La Russa has a tough call at shortstop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa won't be in uniform for a few more weeks, but he's working to defuse a potential problem: what to do with the Wizard.

The new-look Cardinals still have veteran shortstop Ozzie Smith on the roster. They also have young Royce Clayton, one of several off-season acquisitions expected to make the club a strong contender in the National League Central. La Russa will have to choose between them this spring, and he's laying down the ground rules right now.

"The guy who plays the best will play the most," he said last week, as if it were that simple. "I don't think it is that delicate a situation. I know he's a legend, but what was I hired to do?"

He left the answer unsaid, but the implication was clear. He was hired to make the tough decisions. He was hired to leave sentiment out of it and do what will make the Cardinals the best possible team on Opening Day. He was hired to deal with the Smith problem, but he is trying to avoid a spring training shortstop controversy by creating a scenario in which Smith can make the decision himself.

"It's a real challenge for Ozzie," La Russa said. "He's going to have to play better than Royce. If he doesn't, he's got to decide whether to be part of that great atmosphere we're trying to build."

Smith is coming to the end of a great career. He was, in his prime, the most exciting defensive player in the game, but he's not in his prime anymore. He's coming off a horrible season in which he was injured and ineffective -- so much so that La Russa and Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty believed it was imperative that they reinforce the infield's most pivotal position.

Clayton drove in 58 runs and stole 24 bases for the San Francisco Giants last year. He is the guy they want at shortstop, but it is a sensitive situation, and La Russa is treading as lightly as he can.

"I've got a real interest in preserving and enhancing Ozzie Smith's legend, not taking it away from him," La Russa said. "But he's going to have to play a part in that, too. This isn't tennis or golf. It's a team game."

Stepping aside

California Angels owner Gene Autry doesn't intend to ride off into the sunset just yet. He and wife Jackie have sold 25 percent of the club to the Walt Disney Co., but they intend to remain involved with the team and attend as many games as they did before agreeing to the deal that makes Disney the managing partner.

"We intend to stay as involved as we can," Jackie Autry said. "It puts Gene in the enviable position of enjoying the benefits of owning the team without all the headaches. Going on 89 [years old], I think he deserves that. He's done a lot for this country."

The flip side

Disney Sports is expected to do a lot to enhance the image of the Angels, but the deal has employees of the ballclub bracing for a wide-ranging front-office purge. Disney CEO Michael Eisner did not deny that possibility last week, but said that the entertainment giant is "sensitive" to the feelings of its employees.

Bottomless pit

The Angels say they're losing money, but they'll get no sympathy from the Detroit Tigers, who say they have lost $40 million during the past two years.

"The losses have been staggering," said owner Mike Ilitch. "We probably lost more money the last two years than any team in the history of baseball."

That's why the club has cut its payroll from $42 million in 1994 to $35 million last year to an estimated $21 million for 1996. It is expected to stay around there until the Tigers' new stadium is complete in 1998, then rise along with the club's revenues.

Old dogs, new tricks

Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan acknowledges that the club is taking a big chance by turning veteran closer Rick Aguilera into a starting pitcher. Aguilera has been one of the most effective relievers of his generation, but he agreed to join the Twins' rotation because he was eager to return to Minnesota.

"If it blows up in our face, we'll just have to adjust," Ryan said. "But if he can give us six innings every fifth day, we'll be more than satisfied."

The Twins plan to use free agent Paul Molitor at first base after several seasons as a full-time designated hitter, but look for Molitor to DH exclusively if he isn't entirely comfortable in the infield.

"If he hits, I don't give a darn where he plays," Ryan said.

Fallback position

The Orioles' decision not to re-sign closer Lee Smith last year may look a little better in the wake of the knee injury that could sideline him this spring, but the Angels seem surprisingly unconcerned.

Maybe that's because they have enough bullpen depth to give Smith all the time he needs to recover from surgery. The club is gambling that its former closer, Bryan Harvey, will bounce back from arm surgery to be an effective late-inning pitcher, and they have outstanding bullpen prospect Troy Percival in a setup role.

Percival is the club's closer of the future, but he may be ready to step up now. He throws hard and showed he could pitch in tough situations as Smith's main setup man last year. The best-case scenario would be to spend much of the season going to school with Smith and Harvey, but Angels manager Marcel Lachemann said last week that he would be comfortable using him as the closer if that becomes necessary.

Slow ride

Even if Smith is ready to pitch on Opening Day, the injury he suffered on a November hunting trip could make his long walk to the mound even longer.

"We may have to bring back the bullpen car," Lachemann said.

Residual excitement

Baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest still are bathing in the afterglow of the Seattle Mariners' first postseason experience. The club has sold 130,000 highlight videos since the end of the Mariners' most successful season, a number made more impressive because during the same two-month period, Major League Baseball sold only 105,000 copies of its World Series highlight video nationwide.

1 more Cooperstown critic

Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone, who was on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, had no complaints about the modest number of ballots cast in his favor, but he joined the chorus of criticism of voters who passed over 300-game winners Don Sutton and Phil Niekro for the second time.

"I think it's a shame," he said. "You can tell me all you want about how long it took Sutton to get 324 wins and Niekro to get 318, but if they can't get into the Hall of Fame, then it's too exclusive for me.

"The same goes for Tony Perez, who's 16th on the all-time RBI list. They were in the game a long time, but that's part of it. You have to be good to be in the game that long."

Boone falls in the same category, though he's unlikely to get elected. He remains the most durable catcher in baseball history, but does not have the offensive numbers to persuade voters to name him on more than a small percentage of the ballots.

Pinstripe paradox

New York Yankees pitcher Melido Perez came up with a sore elbow pitching in the Dominican Winter League, which puts the club in the strange position of possibly benefiting from his injury.

Perez is set to earn $4.4 million this year from a team that would rather have the money than a pitcher who might not make the starting rotation. The club insured the contract, and could recoup some of that money if the problem is serious enough to keep Perez out of action all year.

Would George Steinbrenner root for an injury to be worse than the club now suspects? Nah.

Quote of the week

Florida Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski after pointing out that his club was nine games over .500 from the All-Star break on: "Unfortunately, the league insisted on counting the first two months of the season."

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