Top 10 stories of the year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

1. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner does something crazy to grab the headlines and deflect attention from his disappointing team. Some criminal will be involved, and the manager -- the one hired after Joe Torre is fired - will be fired, -- too.

2. The owners and players actually negotiate a new labor agreement, the first since December 1993, a deal that should help bring back a few more cynical fans to the ballparks. As part of the contract, owners' negotiator Randy Levine and union head Don Fehr are given an extended vacation and ordered never to appear in public again until it's absolutely necessary.

3. The play of perhaps the greatest double-play combination of all time, the Orioles' Cal Ripken and Roberto Alomar, will be lauded throughout the summer. So long as the Orioles contend for the AL East title, anyway.

4. Albert Belle makes nice with the world as he negotiates his new long-term contract. His first request was for $10 million a year, and if he has another huge season, the Indians may be forced to give him what he wants.

5. Atlanta perfectionist Greg Maddux wins his fifth straight Cy Young Award, further evidence that he is the best pitcher of all time, even ahead of Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson. And yet Maddux will complain about an off-year, that he could've been better.

6. The fate of future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith will be decided. He will lose his job as the Cardinals' everyday shortstop this year, and the question will be whether another team, such as the Philadelphia Phillies or Texas Rangers, will give Smith an opportunity to play and reach 2,500 hits.

7. The Athletics are forced out of their home the first week of the season, as renovations are completed on the Oakland Coliseum. The Athletics play a week in Las Vegas, then do a few days in Reno before going off-Broadway.

8. The San Diego Padres and New York Mets play a series in Monterrey, Mexico, part of baseball's effort to make like the NBA and expand into international markets. The Padres draw a good crowd and decide to stay.

9. In preparation for interleague play, baseball owners bicker over the fate of the designated hitter. Naturally, they can't decide on a compromise and opt to play 1997 under different rules, and AL pitchers begin taking batting practice.

10. Long having conquered the consecutive-games record of Lou Gehrig, Ripken breaks the world record of 2,215, set by Sachio Kinugasa, on June 13 in Kansas City. Polite applause, no victory lap.

Job insecurity

Managers who might be seeking new work well before next season:

1. Joe Torre, Yankees: A given, what with his managing for George Steinbrenner amid great expectations.

2. Dallas Green, Mets: His job was in jeopardy last year, but the club's late rush saved him. A slow start this year would finish him off.

3. Kevin Kennedy, Red Sox: He annoyed the club brass when he complained about not getting an extension after 1995. Should the Red Sox start slowly, watch out.

4. Ray Knight, Reds: General manager Jim Bowden has proved that he's willing to dump managers quickly (remember the short tenure of Tony Perez?).

Job security

Managers who could fall asleep in the dugout without fear of being fired:

1. Tony La Russa, Cardinals: He and his staff are the highest paid in baseball. If the Cardinals don't perform well, it's GM Walt Jocketty's job that will be on the line, not La Russa's.

2. Davey Johnson, Orioles: Manager with the highest winning percentage among active managers comes home again, and the players love him. If the O's struggle, the blame will fall on the players, and not on Johnson. Phil Regan would be jealous.

3. Jim Leyland, Pirates: He is a veritable deity in baseball circles, the Cal Ripken of managers. Untouchable.

4. Tom Lasorda, Dodgers: Owner Peter O'Malley believes the organization owes Lasorda a lot for his long service to the club. Should the Dodgers play below expectations, Lasorda still would finish the year before being replaced.

Contract hardball

Five clauses Albert Belle may ask for during his negotiations for a long-term deal:

1. No media allowed at ballgames: Pesty writers and broadcasters always seem to get in the way when he's walking into the dugout before World Series games.

2. Bud Selig displaced as acting commissioner: Come to think of it, Belle might have a lot of folks around baseball agreeing with him on this one.

3. MVP balloting restricted to members of his immediate family: This way, he would be sure to beat out Mo Vaughn this year.

4. Corked bats allowed: The reason former Indians pitcher Jason Grimsley replaced Belle's corked bat with one that belonged to Paul Sorrento a couple of years ago was that Belle didn't have a single bat that wasn't corked.

5. Halloween banned: Dumb prankster kids always seem to get in the way when Belle is driving his truck across his lawn on Halloween.

Nasty guys

Players you wouldn't want to fight:

1. Kevin Gross, Rangers: Martial arts expert.

2. Kevin Mitchell, Red Sox: If he catches you, forget it.

3. Alan Mills, Orioles: Dresses up on Sundays, perhaps to repent for all those things he did in the Seattle fight.

4. Randy Johnson, Mariners: You might get your licks in during a brawl, but in the end, he would be on the mound holding the ball and you would be at the plate ducking. Just ask Jim Leyritz.

5. Albert Belle, Indians: His temper is, shall we say, unique.

6. Dave Nilsson, Brewers: Native of Australia, he's Crocodile Dundee with a bat in his hands.

7. Brian Jordan, Cardinals: Former NFL defensive back capable of clotheslining any pitcher.

8. Mickey Tettleton, Rangers: Clark Kent. Mild-mannered. Get him angry and he'd break you in half.

9. Randy Myers, Orioles: If the going gets tough, he'll pull out a stun gun or grenade or something. Career record of 1-0 against renegade fans.

10. Keith Shepherd, Orioles: His nickname: "The Apache." Circle the wagons.

Underrated players

1. John Valentin, Red Sox: Coming off a great season, he should be an All-Star this year.

2. Barry Bonds, Giants: There is so much said and written about what a jerk he can be, much of it true. Nonetheless, he is an exceptional player whose abilities and willingness to play hurt aren't always illuminated.

3. Sammy Sosa, Cubs: Statistics lovers can tell you he's capable of hitting 30 homers and stealing 30 bases. What goes unnoticed is his unabashed enthusiasm.

4. Bob Wickman, Yankees: Hard to get any attention with everything else that goes on in this clubhouse. Two years ago, he led the AL in appearances, and, last season, he pitched in 63 games, two behind league leader Jesse Orosco.

5. Derek Bell, Astros: He started gaining some notice last year, when he briefly challenged Tony Gwynn for the NL batting title before getting hurt. Nobody plays harder than this right fielder.

6. Jeff King, Pirates: In 1993, the last season that wasn't curtailed by the players' strike, he drove in 98 runs, and, last year, he had 87, with 27 doubles and 18 homers.

7. Mike Fetters, Brewers: Save chances are few and far between with Milwaukee, but Fetters usually converts when he has the opportunity.

8. Dante Bichette, Rockies: There's no doubt that he is aided by the thin air of Denver, but he's still a good player, home or road.

9. Jeff Fassero, Expos: One of the NL's better left-handers the past few years, he'll be traded and likely will be on display in the postseason.

10. Andy Ashby, Padres: Pitcher always is ready to take the ball, he has great stuff and his command is improving. Now, he has a team that will score some runs for him.

Players on the move

=1 Prominent major-leaguers who might be traded:

Pos., Player ............ Team .......... Possible destination

OF, Moises Alou ......... Expos ......... Red Sox

LHP, Jeff Fassero ....... Expos ......... Padres

C, Terry Steinbach ...... Athletics ..... Orioles

3B, Travis Fryman ....... Tigers ........ Mets

OF, Jim Eisenreich ...... Phillies ...... Orioles

RHP, Ricky Bones ........ Brewers ....... Mariners

OF, Bernard Gilkey ...... Mets .......... White Sox

LHP, John Smiley ........ Reds .......... Red Sox

LHP, John Franco ........ Mets .......... Angels

RHP, Robb Nen ........... Marlins ....... Mariners

Teams on the move

Teams that could be headed for new surroundings:

1. Padres: Lucchino and Co. have upgraded and promoted the club. If fans continue to stay away, then the franchise could leave town.

2. Angels: Disney continues to negotiate for a share of the team. If the deal falls apart, Jackie Autry will sell.

3. Athletics: Now that the Raiders are in town, nobody in Oakland cares about this team. Maybe the Carolina area will.

4. Astros: Astros fever, catch it, at a ballpark near you - in Northern Virginia.

Teams on the rise

1. Mets: They have the best young pitching in the game.

2. Red Sox: The major-league team is good, and general manager Dan Duquette is doing a great job building the minor-league system.

3. Indians: A tremendous team got better during the off-season, and the farm system is loaded.

Teams on the decline

1. Athletics: Viva Las Vegas.

2. Brewers: If there is a small-market hell, this is it, polka music and all.

3. Phillies: Why is it that every pitcher they get suddenly needs rotator-cuff surgery?

Living legends

You will brag to your kids that you saw these guys play:

1. Cal Ripken, Orioles

2. Ozzie Smith, Cardinals

3. Greg Maddux, Braves

4. Ken Griffey, Mariners

5. Roberto Alomar, Orioles

6. Barry Bonds, Giants

7. Frank Thomas, White Sox

8. Randy Johnson, Mariners

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