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Rough start for Red Sox

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By the time Esteban Loaiza threw the first pitch of the 2001 season, most of the spring's negativity had run its course, from Frank Thomas to Gary Sheffield to the front office firefight the Blue Jays waged at the White Sox. Most. Not Boston.

The Red Sox flew from Milwaukee to Baltimore for Monday's opener trying to take Carl Everett's regular-season money for missing a spring training bus, Nomar Garciaparra awaiting surgery, Manny Ramirez limping off a two-RBI March and Dante Bichette, Jose Offerman and Gov. Lou Merloni upset with Jimy Williams because Boston will open with an infield of Daubach, Stynes, Grebeck and Hillenbrand that will not be confused with the quartet in Cleveland.

Carl Everett
Carl Everett's feud with Jimy Williams may actually be about Williams' disagreements with GM Dan Duquette.

As the season starts, there are teams that are assumed to be serious 90 win-contenders. The Yankees, A's, Indians and White Sox in the American League; the Braves, Mets and Cardinals in the National, with a cautious eye to four teams in the West as well as the Astros.

However, there are other teams where the expectation of 90 wins could go boom in the night. Texas. Los Angeles. Cincinnati.

But nowhere is a bad moon rising faster than Boston. When positional players reported to Fort Myers, there were close to a thousand fans at the first workout, and "this is our year" was the mantra. Less than six weeks later, with the highest payroll in baseball and by far the highest ticket prices (average: $38 ), fans seemingly had more faith in the administration of Jane (Not So) Swift than Dan Duquette. The first words heard upon arriving at Logan Airport were, "At least this year they didn't wait until September to break our hearts, they got it over before April Fool's Day."

There is something very strange going on here, beyond the $22 million they have sitting on the bench in Offerman, Mike Lansing and Bichette, now that Chris Stynes will play second and Scott Hatteberg will DH. The feeling that emanated from the Everett Summit was that there was a lot more to his situation than a manager vs. player spat. The feeling in the room was that the problem is between the general manager and manager, more than Williams and Carl Everett. Why didn't Williams suggest that Everett go home for a couple of nights in the first place? And since Everett insists that the next day was a day he had asked weeks before to have off -- as is the right of every player at some point in spring training -- who was misunderstanding whom when it came to Thursday's workout? If many people have a hard time translating "Jimmywocky" and others need CIA codebreakers to decipher Duquetalk, how in the world do these two converse without the help of U.N. translators?

Duquette is getting an extension from John Harrington that makes him the highest paid general manager in the game. Williams? Harrington indicated to the Providence Journal that there were no plans to extend the manager past this season, and while sources in the organization indicate that Duquette has broached the subject in one of their gadzillions of meetings, the powers that be believe that even if Jimy were offered a lifetime contract, he'd turn it down.

There are criticisms to be made of the owner and general manager, and Duquette, at least, acknowledges and accepts his. The former hid in the trainer's room this spring to avoid the media, and speaks to his public only through one friendly-fire columnist. Duquette often cloisters himself from dealing with simple explanations, as well. And there are a lot of folks who look at that $100 million payroll and say, "Other than catcher and DH (Ramirez), there isn't one player in their opening day lineup whom the Kansas City Royals would take over their starter at the same position."

GMs like John Schuerholz, Brian Cashman and Steve Phillips try to scrimp as often as possible on positional extras so they can spend the necessary money on pitching. The Yankees' Cashman points out, "Last year we had deals for Moises Alou, Juan Gonzalez and David Justice -- so you can trade for corner power during the season, but it's nearly impossible to trade for a top starting pitcher." Duquette believes the opposite, and his four starters after Pedro Martinez combined make less than Steve Trachsel, while backup second basemen Offerman and Lansing make the same as Mike Mussina.

That said, Duquette has done a lot to make the Red Sox a colorful, entertaining and talented team. He brought in their five All-Star quality players -- Martinez, Garciaparra, Derek Lowe, Everett and Ramirez. He knows that if this team gets off to a bad start, there will be some angry, hostile fans waiting in the beer lines at Fenway. And he's let it be known to agents and people around him that he will do anything he has to do to win this year. Considering how miffed he was at the lineups Williams used last year -- often pointing out the club record with Offerman at second base -- Duquette must have been thrilled to see an opening lineup with an infield whose starting four makes less than 30 percent of the sitting bulls.

For all the doom in New England, this could be a situation similar to the Dodgers had until Gary Sheffield stood up and addressed his teammates -- better now, than later. Eventually, Garciaparra will be playing. They still might get John Valentin back at third. Manny is going to get healthy, and adjusted to life in a harsh city. Bret Saberhagen, who hasn't thrown a fastball under 90 in his last two outings with the best range of motion since before he first had surgery in Colorado, could be back by April 20. Sunny Kim could step in as a power middle man, and they believe Hipolito Pichardo can come back. Duquette is one of the four or five GMs already monitoring Sterling Hitchcock's every move (along with the Mets, Indians, Yanks and Astros).

They could get through April without falling into Boston Harbor. Their first nine games are with Baltimore and Tampa. They will need to rely on the Great Pedro up to Memorial Day when they start to get healthy, and over the last five years he is 37-6, 2.01 in April and May. Tomo Ohka and Paxton Crawford are probably the two best young pitchers they've brought along in awhile, and with Hideo Nomo and Saberhagen -- presuming that Frank Castillo breaks down and the David Cone comeback is aborted -- the Sox have a far, far better rotation A.P. (After Pedro) since Martinez arrived in Boston.

So maybe the whole Jimy 'n the Duke soap opera will be washed over. Then again, maybe it won't be, because this thing has been simmering for more than a year and allowed to fester by weak ownership. If Duquette decides enough is enough and now that Everett, Offerman, Ramirez, Bichette, Tim Wakefield and even Martinez have grumbled to some extent, will he make a change?

Problem is, this is not an easy team to walk in and manage. "There's no player here with the exception of maybe Trot (Nixon) who is the leader-type that we had with Mike Stanley," says one veteran. "And Trot doesn't have the star presence necessary to change things. It's a curious group. Good, but curious."

If Duquette does make a change, he may have to go outside, away from anyone tied to Williams, and find someone with a presence to handle all the personalities that have been thrown together. The most obvious is Felipe Alou, what with his relationship with Pedro, his obvious impact on Ramirez and Offerman and the allegiance of two of his former coaches, Joe Kerrigan and Tommy Harper. Sure, Expos owner Jeff Loria would ask for the state of Vermont in return, but everyone in the Expos organization knows Loria would like to give his good friend Jeff Torborg another crack at managing and that Alou isn't thrilled about some of the direction above him. For instance, Alou apologized profusely to Mark Smith when ownership forced him to keep Tim Raines and send Smith to the minors.

Or Duquette could turn to Cito Gaston, the man with two World Series rings and what might be the perfect demeanor for this Red Sox team. Or buy Phil Garner out of his misery in Detroit. Or turn to Terry Francona's enthusiasm. Jim Fregosi did wonders with diverse personalities in the past. Boston's minor-league coordinator, Dave Jauss, has an astounding record managing personalities in winter ball, but he is likely considered too close to Duquette, his college roommate. There are some excellent veteran managers, like Buck Showalter, who simply wouldn't fit with Duquette's hands-on style from above, and finding the right man to get this team in place to charge down the stretch and make a run at the Yankees and/or a wild-card position is not as simple as opening the door to the office.

Not that the Red Sox are alone in WhatIfLand. If the Rangers struggle -- and scouts following them this spring worry about the aging of Ken Caminiti, Randy Velarde and Andres Galarraga almost as much as they question the bullpen -- and owner Tom Hicks gets antsy, what will he force Doug Melvin to do? Third-base coach Jerry Narron has been primed to manage for years, but Hicks is going to want a name because he's a big-name guy.

There are a lot of reasons to like the Dodgers, but with Kevin Brown slowed, Adrian Beltre out and the lineup vulnerable to all the left-handers they're going to face in their division, if they struggle, will all the sniping at GM Kevin Malone turn into open warfare? Then what does president Bob Daly, who must wonder why he left the real world of the movie industry for the neverneverland of baseball, do? He cannot hire Billy Beane. Hint: Mark Shapiro, assistant GM for Cleveland, would be perfect there.

And there are always undercurrents blowing near Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden, especially since while he has put together the best $40 million team east of Oakland, one wonders what will happen if the starting pitching collapses -- and their opening rotation won just 29 games last year as starters -- and the press starts in after Bowden and Junior Griffey. Owner Carl Lindner isn't going to take the heat. Finding someone else who can keep juggling the majors and the minors simultaneously may be a lot more difficult than he may realize.

In Boston, Texas, Cincinnati and places yet to be designated as having high fire warnings, ownership isn't going to take the heat. They're going to choose their scapegoats and move on.

News and notes

  • The Marlins-Padres deal was a real baseball deal, and logical for both teams. With A.J. Burnett out longer than originally diagnosed and Chuck Smith hurting, the Phish had to get an accomplished starter. They know this team is close to contending, and Matt Clement has the stuff to fit in at the top of the rotation with Ryan Dempster and Brad Penny. The Padres have pitching in their organization, and with their longterm concerns about Clement's health and command, felt they could use him to get Mark Kotsay, who this spring showed greatly improved patience, after which the power will come. In time, Sean Burroughs is going to play third base, so the Pads could have an outfield of Phil Nevin in left, Mike Darr in center and Kotsay in right, and they will put switch-hitting Cesar Crespo in center in Triple-A.

  • Does it seem fair that the White Sox get to play nine games apiece against the Orioles and Rays and six against the Yankees and Red Sox, and that the Indians play nine against the Yanks and Red Sox and six against the other two? Maybe not, but then Joe Azcue made the Indians' Top 100 of the Century list, and Al Lopez did not. ... How bad did it get for Kevin Millwood this spring? Chuck Finley, 0-for-21 lifetime, got a hit off him. ... Then there's Jose Mercedes of the Orioles, who didn't want to start the third game because he has a thing about the number three. ... The Expos not only are going a second year without radio broadcasts in English, but their games won't even be on the Internet. The other owners want to let them die. ... The David Wells mess was one thing, but the people in Chicago are wondering how the Jays could have given up Gary Glover for Scott Eyre. Many GMs want to know how the ChiSox got Antonio Osuna for what amounted to one middle-level prospect when the Yanks, Indians, Mets and others were hoping to get called on a deal. Ken Williams had one heckuva first winter as GM, essentially adding Royce Clayton, Sandy Alomar, Wells, Osuna and Glover without giving up anyone who might have impacted his team, save Mike Sirotka.

  • Carlos Beltran played so well and with such zeal at the end of spring training that teammates were predicting he could be an All-Star. "He has as much talent as anyone in the game," says Jermaine Dye, but it helps Beltran that he has what Allard Baird calls "such a good culture" around him. Dye and Mike Sweeney are strong, positive forces, and because they have matured and emerged, Tony Muser has eased up this spring. "There are always four or five guys on every club that could go either way," says Baird. "With the right supporting culture, they go the right way." Of course, George Brett's presence helps. When he was at the White House this week, Brett called one player on the Royals and asked him, "What did you do to make yourself better today?" You can't buy that kind of presence.

  • Joe Torre thinks Don Mattingly would make a "terrific" manager when and if he wants to try it, but for now Mattingly prefers to raise his kids back home in Evansville. ... Billy Crystal's movie about Roger Maris' run at 61 will begin airing on HBO later this month. ... The latest payroll leaders: Boston, $111M; Los Angeles, $110.3M; Yankees, $109.5M; Mets, $95.9M; Cleveland, $95.4M. ... There's something wonderful about Don Zimmer having a book signing luncheon at Elaine's, New York's chic bistro at 88th and 2nd Avenue. ... The Yankees and Reds kept calling the Astros all spring about Daryle Ward, but Gerry Hunsicker won't give him up, especially with Moises Alou a free agent at the end of the season.

  • Mets minor-league prospect Brian Cole was killed in automobile accident Saturday night driving home from spring training. Cole, 22, was a top prospect who had made an impression on the big leaguers in camp. Mike Piazza said, "Let me give you a name to remember -- Brian Cole. He has great talent, a great head and a passion for what it takes to be great."

    On the bookshelf
    Bill James and the Brothers Hirdt changed the way we view baseball. Their vision, brilliance and humor made us go to the bookstores, day after day after day, hoping James' "Baseball Abstract" or the "Elias Analyst" had arrived, not knowing that so many years later the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees were constructed on many of the theories -- and humor, for those of us who roared at Steve Hirdt's lines about the Trujillo-Franco matchup of the dictators -- that these baseball geniuses changed the game.

    There isn't a lot we don't know how to analyze these days, but the STATS Inc. "Baseball Scoreboard" still gives us some Hirdt/James ideas to ponder. Per 2001, some thoughts:

  • Dodger teammates claim that Darren Dreifort hits BP shots like Mark McGwire. In 190 career at-bats, he has a five home runs. Could we have a pitchers' home run hitting contest at the All-Star Game, starting with Dreifort, Rick Ankiel, Brian Bohanon and Omar Olivares?

  • Of the top 10 all-time single season strikeout-to-hits allowed ratio, only one (Nolan Ryan, 1972) came before 1989. Strikeouts do seem less and less relevant when judging certain high-walk, high-power hitters. Seven times have hitters struck out 154 or more times and batted .300, and all but Bobby Bonds in 1970 have come after 1995.

  • Did we realize how good Rafael Furcal really is before reading that he is fourth in average (behind Mel Ott, Ty Cobb and Cesar Cedeno), second to Ott in on-base percentage and first in steals among all-time teenage players?

  • We knew Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada are extraordinary players, but after Edgar Renteria and Fernando Tatis in '99, last year they had the second-best combined OPS left side of an infield (both players younger than 25) in modern baseball history.

  • You gotta have players: only Connie Mack(12) and Jimmie Wilson (9) had more consecutive losing seasons than the eight suffered by Phil Garner and Tom Kelly. Both deserve good teams.

  • If you don't think Roger Clemens defines "stopper," he has a .698 winning percentage following his teams' losses, fourth-best ever (behind Vic Raschi, Don Gullett, Gary Nolan), and his winning percentage is .102 higher when pitching after a loss than after a win.

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