SHRINK THE BIGS?
Forget expansion--some owners wonder if it's time to fold teams

Roughly five months ago Rockies owner Jerry McMorris addressed
fellow members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Baseball
Economics. The group, including 13 club owners and chief
executives, four highly respected "outsiders" with ties to
baseball, and commissioner Bud Selig, was formed in January to
examine the game's revenue disparities and competitive
imbalance. "What would happen," he recalls asking,
hypothetically, "if, instead of relocating and expanding, we
considered consolidating teams?" At the time McMorris wasn't
entirely serious. The possibility of downsizing the major
leagues was a notion that had leaped from mind to mouth,
"something I hadn't thought much about," he says.

The idea stuck. While Selig has not publicly addressed
consolidation, several team owners, led by McMorris, are quietly
discussing a plan whereby baseball would select an even number
of struggling teams--two at first, perhaps two more later--buy
out the franchises and disperse the players in a draft among the
remaining clubs. "Right now there are four teams--Montreal,
Minnesota, Kansas City and Oakland--that are in major financial
trouble," says one National League owner. "Instead of selling
them to new investors and having them continue to lose money or
move to a mid-major market that may be no better, why don't we
just eliminate?"

The owners toying with such a plan--at least five--all have
mid-to-high payrolls. The concept's backers cite the following
advantages of consolidation.

--Increased revenue. Says McMorris, "We have to start asking
whether we're putting money into markets that aren't going to
support teams." Although baseball's revenue-sharing plan isn't
as extensive as the NFL's or the NBA's, the 30 clubs do split
national television rights fees evenly. McMorris argues that
with fewer teams the remaining low-budget franchises would
benefit from greater TV dough. "With two fewer teams," adds the
aforementioned National League owner, "there's more money to go
around."

--Quality of play. As the National League owner says, "The level
of play right now is very bad. But if you get rid of two teams,
suddenly 50 guys are in the minors and the pitching isn't as
thin."

--Paucity of promising markets. At present, baseball's three
primary suitors are Charlotte, Northern Virginia and Washington,
D.C. "None," says McMorris, "is a sure thing." Other
possibilities include Las Vegas, Portland and San Antonio. "Is
there any reason to think Charlotte would be any better than
Montreal?" says the National League owner. "No. What we can do
is be honest and tell the lawmakers in Minnesota the truth:
Look, we want your city to have a team, but you're losing money
and nobody's watching your games. So build a new stadium, take
the right steps, and we'll come back, either through expansion
or relocation. Why stay in a market that's not supporting us?"

Consolidation has its opponents, as well, starting with
small-market owners. The players union would surely fight any
plan that would eliminate jobs (although, according to a source
close to the commissioner's office, baseball has as much legal
right to downsize without the approval of its workers as does a
Fortune 500 company). Kevin McClatchy, the Pirates' managing
general partner, argues that, had consolidation been proposed 10
years ago, two logical victims would have been the Braves and
the Indians, teams then struggling on the field and at the gate.
"But this thing has legs," says the National League owner. (The
yea votes of three quarters of the owners would most likely be
needed to approve any action.) "I wouldn't say there's a 50-50
chance it happens, but I wouldn't say it's 80-20 that it doesn't."

Back to School
NO WAITING FOR BECKETT

Nineteen-year-old righthander Josh Beckett, the No. 2 pick in
the June draft, says he intends to start classes at Blinn
(Texas) Junior College on Aug. 31, which meant that as of Sunday
the Marlins had only eight days to sign him. Beckett, the 1999
USA Today national high school player of the year, is the only
unsigned pick among this year's top 13 selections. He has been
offered a signing bonus similar to the $3.95 million that No. 1
pick Josh Hamilton got from the Devil Rays, but Beckett wants a
multiyear major league contract worth at least $7 million.

Hamilton, an outfielder, isn't going to school, but clearly he
has been learning. He was promoted to Class A Hudson Valley in
Wappingers Falls, N.Y., after hitting .347 for rookie league
Princeton (W.Va.) with 49 runs, 20 doubles, four triples, 10
home runs and 18 stolen bases in 56 games.

Raising Ankiel
THE CARDINALS TAKE A LOOK

In the days after the Cardinals' Aug. 18 decision to call up
ballyhooed lefthander Rick Ankiel, manager Tony La Russa labored
to downplay the 20-year-old's arrival in the bigs. "He's going
to get too much attention, when really it's as simple as there's
a spot in the rotation that needs to be filled," La Russa said
last Friday, three days before Ankiel made his major league
debut against the Expos.

That was hardly a fanfare for the most touted pitching prospect
in years (SI, June 28), and that's the point. The call-up
couldn't have come at a more opportune time or place for easing
in a talented pitcher who's still very green. St. Louis is far
from the heat of a pennant race, and once again Mark McGwire is
attracting what attention is being paid to the Cardinals. Plus
on Monday the team played in a baseball wasteland: Montreal,
where a modest press corps and the usual sparse crowd watched as
Ankiel held the Expos to three runs in five-plus innings. A far
greater turnout is expected for his second start, which will
probably come at home on Saturday against the Braves.

Ankiel breezed through two minor league levels this year, going
13-3 with a 2.35 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 23 starts with the
Double A Arkansas Travelers and the Triple A Memphis Redbirds,
but is still rough around the edges. "There are times when he's
overpowering with his fastball or his curveball or his changeup,
but he hasn't brought all of that together consistently," says
St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan. Ankiel's efficiency is
also a concern: Working on a 110-pitch limit for Memphis, in 16
starts he made it to the seventh inning only twice.

Those shortcomings can be fixed by experience; the next six
weeks will most likely decide whether baby-faced Ankiel will
mature in the majors or on the farm next season. "This guy
figures to have a very good career sooner or later," says La
Russa. "So is it sooner or is it later?"

Rookie Contributors
LET'S SEE HOW THEY HOLD UP

Considering the prospect of performing down the stretch and into
the postseason, righthander Kevin McGlinchy, the Braves'
22-year-old rookie setup man, insists that as the pressure
increases, his mid-90s fastball heats up. Of course, the most
demanding moment of his baseball life to date was in 1996, when
he started for Central Florida Community College in the Florida
junior college tournament. "I guess that's not like pitching in
a real pennant race," says McGlinchy, "but it's all I've got."

McGlinchy is one of seven rooks set to play key roles in a
pennant and/or postseason run. Here's an assessment of their
preparedness.

--BENNY AGBAYANI, OF, METS. Although New York has rotated four
outfielders all season, manager Bobby Valentine insists Agbayani
will play "no matter what." Yet after hitting 10 home runs in
his first 73 at bats, Agbayani through Sunday had hit just one
in the next 50 games. He has a below-average arm and doesn't get
a good jump on fly balls.
Playoff Readiness Rating: D+

--BRIAN DAUBACH, 1B, RED SOX. He may not be the best fielding
first baseman, but Daubach has been superb at the plate (.328, 19
homers, 68 RBIs). His cool demeanor also suggests he won't choke.
Playoff Readiness Rating: B

--TIM HUDSON, RHP, A'S. Oakland started winning when he started
starting (8-1, 2.72 ERA in 14 games), but the fireballer's test
will come in front of 45,000-plus rowdies in Cleveland or New
York, not 6,000 hometown fans in Oakland.
Playoff Readiness Rating: C+

--BILLY KOCH, RHP, BLUE JAYS. The Toronto closer has dazzled (24
saves, 2.45 ERA) with a 100-plus-mph heater, but young hard
throwers can crash in the postseason when faced with
more-disciplined hitters.
Playoff Readiness Rating: B-

--MCGLINCHY. He spent most of 1998 as a starter at Class A
Danville but surprised Atlanta manager Bobby Cox in spring
training with a big-time heater and a passable slider. He was
6-3 with a 3.07 ERA (plus 53 strikeouts in 582/3 innings) as the
Braves' first righty out of the pen. "McGlinchy doesn't worry,"
says Cox. "He just throws hard, accurate stuff."
Playoff Readiness Rating: B

--SCOTT WILLIAMSON, RHP, REDS. This likely Rookie of the Year
has a veteran's poise and one of the National League's best
split-fingered fastballs. He also led his league's rookies in
wins (11), saves (17) and ERA (1.69)--which translates into a
ton of big-game experience in a relatively short time. "It might
sound strange," he says, "but I've always pitched better when
guys are on base."
Playoff Readiness Rating: A+

--JEFF ZIMMERMAN, RHP, RANGERS. Although he'll lose out to the
Royals' Carlos Beltran in Rookie of the Year voting, Zimmerman
(9-2, 1.22 ERA) is an American League version of Williamson.
Zimmerman teams with fellow rook Mike Venafro (3-2, 2.60 ERA) to
form a green-yet-deadly righty-lefty duo.
Playoff Readiness Rating: B+

For complete scores and stats, plus Tom Verducci's mailbag, go to
cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL KOSTROUN/AP Rey Sanchez of the Royals beat this throw, but one day a small-market team such as K.C. could be out for good. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Reds' Williamson is one ready rookie.

The Standings

When he took the mound on Aug. 17 against the Twins, lefthander
Jesse Orosco of the Orioles also took over first place on the
list for most appearances by a pitcher (1,072). Now 42, Orosco,
a onetime closer, hasn't pitched as many as 60 innings in a
season since 1990, yet so valuable is a serviceable lefty these
days that he has hung on as a situational reliever despite an
ERA through Sunday of 6.12. Here are the lefthanders with the
most career outings. --David Sabino

Lefthander Career Games Innings W-L Saves ERA

1. Jesse
Orosco 1979-present 1,074 1,209 84-75 140 3.03
Around so long was traded for fellow southpaw Jerry Koosman of
1969 Miracle Mets fame

2. Sparky
Lyle 1967-82 899 1,390 99-76 238 2.88
First American League relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award,
as Yankee in 1977

3. Jim
Kaat 1959-83 898 4,530 1/3 283-237 18 3.45
Finest fielding pitcher ever; won 16 straight Gold Gloves from
1962 until '77 for Twins, White Sox and Phillies

4. Paul
Assenmacher 1986-present 872 849 60-44 56 3.50
Consummate situational middle reliever, made one career start or
Cubs in 1990--lasted one inning

5. John
Franco 1984-present 866 1,032 77-70 416 2.66
Alltime lefty saves leader has had eight seasons with 30 saves
or better but hasn't been All-Star since 1990

6. Tug
McGraw 1965-84 824 1,514 2/3 96-92 180 3.14
Screwballer best known now as dad of country music star Tim
McGraw helped Mets and Phillies win Series

7. Dan
Plesac 1986-present 812 908 51-61 154 3.70
Former closer has never pitched in fewer than 44 games in a
season but has never reached 100 innings

8. Rick
Honeycutt 1977-97 797 2,160 109-143 38 3.72
A's pitcher converted to bullpen by Tony La Russa and Dave
Duncan to salvage career, a la Dennis Eckersley

9. Darold
Knowles 1965-80 765 1,092 66-74 143 3.12
Member of 1970's Swinging A's; also pitched for Orioles,
Phillies, Senators, Cubs, Rangers, Expos, Cardinals

10. Tommy
John 1963-89 760 4,710 1/3 288-231 4 3.34
Missed 1975 season because of reconstructive surgery now named
after him; 405 games after operation

in the box

Aug. 20, 1999
Astros 6, Marlins 4

Jeff Bagwell of Houston must wonder why he even took batting
practice last Friday before the Astros' 16-inning marathon with
Florida. Bagwell, who went 0 for 2, tied a major league record
by walking six times in Houston's 6-4 win. He wasn't the only
Astro who had little use for his lumber: Marlins pitchers walked
17 batters and struck out 21 more. Each total was a record for
both teams.

Not that Bagwell, who was hitting .309 with 37 homers, 105 RBIs
and a major-league-leading 113 walks through Sunday, was trying
to walk. Twice the Marlins gave him an intentional pass; in
three other at bats he hacked at a 2-0 or a 3-0 pitch, fouling
it off each time. "It's not really the record I'm looking for,"
Bagwell said after the game.

The HOT Corner

Rangers manager Johnny Oates believes that with rifle-armed
Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate, several of his pitchers are
getting lazy and allowing runners to get ridiculous jumps.
"They're running before our guys are even releasing the ball,"
says Oates. He was especially angry last week after the Indians'
Roberto Alomar took five steps on righty Rick Helling and stole
second easily. "You have to make up your mind," Oates said.
"Either go to first or go to the plate, but don't just stand
there holding the ball."...

Dodgers catcher Todd Hundley, 4 for 40 from the right side of
the plate through Aug. 15, has stopped switch-hitting because a
sore left wrist was hampering his righthanded stroke....

Mets outfielder Rickey Henderson, 40, says he wants to play
another five seasons. Through Sunday, Henderson was batting .338
with 30 stolen bases, so who's going to stop him?...

Tony Phillips, 40, the heart of the A's until a broken left leg
ended his season on Aug. 15, is considering retirement. "If it
so happens that I never play again, I know that I left
everything I had out there on the field," Phillips says. "That's
the first thing Sparky Anderson taught me. Did you do everything
out there to be the best player you could? If you did, and
something happens, it can't bother you."...

Devil Rays righthander Dave Eiland makes his big-screen debut in
For Love of the Game, the soon-to-be-released film starring
Kevin Costner as a washed-up Tigers pitcher. For three weeks
last November, Eiland was at Yankee Stadium working as Costner's
pitching double. "I talked a little baseball with him, but
mainly I just watched, " says Eiland. "A guy of that caliber
doesn't need my advice."...

Padres outfielder Reggie Sanders will qualify for a $3.7 million
salary extension if he reaches 500 plate appearances, but San
Diego, pleased with Sanders's production (.294 and 20 homers in
402 plate appearances through Sunday), has indicated it will
exercise the option whether he makes it to 500 or not....

Danny Graves, Scott Sullivan and Scott Williamson are on pace to
become the first trio of relievers in Reds history to throw at
least 100 innings apiece in the same season....

Before his team left for Seattle on Aug. 19, Indians manager
Mike Hargrove was asked whether he thought new Safeco Field
would be an improvement over the Kingdome. "This room," he
replied as he sat in his Jacobs Field office, "would be better
than the Kingdome."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)