Griffey and Bonds and a Pirates team still worth dreaming about

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ruth and Gehrig. Mantle and Maris. Mays and McCovey. Griffey and Bonds.

That's right, Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds.

The two best all-around players of their generation came very close to being teammates.

George Argyros, then the owner of the Seattle Mariners, was an absentee owner living in Southern California. And that was where the problems began.

Argyros kept hearing from his friends in Newport Beach, home of so many wealthy, aging hipsters, about the hard-throwing right-hander from Cal State-Fullerton who projected as a big major-league winner.

Mike Harkey was the one to draft with the first pick of the 1987 June draft, Argyros kept telling his baseball people. His baseball people kept telling him he was wrong.

In the final days before the draft, Argyros acquiesced. He let his baseball professionals make the call, the right call as it turned out.

The Mariners chose Griffey, denying the Pittsburgh Pirates the chance at him.

"We came this close to having Bonds and Griffey," said Syd Thrift, then the Pirates general manager, now the assistant GM of the Chicago Cubs. "Can you imagine that? Bonds and Griffey on the same team?"

Bonds and Griffey and Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke and Jim Leyland managing.

Instead, the Pirates chose outfielder Mark Merchant, a journeyman minor-leaguer.

Harkey went to the Cubs with the fourth pick. He won 12 games as a rookie and has been cramped by injuries ever since. Harkey is with the Colorado Rockies now. So is Dick Balderson, the Rockies' head of player development after a four-year run as scouting director of the Cubs.

Balderson was the general manager of the Mariners when they chose Griffey.

"I remember some of the conversations [between Argyros and the baseball pros] and they weren't very pleasant," said Balderson, whose immediate supervisor was club president Chuck Armstrong. "Chuck did most of the talking on behalf of the baseball end. We wanted to take Griffey and it wasn't even close in our minds. Obviously, we got permission to do it. But it was sort of a go ahead and take him or it will be your jobs if it doesn't work out.

"He wanted a college pitcher because a lot of his friends were telling him that's what he should do. He liked college pitchers, and his friends told him: 'Don't take a high school kid. You never know what's going to happen to a high school kid.' "

Harkey's subpar junior year made Griffey an easier sell.

There was a time, Balderson says, when the baseball talent evaluators had doubts about Griffey as well.

"We projected him on paper, but we never knew if it would actually come true," Balderson said. "We knew this wasn't an ordinary player coming along. We knew the ability was there. We just didn't know if he would give himself a chance to reach his potential. There were concerns about his nonchalant style."

A test Griffey took did nothing to alleviate those concerns.

"We at that point were big believers in psychological testing," Balderson said. "The initial time we gave him the test it turned out very bad. That scared us and we chose to do it again. He did much, much better the second time."

Griffey, a modern player in every way -- he has been driving cars equipped with cellular phones almost since he has been old enough to drive -- is in hot pursuit of Roger Maris' record 1961 season, when he broke Babe Ruth's home run record by hitting 61.

The down side of being a modern ballplayer is the threat of not playing, thanks to the unending labor strife. A seemingly unavoidable player strike -- Aug. 16 is as good a guess as any -- would derail Griffey's pursuit of Maris.

The pennant races have become secondary to Griffey's chase of the late Maris.

Even those wrapped up in trying to get their teams into the hunt for late October can draw pleasure from Griffey's amazing chase.

"The first year I really became interested in following baseball closely was 1961, when Maris was going after the record," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "My folks would let me stay up and watch the 11 o'clock news to see if he hit another one. I find myself following Griffey the same way now. I find myself asking, did he hit another, did he hit another?"

It could be that way again throughout the summer. More likely, kids will be asking their parents, "Is it over yet? Is it over?"

The strike, that is.

Carpenter: bad trade

If the Texas Rangers had it to do over again, you can be certain they would not have dealt pitchers Robb Nen and Kurt Miller to the Florida Marlins for Cris Carpenter.

Carpenter has blown half of his 10 save opportunities this season, which sounds poor until it's compared to his career record. He has blown 17 of 24 chances.

Some pitchers have the right frame of mind to handle closing. Others don't.

After blowing a save at Seattle in May, Carpenter said, "I never said I was a great pitcher."

Ouch.

Moreover, Nen has made good on all five of his save situations and Miller has pitched his way onto Florida's roster. Nen's five saves would tie him for the club lead on the Rangers, who had blown 15 of 28 save chances going into the weekend and had lost eight games they led in the seventh inning.

Many Texas relievers have taken to wearing T-shirts that picture a human torso encircled by a target, as in they are targets of criticism. On the back of the shirts is the phrase, "It just doesn't matter."

The truth is it does matter, which is not a good sign for relievers, whose job demands that they have extremely thick skin.

If the criticism truly didn't matter to the Rangers' relievers, they wouldn't be wearing the T-shirts.

La Russa rumors won't die

Through no fault of Oakland manager Tony La Russa, he continues to be rumored headed to the Chicago White Sox after this season. The initial rumors had him becoming general manager and manager.

He has made it clear he prefers managing to the front office.

tough when you win 12 or 13 games in two months, but this is what I want to do and I'm not about to change," La Russa said. "The other stuff isn't for me."

As for the rumors he is headed to Chicago -- rumors that will persist unless the White Sox extend manager Gene Lamont's contract before it expires at season's end -- La Russa won't comment on them. His contract also expires this winter, which could leave him as a virtual free agent, picking from among several interested suitors.

"You're asking about something that's not a story," he told reporters. "There's no connection. Oakland is trying to get some wins. And that's why we're not talking about my contract."

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf repeatedly has said over the years that the biggest mistake he made in sports was letting then-general manager Hawk Harrelson fire La Russa as the White Sox manager.

Bad threads

Cliff Floyd, the Montreal Expos' 6-foot-5, 220-pound first baseman, boarded a recent team charter wearing red checkered pants, a pink shirt, a yellow polyester jacket and sparkling purple boots.

Is Floyd really that bad of a dresser? No, he was the victim of the Expos' annual rookie prank. After Wednesday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, while Floyd showered, teammates hid his clothes.

Morgan returns

Cubs starter Mike Morgan, shaken by a series of medical problems in his family, came off the disabled list, where he had gone with what were termed emotional problems.

His father and mother were hospitalized with illnesses, and his wife, Kassie, suffered a miscarriage. The couple have no children.

Morgan gave the Cubs a strong six-inning effort his first time out, and could develop into trade bait before long. The Cubs' best potential trade bait, closer Randy Myers, is not available.

"I still think we can get back in this thing," Cubs general manager Larry Himes said. "You can't win anything without a closer. We have a good one and we want to keep him."

Quote of the Week

The fans here have come a long way. They no longer ask, What are you doing with a hockey puck in your back pocket?' I had to tell them it was a can of Skoal."

Orioles reliever Mark Eichhorn on baseball in Toronto, where he spent six seasons with the Blue Jays.

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