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Notes from around the majors

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The malaise that has the Dodgers playing as if they are being attacked by West Nile mosquitos is not about Gary Sheffield vs. Mike Piazza, who are both MVP candidates. It's not about hiring Davey Johnson over Mike Scioscia. It's not just about some of GM Kevin Malone's moves, be it Todd Hundley over Charles Johnson (although pitchers generally prefer Hundley) or signing former center fielder Devon White or Carlos Perez. "There's something deeper here, and it's hard to put a finger on exactly what it is," says Malone.

"I keep hearing, 'you've got much more talent than your record indicates,' and frankly I think everyone here's tired of hearing it," Malone says. "Our pitching's pretty good. You look at our positional players and they're very good. But there's something missing."

Todd Hundley
Todd Hundley has been much better this season after suffering through a dreadful year in 1999.

Malone recently has been focusing his attention on the minor leagues, and the draft work of the Dodgers' widely respected scouting director Ed Creech. He has had to try to make up for the blunders by others in the previous administration, which are costing them their international signing rights for a year.

But while Malone says "I think we can get this thing turned around," he admits that may take time, and in that time he has people -- even some that he hired in Montreal and brought to L.A. -- sniping at his back while anyone at the Pioneer Chicken Stand on Alvarado Street knows that Malone and Johnson aren't exactly Gore and Lieberman these days.

Without pointing fingers at a good player and decent guy like Eric Karros, Malone wonders about the Dodger baseball culture. "I don't know if you see the passion here," he says. "I don't know why, but sometimes it just doesn't seem to be here. Maybe it is the atmosphere. I'm not sure."

As Piazza leads the Mets toward the postseason and is heading for the Labor Day Turn in a dead MVP heat with Jeff Kent and Sheffield, one can ask whether or not Piazza would be what he is today if he were still out in L.A. doing "The Bold and the Beautiful" rather than driving through Queens every day.

Granted, Piazza is an East Coast guy who can tell you anything you want to know about the '80s Phillies and he's as New York tough as it gets, but several of his former L.A. teammates felt he was drifting toward being more George Hamilton toward the end of his stay with the Dodgers than the Thurman Munson he has become.

"There are people who believe that, but it's up to us to change whatever causes it," says Malone. "We have some players here who play with a great deal of passion." Kevin Brown, no matter what he makes, is one. Sheffield has grown into being another. Mark Grudzielanek is another. And no one is more of a baseball rat than Hundley. "We just have to find some more," says Malone.

The questions may be: 1) How do you fit Casey Candaele characters into "The Bold and the Beautiful"; and 2) Whom will chairman and CEO Bob Daly decide makes up the We.

News and notes
  • Lou Merloni was released by the Yokohama Baystars on July 28 after batting .213 with one homer. Less than three weeks and several job offers later, Merloni had succeeded John Valentin, Wilton Veras, Andy Sheets, Manny Alexander, Ed Sprague, Sean Berry and Mike Lansing as the Red Sox third baseman of choice. The Governor -- as Merloni is called in Boston for being so locally popular that he'd stomp Gov. Paul Cellucci in any straw poll -- was told by one teammate, "the only reason you're back is to be (Tomo) Ohka's caddy." Then another, citing Boston's propensity for doing deals with Japanese clubs that confound even the World Trade Federation, said, "if you play too well (GM Dan) Duquette will sell you back to Japan."

    Merloni, like many other players in the Lee Stevens and Mark Johnson molds, said the pitching in Japan was so good that he learned a lot. "It seems as if I spent an entire season hitting 0-for-2," says The Guv. "They really pitch, and I'm a better player for going there. Someone asked me what I missed most, and I answered, 'fastballs.' They really deal and deal on the corners."

  • What Merloni, Stevens, Johnson and most other players acknowledge when they come back is that the Japanese major leagues are the big leagues, period. So why would a Kazuhiro Sasaki be considered a rookie when he's pitched for years in the major leagues? To consider him a rookie is an insult to Japanese baseball and their major leagues.

    But it's hard to pick an AL Rookie of the Year leader between Anaheim's Ben Molina and Adam Kennedy, Oakland's Terrence Long (the next Dave Henderson, this one being a lefty) and Kansas City's Mark Quinn. That's what the last month will determine.

  • Not a lot has gone right in Minnesota for many years now. And things are so bad in the BaggyDome that they're about ready to play in the lobby of the Mall of America, where's Jim Caple once noted that Victoria's Secret sits high above where home plate used to be dug into Bloomington Stadium. But one AL scout thinks they could be in the White Sox side windows by this time next year.

    "Who else has got left-handed pitching to touch them?" asks the scout. Indeed, between Eric Milton, Mark Redman and J.C. Romero, they lead the league in wins from left-handed starters. Brad Radke is also solid, and while Joe Mays has been inconsistent, he has "second starter stuff," according to the scout. Then throw in Matt Kinney, the horse of a right-hander who made his debut Friday night after going 11-3 with 151 strikeouts in 142 innings in the minors (let it be noted that for Greg Swindell the Twins got Kinney and outfielder John Barnes, who has the best batting average in the minor leagues at .367 for Triple-A Salt Lake City).

    "They've got Johan Santana and (Everyday Eddie) Guardado in the pen," says the scout, "which is more good left-handed arms than anyone else. I think they can get good in a hurry." As Twins GM Terry Ryan keeps telling everyone, they still have to find some more power and hope Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, Matt Lawton and David Ortiz start hitting for more power.

  • While Todd Helton continues to go off, the Rockies are trying to get Neifi Perez signed to a four-year deal. GM Dan O'Dowd believes Perez is the best defensive shortstop in the NL, and that Perez and Helton are taking over as the club leaders.

  • Scouts watching last week's Area Code Games couldn't believe the sight of Michael Garciaparra, Nomar's younger -- and bigger -- brother. "He has all the quirks and mannerisms of Nomar," says one scout. "And he can swing the bat."

    "What's strange is that he hasn't played much baseball," says Nomar. "He's been playing mainly soccer and football. He's one of the top kickers in the country, with a slew of big-time football offers. But where he once was going to do a soccer/football double in college, now he's starting to like and play baseball. He has a lot of ability, so he'll be fun to watch."

  • Astros owner Drayton McLane has started contract discussions with Jeff Bagwell, but the message seems to be clear: if McLane wants to keep Bagwell, he'll have to change managers.

    This and that
    The Tigers have now accepted the fact that come the end of the season, Juan Gonzalez is gone. But when manager Phil Garner talked owner Mike Ilitch into convincing GM Randy Smith out of trading Gonzalez to Seattle for pitcher John Halama, minor-league pitcher Jeff Heaverlo and another pitcher at the deadline, it wasn't simply to pad his own record. Garner said in spring training that "the toughest part of this job will be to convince the players they can win." It was, except for a few tough souls like Brad Ausmus, Bobby Higginson and Doug Brocail, a difficult task. But they're continuing to creep closer and closer to .500 (59-61 through Friday).

    The manager has to convince his players and the Detroit fans that they can win. He also has to convince opposing players so they can attract free agents to a city whose downtown still doesn't have a department store (because the auto companies have left Detroit as the worst example of urban planning in American history) and he and Smith have to convince Ilitch that what they're doing is the right way to go about things.

  • The post-draft signing process has taken so long that the Rangers may back off the deal they had with outfielder Tyrell Godwin because of a prior knee condition. And the Mets may walk away from their first pick, left-hander Billy Traber. Not one of Scott Boras' clients in the first two rounds, meanwhile, has signed yet. "I know Scott has come up with some ingenious angle," says one GM. "But I can't figure out what it is."

  • Saturday is the start of Rehab Week with the Pawtucket Red Sox, as Bret Saberhagen, Ramon Martinez, Paxton Crawford and Pete Schourek will all have rehab outings for the PawSox.

  • Duquette has been disappointed in the development of pitching in the high minors, but some of his recent international signings have started to pan out. One NL club rates 20-year-old Mexican left-hander Mauricio Lara as the best prospect in the New York-Penn League, and big 20-year-old right-hander Seung Song is leading the NY-P in strikeouts.

    For all their international dabblings, two of Boston's top four draft picks the last two years have been from New England -- OF Rick Asadoorian and right-hander Brad Baker -- and this week they had a camp for New Englanders who played in the Cape Cod League as well as two top 2001 prospects returning from the Area Code Games, shortstop/right-handed pitcher John Toffey of Needham, Mass. and outfielder Mike Conroy of Boston College High School. For you interested hockey fans, Toffey might be a first-round pick in the NHL draft.

  • How great a story is Tanyon Sturtze, who in his 11th pro season -- yes, he was in Oakland's pitching draft in 1990 along with Todd Van Poppel -- has made it with Tampa Bay, throwing a consistent 93-95 mph along with a splitter he's developed.

    This is a kid who was playing shortstop for Quinsigamond CC in Massachusetts in '90 when scout J.P. Ricciardi saw him throw in infield practice and drafted him as a pitcher.

  • Some Indians folks always maintained that Richie Sexson was such a good athlete that if he got at-bats, he would hit. Well, he's playing every day in Milwaukee, and he's hitting. How good an athlete? Good enough to be invited to the Five Star Camp as a high school hooper. While at the Five Star Camp he roomed with Phoenix Suns star Jason Kidd. "One day playing with Jason," says Sexson, "convinced me that my future was with baseball."

  • The reports about Arizona's loans may be exaggerated, but Major League Baseball is worried about the ratio of debt vs. assets down the line because of all the deferred money owed to players. Most feel that Jerry Colangelo will work his way through this, but one GM says, "They could have to pull a mini-Marlins and unload (Steve) Finley, Randy (Johnson) and a couple of others."

  • When the Rockies were in Montreal last weekend, the coaching staff took notice that they didn't see Felipe Alou on the field once before a game. "What they've done to Felipe is criminal," says one of his former coaches. "He saved that franchise. He's one of the greatest men to ever be in the game. And now they're trying to run him out of town."

  • General managers note that virtually no notable players got through waivers, with few exceptions like Pat Hentgen. "Watch the next week," says one GM, "because (Reds GM) Jim Bowden and (Devil Rays GM) Chuck LaMar like to put guys on late, and Colorado still hasn't run out (Pedro) Astacio or (Masato) Yoshii on the wire."

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