|Wednesday, June 19
There won't be a strike -- we hope
By Jayson Stark
It's easy to think of about 3.5 billion reasons why there will be a strike. But here's why we think there won't be:
How many teams out there can afford one?
Even fewer than can afford to make a free-agent run at Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux, we'd say.
Let's run down the list. See what you think:
We could go on and on. But here's what we're getting at:
The list of teams that could survive a work stoppage of more than a few days is shorter than Calista Flockhart's shopping list. We're talking about a handful of teams. And even if they could survive, could the sport of baseball survive?
As MLB's COO, Bob DuPuy, recalled in a visit to ESPN this month, one of his recent conversations with Don Fehr, executive director of the players association, started this way: "If we have another protracted work stoppage, we won't be talking service time when we come back. We'll be talking about how many teams will come back."
And they will. If it's bank debt that has Bud Selig sounding the financial-solvency alarms, then all a work stoppage would do is provide more of that debt.
Fox, for instance, would get a credit for every TV dollar it paid out to MLB during a strike. So even though that TV money would keep some clubs afloat temporarily, it also would have to be considered as just one more mountain of debt to be repaid later. And that's the last thing many of these clubs need.
But it isn't just the teams whose futures are at stake. We're also sure, from talking to players, that they have very little interest in killing their sport, either.
So while it's true that there are hard-liners on both sides who aren't afraid of war, our gut feeling is that when the strike date approaches, sometime in the middle of August, neither side will have the gall to drive their sport off a cliff. We just hope we're right.
On the other hand, it's baffling to look up in late June and find Ward with only two home runs in 228 at-bats. Two years ago, he got only 264 at-bats all year -- and hit 20 home runs. The Astros' latest theory is that he has backed too far off the plate and has positioned his hands so high, he's lost the ability to lift the ball.
But any veteran position player is on the market, with the possible exception of Carlos Delgado, whose no-trade clause makes him all but untradeable. Teams that have talked to Toronto are grumbling, however, that GM J.P. Ricciardi's asking price has been more Nieman Marcus than Wal Mart.
So the Phillies are stuck in this limbo -- for who knows how long?
"I think they could have a hard time moving him," says one AL GM of Rolen, "if only because whoever is trading for him knows it may be just to finish the year. But he'll be an attractive free agent, because he's one of the best players at his position, he's so athletic, he's still looked on as an offensive player and he'll be a free agent at 27, at a prime position. He'll have a lot of takers."
You can call Rolen unhappy. You can call him a lame duck. You can safely say that the lingering tension his "situation" has produced has been unhealthy and distracting. But a "cancer" works relentlessly from within to destroy the whole. So any man who would call Rolen a "cancer" doesn't understand the meaning of the word. Anyone who knows the soft-spoken Rolen knows the one thing he has most wanted not to be is a distraction, let alone a cancer.
"He told someone I know that it's bothered him all year," the scout says. "And you can see it. You can see it in the field. You can see it running. You can see it at the plate, in his power numbers. I'd be very careful (if he became available)."
"In a normal year, you'd have guys like (Javier) Vazquez and (Tony) Armas on the market by now," says one GM. "But Omar (Minaya) can't think that way in their situation. There's no next year to think about. They think they've got to win now. And if they can't, they've got to win as many games as they can now. What a mess. I just can't believe we can get ourselves into these situations in this game."
Ricciardi continues to say that while "I like the direction" the club has been going in since Tosca took over, "we'll re-evaluate at the end of the year." In other words, A's bench coach Ken Macha remains an option.
"Early on, he got a lot of fastballs out over the plate," says one scout. "Now they're jamming the hell out of him, busting bats and tearing his thumbs off."
On May 12, Encarnacion was hitting .290, with nine homers and 25 RBI. Since then, through Tuesday, he'd hit .212, with three homers and 10 RBI.
The big questions, though, are why does Chen keep getting traded, and why do teams keep trading for him?
"I've seen him dominate," says one NL front-office man. "I've seen him get knocked out in the first inning. I think he has it in his mind that he's a power pitcher, but his fastball is too straight to rely on the four-seamer. When he uses his curve, his change and his two-seamer, he can be really tough. But you just don't see that grit in him mentally, to gut it out when times get tough."
"He's such a free swinger," says Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal. "He can hit the ball in, and he can hit the sinker away. There's no one way to pitch him. Plus, he can fly. There have been games in this streak where most hitters would be 0 for 3 -- but he gets his knocks with those choppers that he just beats out."
"The thing that's amazed us is his consistency," says Castillo's double-play partner, Andy Fox. "We're talking 150 at-bats, and he hasn't gone into a funk yet. But the thing that's been impressive is that he's still willing to take a walk. I know one game, he didn't have a hit yet and he still ran a 3-and-0 count. He worked the count instead of hacking. So he's always kept the team concept. And that can be hard to do when you're in a streak like this."
Except that what Stern really did was use his remarks to do more positive spinning to make it appear the NBA's cap has produced far more competitive balance than it actually has. Here's the quote:
"I think the entire playoffs have been sort of a good coming-together for us of many things that we've worked on over the years," Stern said. "To see teams from small markets involved, I think, reflects the fact that our collective bargaining agreement is working."
But the fact is, more small-market teams make the playoffs in the NBA simply because more teams make the playoffs, period. We've still seen 22 of the last 23 finals feature teams from at least one of the four largest markets. And the most recent NBA final, obviously, featured teams from the two largest markets (considering New Jersey is very close to New York).
We still have trouble seeing the difference between Sacramento in the NBA and Oakland in MLB. It's true that Oakland hasn't made it out of the first round the last two years -- but that's only because it played the Yankees in the first round both of those years.
Want to solve the problem of the A's not winning a round? Easy. Add more rounds. The NBA system creates the illusion of more competitive balance because more than half the teams in the sport make the playoffs.
Under the NBA system, Oakland most likely would have been the No. 3 seed in the AL last year. And had eight teams made the playoffs, Oakland would have played the No. 6 seed, the White Sox, in the first round. We'd have liked its chances in that one.
The point is that David Stern always makes the NBA look as good as possible. And while we don't dispute how much Selig loves the game, he has spent too many of the last six months making the baseball business look as lousy as possible. And that has to stop.
Buck gave us some of the most emotional and everlasting calls in broadcasting history. And the testament to his feel for every moment he ever witnessed was that none of them was scripted or staged. He saw it. He felt it. He put it into words better than any of us ever could. We could sit around and listen to his call of Kirk Gibson's homer all day long -- and smile every time we heard it.
You can find some of those calls available right here in cyberspace for your listening pleasure. But what you'll find is that many of them were so memorable, you won't even need the miracle of audio tape to hear them again. They're still playing in all of our heads.
So in many ways, the singular voice of Jack Buck lives on forever.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.