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If healthy, Tribe could be tough

Special to

Sept. 8

They have sat on the outskirts all season. They outlasted the Twins, and because of Chicago's poor start, regained their throne in the AL Central. They seemingly are in the second tier of the league's elite, behind the Yankees, Mariners and A's, yet they still are the team with Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez and Jim Thome. And so the Indians stroll towards the playoffs as a team no one wants to play, yet no one can gauge just how far they can go.

"I think we can be really good in the postseason, I really do," says manager Charlie Manuel. "We have very good players. We have great infield defense. More than maybe anyone, we have hitters who can hit good pitchers; we can score some runs against aces and beat the power closers. But we have to be healthy."

I still think we can get everyone healthy and have a tremendous three-week run in October. But things have to be right.
Jim Thome, Indians first baseman

"That's been the story all season," says Alomar. "Every time we seem to get going, someone gets hurt. Or a lot of people get hurt. If we're healthy, we think we can beat anyone, including the Yankees and Mariners."

Said Manuel: "Seattle is a great team, but go ask them how we play them tough. We all remember that 15-14 Sunday night game."

This week capsulized their season in a matter of days. Last Sunday, they scored six runs in the second inning against the White Sox, then watched Dave Burba implode, giving up eight in the bottom of the second and lose 19-10 in a game in which Scott Radinsky had to be left out to dry and catcher Tim Laker was their only effective pitcher (hitting 88 mph on the gun). Thursday, Chuck Finley threw like the Chuck Finley the Indians dream of having for the playoffs -- 91 mph velocity, good downward angle, solid curveball -- and John Rocker hit 98 on the gun nailing down his first save in over two months.

But that same day, Ellis Burks had to be scratched from the lineup when he couldn't bend his elbow. Kenny Lofton is playing with an inflamed joint in his finger, an injury that affects his grip on the bat. Bob Wickman also has a pulled rib cage muscle.

"I still think we can get everyone healthy and have a tremendous three-week run in October," says Thome. "But things have to be right."

Bartolo Colon, Finley and C.C. Sabathia have to be right. Since they're likely to play some 4-3, 5-4 games, they need Paul Shuey back and pitching strong out of the bullpen and they need Rocker under control to go with Danys Baez and Wickman. They also need Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Alomar and Gonzalez healthy and hot.

"October in baseball is like March in college basketball," says Lofton. "Some guys, some teams step up and get on a roll. I'd like to think we're one of those teams."

Sabathia has shown no signs of being 21 and saddled with unlimited pressure, but the innings he's mounting are an issue to watch. Presuming Colon pitches well and Finley is healthy, the fourth starter slot and Shuey's health become serious issues if they get by Seattle (or Oakland) in the first round and move on to the ALCS, a seven-game series.

"Don't count us out," says Manuel. " But we have to be healthy and we have to be hot. It can happen."

Searching for leadoff hitters
One of the most sought-after commodities this offseason will be a leadoff hitter.

"Half the teams in baseball are looking for one," says an AL GM. "That's probably why Roger Cedeno turned down $13.5 million for three years from the Tigers (and asked for $30 million for four or $24 million for three). He knows there's a market, and there's always a Boston that gave Jose Offerman $26 million for four when the only other offer he had was $15 million for three years."



Cedeno and Johnny Damon have not had great seasons. Both are good offensive players, but Cedeno's lack of instincts and Damon's inconsistent ability to get on base keep them from being close to Ichiro, or what Chuck Knoblauch once was.

But leadoff hitters who are legitimate offensive catalysts are few and far between, and if one looks around at the young players, Colorado's Juan Pierre -- with a .378 on-base percentage (through Friday), speed and what his GM Dan O'Dowd calls "8 makeup" -- is probably the best in the business. Atlanta's Rafael Furcal may be, but before he got hurt his leadoff on-base percentage was just .297. How about Montreal's Peter Bergeron? Perhaps, in time, but he has just a .306 on-base percentage in limited time this year and has a poor minor league stolen base/caught stealing ratio.

"If you look at it closely, there are only a handful of really good leadoff hitters," says an NL GM. "You've got Craig Biggio, Fernando Vina and Juan Pierre in our league; Luis Castillo of the Marlins is OK, but nothing special. In the American League, Ichiro is the best, and Shannon Stewart is right behind him. If Derek Jeter leads off (.378 OBP in that role), he's very good, and Cedeno is pretty good. So is Damon. And don't forget the nice job David Eckstein (.358 OBP in the leadoff spot through Friday) has done for the Angels."

But look at the teams in the leadoff market: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit without Cedeno, Cleveland if they don't move Vizquel there, Minnesota, Texas, Oakland, Mets, Cubs, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Arizona, Los Angeles, San Francisco. The Indians spent months trying to find a leadoff hitting center fielder, and while they got Milton Bradley in a trade he's not really a leadoff hitter.

The Cubs believe that by this time next year, second baseman Bobby Hill will be able to move into the top of their order. Hill spent this season playing for the Cubs' Double-A team, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx. But there aren't many in the minors (Seattle's Jamal Strong may be one), and it's a specialty teams don't look for in the draft. North Carolina shortstop Russ Adams may have moved himself into the top 10 in next June's draft off his summer in the Cape Cod League, where he led the league in walks and steals while showing Alomaresque athleticism.

Here are the upcoming free agents who have spent time in the leadoff spot:

Cedeno, 27. His OBP has gone from .396 in '99, to .383 last year to .341 this season. He's a good basestealer and overall offensive player, but his instincts are constantly in question.

Damon, 27. Slashing hitter, in the range of 30-46 stolen bases per year, OBP .379, .382, .321 the last three seasons, although was a .304 hitter with a .367 on-base percentage from 1998-2000. Can play center, but his best position is left because of his arm. Aggressive and good hitter despite slow starts, and he plays every day. Intelligent person, but there is concern that the hard edge of an East Coast environment might not be good for him.

Eric Young, 34. OBP .371,.367, .332 the last three years. Plays hard, but defensive skills are limited.

Kenny Lofton, 34. OBP has fallen from .405 to .369 to .329 the last three years; now a 25-30 steal guy. At 34, injuries have taken a toll on him, especially defensively.

Knoblauch, 33. Five years ago, he had a .448 on-base percentage, and in 1995-97 averaged 50 steals. Now he's gone from .393 to .366 to .338 the last three seasons. Everyone realizes there are issues here that a new start might help. For a K.C. or Oakland, he could be a nice player again.

Wilton Veras, 23, who played for the Red Sox' Triple-A team in Pawtucket, this year and Delino DeShields, 32, are also possibilities.

If one considers Darin Erstad a leadoff hitter, he could be available if the Angels decide they'd rather not do the fifth-year arbitration dance with him as he faces his 2002 free agency. Stewart could be available from Toronto, as he also was at the trading deadline. But consider that in 1996, the American League leadoff on-base percentage was .360 and this year it was .329 through Friday. Then look at the best and worst in that top spot in the order this season:

American League
Frank Catalanotto, Tex., .419
Suzuki, Sea., .380
Stewart, Tor., .371
Eckstein, Ana., .358
Rusty Greer, Tex., .345
Cedeno, Det., .342

Jose Cruz, Tor., .272
Offerman, Bos., .296
Nixon, Bos., .305

National League
Todd Walker, Cin., .384
Craig Counsell, Ari., .383
Paul Lo Duca, L.A., .378
Biggio, Hou., .374
Pierre, Col., .368
Rickey Henderson, S.D., .362

Tony Womack, Ari., .247
Tom Goodwin, L.A., .265
Doug Glanville, Phi., .288

What a mess in Boston
At 3:30 on both Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Izzy Alcantara trotted out to The Wall, followed by coach Tommy Harper. Gene Lamont stood in front of the mound underhanding pitches, while Joe Kerrigan -- fungo in hand -- whacked one pitch after another towards left field as Alcantara practiced catching flyballs and playing bounces off the Green Monster.

In a week that resembled something out of the midpoint of the French Revolution, these were two of the most serene times at Fenway Park. The Red Sox had limped home from a cross-country 10-game road trip needing to win five out of six from the Yankees and Indians to get back into the division or wild-card race. The first day, Aug. 31, season-ticket holders had to have their postseason ticket money in before the first Yankees game. That night, a local radio station fueled an angry, obscene mob by handing out signs that read "I Hate Roger" on one side, "Yankees Suck" on the other, and until the eighth inning -- when a throw went off the glove of Alcantara, playingg first base for about the eighth time in his life -- the deafening shouts of obscenities and hate chants filled the Fens.

By the end of the weekend and three intense, soul-crushing one-run losses to the Yankees in which Red Sox starting pitchers did not allow an earned run, players came into the clubhouse after an unforgettable, nearly historical Mike Mussina-David Cone duel and learned that pitching coach John Cumberland had been fired. Within the next 24 hours, Nomar Garciaparra let out his frustrations. GM Dan Duquette said Cumberland was never the pitching coach -- although Kerrigan had clearly stated that he was at the press conference announcing Kerrigan as the new manager back on Aug. 16. Manny Ramirez put in a call to his former general manager in Cleveland, John Hart, as Pedro Martinez prepared to rip Duquette for questioning the degree of his injury.

"This place has gone completely nuts, but it all comes back to one issue that causes all this reaction," says Darren Lewis, one of the team's statesmen. "Some people around here forget that players are people. That's all. But there's very little human relations."

Reminded that Mike Stanley -- the team's most respected player last season -- found out that he'd been released through a message on his answering machine, Lewis said, "that says it all."

"What people around here should now know," shouted a teammate at the cage, "is that it wasn't Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn, it was the people upstairs. If Mo were still here, a lot of this stuff wouldn't go on. If Roger were still here, Pedro wouldn't have to shoulder so much of the load of the expectations."

Rather than obsessing about a Yankee team that has done nothing but reflect the best of human nature the last six years and a team that has won eight straight September-October games at Fenway since Pedro Martinez beat Roger Clemens in 1999, the time has come for the people who run the Red Sox to think about what they've done. Oh, they issue a couple of warnings about crowd behavior at the start of games, but do nothing about it, and the obscenities and anger during games at Fenway has become an industry-wide embarrassment. Chants of "Yankees Suck" in the midst of being swept by the Angels? Absolutely no management response to Carl Everett's crotch-grabbing, spitting exhibition against Seattle?

Because of the division between Duquette and former manager Jimy Williams, which carried throughout the park, when Duquette began blaming and firing and the players went off in return, it became chaos. Ramirez told teammates that the club could have the money back -- half-kidding, half-frustrated -- after the unfair booing he took trying to play with a pulled hamstring and the shouting and commotion in the clubhouse.

"Manny's been upset and confused, because he's never been in this situation before," says his agent, Jeff Moorad. "It has nothing to do with the fans. It certainly has nothing to do with the city, because he loves Boston. But he's never been in an environment like this, and he doesn't know how to react to it. We've talked at length, and I think it will all be fine, but this is very hard for him."

The Red Sox have been severely hampered by injuries to Martinez, Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Ramirez and Everett, and eventually they wore out trying to overcome all their losses. Was this a well-constructed roster? No, because for $110 million there should have been reserve capital for deadline emergencies rather than having the bench lined with $5-7 million utility players who all wanted to play every day.

The Red Sox are already committed to pretty close to $80 million in payroll for next season, and even if this management and ownership is in place, the risk of shooting towards $100 million is unlikely, both because of the labor uncertainties and the possible backlash from the public being exhausted from the passion of the season that was supposed to be the sure thing. Remember, back in spring training, when a fan told a reporter "this is our year" and the reporter replied, "It could be, or it could be the Bobby Bonilla Mets," the fan began shouting obscenities around "Yankee lover." When the Sox, unfortunately turned into the Bonilla Mets, it became exhausting.

The Red Sox can be a very good team in 2002 if Martinez, Varitek, Garciaparra and others are healthy. But there are some serious problems, and one of them involves going for it all in 2001 and five years of neglect in their scouting and development departments. Their September callups are Joe Oliver, Alcantara, who is 28 and previously released by Felipe Alou in Montreal and the Devil Rays. No farm club above low A-ball reached the playoffs. They didn't sign one of their two top picks, or their 10th rounder, right-handed pitcher Ben Crockett of Harvard. As Mark Teixeira pointed out at his press conference in Texas, insulting people isn't a good way to negotiate, which the Red Sox did to him when they drafted him out of high school.

The chaos on Yawkey Way is the buildup of years of social dysfunction. Before being fired in 1998, farm director Bob Schaefer went to war with Duquette when the GM decided to slash spring training meal money and per diem for lower minor-league instructors.

"Pick on the little guys," Schaefer said. Minor-league hitting instructor Gerald Perry was denied permission to interview for big-league jobs in Kansas City and St. Louis, and Duquette told Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty, "He's not ready." Jocketty asked if he could make that judgment. "No," replied Duquette. Ken Macha used to get daily memos at Pawtucket on whom to play or not play, which included instructions that Kerry Lacy should only pitch in the sixth and seventh innings because his ERA was better in those innings. Double-A Trenton manager DeMarlo Hale and pitching coach Al Nipper were accused of lying about Ron Mahay's pitch counts. The Sox have forever fired minor-league coaches. When Schaefer was fired, Alou said, "Aha -- the three amigos," referencing the three voices that are heard by Duquette -- Dave Jauss, Eddie Haas and Kent Qualls.

Duquette's friends don't point him in the direction of human interaction. When they came off the road trip to face the Yankees, why then hit the players with clubhouse rules that included taking out the couch (they tried to lay that one on clubhouse man Joe Cochran, which ticked off the players) and turning off the TVs during the game ("Pedro went up and turned them on every game," laughs a player). He couldn't wait until the off day to fire Cumberland.

"What bothered me about that place," says Bryce Florie, "was that after all I went through, Dan Duquette never spoke to me. He never chatted, or thanked me for coming back. When it came time to ask me to go to the minors or be let go, he had someone else do it. At first I was hurt. Later I got mad." If Duquette hadn't thrown Tom Gordon out of the Fort Myers facility last fall, they'd still have Flash and wouldn't have had to pick up the $4.5 million option on Rod Beck.

All of which is too bad for Kerrigan, who is managing in a tenuous spot with a tattered team and everything swirling around him. "Give Joe a chance to set up spring training, set up his staff and players, and he'll do well," says former coach Grady Little, now the Indians' bench coach. "Joe will be a very good manager if they give him a chance."

Maybe Kerrigan can convince his boss that this is a people business, because anyone who knows Duquette privately knows he can be very human. And funny. Perceptive. But he could learn a lot from Pat Gillick, the most respected GM by his peers, and the ultimate people person.

No one knows if the sale of the team will go through this fall, or who will be running the team. There is a lot of premature speculation that Duquette won't survive, but he can present a credible resume to any new owner, and perhaps the new owner will be a real human being and not hide out in a luxury box like John Harrington. Think about what Garciaparra said about players coming to Fenway, stop patting yourself on the back for Ramirez ,when it was only about the $200 million he got that made him come in the first place, and David Cone, when the choice was East Coast or Texas, and realize that there is a clear problem of human misunderstanding here.

Before they go find a leadoff hitter and a couple of pitchers, the first thing the Red Sox need to do is find someone who can be a liaison between the upstairs and the downstairs at Fenway Park.

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