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Stewart-A's talks are not the talk of...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Stewart-A's talks are not the talk of Oakland

Club has other free-agent worries

Contrary to popular belief in Baltimore, there is more than one hometown hero facing the prospect of free agency this year. Oakland Athletics right-hander Dave Stewart is unsigned and seemingly unconcerned.

"I'm going to be somewhere," Stewart said. "Somebody's going to need my leadership. Maybe I won't be the No. 1 starter, but somebody is going to need me."

That might mean the Athletics and it might not, but the possibilities have not caused nearly the city-wide angst that has gripped Baltimore during the slow-moving Cal Ripken negotiations.

Stewart is popular in Oakland, where he grew up watching Charlie Finley's threepeat World Series champions and came of age as a local role model when he spent his spare time and money helping the Bay area dig out of the 1989 earthquake.

He has not spent his entire career with the Athletics, but his four straight 20-win seasons contributed mightily to an dynasty that won three consecutive American League pennants from 1988-90. Now, he is coming off a difficult season and struggling through another, but the contract is not the problem.

It was a big issue in spring training and it went unresolved, but Stewart now seems content to let the situation resolve itself.

"Everything is totally settled," Stewart said. "I need to pitch well. People have told me that if I pitch well, we'll win this [division] easy, so I'm trying to concentrate on that."

Stewart's situation is similar to Ripken's in some ways, but different in many others. For one, he isn't the only potential free agent on his team and he isn't the only major story in town. Mark McGwire is unsigned. So is catcher Terry Steinbach, third baseman Carney Lansford, designated hitter Harold Baines and a handful of other veterans.

If that isn't enough, outfielders Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson absorb a lot of attention, and the club has enough dynamic characters to keep any one situation from becoming a preoccupation.

Like Ripken, Stewart has not forced the issue on the field. He is 8-8 with a 3.97 ERA in 24 starts this year. Like Ripken, he has been playing in some pain -- a nagging case of elbow tendinitis. Like Ripken, he would like to make a major statement with his performance down the stretch and help carry his team into the postseason.

"I'm trying to put myself in position so if we make the playoffs, there won't be any question who should start the opening game," Stewart said. "I'm perfectly happy with that. The last thing I want to do is become a distraction. I'm perfectly happy with it this way."

Out of nowhere

The Chicago White Sox finally have become a factor in the American League West. Maybe not a big factor, but they went on a 12-1 run during the past two weeks to get close enough to dream.

They entered the weekend nine games behind the first-place Athletics and three games behind the Minnesota Twins. They aren't exactly knocking on the door, but they are too close for the two teams ahead of them to be entirely comfortable.

"We know we have dug ourselves a hole, and I'm sure the odds are against us getting back in the race," manager Gene Lamont said, "but anything is possible."

What would it take? The White Sox need to overtake the Twins and pick up at least five games on the Athletics by the time they play Oakland in a four-game series at Comiskey Park a month from now. That's not likely, but far from impossible if they continue to swing the bat the way they have the first three weeks of August.

The White Sox entered the weekend batting a combined .293 this month. They also appear to have the schedule on their side, facing sub-.500 teams in 20 of the 26 games between now and a potential showdown with Oakland.

Lofty goal

The Chicago Cubs entered the weekend within wishing distance (9 1/2 games) of the division lead in the NL East, but they have a more reachable goal in mind. If they can finish the season above .500, it would be the first time in 20 years that they have done so without winning the division.

Why not shoot higher? They aren't much farther off the pace than the hopeful White Sox, but they do not have the same kind of manpower. The Cubs will have a tough enough time finishing above sea level.

Angry Ranger

Outfielder Ruben Sierra has been embroiled in an on-again, off-again contract squabble with the Texas Rangers for about a year, and the dispute apparently has alienated his fans.

He was booed heavily after popping up to complete an 0-for-4 performance last Sunday at Arlington Stadium, and he responded by tipping his cap sarcastically several times from the dugout.

"I was trying to say, 'Thank you,' " he said. "It made me feel mad, made me feel bad. I'm not happy. They forget what I've done for the five years before."

Their dismay also may have something to do with his performance at home, where Sierra is batting just .230 with seven homers and 27 RBI this year. He batted .320 with seven home runs and 61 RBI at Arlington Stadium in 1991.

Regardless of the club's reasons, Sierra probably won't have to put up with them much longer. The Rangers have sent him through waivers and are thought to be ready to trade him for prospects. Of course, the team that gets him would only be renting him for the final six weeks of the season, since he becomes eligible to file for free agency in November.

Harrah's last hurrah?

Rangers manager Toby Harrah hopes to get a chance to manage the club from the start of spring training next year, but there is no guarantee he'll keep his job that long. The club was 6 1/2 games out of first place and four games over .500 when Bobby Valentine was fired seven weeks ago. The Rangers entered the weekend eight games under .500 under Harrah and 14 1/2 games out of first.

That doesn't make for much of a resume, though Harrah has gone to great lengths to change the direction of the team. He has gone so far as to schedule workouts on days off to drill the club on fundamentals, something that is seldom done this late in the season. But he knows that if the club does not show some improvement, he may not get a chance to work on those things in spring training.

Blue Jay way

The Blue Jays were supposed to have the best pitching depth in the American League, but they have reached the point where any experienced arm will do.

The club brought back Mike Timlin recently, even though he had a 16.88 ERA for the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. It wasn't an isolated incident. When the Blue Jays went back to Syracuse for help this week, they got Bob MacDonald, who had a 6.00 ERA at the Triple-A level.

Trivia time

Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux has allowed a home run every 194 at-bats this year and none to right-handed batters. Who was the last right-handed hitter to hit a regular-season home run against him? (Hint: He played for the team that won the National League East title last year).

More Ripken reaction

Cal Ripken may have questioned the way he has tried to juggle the season and a lengthy contract dispute, but one veteran teammate says he has handled it all very well.

"To me, it's amazing how he handles it all," left-hander Mike Flanagan said. "I don't think I ever wanted the kind of celebrity that has been forced on him, but he handles it, and he still goes out and plays like the kid I saw in 1983.

"I think he's focused on the job."

Trivia answer

This was a tough one. If your guess was Barry Bonds, count one point off for being incorrect and another for not knowing your right hand from your left. The answer (you'll just kick yourself for not knowing) is Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Jose Lind, who hit a grand total of three home runs all year -- one of them off Maddux on June 26.

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