At last, baseball talk turns traditional again


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Granted, the talent dump by the Montreal Expos and Kansas City Royals was symptomatic of baseball's problems.

OK, so it stinks that small-market clubs are at a disadvantage, their windows of opportunity much smaller and their capability to rebuild reduced, in relation to their big-market brethren.

But what fun! How great to be discussing transactions instead of luxury taxes again, and there was so much to talk about. In a way, this weeklong swap meet was the best thing for baseball. It put the game back in the news, gave fans a reason to ignore Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, got everybody excited again.

What impact will John Wetteland have on the AL East? What will the Orioles do to rebuild their bullpen? Can the San Diego Padres actually be the favorites in the NL West?

What delight!

Sure, the labor problem looms. Lawyers again could assume control of the sport in the fall, or perhaps late summer.

But this we know: On May 1, they will be playing baseball at Camden Yards again. The stands will be full, the line at Boog's barbecue long, the outfield grass so green.

;/ Best to worry about that other stuff later.

The sure thing

Expos general manager Kevin Malone the day before he began trading the core of his roster: "The best bet in Vegas right now is that we'll have the lowest payroll in baseball." . . . St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith may return for 1996. "I've said I wanted to get to 2,500 hits, no matter how long it would take," said Smith, who needs 135 to reach that mark.

One who may never play another game is Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk, who makes it clear he does not miss spring training. "I've always thought . . . it was kind of worthless," he said. "I'm just kind of here waiting. I'm watching the O. J. trial. Do I miss [Phillies third base coach] Larry Bowa yelling at me and dragging my butt onto the AstroTurf field? No. Do I miss everyone getting on me when I come in a little overweight? No."

Todd Hollandsworth, who batted .285 with 19 homers and 91 RBIs for Triple-A Albuquerque last year, replaces Brett Butler as the Los Angeles Dodgers' center fielder. . . . The San Francisco Giants' version of Sid Fernandez is reliever Rod Beck, who finished last season at more than 250 pounds and reported at 234. Wonder if he drinks Met-Rx, too. . . . Chicago Cubs pitcher Mike Morgan could begin the year on the disabled list because of a cracked rib, which he suffered while playing football poolside at his home in Las Vegas. "It's a strike-related injury," he said. "If I had been out here in February like I should have been -- or even March -- it never would have happened."

For the first time in his life, Florida right fielder Gary Sheffield is lifting weights and improving his eating habits. He cut beef and pork from his diet, employed two personal trainers and took up aerobics, and added 10 pounds of muscle. "He's amazing," said Marlins first baseman Greg Colbrunn. "To get that strong and have that much bat speed. . . . He could be scary this year."

The New York Mets have left two lockers open in the corner of their clubhouse, lockers that used to be home to Dwight Gooden, suspended because he tested positive for drugs. "In my mind, Doc should be here," said third baseman Bobby Bonilla. "He's the only thing missing. I'm sure Joe McIlvaine will give him the benefit of the doubt. He didn't kill anybody. He's getting himself together."

Warning: Leftover labor stuff

Orioles ace Mike Mussina said that the union could have trouble mustering support for a strike, and the collective demeanor of the Phil lies is a perfect example of this. Catcher Darren Daulton, disgusted with the labor impasse, resigned as player representative.

"You go to these meetings for months and nothing happens," Daulton said. "So what is the definition of negotiation? That's like a Geneva convention. Everybody goes, eats a little chocolate, rTC spends a lot of money and nothing ever gets resolved.

"It was a test of wills. That's not a negotiation. It never looked like a puzzle that was all that difficult to solve. This shouldn't have been so hard."

Dave Hollins was angered by the union's treatment of teammate Lenny Dykstra, ostracized in February after he questioned the direction of the players association leadership.

"The union always likes to talk about how open things are and if we ever have a question or want to say anything we should just speak up. The union wants us to participate," said Hollins. "Well, when Lenny walked in, they treated him like he was a Russian spy.

"He wanted to speak, and they were all over him. They tried to bury him. Don Fehr never spoke up once. So I had to. That ticked me off. After that, that was my last meeting."

Florida Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga gave each of his replacement players $25,000 in severance. The Giants' going-away present to each of their replacements was a baseball autographed by their replacement teammates.

Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten flew coach class to the owners' meetings in Chicago last weekend. "Trying to save money to bring back Jeff Blauser," he explained.

Because the strike so hurt the financial structure of the game, general managers are taking a hard line on free agents, giving lots of take-it-or-leave it offers. The adjustment is shocking to players used to making big money.

"I've heard jaws drop," said Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart, "dead silence for a period of time, and profanity. There's been a little negotiating, but I've had to do a lot of soothing of egos."


Before Montreal traded Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill and John Wetteland last week, the last great fire sale took place in San Diego in 1993. Padres general manager Randy Smith was slammed for dealing first baseman Fred McGriff, third baseman Gary Sheffield and pitchers Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris. But time has shown that the Padres fared well in the deals, and that's why they're the front-runners in the NL West this year.


Details: The Padres gave up Sheffield, who won the NL batting title in 1992, and left-hander Rich Rodriguez to Florida for pitchers Trevor Hoffman, Andres Berumen and Jose Martinez.

Verdict: At worst, a break-even deal for the Padres. Sheffield signed a $22.5 million contract and has been oft-injured since. Rodriguez was released. Hoffman signed a remarkably cheap three-year, $1.45 million deal; for this reason and because he has developed into one of the NL's top closers, he may have more trade value than any player in baseball right now. Berumen is still a prime prospect. Martinez is a bust.


Details: The Padres sent McGriff to the Braves for minor-league outfielders Melvin Nieves and Vince Moore and pitcher Donnie Elliott.

Verdict: Great deal for the Braves. McGriff led the Braves to the NL West title in 1993, while Nieves, a power hitter who can drive the ball 450 from both sides of the plate, has struggled to turn his talent into results. Elliott has a good arm but is erratic, and Moore is a bust.


Details: The Padres sent pitchers Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris to Colorado for pitcher Andy Ashby, catcher Brad Ausmus and minor-league pitcher Doug Bochtler. In addition, the Rockies picked up $1 million of Hurst's salary.

Verdict: Perhaps the most one-sided deal of the '90s, other than Houston's acquisition of Jeff Bagwell (for Larry Andersen) in 1990. Hurst was hurt and pitched just a few times before the end of the '93 season, and filed for free agency. Harris won four games in seven months with the Rockies, his ERA higher than the city of Denver. On the flip side, Ausmus is regarded as one of the league's best defensive catchers; Ashby blossomed in '94, and is the club's No. 2 starter and still developing; and Bochtler was named the top right-handed starter in the Arizona Fall League last year.

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