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A most spectacular season

Special to

Oct. 6

Someday, over the rainbow, someone young will happen upon this 2001 season and place it atop the greatest years in baseball history. By then, perhaps the perspective of great and historic and important will be the way they were in the summers of '61 and '98 or the autumns of '55, '75 and '91.

But the view all changed a month ago, as our fathers and grandfathers so swiftly forgot about Joe's 56 or Ted's .406, when two months after the World Series they were in a world war.

It's been a season that has awed us, as Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Randy Johnson made us realize that we are watching the best. And Alex Rodriguez assured us that money doesn't change the heart of someone on his own mission to assure us that while we know we're watching the greatest left fielder who ever lived, we are also in the morning light of the greatest shortstop ever.

It's been a season in which Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn returned the respect to the Baltimore and San Diego fans, and the Seattle Mariners -- like the 1998 Yankees -- showed us what the game is really about: team, intense pride, unselfishness and the guarantee that even on a seemingly meaningless, dreary, muggy Thursday afternoon in August, they would make good every penny of every dollar you spent at the park that day. It was another season in which the Atlanta Braves overcame injury, age and uncertainty for excellence, as the first professional team to ever win its division for 10 consecutive seasons.

It's been a season in which Ichiro Suzuki changed the viewing habits of a nation across the Pacific, and a kid named Albert Pujols, less than two years out of a junior college in Kansas City, gave to this generation of the best fans in America what Orlando Cepeda brought 34 years ago.

And it is far from over, not when one thinks about Randy and Curt Schilling, the Braves and the Cardinals and all those Astros like Jeff Bagwell, Moises Alou and Craig Biggio who belong in a World Series.

Or ponders the Mariners' drive for the perfect season, or seeing Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel on another stage, and what may be the best first-round matchup of the wild-card era: the Yankees vs. the A's. Roger Clemens vs. Mark Mulder, possibly 1-2 in the Cy Young, followed by Andy Pettitte vs. Tim Hudson, followed by arguably the two best pitchers in the league right now, Mike Mussina vs. Barry Zito.

Yet, come this December, what we may most care about was that moment when Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura were working in a New York Hospital and a father fell into Ventura's arms when told that his son had died, or Schilling's written reminder of his and his baseball peers' stitch in the American quilt. And it's just not worth even wasting our breath on players who couldn't stand on the top of the dugout step for the National Anthem, or walked out on their teammates, because it will be another generation lost before someone is foolish enough to suggest that anyone or any team has to sign anyone or do anything, or puts an athlete who doesn't indulge the media in the class of a "really bad guy." We've really seen those that are.

A final weekend's thoughts:

Bonds. If Barry Bonds is such a distraction, how come he pulled so many teams so far, in 1990, '91, '92, '93, '97, '98, 2000, 2001? He comes and plays; in only one full season has he played fewer than 140 games. As my esteemed colleague Jim Caple detailed so well, he is the best left fielder -- ever. He should have five MVPs after this season (Terry Pendleton said as much after '91) and could have six, he has been a Gold Glover, he stole more than 400 bases, he's heading for Willie Mays, who is the greatest player I ever saw, if you'll pardon that since Mays is also my all-time favorite player. It will take awhile for us to decide which record Bonds set is more remarkable -- the home runs or slugging percentage, or the home runs with walks and slugging percentage, not to mention the first .500 on-base percentage since 1957.

To those who obsess on his persona, this man never demanded to stay in a separate hotel, and in his free-agent year when the home run record meant millions in salary and endorsements, never once did he stray from his primary goal of winning. Never once did he start swinging at pitches two inches off the plate looking for the cheap home run. He took, and waited, seemingly hitting every fifth strike out of the park, taking his walks and scoring the runs that kept the Giants in the race in a year in which two of their best starting pitchers had off years, one of the generation's best closers had bad stretches, and the team struggled to fill the void that Ellis Burks' departure created.

Wanna round out the foursome on the road? Get someone other than Barry Bonds. Wanna win? Get Barry. Peter Magowan did before the 1993 season, and it was the greatest free-agent signing ever made, because along with 72 and the other numbers came the best ballpark ever built.

Rickey Henderson. Caple's ESPN piece ranking Bonds, Ted Williams and Rickey as the three greatest left fielders said it all. There should now be no doubt that Rickey is the best leadoff man ever. The all-time runs, walks and stolen bases leader? 3000 hits? What Tony Gwynn so thoughtfully pointed out, teammates love Rickey, as well as respect him. One of the '93 Blue Jays referred to him as the clubhouse's "home entertainment center."

After he broke Ty Cobb's record Thursday, Bruce Bochy -- as usual -- held a private clubhouse celebration before the media entered, breaking out special champagne and toasting Henderson. In turn, Rickey raised his glass and, after toasting his teammates because the runs record is a team record, he toasted Bochy. "I played for Billy Martin and he was the greatest manager I ever played for before I played for Boch," said Rickey. "And I hope all of you in this room who've never played for anyone but Boch realize that this is the best it'll ever be, because he is the best manager you'll ever play for."

Rickey is Rickey, and someday there'll be as many Rickeyisms as there are Yogi-isms. When Davey Lopes got so upset with him, Lopes didn't realize that Rickey had been sick and sleeping in the clubhouse when Bochy asked him to run for Gwynm. Rickey bounced out of the clubhouse to first base with no clue as to the score, or the situation, looked out at vacant second and third, saw there were two outs, turned to first-base coach Tim Flannery, said "Rickey can't score from first" and took off.

Few realized how tough he is, and how often he was hurt. Lou Brock talks of the fear of the bag, and how basestealers stop going full tilt into the bag because of injuries. "Most basestealers figure it out after a few years and just run when they know they can make it," says Tommy Harper. "Rickey went full tilt for 15 years. He's so much the greatest, it isn't worth discussing."

I remember doing magazine pieces with him and sitting in the clubhouse with him, his fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders taped and iced. All those times he dove back into first and accelerated hard into second and third left him beat up, virtually every day. "If he hadn't taken his role so seriously, he'd have been a .320 hitter with 30-something homers every year," said Harper. "It's hard to put up power and average numbers when your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders are hurt."

He's always understood his role, and the game. Someone once suggested that Henderson was fortunate because he often seemed to get breaking balls when he was stealing. "That's because," Mike Bordick observed, "Rickey is such a student that he knows when the breaking ball's coming."

But let's hope Rickey hires a speechwriter for Cooperstown.

MVP. Bonds may be unanimous, which is another notch in his litany of superlatives, because in almost any other season, Sosa, Luis Gonzalez or Pujols might have easily won the award. There have been some interesting suggestions for those receiving votes from fifth through 10th: Schilling (Ed Price of the East Valley Tribune suggests that Schil's 4-0 record against the Dodgers, his 9-1 divisional record and spirit makes him more of an MVP than Cy Young candidate), Mike Piazza (.388 September, after .222 in 2000), Paul LoDuca, Rich Aurilia, Jeff Bagwell, Todd Helton, Shawn Green, Lance Berkman ...

Seattle is the best team because it was so well conceived, executed and led. But, in these eyes, Jason Giambi was again the American League's most valuable player, never letting a young team that began 8-18 get too far away from the road to 100 wins. Giambi defines veteran leadership, on and off the field, putting up numbers day after day before Jermaine Dye arrived. Bret Boone, Ichiro, Edgar Martinez? No doubt. Robby Alomar, Juan Gonzalez, Jim Thome? Yes. A-Rod was probably the best player in the league, but I have always believed that most valuable applied, when possible, to winning and impact on the pennant race and how that player so performed. Somewhere in those top 10 lists we will see Cristian Guzman, Doug Mientkiewicz, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera. On the subject of the '98 Yanks and '01 M's, the '98 Yanks had two players in the top 10 in MVP balloting -- Derek Jeter, third, and Williams, seventh.

Cy Young. Johnson is now fifth on the all-time winning percentage list of 200-game winners (thanks to Lee Sinins and He has the biggest difference between K's per 9 IP and the league average, ahead of Nolan Ryan. He is No. 1 in strikeouts per nine innings, 11.17. His 13.41 K's per 9 IP this season is No. 1 all time. He tied Ryan's record of 23 times in double-digit strikeouts. Schilling and Matt Morris had Cy Young seasons in the wrong year.

Clemens' season is not as clear cut, and one can make a strong argument for Freddy Garcia or Mark Mulder, or even Mike Mussina and placing Jamie Moyer in top three as the oldest pitcher ever to win 20 for the first time. But Clemens went from being along for the ring ceremony with the Yankees to evolving into the driving wheel. They just never seemed to have to play from behind when Roger was out there.

Rookie. I have objected to Japanese stars being included as rookies, out of respect for the Japanese Major Leagues. Tracy Ringolsby makes this compelling argument: that veterans of the Negro Leagues were classified as rookies, and it is the Jackie Robinson Award. So Ichiro and Pujols win, easily, with all due respect to C.C. Sabathia, Alfonso Soriano and David Eckstein in the AL, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Oswalt and Adam Dunn in the NL. Ten years from now, someone will ask how Dunn didn't win the award.

Manager. This is a very subjective award. Jerry Manuel and Art Howe never let bad starts lose their players, Joe Torre had to patch, and Mike Scioscia has been a master. But it's Lou Piniella's award, partly because his love of the game, intelligence and passion make him learn and improve as a manager the way Bonds or Clemens keep making themselves better.

And for all Bob Brenly, Dusty Baker, Larry Bowa and Jim Tracy did, this is Tony La Russa's year, as well. Remember, this was a team that was considered so far out of it on July 31 that they were trying to subtract ... and now head into the postseason as the popular choice to get to the World Series.

Expos aren't only team facing uncertain winter
"Baseball is the only business where a CEO can lose money and not get fired."

    --Expos president David Samson

So, what do the Expos do? They drew 640,000, and near the end of the season they were padding the numbers to claim 4,000. "It's easy to make fun of the Montreal Expos," says Samson. "I know we've become the butt of jokes. But look at it from the Montreal fans' standpoint. We have tried to be honest with them, not lie and tell them we're staying and that everything is going to be all right. We don't know what's happening ourselves. But because we don't know what's happening, we've been unable to maintain the bond between fans and the team. They don't want to be disappointed, and who can blame them?"

Expos owner Jeffrey Loria does not know what baseball will do in the next few months and, without a labor agreement and with the world turned sideways a month ago, whether or not there is enough time to contract, reach a new labor agreement or relocate. Could the Expos stay yet another year in Montreal, without hope of a stadium (which cemented the bond in San Fransisco, Seattle, Cleveland and Texas after threats of relocation)? "It could happen," says Samson. "Whether or not Jeffrey can go on losing $20 million a year is another question, entirely."

The backroom talk of contraction -- folding franchises and relocating others -- continues. One scenario has the Devil Rays being sold to Major League Baseball, with the Expos moving to Tampa, and in time, somewhere back across the bridge. Another has the Angels being sold to MLB, and John Henry moving the Marlins to Anaheim. Two owners claim Carl Pohlad is ready to sell the Twins to MLB.

And here it is, less than six months from Opening Day. If the Expos stay in Montreal simply maintaining their present roster would likely double their current payroll to more than $40 million, and given the questionable future, Loria would be foolhearty to lose another $20M. In Vladimir Guerrero ($8M), Graeme Lloyd ($2M), Lee Stevens ($4M), Fernando Tatis ($4.25M) and Jose Vidro ($4M), they have $22,252,002 committed to 20 percent of their roster. Javier Vazquez is a second-time arbitration case, likely to get at least $4M. Michael Barrett and Orlando Cabrera will likely be no less than $1M and $1.5M, respectively, in arbitration. They probably would have to deal or non-tender Carl Pavano and Masato Yoshii because of arbitration, unless they can find someone to take Tatis, Stevens and Lloyd.

If they cannot? "Vazquez might be the most sought-after player this winter, with Vidro right behind," says one AL GM. "Jim Beattie deserves a lot of credit. He got two young pitchers -- one major-league ready (Tomo Ohka), the other a left-hander with mid-rotation promise (Rich Rundles) for a guy (Ugueth Urbina) that flunked two teams' physicals and who probably will get non-tendered by Boston because he's going to make $6 million in arbitration." True, but the Expos also paid the Red Sox $1M to make the deal, because the Yawkey Estate couldn't take on any more money.

With the economy stalled, corporations expected to slash involvement in entertainment, and government focused on more important issues than underwriting professional sports teams and stadiums, there are a number of tough decisions several franchises will have to make this winter. Oh yes. And the insurance industry's strains will impact baseball teams; GMs estimate insuring contracts of players 30 and older will cost at least 10 percent of the contract and clearly will include exemptions for medical histories. For instance, Juan Gonzalez could get a five-year, $100 million contract, but it would cost the signing team $10 million to insure the contract but would not cover any further problems with his back.

"I think there are questions that must be resolved across the industry" says Samson, and when a GM gets the word from the Dodgers that they're looking at a $46M loss and the Yawkey Foundation is eating $20-25M of losses in the year the Red Sox were supposed to win, one wonders about Kansas City and Detroit. Mike Sweeney has heard that owner David Glass may jettison him, as Glass jettisoned Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye. Oakland owner Steve Schott's team is young, won 100 games and may watch Jason Giambi, Damon and Jason Isringhausen walk; now, the A's are always in the black, and if they make it past the Yankees, they will realize a pretty good bump in revenues. And so as long as Billy Beane is there, the Giambi cause isn't lost. The Phillies have stated that they would like to maintain their present payroll for 2002-2003 -- until they move into their new stadium -- but face huge arbitration cases in Scott Rolen ($8M?), Travis Lee and Robert Person.

So, while it has been a fan's year, outlined against the grey October sky are the impending conflict of boom and bust, glory and vainglory versus plague, pestilence and the possibility that the Montreal Expos will be outdrawn by the Lowell Spinners.

If you're the Expos, the jokes have all gone flat. "Remember, when Jack Welch was asked if he wanted to buy the Red Sox," says Samson, "his reply was, 'I love baseball and I love the Red Sox, but if I buy the Red Sox, I'll end up at the point where I love neither.'"

Red Sox in offseason waiting game
When the Red Sox were in Montreal in mid-July, Dan Duquette had made up his mind that enough was enough with Jimy Williams. Duquette felt that Williams had flaunted his fractured relationship with the GM and owner John Harrington, and according to one of Duquette's associates, he reached Felipe Alou when the Red Sox were playing at Olympic Stadium and worked out what he thought was a three-year deal. But when Duquette brought it back to Harrington for approval, the club lawyers at Bingham, Dana and Gould, who are brokering the sale, asked for a delay since the original bids had yet to come in. One month later, when Duquette decided to fire Williams, he called Alou, but according to Duquette's associate, Alou was wary of the sale and the uncertainty surrounding the team and wanted five years.

According to the source, Harrington blinked, and Duquette was left high and dry. Gene Lamont made it clear he did not want the job on an interim basis. Duquette then turned to Joe Kerrigan.

No one knows what's going to happen between now and Opening Day, 2002, not Duquette, not Harrington, not Kerrigan. While Justin Morreale of Bingham, Dana is trying to speed up the sale, there are indications that it cannot be completed until the first of the calendar year, which would leave the entire organization in a state of flux.

The two favored groups are either Joe O'Donnell, Steve Karp and Craig Stapleton or Tom Werner and Les Otten. Where Duquette and Kerrigan fit, no one knows, although the possibility exists that Harrington could get a feeling from the groups who they want running the team, and there are rumblings that all groups want an experienced manager such as Buck Showalter.

"I would like to stay with the Red Sox, but that's not my decision," says Duquette, who clearly understands that some changes have to be made in his and his organization's approach. The complete breakdown in team respect and decorum the last five weeks became embarrassing, and Duquette is already preparing to address Pedro Martinez's conditioning and departure, the thinly veiled unhappiness of Manny Ramirez, Urbina and others and such lack of discipline as Boston players failing to be on the top step of the dugout during the singing of "God Bless, America" -- in contrast to the visiting Orioles -- the night of their last home game.

"There are some things I still can't put my finger on," says Duquette. "There are things I need to do better, we need to do better. I hope I can be a part of whatever happens here, because it is such a great franchise because of its fans."

There has been some criticism of the Werner/Otten plan to renovate and modernize Fenway Park, but one club official says, "The feedback we've gotten is very positive. The reason John Harrington decided to recreate Fenway in his plan is that the overwhelming majority of the fans we surveyed said that's what they want -- Fenway Park."

The old park won't be the same without switchboard operator Helen Robinson, who died this week. Ms. Robinson ruled that park. Tom Yawkey said he didn't want calls put through to the clubhouse in 1941, and they hadn't been when she passed away. But if she liked you ... there was no secret any GM or owner could keep from you. Some 20 years ago, I'd call and ask for Haywood Sullivan. "He says he's busy," she'd reply, then tell me what GMs he'd talked to that day. Helen Robinson earned the name "St. Helen."

Not a lost season for White Sox
They lost all five members of their starting rotation, seven pitchers had surgery, Frank Thomas was gone in the first month, they started 14-29 and yet the White Sox went into the final weekend battling the Twins for the fifth-best record in the American League. "I don't want any of us to be happy with winning less than 90 games," says GM Ken Williams. "But I will admit, this team showed a lot, and I'm proud of a lot of these players."

It speaks volumes about Jerry Manuel that he was able to keep the White Sox focused after having the best record in the league in 2000 and starting off in last place. Obviously the development of Mark Buehrle from reliever to 16-game winner in his first full season was a huge part of the progress, and Williams was pleased with the development of Gary Glover, Dan Wright and Jon Garland. He's going to try to work out an incentive-based deal to bring back David Wells, then says most of his injured pitchers should be back.

"Jim Parque should be fine," says Williams. "And we were really hurt when Antonio Osuna and Kelly Wunsch went down, as well as Bill Simas. So I think we're going to be all right again in the pitching department.

"Two things that really made an impression on our team," says Williams, "were plays by Bret Boone in Seattle and Alex Rodriguez. Each was in an MVP season, and yet in situations we witnessed not far apart each came up with a runner on second and no one out and gave himself up to advance the runner for the team. That was not lost on our players."

There has been speculation that Ray Durham could be moved to center field, but Williams says that isn't going to happen. The club will be looking for a leadoff-hitting center fielder, but the demand may exceed the supply for that commodity.

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