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Tigers' also-ran status may shut Fielder out of being named MVP

No one will dispute that Detroit Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder has had one of the most surprising and impressive seasons known to baseball, but it won't be particularly surprising if he soon falls victim to the Ruben Sierra Syndrome.

Sierra had the best offensive season in the American League last year, but he came up short when the Most Valuable Player votes were counted, even though his strong performance helped the Texas Rangers go from 21 games under .500 in 1988 to four games over .500 last year.

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He fell victim to the wide range of interpretations of the term "Most Valuable," and finished a close second to Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Robin Yount. Had the balloting been simply for Player of the Year, Sierra probably would have won in a walk.

Fielder figures to run into the same trouble, even though he has a chance to be the first AL player since 1961 to hit 50 or more home runs and also leads the major leagues with 127 RBI. The MVP sentiment appears to be running more toward Oakland Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson, who also has fantastic numbers and happens to play for the team that just won the AL West title for the third consecutive year.

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The concept of value, of course, is relative. Fielder is largely responsible for taking a horrible Tigers team and boosting it back toward respectability. His value to that club is unquestioned, but Detroit still is not a legitimate contender.

Henderson arrived in Oakland in mid-1989 and helped the A's win a world championship, but it should not be forgotten that the club won 104 games the year before he showed up. Still, his great all-around performance has carried the A's through some difficult times the past two seasons.

Fielder steadfastly refuses to campaign for himself, but his teammates are not so bashful. They know what a difference he has made in Detroit.

"The guy has done phenomenal things," outfielder Lloyd Moseby said, "and nobody is giving him press saying that he should win it. They talk about him, then always say, 'but Rickey. . .' "

Tigers coach Vada Pinson is even more adamant about it.

"He's an MVP if I've ever seen one," Pinson said. "He's doing this alone. He's gone beyond the Purple Heart. We were in the graveyard last season. Rigor mortis was setting in. He brought us out of the graveyard."

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There is a sneaking suspicion among baseball's rank and file that last winter's salary spiral will not carry over into the upcoming contract season.

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The theory is that ownership handed out big money to many of the game's most influential players in hopes of eroding support for a tough union stance during the impending labor confrontion.

If this sounds like a bunch of post-collusion paranoia, it probably is, but any sign of disinterest in the free agent market figures to be viewed by the players as proof of a more subtle form of economic manipulation by ownership.

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The Seattle Mariners have sold out only two games in club history, and both of them were played this year. The Kingdome was standing room only on Opening Day and was sold out for Fan Appreciation Night last week.

What do those two dates have in common other than the fact that they are the two games each year that figure to be well attended at any park? Both games were attended by baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who would be tough to convince that Seattle does not support its baseball team.

K? "Every time I'm here," Vincent said, "they're doing great."

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Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda was waiting for his luggage outside the team hotel in San Francisco early Thursday morning when a panhandler approached him and asked for some spare change.

Lasorda, who apparently was thinking about the help his team would need to overtake the first-place Cincinnati Reds, didn't miss a beat.

B6 "No," he said. "I'm looking for a handout myself."

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Neion Deion, The Final Chapter: When we last left the irrepressible Deion Sanders, he was happily intercepting passes and delivering late hits for the Atlanta Falcons. He probably didn't even notice that his name moved across the transaction wire last week. The New York Yankees recalled him for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release, which means you probably won't be seeing his name around here much anymore. That's too bad, because Sanders not only had some flash, he had the kind of talent that eventually would have made him a great major-league player. Sure, there's still a chance he'll return to baseball, but first he'll have to get out of the NFL in one piece.

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Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra has had some tough luck the past 10 days, which probably explains why his run at the National League batting title has reached the hopeless stage.

Dykstra jammed his left index finger sliding into second base Sept. 21, but he didn't realize how fate had turned against him until the next day, when his dog died during a routine visit to the vet and the Veterans Stadium official scorer refused to give him a hit on a line drive that glanced off the glove of Montreal Expos third baseman Tim Wallach.

His chances of catching the departed but still eligible Willie McGee (.335) diminished further when Dykstra had to sit out Monday's and Tuesday's game because of the hand injury. He entered yesterday's game hitting .325.

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New York Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry has been playing with a sore lower back, a condition he claims is aggravated by artificial turf and cold weather. That has only intensified speculation that Strawberry will file for free agency after the World Series and sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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Strawberry has said in the past that he would like to return to his native Los Angeles, though his dream of playing side by side with close friend Eric Davis ended when Davis signed a contract extension with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Straw has ruled out signing with the Reds because Riverfront Stadium has artificial turf.

vTC "Playing on turf turned Eric from a center fielder to a left fielder," Strawberry said. "It might turn me from a right fielder into a pinch hitter."

If Strawberry does leave the Mets, there are several teams -- including the California Angels and New York Yankees -- who will be standing in line with contract offers. The price figures to top $20 million for five years.

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The Montreal Expos got back into the NL East race a couple of weeks ago by sweeping back-to-back three-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Mets, but they got back out just as quickly when they lost four straight last weekend to the Phillies.

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Through 43 innings (one of the games lasted 16), the Expos managed seven runs and 27 hits in an embarrassing offensive performance that ended their late bid to overtake the division leaders. Was that great pitching, or what?

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While Cal Ripken quietly goes about setting a major-league record for fewest errors by a shortstop (150 games or more), St. Louis Cardinals utility player Jose Oquendo has a chance to set a similar record for second basemen.

Oquendo also has committed only three errors, two fewer than the existing record, which he shares with several other players. But he needs to appear in all but one of his club's remaining games to qualify under the 150-game criterion.

That's where the similarity with Ripken ends. The Cardinals are trying to get Oquendo the record by inserting him into each game for only the final inning or two. Ripken continues to play virtually every inning of every game at a position that is much more demanding than second base.

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Trivia question: Who was the most recent player to lead the American League with 50 or more home runs and fail to win the Most Valuable Player Award?

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The Cleveland Indians have traded a front-line player at the winter meetings in each of the past two years, which leaves room to speculate that outfielder Cory Snyder might be this year's December offering.

Snyder has disappeared from the Indians' starting lineup and feels certain that he will not be a member of the Cleveland organization come New Year's Day.

"I'll talk to you after the first week of December," Snyder told a Cleveland reporter last week.

The Indians traded Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres at last year's winter meetings and Julio Franco to the Texas Rangers the year before.

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Toronto Blue Jays fans again are ready to send out a search party to look for first baseman Fred McGriff, who hit just one home run after Sept. 1 last year and has fallen on soft times again in 1990.

McGriff started the month on a roll this year, hitting six home runs in his first 11 September games, but he entered yesterday's game with no homers or RBI in his past 15 games.

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The Phillies have nine victories in their past 12 games, a late-season resurgence that grew out of the fallout from a Philadelphia Inquirer article in which second baseman Tommy Herr was quoted as saying that the team was bickering and moving in the wrong direction.

"I think we woke up in New York," said manager Nick Leyva, referring to a team meeting that followed the publication of the story. "There was a story in the paper I didn't like. Some of the things said in there were the farthest thing from the truth. We wanted to go out and prove people wrong."

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Trivia answer: The most recent player to lead the American League with 50 or more home runs and fail to win the MVP award was the Tigers' Hank Greenberg, who hit 58 homers in 1938 and finished behind Jimmie Foxx in the MVP balloting. Mickey Mantle hit 54 for the 1961 New York Yankees but finished second in the league (and on his team) to Roger Maris, who hit 61.


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