able to blame it on Eric Young this time around

Giants: Is the Livan Hernandez Watch over?

Rockies:  Their pitching stinks. And not just at Coors.

Padres: ’98 was fun, wasn’t it?

—Reggie Lee-Ray

 
What '00 has in store for baseball fans...

Zisk #3 will appear before Bobby Valentine gets sacked

Ismael Valdes has a great year but no one notices because the Cubs remain a trainwreck of a club and the Dodgers have so many other problems that by season's end they have yet to realize what a monumental mistake they made in trading Valdes for a schlub like Terry Adams. (who, despite his protests, Dodger management still thinks is the guy from NRBQ)

The Toad has a decent year north of the border and helps the Expos flirt with .500.

Jose Rosado finally puts together two great halves and has a breakthrough season.

The Yankees sleepwalk through another challenge-free campaign leaving us with yet another boring regular season in the A.L.

—Mike Faloon

 
AL East: Yankees,  Red Sox*, Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Orioles

AL Central:  Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Twins

AL West:  Rangers, A's, Angels, Mariners
 

NL East: Mets, Braves*, Montreal, Philadelphia, Florida

NL Central: St. Louis, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Milwaukee

NL West: Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Giants, Rockies, Padres

*=Wildcard

Playoffs:

NY Yankees vs. Texas Rangers

Boston Red Sox vs. Cleveland Indians

Atlanta Braves vs. Arizona D-Backs

New York Mets vs. St. Louis Cardinals


Yankees vs. Red Sox

Cardinals vs. Braves


World Series

Yankees vs. Cardinals

Yankees in 5

—Jeff Herz


AL

East: Yankees

Central: Cleveland

West: Oakland

Wildcard: Boston

 

NL

East: Atlanta

Central: St. Louis

West: Arizona

Wildcard: Mets

 

World Series

Yankees vs. St. Louis
 

Yankees in 6

Random thoughts—Ken Griffey Junior can’t be a winner without Randy Johnson, so Cincy is doomed to fall back from last year.  The Mets had fate on their side last year, but won’t have enough juice to get to the series.  Oakland shines as ex-Met Jason Isringhausen blossoms as a closer.  Tony LaRussa and Mark McGwire finally have pitching, and a centerfielder in Jim Edmonds to replace Brian Jordan, and could end up with the best record in the N.L.  And this is the last year the Yanks make the World Series for a while.
Steve Reynolds

Bench Notes:

Shaking off the Garth Brooks Curse
1998 Padres (pre-spring training Garth):
98-64 (.605) - 1st place NL West, NL Champs
1999 Padres (post-spring training Garth):
74-88 (.457) - 4th place NL West

1999 Mets (pre-Garth)
97-66 (.595) - 2nd place NL East, Wildcard
2000 Mets (post-Garth)
???

Note that in the last game of the ('99) ALCS, the Yanks pitched El Duque, you know, the guy from the Mentors, and followed him up with Jeff Nelson of Minor Threat, and they won--and in the last game of the NLCS, the Mets pitched country suprstar Kenny Rogers, and lost. Looks like punk kicked ass on C&W in 1999! How sad for Garth.
Rev. Norb

'Twas a Night at Shea (One fan's actual cheers and jeers overheard one summer evening in the upper deck)

"The Mets brain trust is all here"
"We're better than the Braves in different ways"
"The Yankees have their tradition and we have ours"
"A triple play in the World Series"
"Bonds, you're nine years old today"
"And the umpire was shitting his pants"
"Why do the birds fly to Shea?"
"Do you think he'll make the yearbook?"
"If you get to 16 you're one better than Grote"
"The tracks are hungry for you"
The ctacher isn't stupid"
"the battery is deep"
"Pratt, the trust is you"
"The Mets should play centerfield right behind second base"

Rants From the Upper Deck: Mid-Season Edition by Steve Reynolds

Since this third edition of Zisk has been ever so painfully delayed, the Ranter has had enough opportunities to view the game to issue my annual mid-season report. First off, two words that make Yankee fans pray to the God of their choosing—Chuck Knoblauch. He has fallen so far this season that even I have some sympathy for him. Sure, King George is grumbling about the Yanks so far, and keeps dreaming of Mr. Pepsi Challenge, Sammy Sosa, to beef up a stagnant offense. But how about trading for a competent second baseman/table setter? If I were Mr. Steinbrenner, I would break those “unspoken” promises to Chuck agents, the Hendricks brothers (who also handle Roger Clemens) about a contract extension, and ship Mentalblauch out—fast.

We could have a Sox double shot in the playoffs this year. The Red Sox slot (either as a division or wild card winner) is a given with Pedro every five days. But who would expect to write this—the Chicago White Sox are in first. I say it again—the Chicago White Sox are in first. Who the heck are these guys? Even though Mike Hargrove is struggling to get the overpaid Orioles to work, his worth as a manager is being proved as the Indians muddle through this year. And the low budget Kansas City Royals are hanging around .500, making the AL Central perhaps the division to watch this year.

Of course, the A.L. West looks just as fun, as Oakland continues their improvement from last year, Seattle proves trading Ken Griffey Jr. was a solid move, and the Angels continue to rid themselves of last year’s nightmare. Even Texas has a shot at playing .500 ball—who says parity isn’t fun?

In the N.L., the Braves are playing as if John Rocker doesn’t disturb them at all. In fact, I think the Braves have a bit of late ’70s Yanks in them—bring on the clubhouse squabbles, and we’ll take out our frustrations on the opposing team. The only team that may give them a run for their money is my N.L. Central pick, the St. Louis Cardinals. (More on the Mets in a second) Jim Edmonds must be Mark McGwire’s new best friend. And Darryl Kile, welcome back from oblivion, a.k.a, Colorado, my friend. Speaking of the Rockies, what are they doing competing with Arizona? This fantasy will fade.

The Mets are likely to get the wild card again, but that’s where the ride will end. This team is good, but just doesn’t seem to have that special feeling last year’s team had at the end of the season. Of course, bringing back Lenny Harris as a sidekick for Mike Piazza can’t hurt.

Unfortunately, there’s really nothing this season for the Ranter to get pissed about. Sure, 17-4 scores are more common, but I think I’ve seen even more 3-2 tightly fought games this year. The umpires being folded into one body has been odd, but the adjustment doesn’t look that tough for the best pitchers. Well, there’s a crazy realignment plan that’s bound to happen, so that’ll get my blood pressure going.

The Ranter’s Mid-Season Awards:

A.L. MVP: Carl Everett, Boston Red Sox. Why didn’t he play like this for the Mets? He's other reason that Boston is scaring the Yankees this year. (See below)

A.L. Cy Young: Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox. Duh.

N.L. MVP: Todd Helton, Colorado Rockies. Without him, they’re the Astros. Or maybe the Phillies.

N.L. Cy Young: (tie) Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Al Leiter, New York Mets. Sure it seems crazy with Johnson’s stats this year, but Leiter has been THE MAN for the Mets. He pitches, they win.

This Column's Topic Has Yet to be Determined by Joe Knox

How quickly the winter went.  It seems like only last week that I was desperately cheering for the Braves to win game 4 of the World Series, not because I have any love for the team that had just eliminated the Mets but because I had tickets to game 5.  Now I’m finishing off this column listening to a rebroadcast of game 2  of MLB’s little Japan jaunt.  Why did this off-season go so fast when usually the specter of four months of the unrelenting ugliness that is the NHL, NBA and NFL?  Because I promised I’d get this column written in time for the next issue.

An examination of baseball over the last half year since I was first asked to write for Zisk shows a season littered with ruined story ideas.  My original piece was an examination of “ass bigger than a barn theory” which holds that a pitcher is better the wider he is below the belt.  A summer spent counting the pinstripes on Hideki Irabu’s and Roger Clemens’ asses and formulating exceptions for the likes of Pedro Martinez was exhausting but certainly it would all be worth it when the column came out.  Alas, it all came to nothing thanks to a former pitcher who was himself an exception to the rule.  On a late fall drive up to Boston I heard Dennis Eckersley subbing as an announcer for the Sox.  “It’s just accepted,” he said, “that pitchers that are extra wide are somehow better.”  What more can you say when one of the greatest pitchers of the last twenty years scoops your story?

Next up was a story on the joys of listening to baseball games on the radio.  Particularly, the practice of picking up games played far away by hanging an AM radio out the window and hoping for lucky atmospheric conditions.  For better or worse, though, virtually every ball game is broadcast over the internet these days and the radio cab stand across the street from my apartment has replaced the sound of ball games fading in and out of the night with small talk between livery cab drivers in Spanish.

As the regular season came to an end there was a glimmer of hope for a new column as the Mets seemed to be putting it all together.  A trip to Shea at the end of the year showed baseball at its best as the Mets hung on to force a one game playoff for the wildcard by beating the Pirates 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth.  On fan appreciation day no less!  (One casual observation that I will make from that game is that it’s probably not a great idea to give out miniature bats to 50,000 rabid fans on a day when emotions could run high in either direction.)  But even the prospect of a subway series was marred by the thought that they weren’t ready to face the Yankees yet this year.  Final proof of the predestination of the Yankees came as I realized my standard issue version of MS-Word’s spell checker already knew the words Hideki Irabu and El Duque but couldn’t seem to grasp that I really did want to write Orel.  (Note for future column: are Bill Gates and George Steinbrenner in cahoots?)

December brought some welcome relief when the Mets landed Jesse Orosco in an even swap with the Orioles for Chuck McElroy.  What better topic to write about than the joy of knowing that your bullpen contains a crafty forty-two year old left hander that’s been playing in the majors for over twenty years?  There was an added twist that I’ve been able to cheer for Orosco on the home team nearly everywhere that I’ve ever lived.  He was a Brewer when I was in Wisconsin, an Oriole when I lived in DC and now a Met again.  Alas, by March he was gone, traded away for yet another weak hitting utility man.  (Anyone notice how the Mets left-handed relievers fared during game one of the Mets-Cubs Japan series!)

Anyway, the season is now here.  The pessimist in me is watching a couple of potential trouble spots for the home team. How big a liability is Todd Ziele going to be?  How long will Mike Piazza’s arm last before opponents are able to steal at will, as they did at the end of last season?   Which time bomb will explode first—Ricky Henderson or Bobby V.?  But, as one of the oldest sports clich├ęs in the world goes, hope springs eternal.  Perhaps I’ll start writing that column about the Braves beating out the Mets for the NL pennant now so that whatever baseball gods have been thwarting my writing career can throw a monkey wrench into Bobby Cox’s boys now.

Film Review: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Steve Reynolds and Mike Faloon

Documentaries about baseball are a tricky proposition—does the filmmaker concentrate only on the sport itself, or on its cultural context? The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, by Aviva Kempner, strikes the right balance of satisfying the baseball junkies (i.e., us) while serving up a fascinating look at Jewish culture of the ’30s and ’40s, with a mix of poignant moments and belly-shaking laughs.

Greenberg is a Hall of Fame member, and racked up some astonishing stats: he led the A.L. in home runs and RBI’s for four different seasons; he won the MVP award in 1935 as a first baseman, and then again won it in 1940 after switching to the outfield for the good of his team. But for all of his on the field achievements, perhaps “Hammerin” Hank’s greatest feat was providing young Jewish boys of the day an idol. Director Kemper leans heavily on Greenberg’s fans to bring his legend alive: two rabbis reveal how baseball could be played even during services in a synagogue by using The Talmud; three boys from the Detroit area call him their “Greek god” and “the Moses of baseball”; actor Walter Matthau explains how he became a member of a California tennis club just so he could have a reason to talk to Greenberg. These recollections are supplemented by footage of Greenberg’s career, and insightful interviews with Greenberg himself, conducted just a few years before he died in 1986, and his Detroit Tigers teammates.

Kemper also shows how Greenberg was a leader with more than just his bat. He was one of the first major league ballplayers to go into the Army via the draft, and re-upped after his one year of service expired days before Pearl Harbor. Greenberg was the subject of racist taunts by fans and opposing ballplayers during his career, so he served as an inspiration to Jackie Robinson during the Dodgers second baseman’s first season, which happened to be Greenberg’s last.

Making a film on a ballplayer overshadowed by the legends of his time like Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams (who says that Greenberg was his favorite player) isn’t the easiest subject, and Life and Times does falter at times. Clips from movies of the era that try to emphasize points about the bigotry of the time seem out of place, and watching prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz ramble on like he’s doing another appearance on CNN during the heyday of the O.J. trial is a bit much. And Greenberg’s intriguing post-playing career (serving as the general manager of the last Cleveland Indians team to win the world series, co-owner of the Chicago White Sox with the legendary Bill Veeck, testifying for Curt Flood during the St. Louis outfielder’s bid for free agency) is reduced to series of end titles.

From a baseball fan’s point of view, the best tidbit in the film is Greenburg’s love of not the home run, but the RBI. The Life and Times of Hank Greenburg isn’t a grand slam, but it is a bases clearing double.

--Steve Reynolds

Andy Ashby and Ambivalent Ravings by Josh Rutledge

Save us, Andy Ashby! Save us!

I hate to put so much pressure on one mere mortal, but I'm counting on Andy Ashby to help cure my inferiority complex. If he can win 15 games this season, the Philadelphia Phillies may have a shot (albeit a distant one) at making the playoffs!

You see, I have been a Phillies fan for over 20 years. And in recent years, the Phillies have…uh…sucked. They have managed exactly ONE winning season in the last 13 years. Think about that: 13 years and just a single season over  .500! When they began this dry spell, Ronald Reagan was president! How have they done it? You have to be really good at losing to reach such impressive levels of sustained ineptitude!

I have grown up witnessing the Phils' enduring failure every spring and summer. I was 16 years old when The Phillies began this incomparable run at incompetent fame (The year was 1987). Aside from one fluke year in 1993, my Phils have been perennial losers since my 16th birthday! As I write this, I’m 28. I'll be 29 before opening day.

It is simply impossible for me to ignore the impact of the Phillies' consistent futility on my life. An adolescence spent rooting for the laughing stock of Major League Baseball must have certainly played a role in determining who I am today, right?

And what am I today? I'm a writer who champions beautiful losers and neglected souls. Do I love losers because I'm a Phillies fan? Or do I love the Phillies because I love losers? I honestly do not know! Perhaps if The Phillies had won a pennant or two in the late 80's, I may have grown up to become a successful, well-adjusted pillar of society. Perhaps I'd have a good job and a beautiful wife and season tickets at The Vet. Instead, I'm a struggling writer. I'd be a starving artist if mom and dad decided to kick me to the curb. After spending all those summers hoping against hope that the Phillies could crack the .500-mark ("Oh, wow—if only we could be average! That would be so swell!"), can you blame me for having a somewhat unusual vision of "success"?

So what happened to the Phillies? They were a fearsome bunch in the late ’70s and early ’80s. My childhood heroes were Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. When I grew up, I discovered that both of my childhood heroes were complete assholes. Needless to say, I no longer believe in hero worship.

But I still like Pete Rose. Sure, Pete was/is a douchebag. But he's so up-front about being a douche bag that I can hardly mind. I knew he was a scoundrel when I was 10 years old! But I loved to watch old Pete play. He ran the bases the way Johnny Rotten sang. His line drives cracked like Johnny Thunders' guitar lines. He was obnoxious and brutal, just like the Dead Boys. And the results spoke for themselves: in five seasons in Philly, he led his team to three division titles and two World Series appearances. He was pushed out the door after the '83 season to make room for the immortal Len Matuszek. Since then, the Phillies have gone down the proverbial toilet.

'93 was a sick joke. It was destiny's ironic statement. I graduated from college that spring just as messieurs Dykstra, Daulton, Kruk, and Schilling were starting to make believers out of the baseball world. I kept staring at the standings and telling myself that it was all too good to be true. In spite of the fact that their bullpen closer threw only 6 pitches over the plate all year, the lovable losers managed to beat the Braves in the playoffs. Then came the World Series, Mitch Williams, and Joe Carter. I was right—it was all too good to be true.

In the ensuing years, the Phillies have made an art form out of failure. One could say that I do the same with my life. And perhaps I really do prefer it that way! After all, it's hard to be a success! You've got to spend lots of money and work your ass off and sacrifice for the greater glory of capitalism. And for what? For a nice car? For cable television? I'd rather work my ass off for the glory of literature! I toil away in my little writing dungeon, composing tales of longing, depression, and obscure punk rock bands who will only be loved by those of us who can see the beauty in failure! The Phillies might be a bad ball club, but they are never boring! Remember 1997, when they flirted with the Mets' record for the worst season in baseball history? Remember the J.D. Drew fiasco? I love my dreadful Phillies and all their incurable flaws!

So if Ashby turns out to be a bust, I won't sweat it. If Curt Schilling doesn't recover from his surgery, I won't sweat it. If Bobby Abreu's mega-massive '99 season was just a fluke, I won't sweat it. But if the Phils work a miracle and win 90 games, imagine how many trend-hopping poseurs will jump on the Phillies bandwagon and claim to love my team! I will not allow one of my great passions to become just another ephemeral craze! If you wish to jump on the Phillies' bandwagon, do it now or forever hold your peace!

All in all, I still remain confident that the Phillies will once again find a way to lose in 2000. They always find a way to lose. That's the only thing in life that I can truly depend upon.

[ED Note: As we went to press on Zisk, Andy Ashby has just come off the D-L for an infected finger, and is likely to be traded to a contender before the deadline.]

Rocker Ruined My Off-Season by Steve Reynolds

“It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the [Number 7] train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 2—year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

John Rocker to Sports Illustrated reporter Jeff Pearlman on why he would never live in New York City

With that brief paragraph, Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker turned a baseball off-season that should have been dominated by news of the Ken Griffey Junior trade into one in which incessant discussion of these stupid remarks was talk show host and newspaper columnist fodder for more than two months.

I originally sat down in early December to write down all my thoughts of hatred for John Rocker—it was going to be another installment in my Rants From the Upper Deck column. I’m not talking about just a strong dislike; I’m talking about a pure, deep from the depths of my baseball-loving soul hatred, the kind of hate I had usually only reserved for certain music groups. Rocker slagged my beloved Mets, and my beloved city, New York, during the last weeks of the season, and then again during the playoffs. I found myself on more than a few occasions cursing at the TV (in a way that probably Rocker only thinks people waiting for the 7 curse) when Rocker would pitch himself out of a jam without giving up a run. I’ll even admit I genuinely wished that a car would hit him. (Actually, I wished various forms of death upon Mr. Rocker, but I won’t go into all of them.)

But now it’s hard for me to hate John Rocker—I realize that he’s just a guy who thought: “What I said before really irked them. How can I take it to the next level in this interview?” And as we all know by now, Rocker stepped way over the line, offending virtually everyone that’s not a card-carrying KKK member. Was what he said worth some sort of suspension by Major League Baseball? I’m still not sure. Was the arbitrator correct in cutting Rocker suspension from 73 days to 25 days? I think the answer is a definite yes. Rocker’s true punishment will be the taunting he’ll receive the rest of his career from baseball fans around the country (especially New Yorkers). Is Rocker a racist and a homophobe? There’s a good chance he is, but there is such a thing called the First Amendment that allows him to say whatever he wants. Will Rocker remain a Brave? His teammates—including Randall Simon, who he called a “fat monkey” in the SI interview—seemed to have forgiven him after a closed-door players meeting where Rocker reportedly apologized profusely and took what the players had to dish out. But don’t be surprised if he’s given a one-way ticket to a smaller market team this season. The minor league demotion was just the first step.

“Hate and bigotry and homophobia and racism have a place, evidently, and that place is in major league baseball.” —Atlanta city councilman Derrick Boazman, after Rocker’s suspension was reduced.

Councilman Boazman is correct, but it’s not because of John Rocker. (And Boazman could have referred to all professional sports and been correct.) Homophobic tension couldn’t be higher than it is in a sports locker room. (And yet they can slap each other on the ass with towels—what gives?) But racism in baseball starts where the cash is, with the owners, not with one talented relief pitcher. Considering all the outstanding minority athletes baseball has produced and promoted and made money off of, why are there still so very few in high positions of power? Commissioner Bud Selig, who said that the cutting of Rocker’s suspension “does not reflect any understanding or sensitivity to the important social responsibility that baseball has to the public,” sent word out to all the major league clubs last year that when they had a front office or managerial opening, they were required to inform the commissioner’s office. The club was also required to submit a list of five minority candidates for the job, and if they had none, the commissioner’s office would provide a list of potential candidates for them to interview. The Detroit Tigers had a managerial and a front office position open last fall, and completely ignored the Selig’s order. They didn’t even glance at the list of potential candidates, and hired ex-Brewers manager Phil Garner. Garner was a quality player for the Pirates and Astros, but he never got the Brewers over .500 in seven seasons—not exactly sterling credentials. But were the Tigers punished? Of course not—the only peep made about this incident was in the weekly baseball column in the New York Times. The rest of the mainstream media seemed to miss its significance completely.

In my opinion, the Tigers front office gaffe is much worse than John Rocker mouthing off to a reporter—Rocker has the right to do so. But the Tigers incident, and many others over the years, are much more troubling because it’s practicing racism on an institutional level. Baseball is far from perfect. (Don’t get me started on the insanity of the DH.) But getting some true diversity in positions of power, instead of just paying lip service when someone like Jessie Jackson comes snooping around, would go a long way in helping the off-the-field qualities of America’s pastime.

Talk Talk, All You Do Is

The Rocker debacle brought about a new debate about racism in this country—and goodness knows everyone could use more education on the undercurrent of bigotry throughout our daily lives. But a week’s worth of CNN’s Talkback Live (owned by the same mondo corporation as the Braves) and various talking heads on cable news channels just added a circus-like atmosphere to the whole sorry affair. Here’s a collection of people’s thoughts on John Rocker and his big mouth, from the ridiculous to the sensible.

“I swear to you if he said that to my face I’d tear him up, and one of us would be suspended right now.” —Braves first baseman Randall Simon, who was the most likely the teammate Rocker called a “fat monkey” in the SI article.

“We’ve probably all said things like that out of ignorance, and just gotten away with it.” —Country star, and spring training whore, Garth Brooks.

“We’ve got Hispanics in this band, Italians in this band, people who are Polish and Russian. We’re all immigrants, all foreigners—quote unquote—and this is our way of saying his comments were not acceptable.” —Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French, asking the Braves to not use Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” to introduce Rocker as he came onto the field. [Ed note: There is no possible way that this statement could have been motivated by the recent re-issue of the entire Twisted Sister catalog. No way. How could anyone even say something like that...]

“I don’t know John Rocker and I don’t want to know John Rocker. But I do know one thing: This would not have happened had an organization and a team [been] attuned to the kind of things he said.” —Bill Bradley, during a presidential debate in Iowa. [Ed note: At the end of the quote, Bradley also referred to his stint as a New York Knick for 800th time during his campaign, working hard to erase years of downplaying his basketball status. Alas, that didn’t help his run for the Oval Office. But this is a baseball publication, so we’ll wait until David Cone runs for office to tackle athletes-turned-politicians.]

“I…think what he [did] was reprehensible and disgusting. And I condemn it without any reservation, of course.” —Al Gore during the same Iowa debate, not realizing that the panelists were asking his thoughts about Rocker, not the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

“[I feel] very sick and disgusted about the whole situation. I have no place in my heart for people who feel that way.” —One of the greatest ever, Hank Aaron, the day after the article was published. Aaron did later go on to speak to Rocker and felt that Rocker was not a racist.

“The guy’s an idiot. You don’t say that stuff out in public…He’s going to pay the price, and I honestly feel sorry for him.” —Toronto Blue Jays pitcher David Wells, who make us wonder if he has said “that stuff” in private. Wells then went onto to drink a case of beer, eat ten hot dogs and pitch a shutout after his comments.

“There probably would have been 25 guys ready to kill him.” —Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, discussing the reactions of his teammates if Rocker’s comments were made during the regular season.

“Suspend him and take his money? What does that do? I don’t think that serves any purpose.” —Yankee third base coach Willie Randolph.

“An apology is no more than just words unless it is followed by actions. I hope in this coming year I may somehow redeem myself.” —John Rocker, from an editorial he wrote for the Atlanta Constitution Journal the day after his suspension was cut.

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.