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Inside Baseball

April 16, 2001
April 16, 2001

Table of Contents
April 16, 2001

Inside Baseball

After the Storm
Having cleared the air in L.A., Gary Sheffield is winning over
fans with his play

This is an article from the April 16, 2001 issue Original Layout

Before their home opener against the Brewers last week, several
Dodgers players and coaches greeted fans entering Dodger Stadium
with smiles, handshakes and souvenir towels. One member of the
welcoming committee was outfielder Gary Sheffield, who, in the
wake of his sign-me-trade-me-keep-me squabble with the front
office during spring training, had heard boos even from the
staid crowds at the team's home in Vero Beach, Fla. After saying
he might not summon maximum effort every day--so distraught was
he still to be wearing Dodger blue--Sheffield was the target of
fans' wrath throughout the team's final exhibition games. How,
then, did L.A. fans react when they met Sheffield at a stadium
gate, towel in hand? "Everybody was polite," Sheffield says.
"Everybody had kind words."

Perhaps Sheffield was being diplomatic--certainly, not everyone
was polite an hour or so later, when he stepped onto the field
and was greeted with boos--but his discretion was welcome. Since
changing his tune to indicate that he'll play out the final three
seasons of his six-year, $61 million contract without complaint,
Sheffield has defused an explosive situation by saying little and
concentrating on baseball. He hit .314 with three homers in 19
spring games, then won over that L.A. crowd with a sparkling
catch in leftfield and a game-winning home run on an Opening Day
that had enough emotional swings to embarrass even the
schmaltziest Hollywood screenwriter. Through Sunday he was
hitting .286 with two RBIs and, save for scattered boos that
still greeted his at bats as L.A. won two of three from the
Giants last weekend, there were few reminders of the storm that
five weeks ago threatened to shred the team.

"To hear the fans boo him was not a good feeling," Los Angeles
reliever Mike Fetters said after the opener. "We all have
contract disputes and problems with the front office. It just so
happens that he's our franchise guy. Then to hear them chanting
his name at the end of the game was great."

Sheffield gained that clubhouse support on March 13 in a
closed-door session with the team, during which he gave his side
of the dispute with chairman Bob Daly, apologized for insulting
remarks he had made about other Dodgers' deals and took questions
and comments from his teammates. "There was some back and forth,"
says second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. "When we walked out of
there we decided that we're a team and that we have to move on."

That sentiment is accompanied by the realization that Los Angeles
is a vastly better team with Sheffield, its leading run producer,
than without him. As long as he does his job and avoids
controversy, his teammates can let bygones be bygones. In the
midst of his contract flap, Sheffield changed agents, hiring
Scott Boras to help repair his relationship with Dodgers
management. Boras persuaded Sheffield that the slugger should
honor his contract and drop his trade demand. "I have four other
clients on this team who are pitchers," says Boras. "They need
Gary Sheffield to win."

Managers on the Spot
Who's Most Vulnerable?

"Every team has a tough month at some point during the season,"
said Pirates first baseman Kevin Young on the last day of spring
training. "We'll just get ours out of the way [early]." Young was
referring to the injuries that decimated Pittsburgh's starting
rotation, a scourge worsened last week when a fourth starter,
lefthander Terry Mulholland, went on the disabled list with a
sprained left knee. The Pirates and rookie manager Lloyd
McClendon can be forgiven if they fail to christen their new
ballpark with a lights-out April, but for several other managers
the season's first month could be a make-or-break one. Here are
the three teams whose skippers are under the greatest pressure to
avoid stumbling early.

--Red Sox. Hideo Nomo's no-hitter and a sweep of the Devil Rays
were mere distractions from the chaos that gripped Boston's
clubhouse in the season's first week. Nomar Garciaparra is on
the shelf for at least two months after wrist surgery, Dante
Bichette asked to be traded after being demoted into a platoon
at designated hitter, and even taciturn rightfielder Trot Nixon
grumbled about the team's glut of corner outfielders. The fall
guy for a slow start could be manager Jimy Williams, whose
contract expires at the end of the season. Williams received an
extension in each of the last three springs but this year was
given no such vote of confidence. Still, Williams, who has been
handcuffed by the roster assembled by general manager Dan
Duquette and by a patchwork of shaky starters after Pedro
Martinez, shouldn't be the scapegoat if this overrated team
falters.

--Rangers. During spring training manager Johnny Oates said he'd
given serious thought to stepping down after Texas's 2000 tumble
into last place in the AL West. If the Rangers fail to rebound
quickly after their free-agent signing spree, owner Tom Hicks
might make the decision for him. Hicks has made it clear that he
expects his club to contend this season and is willing to spend
for midseason reinforcements. Given that win-now attitude, Hicks
might have an itchy trigger finger if the Rangers put themselves
in a hole. There are ominous signs for Oates--through Sunday third
baseman Ken Caminiti and DH Andres Galarraga, two of the Rangers'
major off-season additions, were a combined 11 for 45, and ace
Rick Helling lasted a total of nine innings and had an 11.00 ERA
in his first two starts--but firing him would make little sense.
Even John McGraw would have trouble coaxing wins out of this
staff.

--Devil Rays. It was so widely assumed that manager Larry
Rothschild would be fired after Tampa Bay's third straight
last-place finish in the AL East last fall that the team called
a press conference to announce he would be retained. Can
Rothschild, whose contract expires after this season, dodge the
bullet again if the Devil Rays continue to play poorly? "They
keep saying they've made strides," one scout says of the Rays,
who lost five of their first six. "Well, show us your strides."
Even when healthy, the Rays are a lackluster team with
lackluster fan support. Four years into their existence a
shakeup is needed, and the manager's office would be a logical
place to start.

Robin Ventura's Rebirth
New Harbinger Of Mets' Spring

The Mets were chided for things they didn't do during the
off-season. They didn't re-sign ace lefthander Mike Hampton,
they backed out of the Alex Rodriguez derby and they neglected
to add a potent offensive player to their collection of
weak-hitting outfielders. It appears they did, however, get an
upgrade at third base. After a 2000 season in which he hit a
career-low .232, committed more errors (17) than he'd made in a
season since 1995 and battled a nagging shoulder injury, Robin
Ventura is healthy and showing signs of returning to his 1999
form, when he hit .301 with 32 home runs and 120 RBIs. Ventura
batted .293 with four home runs and 16 RBIs this spring, and in
New York's opener he beat the Braves with a pair of two-run
homers, including a 405-foot shot off closer John Rocker.

"We don't have a new third baseman, but my mental approach is
different because I don't have to think about what I'm going to
do," says Ventura, who through Monday was hitting .333 with six
RBIs in the Mets' first seven games. "I just do it naturally."

That was a luxury he didn't have last year, when he reported to
camp without having fully recovered from December 1999 surgery to
remove cartilage from his right shoulder. As the season dragged
on, soreness in the shoulder hampered his swing and his ability
to play his usual Gold Glove-caliber defense. After an off-season
of rest Ventura is pain-free and has ironed out the kinks that
slowed his bat last season. "I couldn't start [swings] fast
enough last year," he says. "I couldn't stay back, and I became a
front-leg hitter. My swing is stronger now, and I can wait longer
to react. I don't have to guess so much."

John Hart's Legacy
Pay Now, Save Later

Indians general manager John Hart announced last week that he
will step down after 10 seasons in the job. Aside from
transforming Cleveland from perennial laughingstock to American
League Central powerhouse early in his tenure, Hart's legacy
will be the model he set for other mid- and small-market teams.
His idea to lock up young players with star potential in
multiyear contracts before they became free agents is now the
M.O. for clubs that can't risk costly arbitration battles or
free-agent bidding wars. In the early 1990s the Indians signed
Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome, among others, to long-term deals
that turned into bargains before the contracts were up. They
repeated the pattern with Manny Ramirez in '95 and Bartolo Colon
in '99.

This off-season several teams followed Hart's plan. The Marlins
locked up third baseman Mike Lowell and centerfielder Preston
Wilson with multiyear contracts; the Twins signed third baseman
Corey Koskie and lefthander Eric Milton; and the Brewers went
for broke by signing sluggers Jeromy Burnitz, Geoff Jenkins and
Richie Sexson. The small-market Pirates made a similar splurge
on righthander Kris Benson, leftfielder Brian Giles and catcher
Jason Kendall. "It was a unique approach at that time," says
Marlins G.M. Dave Dombrowski of the Indians' early 1990s
signings. "There was an uncertainty [about] what they were
doing. It turned out to be a very smart thing."

On Deck
Patriot Game

April 16, Yankees at Red Sox

Boston fans will have plenty of aggressive runners to cheer for
on Monday--but not on the base paths of Fenway Park, where the Red
Sox will wrap up their traditional Patriots' Day game just as the
Boston Marathon's leaders near the finish a few blocks away. Last
season the Red Sox had the second-fewest stolen bases (43) in the
American League and the league's lowest success rate (58.9%).
This Marathon Monday they figure to be further stymied by the
Yankees' Jorge Posada, who threw out 30.0% of would-be thieves
last year, third best among American League catchers.

COLOR PHOTO: TIM DIPACE Sheffield, who turned Opening Day boos to cheers with a home run, says he's finished complaining.COLOR PHOTO: MARVIN E. NEWMAN

ENEMY LINES
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard during the season's first week

Baltimore pitching coach Mark Wiley is doing wonders with his
staff. The Orioles are pitching much better than most people
thought they would, throwing more strikes and keeping their
composure. They stuck it to Boston that first series, and it's
not like they were facing a weak sister; the Red Sox lineup is
pretty good...

The Cubs are saying Sammy Sosa has been a changed man since
getting his contract extension, that he's playing hard and is
excited about his deal. He'll have a monster year...

It's early, but the Yankees have to be worried about the back
end of their bullpen and their fifth starter, Christian Parker.
I know it was his first major league start [eight hits and seven
earned runs in a 13-4 loss to the Blue Jays last Friday], but
come on, they're the New York Yankees. Parker is a long guy at
best, and they should have someone more reliable in that fifth
spot...

The Rangers should be a little concerned about righthander Rick
Helling, who had a huge loss of velocity and a terrible outing
last Friday [seven runs on nine hits in three-plus innings
against the Mariners]. His top fastball was 85 mph. Usually he
gets it up to 90. I don't know if he's tired or going through a
dead-arm period, but they should keep an eye on him...

The Phillies' pitching is really, really bad, but they have a
great young lineup. Rightfielder Bobby Abreu is the most
underrated player in baseball, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins looks
like he'll be an All-Star some day. He's above-average across
the board offensively, and his bat is extremely quick from both
sides of the plate.

The Ex-Met Factor

By throwing a 3-0 no-hitter against the Orioles last week, Hideo
Nomo of the Red Sox became the only pitcher to toss no-hit gems
before and after playing for the Mets. While onetime members of
the club (including Warren Spahn, right) have now accounted for
22 no-hitters, the Mets are still waiting--after 6,187
regular-season starts through Monday--for someone to pitch a
no-no for them. Here are the Mets who made history elsewhere.
--David Sabino

PRE-METS NO-HITTERS

HIDEO NOMO, Dodgers, 1996
AL LEITER, Marlins, 1996
KENNY ROGERS, Rangers, 1994
BRET SABERHAGEN, Royals, 1991
JOHN CANDELARIA, Pirates, 1976
DOCK ELLIS, Pirates, 1970
DEAN CHANCE, Twins, 1967
DON CARDWELL, Cubs, 1960
WARREN SPAHN, Braves, 1960, '61

POST-METS NO-HITTERS

HIDEO NOMO, Red Sox, 2001
DAVID CONE, Yankees, 1999
DWIGHT GOODEN, Yankees, 1996
MIKE SCOTT, Astros, 1986
TOM SEAVER, Reds, 1978
NOLAN RYAN, Angels, 1973 (2), '74, '75;
Astros, '81; Rangers, '90,'91

[BOX]

in the BOX

April 7
Orioles 4, Indians 2

Frantic late-inning shifting of outfielders is the managerial
equivalent of using sandbags to stop a tsunami, and it works
about as often. Imagine Ellis Burks's surprise, then, when the
Orioles pulled off a last-gasp gambit to keep him from scoring
the winning run from third base for the Indians last Saturday.
After Cleveland loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of
the 10th inning and a righthanded hitter due up, Baltimore
manager Mike Hargrove moved leftfielder Delino DeShields behind
second base, just at the edge of the infield dirt, centerfielder
Melvin Mora to the gap in right center and rightfielder Brady
Anderson, who has a stronger throwing arm than DeShields, to
shallow left. Indians pinch hitter Jolbert Cabrera then hit a fly
ball near the leftfield line; Anderson ran it down and fired home
to nail Burks, who had tagged up and was trying to score. A 2-2
tie preserved, Baltimore scored twice in the top of the 11th to
win the game. "He had to make a perfect throw," Burks said of
Anderson's strike. "I was shocked the ball was there."