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Addressing the many problems

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We're not talking Desolation Row, Apocalypse Now or Alvarado Street, by the Pioneer Chicken Stand. Major League Baseball revenues in 1995 were $1.6 billion. In 2000, revenues were $3.2-$3.3 billion, the four winningest teams in the American League were Chicago, Oakland, Seattle and Cleveland, and San Francisco was the best team in the National League's regular season.

That said, economic competitive balance is a problem -- a fairness problem. And the big picture of the industry does include New York; try putting 162 intrasquad games on MSG, George Steinbrenner, and if you don't like it, then the Royals, Twins and the like should strike you by exercising their rights to refuse your broadcasting out of their stadiums in order to force a revenue-sharing deal.

Granted, teams like the Red Sox and Dodgers stay respectable by outspending everyone but the Yankees. The Red Sox can do so by means such as financing of Manny Ramirez's $160 million contract by doing a deal where every cable viewer in New England -- including the old or poor or those that couldn't care less about baseball -- is being soaked an extra $1.50-$2.00 monthly as New England Sports Network goes to basic cable.

There are changes necessary in the draft, where the purpose of helping weaker teams has evolved to helping only wealthier clubs. A trade of two years of free agency for getting rid of arbitration makes a lot of sense, and would reward teams that can judge talent.

But as we fast forward past the tedious arbitration stories and move on to spring training, joyous with the realization that there are only three artificial turf stadiums remaining (Montreal, Minnesota, Toronto), the two Central divisions appear to be competitive scrums and in the exclusive address of the National League East some folks are asking what happens to the neighborhood if a bunch of guys from Florida and Montreal crawl out of their cellars.

And there are several complex storylines that makes one want to get to spring training, haste post haste.

I. The AL Central
What we have here is a blossoming Chicago-Cleveland rivalry. But even with what happened last year, the exit of Manny Ramirez and the entrance of David Wells, this has all the makings of Michigan-Ohio State. Don't forget, the Indians were the team everyone feared facing in October, only they fell a game short of the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

And while Cleveland lost Ramirez, the team did add Ellis Burks and Juan Gonzalez and their pitching is deep. Very deep, in fact. OK, Charles Nagy likely won't be back, but Jaret Wright will, with more maturity. Few teams go deeper. Kenny Lofton wasn't healthy until the last eight weeks last season, and if he, Omar Vizquel and Robby Alomar click at the top of the order and Gonzalez's back holds up, they will be as strong an offensive team as there is in the league.

And if manager Charlie Manual doesn't tinker with Steve Karsay and leaves him in middle relief where he is best, they could have the deep bullpen they never found last season. Bob Wickman, Karsay, Paul Shuey and Ricardo Rincon can all close, Sean DePaula is healthy again and by July, C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Danys Baez can all be playing significant roles.

Royce Clayton
The White Sox hope the addition of Royce Clayton as their new shortstop will help solidify their infield defense.

White Sox GM Ken Williams understands how good the Indians can be, which is why he has taken over as general manager of the best regular-season team in the American League and added Wells, Royce Clayton and Sandy Alomar.

"I asked (manager) Jerry (Manuel), 'If we make the the playoffs again, who pitches Game 1?' " says Williams, who was John Elway's one-time wide receiver at Stanford.

"He couldn't answer me. That's one reason we felt Wells can be so important for us. With him, Clayton and Alomar, we've added three veterans that are used to the postseason to what is still a very young, developing team."

There may not be a team in either league with more projectable top-of-the-rotation young pitchers than the White Sox -- Jon Garland, Jon Rauch, Kip Wells, Brian West. James Baldwin, Cal Eldred and Jim Parque are reliable veterans. "But Wells should take a lot of pressure off everyone else," says Williams. One issue might be that Wells is a flyball pitcher and the Comiskey fences have been moved in around the corners. But no need to worry as Wells won in Detroit (Tiger Stadium), won in Baltimore and his ERA outside of SkyDome last year was 3.41.

The questions about Mike Sirotka's physical condition have given the good people of Chicago a glimpse of Williams' character. Sirotka had some elbow problems at the end of the season, then after beginning his workouts, felt a twinge in his shoulder. Williams had informed Blue Jays GM Gord Ash of the twinges, and had forwarded all necessary medical information before completing the deal. Then when the story came out on a Chicago radio station, instead of asking PR Director Scott Reifert to deal with the issue, Williams called the station and explained the situation himself.

When White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf replaced Ron Schueler with the 36-year-old Williams during the World Series, it was a typical surprising move by Reinsdorf. Schueler had twice built the White Sox into a first-place team. Reinsdorf passed over Dan Evans, one of the most respected executives in the business. But those weren't Williams' decisions, they were Reinsdorf's, and since the owner makes his franchise's major contract decisions, he prefers a personnel man for a general manager.

But while many lauded Reinsdorf for making Williams the only African-American general manager in the major leagues, that also put a veil over his promotion. A week after being promoted, Williams heard a talk-show host insist that the only reason he got the job was because he is black. "There is no answer to that," says Williams. "The only answer is to perform my job."

That is, of course, cruel, subtle racism in a world where the race card can be played from many sides and in many ways. Williams never promoted himself to the national media as a minority candidate. Reinsdorf said that Williams got the job because he is bright and had done a superb job running a successful and productive farm system. Then to have that promotion diminished by that differentiation between being a general manager, who is African-American, and "a black general manager" is something none of his peers have had to experience.

Similarly, when Davey Lopes was hired as Brewers manager a year ago, much was made of the Selig family hiring a minority manager. In fact, Lopes is a brilliant baseball man who'd worked very hard to get an opportunity to manage while refusing to promote himself, and, most people had no idea about his background (he's a fourth-generation American whose ancestors came to New England from the Cape Verdian Islands).

"I was asked what it would mean if the White Sox were the first team to win with an African-American manager and general manager," says Williams. "My reply was that if it serves as some hope or inspiration, fine. But if we don't win, this is a footnote to history. We're two people who are trying to win a championship."

When Cito Gaston became the first manager in nearly 20 years to win consecutive World Series (in 1992 and '93 with the Blue Jays) -- and the first African-American to manage a World Series champion -- he did so with the dignity of a man who rose above all racial stereotypes and differences. One of his former players, Paul Molitor, has called Gaston "the man's man." "My parents had it better than their parents, I had it better than my parents and my children will have it better than I did," says Williams. "I look at what my father did to help get me where I am now. He had to sue the city of San Jose to become one of the first two black firemen, for the right to live his life as he dreamed. We all have sensitive issues with which we have to deal with."

In three months, Williams has had to deal with a number of sensitive situations, from backlash to a sore shoulder. And he has acquired a Game 1 playoff starter (Wells), an experienced quarterback for his young pitchers (Alomar) and upgraded the defense behind those pitchers (Clayton).

II. The NL Central
The Cardinals are going to be very good, especially if Rick Ankiel and Matt Morris develop the way Tony La Russa anticipates and Mark McGwire is healthy. But the division that was an aggregate 54 games under .500 last season may be wild and very competitive again this season.

OK, everything went bad for the Astros, from Billy Wagner's elbow to Jose Lima's head to Craig Biggio's knee to Ken Caminiti's wrist. And they're starting this season with Shane Reynolds out for at least the first month.

But if Wagner returns to form -- and the reports on him are encouraging -- then the Cardinals had better check their rearview mirror. Yes, they've raised the fences in left-center to try to cut down on XFL scores, but Enron is still going to be an offensive park. The outfield of Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman and Moises Alou (plus Daryle Ward) can easily hit 100 home runs. The reports on Biggio are encouraging. Jeff Bagwell is a perennial MVP candidate. And while the left side of the infield with Chris Truby at third and Jose Vizcaino and Adam Everett at short raise some offensive questions, they will score so many runs, defense will be far more important. And by acquiring Brad Ausmus and Doug Brocail, they have helped the pitching and -- just as important -- the makeup of the club.

Lima, meanwhile, is trying to wipe out last season by pitching winter ball. The Astros also think Scott Elarton can be the front man on the staff while they hope Octavio Dotel can fit somewhere and Kent Bottenfield could help the back of the rotation.

Rookies Tony McKnight and Roy Oswalt figure in to help the pitching staff, as well. Since Wagner is the only prominent lefty on the staff, they need to find help from that side, but it can be done. "(The Astros) are," says an NL GM, "the best offensive team in our league, so anything they do for their pitching will make them very dangerous."

The Reds, too, can be dangerous, even if GM Jim Bowden has had to slash payroll to get down to the smallest payroll in the division by more than $10 million. As Cinergy Field is being replaced, the process has begun with grass replacing phonyturf and construction that has opened up the bleachers to a view of the river and the Cincinnati skyline. "The winds steadily blow from the river," says Bowden. "Which means we could have a lot of high-scoring games." That is good news for Junior Griffey, who batted .317 in the second half and could take off with 2000 now behind him.

The Reds will score bushels of runs, and with Griffey, Pokey Reese, Barry Larkin and Aaron Boone are going to have one of the best and most consistent defenses in the league. The issue, as always, will be a starting pitching staff that consists of Pete Harnisch, Rob Bell, Seth Etherton, Elmer Dessens and Osvaldo Fernandez.

If Griffey, Larkin and Sean Casey produce as they can, Cinergy could invite Enronesque shootouts. With that, the depth of the Reds bullpen may make them far more dangerous than it appears. If new manager Bob Boone keeps Scott Williamson in the pen, he'll have Williamson, Danny Graves, Mark Wohlers, Dennys Reyes, Scott Sullivan and (remember the name) John Riedling, against whom the league batted .208 in his brief 2000 stint. That's a lot of ways to stop the bleeding in order to win those 9-6 games.

III. Other nations heard
It has been a frustrating offseason for Mets GM Steve Phillips, who steadfastly refused to trade his prize outfield prospect Alex Escobar for Johnny Damon, Wells or Pedro Astacio. And all of a sudden voices are being raised by other general managers to watch out for the rise of the Marlins and Expos.

"If the Marlins get the kind of years that Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett are capable of having," says a GM, "they could be right in the wild-card hunt. Remember that in August. And given a year's experience and the emergence of some really good young pitchers like Tony Armas and Carl Pavano, and the Expos could be one of the most improved teams around. Jose Vidro is a star, and put him in the middle of that order with (Vladimir) Guerrero and (Fernando) Tatis, and they are going to be very dangerous."

The Phish in the wild-card hunt? The Expos back to .500, or better? Only three turf fields left?

This ain't Desolation Row. And remember this: Rupert Murdoch is an economic driving wheel, and it is in his best interest to have the medium- and small-market teams competitive so folks watch his regional networks. No Apocalypse pending.

Around the majors
  • A couple of teams have looked into Travis Lee's winter work with hitting guru Jim Lefebvre and have been so encouraged that they've tried to acquire him from the Phillies. The Reds showed interest in Lee and the starting asking price was Scott Williamson. Nope.

  • The Angels should have had some inkling of Mo Vaughn's problems after his .198-39 strikeout-111 at-bat September, but waited too long and now Wally Joyner is about their only remaining free-agent alternative.

  • Two GMs this week claimed that Raul Mondesi can be had from Toronto. Mondesi, by the way, is a 30-year-old slugger who has never knocked in 100 runs.

  • Counting Carlos Perez as their fifth starter, the Dodgers five-man starting rotation will make $50.4 million this season. Don't forget to add in incentives, of course. They're already past $107 million with seven roster spots to fill. What happened to that line they drew last winter at never crossing $100 million?

  • Having held tightly to Escobar, the Mets still need a bat, preferably left-handed, although they could still end up players if and when Sammy Sosa gets thrown onto the market. They keep talking to Boston about Troy O'Leary, but want the Red Sox to take a couple of lesser salaries -- like Darryl Hamilton -- on the theory that Red Sox GM Dan Duquette will have an easier time unloading two lesser salaries than one big O'Leary pact.

  • The Twins have made it clear to the Mets that they do not plan to trade Matt Lawton. When they quickly settled Lawton's contract at $3.9 million, some felt it was a sign that the All-Star outfielder would be dealt. Not so. GM Terry Ryan isn't dealing him.

  • Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is very encouraged about the comeback of David Cone. "He's been working out and throwing since November," says Kerrigan. "He's stronger and in better shape. He's worked on his mechanics, tightened his delivery, is back up on top and the ball is coming out of his hand better than at any time last year. And he's on a mission to redeem himself. I think this is going to be a great comeback story." Manager Jimy Williams has his spring training set up with 10 starters, although it's likely Tim Wakefield will be a long man and Kent Mercker the middle lefty now that he's come up with a slider.

  • The best man left standing on the free-agent market is the right-handed Bobby Jones. He started out looking for three years and $21 million, and now is looking for work.

  • With Brian Jordan back, Chipper Jones is staying at third base, and with his elbow cleared up feels he can have another MVP season. John Schuerholz is boosting Rico Brogna, as well. "The man had a broken arm last year and came back too soon," says Schuerholz. "I told him he looked as if he were swinging one-armed, and he told me he was. But he's worked all winter and is swinging the bat better than at any time last year. He is a Gold Glove-caliber defensive first baseman who knocked in more than 100 runs in 1998 and '99. I think he could be one of the big comeback stories of this season."

  • And you wonder why the Expos worked so diligently to get Vidro tied up? In the last 50 years, two second basemen have hit .300 with 200 hits and 50 doubles -- Vidro and Craig Biggio.

  • The Dodgers did stay around in the Damon hunt, but wouldn't trade both Eric Gagne and Matt Herges in any deal.

  • Oh yes, the Dodgers right now have 29 non-roster invitees to spring training. About the only veteran lefty they haven't signed is Senior Bush.

  • Hats off to Mike Sweeney, who took a discount for a two-year deal. OK, the Royals didn't buy off any free agency, but Sweeney wants to give GM Allard Baird time to try to improve the team and see if the new collective bargaining agreement gives the Royals any more chance to keep their good players.

  • The Players Association isn't going to have a problem with the owners making changes in the draft, especially shortening the signing window so negotiations with draft picks can't drag on for months. But the notion that baseball can get away with forcing players who go to four-year schools to stay for four years before they're drafted, or two years for junior college, isn't likely to hold up much longer than the time it takes agent Scott Boras to get to court. Can you spell h-a-r-d-s-h-i-p?

  • The Orioles are still trying to get Donnie Sadler from the Reds. Syd Thrift's assistant Bob Schaefer believes Sadler, who'll be a reserve in Cincinnati, can play every day.

  • Here are three musical dates to keep in mind for the month of February:

    1. Feb. 3: Tim Flannery has his new disc release concert at the East County Performing Arts Center outside San Diego (and his great "Pieces of the Past" is being re-released, as well).
    2. Feb. 6: Stevie Ray Vaughn's sidekicks Double Trouble release their disc "Been a Long Time," with guests like Susan Tedeschi (you haven't lived until you've heard the world's best singer do Robert Plant's "Rock and Roll"), Kenny Wayne Shepard, Jimmy Vaughn and Lou Ann Barton.
    3. Feb. 28: Somerville, Mass. Theatre concert for the release of the new disc by The PushStars.

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  • Gammons: 2000 column archive
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