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The Great Debates heat up

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September 9

By the time the White Sox and Yankees walked into The Jake and Fenway on Friday, there really was very little suspense left in the September pennant races. The National League's Final Four has, for all intents and purposes, been decided. And what's left in the American League, barring a major collapse, are the final two positions between the Mariners, A's, Indians and Red Sox.

But every day there are questions that crop up. Here are five to ponder:

Juan Gonzalez
Juan Gonzalez has just 20 homers and 62 RBI in 104 games this season.

Won't it be hard for teams like the Mariners and Tigers that play in pitchers' parks to keep sluggers like Alex Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez and also to attract other good offensive players?

In some ways, this is the reverse of the adage that Darryl Kile proved -- that no free agent pitcher in his right mind would sign with the Rockies and work at Coors Lite Field. While pitching in Colorado is mental health issue that has been addressed this season by Buddy Bell and Marcel Lachemann, the Rodriguez-Gonzalez question is all about a player's priority, individual or team.

The fact remains that the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers have a better chance of developing winning teams in Safeco and Comerica because they are pitching-oriented ballparks, and it may be more difficult than ever for the Astros to win, because of hitter-friendly Enron Field.

"There's no question that in the long run the Mariners have a much better chance of building a winner in Safeco than the old Kingdome because they can develop pitching," says Lou Piniella. "Some of the hitters may not like it, but the fastest way to build a winner is through pitching, and Safeco can develop pitching."

A-Rod is a unique case, where a 25-year-old can choose a home where he can be assured he'll have a chance to win and put up record numbers. But then, at such a young age, he's also the greatest free agent in the history of the sport and such a sure bet for Cooperstown they'll soon name a rest area plaza on the New York Thruway for him.

Road warriors
Alex Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez's home and road splits through Friday:
  Site Avg. HR RBI SLG
Rodriguez Home .290 11 41 .518
  Road .365 23 68 .703
Gonzalez Home .265 6 26 .444
  Road .330 14 36 .589

But Gonzalez is another story. The notion that the Tigers should bring the fences in for him is preposterous. And if that's what it takes to keep his 62 RBI in Detroit, the E-X-I-T sign should be above the door. As the Tigers started winning this summer, Brad Ausmus said Comerica Park "plays fair."

Does anyone think that Wrigley or Fenway is a great hitter's park in the April or September winds? As the Tigers climbed past respectability towards the wild-card hunt, it was clear they had started to develop their pitching staff and that the team had a personality. If home run statistics are more important than the rebirth of an interesting team in what once was a great baseball city, fine. See ya.

The media does obsess on the offensive numbers, but the long-term attraction to fans is winning. Ask the Yankees, who until David Justice came along didn't have a 30-homer hitter. The mere suggestion that the Tigers bring in the fences because one player -- who by the way has missed more than a quarter of the schedule because of various ailments -- wants better individual stats is a statement that ownership is more interested in a carnival than building a winning team to represents its city.

Everyone knows the Great Shortstop argument in the American League, but what about the Great Outfielders Debate in the NL -- Vladimir Guerrero vs. Andruw Jones?

It speaks volumes about each that managers, coaches and teammates would take their own. "No one is close to Vladdy," says Felipe Alou. "In talent, in passion, in heart, no player is better."

"I don't know Guerrero personally, but I have spent a year with Andruw and from watching him for a year and knowing how far he can go in this game, I'd have to take him," says Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "Guerrero is a very talented outfielder, but I think everyone agrees Andruw's the best defensive outfielder in the game, and some of us think he's the best we've ever seen. But as a hitter, he's on the brink of superstardom. Remember, he's only 23 (a year younger than Guerrero). He's still raw, but he's doing so many things now that it's scary. And and a year from now he'll be doing everything every time up and I can't imagine the numbers he'll put up.

"There are some things you have to remember about this young man. First, he's been in the two-hole all year because of necessity. If we had (Rafael) Furcal and Quilvio (Veras) hitting 1-2 in front of him and he could hit third, imagine his numbers. Second, he plays every day, hurt, tired or whatever. Bobby (Cox) sat him down one day because he was playing hurt and ended the longest consecutive games streak in the majors and he didn't like it. Finally, understand Andruw wants to be great. He wants to be the best player in baseball. He now knows what he has to do and he's set on doing it."

Guerrero has more homers than Jones (34-31 through Friday) and has a considerably better OPS -- 1.071 to .903. But Jones is just beginning to take off, and his everyday grind has made him the Braves' MVP.

The answer to the question? Wait two years, because could be a Mays/Aaron thing to watch -- if anyone in Montreal will be watching.

Speaking of The Great Shortstop Debate, hasn't Miguel Tejada made the Trinity a Fab Four? Some in Oakland think he's passed Derek Jeter.

One of those persons is Oakland's highly respected coach, Ken Macha.

"I really believe Miguel has passed Jeter," says Macha. "It's amazing how much he keeps improving. Oh, he sometimes gets his feet a little messed up, but he gets better on that. He makes the best plays of anyone this side of Nomar (Garciaparra). His power is scary, and it's going to get better."

Tejada is a year younger (24) than Rodriguez and two years younger than Jeter, and his 24 homers and 95 RBI through Friday are second only to A-Rod among AL shortstops (in case you were wondering, Rich Aurilia is the NL home run leader among shortstops with 19. In the last two years he has 41, 14 more than the NL's runner-up, Edgar Renteria).

Here's a little leaders board of the top AL shortstops (statistics through Friday):

                 OPS  HR  RBI ERRORS
Rodriguez       1.048 34 109   8
Garciaparra     1.006 18  79  17
Jeter           .880  13  66  22
Tejada          .803  24  95  20

The raw numbers -- other than OPS -- aren't entirely fair, however. Garciaparra has played the last six weeks with a hamstring problem that has affected him in the field. It's also an injury that has clearly taken away from the torque he generates with his lower body, which in effect has crippled his power. Jeter, meanwhile, has been hurt during parts of this season and has never been able to consistently drive the ball.

"Tejada is going to be there," says one baseball insider. "But he's not Derek Jeter yet, and we'll have to give him time to see if he gets there. He's a very talented, hard-working wonderful kid, but he hasn't learned to grind it out the way Jeter does. If you watch Derek every day, then you appreciate his greatness because he grinds it out, every day, every inning, every at-bat, and does whatever little thing it takes to make the Yankees win. But it's close between he and Tejada."

Another interesting argument on the A's is who will be the best player on that team five years from now -- Tejada or Eric Chavez? There are those who think that within three years Chavez will hit .330 with 40 homers and 130 RBI. He already is approaching a top defensive level. Not a bad left side of the infield.

We're now going to get to the Ides of September without a manager being fired for the first time since before World War II. So what's the managerial watch board?

Lou Piniella's coaches are convinced he's going to manage Tampa Bay next season. Fine. The Dodger people constantly are talking about Dusty Baker, although there are a lot of Dusty's friends who believe his agent, Jeff Moorad, is using the Dodgers, Mets and others for leverage to get Baker a better deal with the Giants (Peter Magowan is aware of this, and has called some clubs asking if Moorad has contacted them about Dusty).

Here's an update on the managerial situations of several clubs:

  • Mets. Owner Fred Wilpon announced a week or so ago he wanted Bobby Valentine back, then the club has gone on to lose seven of nine through Friday. Snipers were after Valentine asking why with Derek Bell and Robin Ventura a combined 11-for-their-last-110 he gave Mike Piazza four days off in a span of eight days (two off days and two Todd Pratt moments). There still seems to be some question about what's going on here, and there's no certainty Steve Phillips is returning, either.

    Ironically, sources close to the Dodgers indicate that they have no interest in Valentine, but that if GM Kevin Malone is replaced, Phillips (as well as Oakland GM Billy Beane and Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden) would be near the top of the Dodgers' wish list. The betting is that Valentine will be back with the Mets, but the longer Wilpon lets this drag out, the more he creates confusion.

  • Phillies, Pirates. Terry Francona and Gene Lamont are expecting to get fired. Francona will immediately be the hot candidate, perhaps even in Pittsburgh, and the very competent and solid Lamont could resurface somewhere else as well.

  • Expos. Even backup goaltenders on the Shawinigan Cataractes know that owner Jeffrey Loria wants Jeff Torborg to manage his team, but Alou won't quit. If he gets fired, he can work wherever he chooses. The Dodgers will in all likelihood come calling for Alou if Baker decides to stay in San Francisco, and if Jimy Williams is ousted in Boston, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette will, too.

  • Astros. Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker doesn't want to fire Larry Dierker, but may have no choice.

  • Diamondbacks. The Buck Showalter thing has been played out for a month, with voices in Jerry Colangelo's ear, a disappointing collapse and team financial problems. Colangelo likes broadcasters and Bob Brenley was a well-liked and respected coach with the Giants, so if Showalter is sent packing Brenly could be the D-Backs' next manager.

  • Red Sox. A week ago, the newspaper voice of Boston ownership suggested that Williams should be axed because he didn't use (D)Izzy Alcantara, which set off guffaws.

    "Alcantara could be another Rudy Pemberton if he gets the playing time," said one scout who saw nearly 20 Pawtucket games. But the strain between the manager and general manager is bad. Duquette refuses to give Williams a third catcher, then when Duquette called Tim Spehr after Pawtucket's season, it was to ask him to be a bullpen catcher at $65 a day. Offer refused.

    Duquette acquired Rico Brogna, then ordered that he not be played because of bonus clauses in his contract and also because of a clash with his agent. Duquette also sent an aide to tell team leader Bret Saberhagen that he would not be allowed to travel with the club during the last two trips.

    The Red Sox earlier in the season brought Dernell Stenson up and didn't play him, then told him he couldn't go to the Olympics because they're in a pennant race, then didn't recall him. Duquette has a payroll over $80 million, and with contracts like Mike Lansing, Dante Bichette, John Valentin and others, can't help but pass $90 million next season, especially if he can sign a prime free agent pitcher as he's told his people he wants to do.

    Since ownership has no money of its own and CEO John Harrington claims they're living on the financial edge, there are two schools of thought: 1) the Red Sox will hike the highest ticket prices in baseball up another 30 percent; or 2) Harrington's refusal to take in an equity partner has left him so many nyets at lending institutions that he is realizing he can't get Fenway built and will have to sell (if the group is Steve Carp, Joe O'Donnell and David Mugar, they'll not only get a park built, but they'll get it on the waterfront where it belongs).

    In the meantime, whither Williams? "He's no quitter," says one of his coaches, "but if Pat Gillick is offering a five-year deal, he could go." If that happens, then he and Duquette would be happy.

    If Piniella is available, Tampa Bay owner Vince Naimoli may not be able to resist going after him. Art Howe, meanwhile, could be in trouble if Oakland collapes down the stretch. Jim Fregosi could also get ousted in Toronto, as the front office continues to talk to ownership instead of the manager.

    And hey, Joe Torre intends to return to the Yankees, but just in case he doesn't the club's front office has called around asking for suggestions should he not return. People who work for George Steinbrenner are always prepared.

    If Tom Glavine wins his third Cy Young Award, is he headed for Cooperstown?

    Glavine is 34, but is in the best shape of his career, is throwing harder than he did five years ago and has one of those bodies that shouldn't age and has the stoic makeup that will never give in to age.

    "If I'm lucky enough to stay healthy, then there's no reason I won't be able to pitch another five, six or seven years," says Glavine.

    Like Warren Spahn, he should be able to win at 40. So if he's close to 210 wins (he presently has 206) at the end of this season -- making him the winningest left-hander in the five-man rototation/bullpen era -- then there is a legitimate expectation level of another 75 wins by the time he reaches 40.

    Granted, using the Cy Young Award in historical context is a tad unfair because the award wasn't created until 1956 and there weren't separate awards for the two leagues until 1967, but if Glavine wins his third this season, he will join Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez (OK, his getting his third is premature, but as close to a lock as anything) with three, trailing only five-time winner Roger Clemens and four-time winners Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux.

    Clemens and Maddux are certain Hall of Famers. Glavine may join them. He's a great pitcher and an even greater man.

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