|Saturday, February 23
Updated: April 17, 5:54 PM ET
Age issues brought on by Sept. 11
By Jayson Stark
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Most of us age one day at a time. But now we know that's only because most of us aren't baseball players.
In baseball these days, medical science would be amazed how fast a guy can age. Just this month alone, Angels pitcher Ramon Ortiz aged three years.
And out there at shortstop, Neifi Perez and Rafael Furcal ranged so deep in the hole, they aged two years by the time they got back to their position.
And the ranks of players aging one year literally overnight included Bartolo Colon and Enrique Wilson.
All told, we've counted a dozen players on major-league rosters this spring who have discovered that age is more than a state of mind. And the commissioner's office estimates that when minor-league players begin arriving at spring training next month, as many as 100 of them will show up with different birth dates than they had when they left.
Well, if they need somebody to blame, Osama bin Laden would be a good place to point a finger.
Since Sept. 11, you see, it isn't just the real world that's a different place. Our world of fun and games is also a different place.
Once upon a time, it was mostly kind of amusing when players' foreign visa applications were part fact, part fiction. After Sept. 11, all phony visas stopped being a joke. And that meant big trouble for players who showed up at the American consulates to apply for their annual visa and found they needed real birth certificates to document their real ages.
"Most of the players who have found themselves in this circumstance are guys in the Dominican," said Braves GM John Schuerholz, "where we all know that, for as long as I can remember, the ability to determine, with finite accuracy, the birth date of a player has been a challenge. And that's whether we're talking one year ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 30 years ago. Every organization in baseball has had a situation like this that has scouted in that environment.
"Now, the U.S. Immigration Service is cracking down and demanding more exact information. And my understanding is that a large part of the reason is attributable to the increased scrutiny brought about by Sept. 11. Obviously, I don't think anybody has trouble with that at all. It's just something that's happening."
It's a serious subject. But at least it's been good for a laugh or two in clubhouses all over the game.
We can regard these quips as a sign that everyone is taking this development in fine humor. And it's a good thing, because it's time to get prepared for more than just age changes. Some of the names might also be changing, to protect the guilty.
One club official says his team is still waiting for one of its pitchers to arrive in spring training, thanks to particularly pesky visa problems. And when he finally does, the club isn't sure how old he'll be or what name he'll have. Turns out there have been a few players who used someone else's whole identity to get their visas in the past because it was more convenient, for various reasons. (Use your imagination.)
All of this scrutiny ought to make the world a better place. But will it make baseball a better place?
Indians GM Mark Shapiro found out this month that his ace, Colon, was 28 instead of 26. But he pronounced this revelation to have "zero relevance."
"Even if we found out he'd gained three or four years," Shapiro said, "it has absolutely no implication at all on his ability to throw a baseball."
The Braves, meanwhile, had three players (Furcal, reliever Jose Cabrera and backup catcher Luis Taveras) undergo age-change surgery this spring. And this development comes a couple of years after the Braves got in inadvertent hot water after ballyhooed middle-infield prospect Wilson Betemit was found to be a year younger than he was thought to be when the Braves signed him.
"We got nailed on both sides of this one," Schuerholz said. "We can't win. We got called on the carpet because we have one player younger than what the records said he was. Now we find our shortstop is two years older.
"But you know what? When Rafael Furcal goes deep in the hole, backhands a ball and throws a laser across the diamond, or he runs to first base in 3.6 seconds, I don't think anybody will care if he's 21 or 23."
Good point. Not that there won't be some occasions where caring becomes more appropriate. For instance, it might have some long-term contract implications for players like Ortiz. He used to be known as "Little Pedro" for his resemblance to Pedro Martinez -- and now it turns out he's only about one year younger than the real Pedro.
But even though the joke in Braves camp is that thanks to the age police, Julio Franco will be able to collect Social Security and play first base at the same time, these new rules won't help determine how old he really is. He's on a green card, which doesn't need annual renewals. So feel free to keep speculating.
And while the age authorities work on that investigation, Schuerholz has another project for them.
"I want to try to find a way to reverse this process for me," he said. "I'd like to knock a couple of years off."
"Why don't they see if he can play shortstop while they're at it?" said one scout.
For the record, Canseco has played a total of 13 games in the outfield in the last three seasons combined.
"If the Major League Scouting Bureau is running their draft and I'm paying 1/29th of the cost of doing that, then I've got a problem with that," said one scouting director this week. "That seems to me to be a blatant conflict of interest. Why should I be paying to run another team's draft, even if it's 1/29th?"
Good point. And there are a thousand issues just like that one. But clubs are being told this is just a one-year emergency, so chill out.
"That's not going to happen," Ryan said. "And they know that."
Incidentally, Ryan expects the Twins' payroll to wind up around $40 million this year. It was under $17 million two years ago.
It used to be that most arbitration filers who settled wound up with deals at or above the midpoint between the player's figure and the club's figure. This year, just one player settled above the midpoint -- Torii Hunter, with the Twins. And he didn't settle until after he'd already showed up for his hearing.
Josh Hamilton's back problems continue to be a mystery in Tampa Bay. And the Devil Rays say the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft probably won't show up in their big-league spring-training camp at all.
Hamilton's father had some ominous quotes in the St. Petersburg Times suggesting that if all this isn't figured out, his son may lose interest in baseball. And Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar was quoted as saying that pretty soon, Hamilton will either have to get to the bottom of this mystery or learn to play through the pain. It would be tragic if Hamilton doesn't fulfill his immense promise. But stay tuned.
Meanwhile, Indians utility dynamo Jolbert Cabrera continues to have problems following his accidental shooting in the derriere this winter. He now isn't expected back before Opening Day, and doctors can't even determine the extent of his injuries because the swelling still hasn't subsided.
New pitching coach Brad Arnsberg is trying to get the erratic Clement to stop throwing across his body, and the results so far have new manager Jeff Torborg very revved up: "If we get him straightened out as the fifth starter, we'll really have a great rotation," Torborg said.
And new coaches Ozzie Guillen and Perry Hill have both made Gonzalez their No. 1 order of business this spring. In Montreal, Hill's scientific approach to infield mechanics turned Orlando Cabrera into a Gold Glove shortstop. "He's our secret weapon," Torborg said of Hill.
"The ball's just jumping out of his hand," Shapiro said. "He's a guy you can't help but pull for."
Multisport journalistic sensation Drew Olson, of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, reports that there was something familiar about nonroster outfielder Derrick Gibson's decision not to come to camp this week -- because he'd signed a football deal with the Browns.
Last year, the Brewers traded one-time No. 2 draft pick Alvin Morrow to the Blue Jays. Morrow then quit baseball, signed with the Browns and actually was active for two games.
So when you hear those Brewers outfielders can really hit, it might not mean what you think.
Do have jobs
Don't have jobs
"Yeah, I've still got a little stubble going," he told Spring Fever. "I'm going to keep pushing the envelope, see how far they take this thing."
We're proud to say we're the only Yankees correspondents so far to ask Giambi the most important question of the spring: How'd he lop all that hair -- blade or electric?
"Had to use both," Giambi revealed. "If I'd just used the blade, I'd have chopped my face all up. So I had to start off with the electric."
Hey, you heard it here first.
Financial advice of the week
Catcher Mike Lieberthal's reaction, upon hearing about this contract: "He can buy Venezuela."
"I don't know if I could buy Venezuela," Abreu laughed. "But I think I could buy a lot of things."
What things, though? That was the question posed to center field-quotesmith Doug Glanville.
"Well," Glanville suggested, "he can support the Glanville Foundation now. That would be a good start. But basically, I think he needs to start thinking outside the box.
"You can only buy so many cars, so he's got to make his own car. He can design the Abreu. And when he goes shopping, forget Target. He should go to his own store -- Bob's-eye. You've got a state named after Joe Montana, so why not Abreu City? He can start his own bat company, grow his own trees. Anybody can buy that stuff. Now he's got to think on a higher level."
Rookie of the week
After his first day running a spring-training camp Monday, Gardenhire said the toughest part was acting managerial.
"I was kind of looking around wondering, 'What is it a manager does, anyway?' " he told Spring Fever. "Once I had the meeting and gave the signs, I wasn't sure what to do. So I decided I should mostly walk around the field. I wasn't going to stand around the cage and watch every guy swing at every pitch, saying, 'Oooh, good swing,' or, 'bad swing.' "
But Gardenhire made it through the day, returned to his office and opened a package on his desk. As he was tossing away the shipping label, he noticed something.
"The good news is, I'm finally getting stuff sent to me," he said. "The bad news is, they think I'm Ron Gardenline."
Card shark of the week
The guy pictured on the front wasn't him. It was his teammate, Greg Colbrunn. And that would be bad enough, but Colbrunn hits right-handed, while Counsell hits left-handed. At least the stats on the back were Counsell's.
Counsell immediately called Colbrunn, who replied: "It's a complete insult, having my picture with your stats on the back of the card."
Royal highness of the week
After watching Prince, a high school senior, put on this show, Tigers GM Randy Smith told his father, "You've got to change his name from Prince to the King."
Asked if his dad has been throwing him batting practice, Prince quipped: "No, he's too lazy for that."
And recalling those good old days when he used to hang out in the Tigers' clubhouse as a kid and once body-slammed Tony Phillips, Prince told Tigers beat man Danny Knobler, of Booth Newspapers: "I think I weighed as much as Tony when I was 5."
Pop culture of the week
So on Thursday, manager Bob Brenly scheduled a drill on the lost art of calling for pop-ups. Unfortunately, he scheduled it on a field where all the pop-ups seemed to drift right into the blazing sun, on a morning when there wasn't a cloud from Tucson to Tucumcari.
Things got so bad that, at one point, Jay Bell missed four straight pop-ups.
"It's hard to believe that was the No. 1 defense in the National League out there," Brenly said. "That was one of the ugliest fundamental drills I have ever seen."
"That was evil," Mark Grace told the East Valley Tribune's Ed Price. "Poor Jay. I'm sorry, but that was hilarious. There's a lot of Gold Glovers out there ... and it wasn't pretty. But it was good for comic relief."
Spring injury of the week
Useless Information Dept.
Of the 3,066 players from outside U.S. soil, 53 percent (or 1,630) are from the Dominican, and 24 percent (or 744) are from Venezuela. There's a huge drop to the next-closest sources of talent -- Puerto Rico (five percent, or 165) and Mexico (four percent, or 114). Only 26 players are from Cuba, but half of them (13) are currently on major-league rosters.
Devil Rays 66
Right end: No. 90 in your program, Yankees RHP Danny Borrell.
Reds 69 players
Check out this list of National League hitters who have scored 100 runs or more three straight seasons: Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Sammy Sosa, Todd Helton, Luis Gonzalez, Brian Giles, Vladimir Guerrero and Bobby Abreu.
Check out the list of hitters who have both a career batting average and on-base percentage as high as Abreu's (.307, .409): Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez and Todd Helton. (And Helton has fewer career plate appearances.)
So how amazing is it that Abreu has never made an All-Star team?
The Phillies' group had more home runs (72 to 48), more RBI (254 to 182), more stolen bases (66 to 59), more extra-base hits (182 to 126) and more outfield assists (37 to 25) last year than the Mets' trio. Who'd have thunk that?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.