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A-Rod returns swagger to Texas

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In Alex Rodriguez's mind, the building of the Texas Rangers is a work in progress whose progress has already begun.

"The Yankees didn't go from being an average team in the '80s to being a dynasty in the '90s just like that," said the man who has to live with the 252 tag above his head. "But the parts are here for us."

Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez brings pop to an already potent lineup.

Rodriguez walked into Rangers camp in Port Charlotte, Fla. this week and immediately began working with esteemed batting coach Rudy Jarmarillo. "I can be a lot better in terms of my swing, my path to the ball, staying inside the ball and cutting down on my strikeouts," he says. "I'm 25. I have a lot of improvement to strive for before I'm 30."

The Rangers know they are better than the last-place club of 2000. A-Rod is the obvious addition, but also throw in Andres Galarraga and Ken Caminiti in with Pudge Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro and you get the five-locker corner that rookies are calling "the Hall of Fame Corner." However, the thunder is expected to be just as powerful in Boston, Cleveland and Oakland.

"Put Gabe Kapler and Ruben Mateo down at the bottom of the order and you have a chance to have a great offensive team," says Pudge. "One through nine, we have a lot of hitters who are professional, take a lot of pitches and can hit in situations."

While general manager Doug Melvin tried to improve the pitching, he and Johnny Oates believe the additions have cemented the defense.

"Give a below-average pitcher very good defense and he can become a pretty good pitcher," says Oates, who knows he's got a great infield to back that statement up. Pudge has nine Gold Gloves, Palmeiro and Caminiti have three apiece, Galarraga has two and A-Rod led the majors in double plays last year and says he should have cut his error total in half. That error total was 10, a Raffy Ramirez week.

"We have the most dominant defensive player in the game," says A-Rod. "We have a great potential outfielder in Mateo, and Gabe Kapler and Rusty Greer are outstanding defenders. That has to make the pitching better."

After starters Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers, the keys are 1) Doug Davis and Ryan Glynn, then 2) Darren Oliver.

"Davis and Glynn have great makeups, they learn, they understand and they can be winners," says catcher Bill Haselman. As for Oliver, who in four straight declining seasons has gone from 14 to 2 wins, no one knows. "He may be the key to our season," says Oates. Of course, Justin Thompson may be back by July and Melvin may make trades. The bullpen has a ton of questions.

But there is a swagger there hasn't been in seen in previous seasons with the Rangers, and with kids like 1B Carlos Pena and 2B Jason Romano ready to step in by the end of this season, the experience and leadership of Galarraga and Caminiti are critical to the longterm run. "There's a lot here that tells me this is the start of something very good," says A-Rod. "Mr. (Tom) Hicks has the wherewithal and the desire to win, and that's what he should be able to do, whether it's now or a couple of years down the line, always with the desire to make it a longterm run."

Can they have their cake and eat it too?
No matter what Gary Sheffield's intention, his rift with the Dodgers comes across as a complaint about a $10 million annual salary. Ditto, Frank Thomas. Barry Bonds' case is different, because unlike the four and six years remaining on the existing Sheffield and Thomas deals, he is a free agent at the end of the season. But the trend is disturbing, to say the least.

"I see this as one of the worst trends in a long time," says one baseball executive. "It sends a horrible message to our fans. A contract is a contract, and fans cannot relate to and probably won't tolerate players who make outrageous statements because someone else is making more money. Go back a decade. When Kirby Puckett signed his deal and players passed him, he didn't complain, he said, 'That's what I signed and it's good money.' But the same thing happened to Rickey Henderson and he complained and wanted to renegotiate, and look at how the fans related to him."

What Thomas is ignoring is that a player cannot have it both ways. If he wants security, he may not be able to have market value because the market is so volatile. And if he signs for security, he must know that others will get higher deals, in time. But if he wants to continually be paid at the market rate, then he must sign one-year contracts and play for his pay every season.

"Frank didn't ask to renegotiate downwards when he had his two off years," said one Reds player Friday.

Then there's Junior Griffey. When he signed his $8.5-million deal with Seattle, he was the highest paid player in the game, a status that ended quickly.

"I have never asked to renegotiate, publicly or privately," says Griffey. "I signed the contract, I stick by it because it's my word, and it's what's best for my family at the time." How about other players trying to renegotiate? "I don't worry about other situations or individuals. It's not my business."

The Rangers are in for a contractual firestorm when they start getting down to the dollars on Pudge Rodriguez, who when he signed his current contract --which expires at the end of the 2002 season -- was told there was nothing left to give him.

Boston, too, has its problems, after signing Manny Ramirez. Eventually the Red Sox will have to deal with their two other stars, Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. Dan Duquette plans to talk to Arn Tellum, Garciaparra's agent, this week when Tellum visits Fort Myers. Duquette had long ago told Tellum he would explore Nomar's situation after A-Rod and Derek Jeter were settled, but Duquette said this week that not only were any discussions preliminary, but that nothing could be finalized until after 1) the sale of the team and 2) the labor situation is settled.

"In an ideal world," says Tellum, "there could be something in place awaiting ratification by the new owner."

What will happen with Sheffield? "I don't think Kevin (Malone) knows what he wants to do," says one NL general manager. "He talks trades with teams, but he's not going to get what he's asking for. Not close." Malone asked Cincinnati for Pokey Reese, Scott Williamson, Dimitri Young and two top prospects -- LHP Ty Howington and OF Adam Dunn -- for Sheffield. The Mets were trying to work a three-way through Kansas City, but Malone insisted on OF Jermaine Dye, and the Royals were dangling Mark Quinn. Malone asked the Mariners for Ichiro Suzuki. No chance.

"What Malone should do is take (Alex) Escobar, (Grant) Roberts, (Pat) Strange and another kid from the Mets and rebuild his future," says a GM. "But if the Dodgers don't win this year, his neck is on the line."

Griffey out of the spotlight
This is a new year and a restart for Junior Griffey in Cincinnati. Last February, there were 150 members of the media covering his opening press conference atop the Sarasota dugout. In the first 10 days of this year's spring training, Reds public relations director Rob Butcher estimates that a total of 15 different people have shown up in Cincinnati's camp.

"It doesn't matter to me if it's 500 members of the media or none," says Griffey. "I prepare the same way. I'm just not going to be what everyone wants me to be, so I have to try to work for the goal that's important – getting the ring. I don't like being the center of attention; I want to be part of the team. I've learned that I can't win. Earlier in my career, some people said I smiled too much and that I didn't have enough respect for the game. Now some people say I don't smile enough.

"It's not the individual things that matter. Look at those Reds teams my dad played for – Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Tony Perez – what mattered was whether or not they won, and they did. That's what I don't have."

Young says that things got so wacky last season that "I'd be in the on-deck circle with Junior up and people would be holding up signs that read, 'You're Hitting .200, Griffey.' Then there were the death threats."

"I've learned that those are things that I have to live with," says Junior of the FBI surveillance required by Internet death threats. "It's part of what goes with the job these days."

Part of what made Griffey so electric earlier in his career was his boyish Úlan – the hat turned backwards, his tongue sticking out. But now the spotlight and the expectations have aged him and made him guarded and wary, except around his teammates and his family.

"He still kids around all the time with us," says Barry Larkin. "You see it when he's in uniform, interacting with teammates, or in the locker room." Friday morning, Griffey suggested that baseball players have XFL nicknames on the backs of their uniforms and was assigning names, such as "The World's Nicest Person" for Sean Casey.

That night, he flew from Sarasota to Orlando to watch his son Trey's baseball game. "Junior's one real goal in life is to be the best parent he can possibly be," says Larkin.

"If my family asked me to retire tomorrow," says Griffey, "then I'd retire. They are what's important to me. When some of the other things go on around me, I remember my priorities."

Can the Twins win?
Tom Kelly says he has told his players they will be fined if he hears them talking about payroll or small/big market things.

"We've got a pretty good pitching staff," says Kelly. "We're going to be pretty good defensively. It's time to go play and not talk about what we do or don't have. And I think we can be improved."

Kelly has already set his lineup with rookie Luis Rivas at second base, A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate, Doug Mientkiewicz at first and Torii Hunter in center.

"You look at our defense, and we could be fun to watch," says Eric Milton.

Indeed, Hunter and Mientkiewicz are potential Gold Glove winners and Cristian Guzman and Rivas should be very active in the middle. If rookie Matt Kinney makes it in the rotation and LaTroy Hawkins can close, the Twins' hope to jump to .500 revolves around David Ortiz and Corey Koskie jumping to the 25-30 home run range.

News and notes

  • All this money and all the risks are impacting another part of the industry. "In another year," says one GM, "we may not be able to get insurance on players. It's getting harder and harder. And if we can't insure a contract, that changes things dramatically. It will be very interesting to see how that affects contract negotiations."

  • Melvin thinks the Mike Sirotka trade mess will lead to a further problem. "I think it will make trades for pitchers even more difficult to make than they are now," says Melvin. "Teams are going to want most pitchers to have physicals before the trade, but the player is going to want to know where he's going and if it's some place he doesn't like, then he may claim he's hurting. We all know that we can read what we want into some of these medical reports. This could be an increasingly complicated problem."

  • One National League team's report on scouting Sid Fernandez's workout: "He threw surprisingly well, 86-87, as hard as he ever did. He's lost a lot of weight, and one of his former teammates says he's got the itch back. He might surprise someone." OK, Rick Aguilera can still come back with Jesse Orosco and Doc Gooden. Who will be the next '86 Mets pitcher to come back? Ron Darling is certainly in the condition to do so.

  • Reds GM Jim Bowden is dead serious about Deion Sanders. "I believe in him, and I believe he'll make it back," says Bowden. "His health is back, and so is his fire."

    "I can be leading off this season," says Sanders. "Wait and see." Bowden was asked if Sanders indeed makes it back, which sport will he be playing in September. "Baseball," said Bowden. October? "Baseball," replied the Reds GM. "That's the contract."

  • Of course, Deion returned to find he's one of two Prime Times in Reds camp. The other is rookie outfielder Michael Coleman, who dubbed himself Prime Time when he was in the Boston organization. Prime Time II follows Griffey every step he can.

  • Dmitri Young worked out in Miami with Benito Santiago and reports that Benito is in the best shape he's been in in years. Santiago likely will end up in Arizona.

  • The news out of the Indians camp is tepid on Jaret Wright's comeback from shoulder surgery, and strong on Charles Nagy's comeback. Nagy will be pitching when the games begin, and they are optimistic he will make it back.

  • Orioles owner Peter Angelos may have wanted Albert Belle to fail his physical so he could collect the insurance, but Angelos should be rooting for Belle because of the grueling, painful winter he spent rehabbing his hip to try to get himself to the point where he can contribute and compete. If Albert didn't care, Angelos could have collected. But the concern is that his hip, which has lost the majority of its calcium, won't be able to take a beating and in time it will seriously affect his lifestyle.

  • Raul Mondesi, 250 pounds? No, please.

  • Tim Naehring is only a couple of years removed from playing, but in his role as farm director of the Reds, he's implemented a couple of Jimy Williams rules: Players must show stirrups, wear the same uniforms and have no facial hair. "When I first heard those rules I was a player and I shrugged them off," says Naehring. "But I grew to appreciate what Jimy was doing. Here in the minors, my feeling is that you have to earn your right to individualism."

  • Early on, the Reds are excited about a minor-league free agent Naehring signed away from Boston. Knuckleballer Jared Fernandez is 29 and knows that it was right about that age that Tim Wakefield, Steve Sparks, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Hoyt Wilhelm and most knuckeballers made it. "He's got a better knuckler than Wakefield," says a Reds coach. "He could be a sleeper for us, a nice contrast." Fernandez had intended to return to the Red Sox because he was told they were letting Wakefield go, but Boston re-signed Wakefield and Fernandez went to Cincinnati.

  • Red Sox third baseman John Valentin says he intends "to start playing in games right away. I feel good, and I think I can come back. I haven't been nervous (about his knee, after two surgeries) thus far, with all the work I've taken, but I probably will be in games. I'm very encouraged." As are the Red Sox. However, with Troy O'Leary already on the trade block and Dante Bichette the DH, finding at-bats for Chris Stynes, Morgan Burkhart and other semi-regular players may be a problem for Williams, who traditionally has liked to use the DH spot to give Garciaparra, Valentin, Carl Everett and others days off their feet in the field.

  • Speaking of Everett, the daily ritual at the Red Sox minor-league complex is for him to stay and sign autographs for all the fans at the end of workouts. There are two or three times as many fans at Boston workouts than the Reds, Rangers and Twins combined.

  • With Luis Rivera hurt again – and, remember suffering O's fans, this is a phenom that has never pitched 90 innings in a season and whose professional career win total is 11 – Baltimore is about down to Chris Richard for all the deals they made last summer.

  • Whoops. Red Sox rookie first baseman Juan Diaz, the Cuban defector they hoped could split first base duties with Brian Daubach by midseason, reported at 290 pounds.

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