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Playing for the moment

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There are times when baseball gets it right.

Its pre-All-Star Game celebration of its tradition that parallels the history of America-hence and its immigration patterns was brilliant, moving and spectacular. When one 20ish girl saw Roberto Clemente's grandson circling the bases, then looked up at the megaboard to see Roberto's image superimposed behind the youngster, cap flying as he raced around second, she broke down in tears.

Roger Clemens
Andy Pettitte, left, and Mike Stanton, middle, both credit Roger Clemens for spots on the AL All-Star team.

The game once again underscored the chasm between the media's perception of "the story" and the point. There is no better example of that than the networks' obsession with Roger Clemens vs. Mike Piazza. They ignored the fact that after Clemens discarded the bat last October, the Hall of Fame duo had three at-bats to settle things and Clemens did so. Does anyone outside of New York care about this? "Are you kidding? Of course not," Paul Quantrill said. "No," added Andy Pettitte, "not one bit. That's a local media thing."

Clemens will never win hearts and flowers in New York, or anywhere for that matter. He doesn't care to play the required games to that element of the media about whom the media -- not the performers -- are the story. "And he never will understand why that's important," Mike Stanton said. "Roger cares about his team winning and about his fellow pitchers."

While it should be noted that after refusing to discuss in detail his pitching patterns and plans -- which included not one pitch from the middle of the plate on in to Piazza because this was an exhibition -- with his catcher Pudge Rodriguez, Clemens did admit that he talked to a couple of opposing positional players, including Ichiro. "That's not something I like to make a practice of doing;" Clemens laughed. Like Bob Gibson, Jeff Reardon and other fierce competitors before him, Clemens doesn't mingle with opposing hitters knowing he might face them some day.

But his pitching teammates, past and present, went on and on about the game's current winningest pitcher. "The reason Roger said that he might not go to this game was because he felt I should go and he was lobbying for me for six weeks," Stanton said. "He said that if it meant that he wouldn't go if I could, he said he'd back out."

Pettitte talked about all the mentoring Clemens has done in his career. As for Quantrill, he recalled the '97 game when Roger brought the Blue Jay uniforms belonging to Quantrill and Dan Plesac to the game and had them autographed by every All-Star. "He said, 'I wouldn't be winning anything' without us," Quantrill said. "That was crazy. But I've played half my big-league career with Roger. There's no better teammate as far as I'm concerned."

While baseball continually does itself better in its connection to its audience, too often its players do not translate. But then there was no camera to catch Curt Schilling talking pitching for an entire hour with Phillies' prize farmhand Bret Myers at the Monday night gala out on Elliot Bay. "It was incredible," said Myers, who now knows that there may not be anyone on the planet who loves and respects the game more than Schilling. There was no camera around to hear Rangers farmhand Carlos Pena tell the story of how he went to San Diego last winter so he could meet Tony Gwynn, who let Pena hit with him every day for a week. There was no camera around to catch Barry Bonds standing in the hotel lobby talking to writers and fans for 2½ hours Thursday before the Giants game with the Mariners.

Cal Ripken, Ichiro, Bonds and Clemens became the storylines to the festival with hardly an issue raised in anger or in protest. "What's strange is that there has been virtually no talk of the impending labor showdown," said one general manager in attendance. "It's as if the bargaining agreement isn't up on Nov. 1."

That, of course, is what Bud Selig wants. One owner said he talked to Paul Beeston and reported, "Beeston said we shouldn't be worried, that he'll get a deal." One agent talked to Selig's right-hand negotiator and Beeston told him the same thing. But when that agent asked Donald Fehr, he said: "Don indicated that nothing much had been done." One player rep reported the same thing.

Fehr, like Selig and Beeston, is trying to insure that labor doesn't smudge the images that Ichiro, Ripken, Bonds and Clemens create. He acknowledges that this is a complex negotiation because the owners need the players to solve their essential problems, which more than ever are not between owners and players but rather owners and owners. Some have suggested that the labor agreement should be extended for a year while owners figure out how many teams they have and where they will all play in the coming years, as well as how George Steinbrenner and Fred Wilpon should divvy up their revenues with David Glass and Carl Pohlad.

"What gets talked about all the time is the contraction issue," one owner representative said. "What no one knows is how it can be accomplished. It's all well and good to have Disney fold the Angels and move the A's problem to Anaheim, or get rid of Montreal, but no one knows how to do it. My guess is that it will never happen. I know there's a backroom plan that would put the A's in Anaheim, the Marlins in D.C. and the Devil Rays eventually in Orlando, but I don't think Peter Angelos will ever let that happen."

Peter Angelos' Orioles get more than 30 percent of their revenues from D.C., just as the Giants get more than a third of their revenues from Santa Clara Country. To move a team into D.C. or Santa Clara could do irreparable damage to either franchise. "You don't want Peter in full battle array if you're trying to deal with the union," an owner said.

The Players Association doesn't think it will happen, either, since it has received a 2002 schedule with both Montreal and Oakland. "Remember, reducing the number of teams doesn't necessarily reduce costs," Fehr said. There would be the cost of buying the franchises, the media, concessions and ballpark lawsuits, the minor-league affiliate lawsuits. "Every local congressman in those minor-league areas will be filing legislation and lawsuits raising unholy hell," an American League GM said. "And that's before we get to the Jeb Bush issue."

Just for the fun of it, let's say Jeffrey Loria were allowed to buy the Devil Rays and fold the Expos; the Angels folded and the A's (who are back on the market anyway) were sold and moved to Anaheim. "If that happened," said an NL GM, "they should postpone the agreement for a year because what would take place in the market would seriously impact salaries."

  • Major-league players with long-term contracts would be given the option of selecting free agency or keeping their existing contracts and going into a dispersal pool. Vladimir Guerrero, Troy Percival or Darin Erstad likely would opt for free agency. So would Troy Glaus. Tim Salmon and Fernando Tatis, on the other hand, likely would opt for the guarantees which MLB would have to honor if no one jumped on him in a draft.

  • All other 40-man roster players would have such an option.

  • All minor-league players would become free agents.

    Now, instead of the free-agent market being led by Jason Giambi, 31, Barry Bonds, 37, and Chan Ho Park, 29, mix in Guerrero, 25, Erstad, Glaus, Jose Vidro, Tony Armas Jr., Javier Vazquez, Scott Schoeneweis, Ramon Ortiz ... Oh, yes, then throw in OF Brad Wilkerson, SS Brandon Phillips, RHP Donnie Bridges, SS Alfreso Amezaga ... Or if Tampa Bay was to fold, think about that system's talent being on the market.

    "I keep thinking that as I look around here at the players and the atmosphere and the fans that neither side would ever let it fall apart again," said one player rep. "But the fact that I know nothing scares me."

    Attention shoppers
    One NL GM insists, "a lot of players were available at the break, and a lot more players will be available by July 31. Believe me." But while there was a great deal of talk between general managers, other than the Fred McGriff deal, things seem stalled. "What's clear is that not many teams can take on salary, and that's what a lot of teams looking for trades are trying to dump," said an AL GM who points to the fact that the Indians have been told by Larry Dolan that they are maxed out. Red Sox GM Dan Duquette admitted to another GM that he's spent his allotment and now has to be careful. "Look at the McGriff deal," said an NL GM. "The Cubs were to get two Triple-A players who won't be of any significant help to the Rays. What does that say about the market? It may be a buyer's month."

    The market, of course, depends on who's in and who's out, except for a team like the Mets, who are trying to build a playoff team for 2002 (every time an Al Leiter destination is mentioned like Seattle, Cleveland or Boston, it turns out he has a no-trade clause to that team). No place is that more important than the American League, where there are six teams for four playoff positions. The Mariners are in and want to trade for a left fielder who can bat sixth (Jose Cruz Jr or less likely Jermaine Dye) and a veteran starting pitcher (a difficult task). The Yankees are probably in, but have still played so inconsistently that George Steinbrenner still may order a bat and a starter while reminding Brian Cashman and Joe Torre that their contracts are up. "The Twins are not going away," insists Lou Piniella, before the Cristian Guzman injury. And GM Terry Ryan has been given the money to trade for a starter (Jose Mercedes?), a bat and swap a lefty reliever for a righty reliever.

    Boston is on the edge, praying that Nomar Garciaparra and Carl Everett return by the first week of August. Duquette had been looking at bats like Dimitri Young, but now there is no certainty that Pedro Martinez will return, has turned his attention to pitching. "The Red Sox are trying hard to get a closer," said one NL executive this week, and the Red Sox admit Ugueth Urbina is the most cost-efficient closer out there. It's clear that without the rest Martinez gives the bullpen before and after his starts, that there will be a tremendous strain on that staff in three more weeks. Duquette also needs a starter with Pedro Astacio too expensive in terms of players.

    The Indians on Sunday closely watched Chuck Finley's rehab start. "He thinks he knows why he hasn't been able to get the ball down and away to right-hand batters -- his neck," said an Indians official. "He and Bartolo (Colon) are keys to our club. Bartolo Thursday used his changeup and pitched better than he has in a long time. So maybe that's a start." But the Indians do not have the cash to make a major deal.

    But the most interesting team out there is Oakland. By the way, this week's Jason Giambi story is the same Giambi story that's been there since owner Steve Schott refused to give a no-trade provision back in March, a decision that ranks in the book of idiots. In Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the A's have a front three close to that of the Yankees. "That was the best pitching we saw all year," Schilling said of the three-game Oakland sweep of the Diamondbacks last weekend. Mulder took a no-hitter into the eighth. Hudson was dominant, and so was Zito. It wasn't until the eighth inning of the third game that an A's pitcher went to three balls. Their Big Three have 26 wins, same as the D-Backs. Only the Yankees' Big Three, with 30 wins through July 14, had more.

    Since Hudson came to the majors, he is the winningest pitcher in the league and currently leads the AL in quality starts. Mulder and Zito are blossoming stars. "With their pitching, they can make it," Piniella said. If they believe that, Billy Beane has to hold Giambi and try to do the impossible -- deal Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon and get better. "We're exploring every idea," Beane said. He has to in his market, with his ownership.

    What could happen? The Padres are going to move Woody Williams and Sterling Hitchock, with the Dodgers the leaders for Williams and the Diamondbacks in there for Hitchock if they cannot get Astacio. Arizona offered Steve Finley, Tony Womack, Bret Prinz and Nick Bierbrodt for Astacio, Nefi Perez and Mike Myers, but the Rockies want to use Perez and Astacio in separate deals. ... Baltimore will trade Jeff Conine and veterans, but would like to get a bat like Dye or Magglio Ordonez and would move Sidney Ponson or Jason Johnson. ... Toronto tells other teams it isn't dumping, but will move Cruz for pitching, Shannon Stewart for a No. 1 (good luck), Kelvim Escobar, Alex Gonzalez (the Braves won't give Odalis Perez) and any one of their waivable veteran starters. ... The White Sox will discuss Kip Wells in addition to veterans. ... Kansas City is sifting through offers on Dye and Jeff Suppan. ... The Indians and some other teams are looking at Montreal's Milton Bradley, while the Expos are shopping Urbina and Lee Stevens. ... The Phillies are trying to package Bruce Chen and Vincente Padilla for a veteran starter. ... The Braves are looking for a shortstop (The Jays' Gonzalez, Perez, Mark Loretta), but will not break up their pitching. ... Florida is shopping Chuck Smith and Matt Clement for a right-field bat. ... St. Louis is looking for a closer like Isringhausen or Troy Percival. ... The Brewers are trying to add pitching and move a couple of veterans like free agent David Weathers. ... The Reds are still shopping Pokey Reese, Dimitri Young, Alex Ochoa and relievers. ... The Giants' dilemma is whether or not to use Shawn Estes and/or Livan Hernandez, who are not throwing well, for a power bat and count on their young pitchers. ... The Astros are wavering between adding one more reliever or taking a shot at Astacio if Drayton McLane would OK the salary.

    And then there are the Pirates, who have hired the bright, respected Dave Littlefield away from Florida as GM. "Obviously this is late in the process to jump in," said Littlefield, the one-time pride of the Portland, Maine Twilight League. "But Roy Smith has done a tremendous job laying the groundwork. I think we can do some things." While teams keep calling about Todd Richie, Littlefield prefers not to trade him especially since Richie took a no-hitter into the ninth in Littlefield's first day on the job. Mike Williams and Jason Schmidt? Make an offer. Several teams, including the Red Sox, have inquired about left-hander Scott Sauerbeck.

    M's ready for heat wave
    The last weekend of August last year, at the end of a dreadful month for the Mariners, Lou Piniella said, "I think control, finesse pitchers do not hold up like power pitchers in the hot weather, and we have finesse pitchers." After the M's went home from Boston after Sept. 1, they were 19-10, sweeping Chicago the giving the Yankees a terrific fight. And here they are today.

    Does that still apply? "Yes," Piniella said. "But the way we're going to combat it this year is to stay with 12 pitchers through the summer. We could probably make a pretty good deal right now for a bat, but we're not giving up Jose Paniagua and touching our bullpen. That's our strength. Freddy Garcia is better this year, too. He's one of three, four or five best starters in the league now. He has No. 1 starter stuff, he showed his ability in the playoffs and is close to that stopper level.

    "What's important with 12 pitchers is our versatility. That's why Mark McLemore is so important to our team. He plays second, third and short, and he's done a helluva job at short. He plays right and left. He hits second against right-handers. He steals bases. And he brings an energy to the clubhouse every day that the other players feed on. He's a special player. It will help getting Stan Javier back because he plays all three outfield spots and is a good first baseman."

    Garcia is close to a No. 1, and while the club worries that there isn't another Clemens/Pettitte/Mussina on the staff, remember this -- if David Justice doesn't twice come through against Arthur Rhodes, the M's might have beaten the Yankees last October.

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