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Tigers got $3 million bargain in Fielder, but payback time looms

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The baseball world laughed when the Detroit Tigers coughed up $3 million to bring first baseman Cecil Fielder back from Japan last year. Now, the Tigers probably are kicking themselves for not signing him to a long-term contract.

Fielder is in the second year of a two-year deal that is beginning to look like one of baseball's greatest buys. But it runs out at the end of this season, leaving the Tigers in the unenviable position of having to pay him what he's worth.

He quickly has dismissed the notion that last year's 51-homer, 132-RBI performance was some kind of fluke. His major-league-leading 56 RBI place him ahead of last year's pace, and he is on track to hit nearly 40 home runs.

The Tigers have said nothing about a contract extension, which apparently has been a source of disappointment for Fielder, who can go to arbitration at the end of this year and become a free agent after the 1992 season.

The problem will be establishing a value for him, because his numbers the past 1 1/2 seasons far exceed those of baseball's highest-paid position players.

Fielder has 66 home runs and 188 RBI in the 229 games the Tigers have played since the start of the 1990 season. By comparison, Jose Canseco -- baseball's first $5 million man -- has 52 homers and 145 RBI during the same period.

It looks as if Fielder has a chance to become the first American League player to win the RBI crown two years running with more than 120 RBI each year since Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx had 169 in 1932 and 163 in 1933.

No wonder the Tigers are in no hurry to talk contract. Fielder's value can't get any higher. They might be better off letting him win $4 million or so in arbitration and hoping the ebbing tide of baseball economics works in their favor the next year.

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The Milwaukee Brewers are getting ready to put outfielder Candy Maldonado back on the active roster, a move that could open some old wounds for everyday left fielder Greg Vaughn.

Maldonado beat Vaughn out of the starting job in left field this spring, but played only two games before a broken foot forced him onto the disabled list. Since then, Vaughn has been the Brewers' most productive hitter, with 12 home runs and 43 RBI, and he hasn't let anyone forget it.

"I just told them to leave me alone and let me play and everything would work out and they wouldn't be disappointed," Vaughn said. "It's sort of a little incentive to throw it in their face, and that's what I have to do because I feel I was treated unfairly in spring training."

Maldonado won't be moving right back into left field, but he still could cost Vaughn some playing time. The Brewers are planning to use an outfield rotation to get Maldonado back into the lineup on a regular basis.

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Hits and Mrs.: When the Texas Rangers called up 19-year-old catching prospect Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez from the Class AA Tulsa Drillers, he became the second minor-leaguer in a week to have his wedding plans changed by a surprise promotion to the major leagues.

Rodriguez was scheduled to be married at home plate between games of a Thursday doubleheader in Tulsa, but he chose to have a quick ceremony Thursday morning and join the major-league club in time to play that night.

Rodriguez drove in two runs in his major-league debut Thursday and threw out two runners trying to steal, though there have to be better things to do on your wedding night.

There was a precedent, however. San Francisco Giants prospect Tony Perezchica changed his wedding plans last week to accept a promotion to the big leagues. Good to know these guys have their priorities straight.

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Lest anyone in Baltimore thinks it's normal for starting pitchers to give up anywhere from three to seven runs in the first four innings and then leave the game, consider the happy state of the Los Angeles Dodgers starting rotation.

The Dodgers entered Thursday's games with a string of 18 games in which their starting pitchers had worked through six innings. In the past 16 games of that string, the rotation's combined ERA was 2.23.

Of course, the Dodgers don't have your normal pitching staff. They lead the major leagues in team ERA and fewest runs allowed. Their rotation was so deep at the start of the season that the club could afford to release Fernando Valenzuela, whose 13 victories in 1990 would have tied him for the Orioles team lead.

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When left-hander Jim Abbott slipped to 0-4 early in the season, some observers called on the California Angels to send him to XTC the minor leagues. Now that he has rebounded to go 6-1 in his past nine starts, the Angels aren't letting the critics off without a bite.

"Jimmy's throwing as well as anyone in the league right now," manager Doug Rader said. "He's becoming the kind of pitcher some of us know he could become."

Abbott might have been 8-1 over that nine-game period, but the

bullpen blew two late-inning leads.

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The Rangers still are in contention in the American League West, but not because of anything that has happened on the mound. The pitching situation has been so desperate, the club just traded for right-hander Calvin Schiraldi, a pitcher they could have gotten for nothing in spring training. The Rangers also called up minor-league pitcher Terry Matthews, bringing to 18 the number of pitchers they have used this year.

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The Angels are taking no chances with Valenzuela, who was found recently to have a crimped artery near his heart. The situation is being controlled with medication, and he will remain on the disabled list indefinitely.

The condition was first detected by the Dodgers medical staff a couple of years ago, but doctors felt then that he would not be at serious risk if he continued to pitch. But the Angels, perhaps more cautious in the wake of the on-court death of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers from a heart ailment last year, said they will take the most conservative possible course in evaluating Valenzuela.

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The Brewers want infielder Gary Sheffield to undergo surgery to repair tendon damage in his left wrist, but Sheffield is adamantly against it. He has embarked on a light weight program instead.

"I don't want to be cut on my whole career," he said. "They want me to have surgery, but I'm not going to do it."

Brewers officials don't think Sheffield will have much of a career unless he has the surgery. He tried to play with the injury for a few weeks, but had trouble gripping the bat and went 2-for-36 before going on the disabled list.

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Trivia quiz: The last AL player to win consecutive RBI titles was Roger Maris in 1960-61. Who was the last National League batter to win back-to-back RBI crowns?

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Former Oriole update: The Chicago White Sox have signed first baseman/designated hitter Ron Kittle to a minor-league contract and hope to bring him back to the major leagues after the All-Star break.

Kittle, who was named AL Rookie of the Year after he hit 35 home runs for the White Sox in 1983, keeps coming back to the city where he averaged 31 home runs from 1983-85. He was traded to the New York Yankees in 1986 and signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians before returning to the White Sox as a free agent in 1988. He was picked up by the Orioles last year, but was released at the end of the season.

It looked as if his baseball career were over after the Indians passed on him this spring, until the White Sox decided that he might be able to help with a club-wide power shortage. He apparently assumed it was over, too, judging by his response when someone asked him if he had spent much time hitting this season.

"Yeah," he replied. "I've been hitting the ball 300-325 yards every time -- off the tee."

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Trivia answer: The last National League player to win back-to-back RBI titles was Mike Schmidt, who had 121 in 1980 and 91 during the strike-shortened 1981 season.

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