The season-opening series between the Orioles and Kansas City Royals last week looked something like that memorable scene in the '60s classic "Cool Hand Luke." Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke in the movie, is challenged to a fight by a character played by George Kennedy.
Newman is slender and relatively weak, Kennedy huge and tough, and Kennedy's character beats the spit out of Luke. The brawl turns into a brutal beating. Those watching, many of whom had shouted excitedly when the match started, turned away, sickened.
Luke never quits, like the Royals never quit against the Orioles last week. But you wonder how long fans in Kansas City will keep shelling out money to watch mismatches.
Or fans in Milwaukee, or Oakland, or Detroit, or Montreal. The disparity between the good teams and bad is growing, and the difference is predicated on money.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that there is a $36.7 million difference between the club with the highest payroll -- the New York Yankees ($52.2 million) -- and the Montreal Expos (about $15.5 million). No wonder manager Felipe Alou said before spring training opened that he felt like his team had no chance this season.
If you were to list the worst teams in baseball, you would include the Brewers, Athletics, Tigers, Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates and, of course, the pathetic Royals. It is hardly coincidence that those six teams also happen to rank in the bottom six in payroll. They cannot possibly compete. How awful is this: The first week of April, and you already can write off six teams from the division races.
This week, the Orioles trotted out an All-Star cast of players, such as Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina, Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro. The Royals trotted out a cast of no-names. Heck, on Opening Day, manager Bob Boone felt compelled to pinch hit for his Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters. On the second day of the season, the third hitter in his starting lineup was Patrick Lennon, with 11 career at-bats in the big leagues.
The competitive gap between the two clubs was so great, one observer noted, that it was like watching a bad weekend college series, the University of Miami against Vermont Technical College. The only way the Royals can possibly beat the Orioles is if they get a great pitching performance, something that almost occurred Thursday, when Chris Haney shut out the Orioles for seven innings.
The Royals may get those types of outings this year every once in a while, from Kevin Appier or Mark Gubicza or Tim Belcher. But if you're a baseball fan in Kansas City, or Montreal or Oakland, what would compel you to pay $10 or $12 to watch your team play?
This is not a knock on the Orioles. They have built themselves financially and on the field, using all the means at their disposal to provide a winner for loyal fans. They had a chance to sign Alomar, and given their revenue stream, it was a terrific move, particularly since their main competitors -- the Yankees and Boston -- were out spending money, too. Owner Peter Angelos and general manager Pat Gillick have put together a great team. The Orioles, too, should be given credit for jumping on the Royals last week and pummeling them; it would've been easy for them to take Kansas City lightly.
But it's not a healthy situation for the game to have such disparity, and the baseball owners (and the players association) had better figure out a way to rectify the situation. Maybe revenue-sharing, perhaps a salary cap.
It used to be that small-market teams occasionally could compete with large-market clubs, that a team like the Minnesota Twins could piece together a contender and win. The chances of that happening are decreasing every year, as the financial gap between the haves and have-nots grows, and that is dangerous for baseball.
Some day, when the fans grow tired of the beatings, the Cool Hand Lukes of the major leagues won't have any reason to get up.
Yankees anger Rogers
The Yankees' handling of Kenny Rogers last weekend was laughable. They signed the left-hander to a $20 million deal, despite conventional wisdom that Rogers' psyche isn't particularly suited to the high intensity of the New York market. He pitched poorly in spring training, and instead of addressing his situation carefully -- giving him a few starts during the season, for example, for a truer read of Rogers' performance -- they announced two days before the start of the regular season that Rogers was being demoted to the bullpen.
Predictably, Rogers was angry. The next day, the Yankees reversed themselves, saying that Rogers was back in the rotation, because bone chips in the elbow of Melido Perez had reduced Perez's velocity to the point where he needed surgery. (Perez said he felt fine, and if the Yankees thought he had such a big problem, why did they let him throw six innings in their final exhibition game last Sunday?) What the Yankees have done is send up a big red flag for all New York to see, and attached it to Rogers.
Rogers said: "The fact that I'm back [in the rotation] doesn't make everything all better. I still don't understand a lot of things. I'd like to get some answers. This whole thing is so off-the-wall, I don't know how to react to it. I just figure this is the way things go on around here."
Rogers ain't seen nothing yet.
Every year, there are about a half-dozen dumb moves in baseball that have nothing to do with logic, moves that you know immediately are going to be a disaster. The Yankees' decision to sign Rogers is one of those.
Familiar sound for Jones
The Angels counted on Steve Ontiveros to be their No. 4 starter and give some depth to a fading rotation. But he has arthritis and could miss a couple of months, at least.
Oakland manager Art Howe was furious when, in the last exhibition game of the season, San Francisco manager Dusty Baker ordered Kim Batiste to steal with the Giants losing 8-3 in the seventh. So, in retaliation, Howe ordered Scott Brosius to steal the next inning, as the manager admitted later. And, naturally, Brosius pulled a hamstring and missed Opening Day.
Las Vegas' Cashman Field, temporary housing for the Athletics, is a hitters' heaven. Five players hit homers on Opening Day. "I don't think there was a legitimate home run hit tonight," Howe said.
Colorado's pitching problems are multiplying. Marvin Freeman, one of the club's few front-line starters not on the disabled list, strained a groin muscle Wednesday. That probably will put even more pressure on Colorado's bullpen, overworked to a frazzle last season. In the Rockies' first game, Kevin Ritz allowed one hit and seven walks in 5 1/3 innings, and manager Don Baylor used four relievers to throw the final 3 2/3 innings.
Marlins third baseman Gary Sheffield has hired a publicist, who is trying to remake his poor image.
Mets starter Bill Pulsipher, out for the year with a torn ligament, is going to have a tendon removed from his forearm and used to tighten his pitching elbow. Pulsipher's injury will hurt New York's chances of winning the NL wild card.
The Mets acquired Mark Clark from Cleveland to take Pulsipher's spot in the rotation, and now Chad Ogea will be the Indians' No. 5 starter. At the start of the year, anyway. They also can choose from Albie Lopez (who wasn't happy about going back to Triple-A), Brian Anderson and Joe Roa.
The Brewers had an 11-1 lead Opening Day, but starter Ricky Bones frittered away that advantage, allowing 12 hits and six runs in 4 2/3 innings. With Bones one out shy of qualifying for a victory, Milwaukee manager Phil Garner pulled Bones, who later complained about the decision to Garner in a closed-door meeting.
Chuck Carr was going to be the Brewers' leadoff hitter, but instead Garner has turned to Pat Listach, the former AL Rookie of the Year who finally appears to be past his perennial physical problems.
Flashy Mets rookie shortstop Rey Ordonez has been dubbed The Shea Rey Kid.
The day after umpire John McSherry suffered a fatal heart attack on the field in Cincinnati, plate umpire Jerry Crawford called out Reds outfielder Eric Davis on a pitch clearly out of the strike zone. Davis turned and glared at Crawford, but said nothing. He figured it was a day when the umpires deserved some slack.
Davis said: "I just wanted [the umpires] to know we were here, that we were all in this together and we should lean on one another. That's why I didn't get angry and blow my top [during the game]. I think I got called out on a couple of bad pitches. Tomorrow and the next day, those pitches would be called balls. But the fellows had a lot on their minds today." Davis and Reds teammate Barry Larkin had gone to the umpires Monday and told them they didn't want to play after McSherry collapsed.
Dodgers center fielder Brett Butler said McSherry once told him that if he were to die, he'd like to do it on the field, doing what he loved to do.
By the numbers
Two games into their 4-1 start, the Pirates were over .500 for the first time since May 13, 1994.
After giving up just 12 homers over 411 2/3 innings in '94 and '95, Braves starter Greg Maddux gave up two in his first start of the year.
The Yankees are 8-2 at Cleveland's Jacobs Field since that park opened.
On Opening Night, Chicago catcher Ron Karkovice struck out five times, the first time a White Sox batter had done that since Jim Landis in 1957.
Rockies catcher Jeff Reed is the only member of the 25-man roster who wasn't with the team last year.
The Giants gave up 25 runs over 16 innings in the first two games of the season. The beneficiaries, the Braves, hit seven homers during that span.
Luis Gonzalez became the 10th different player in 10 years to start in left field for the Cubs on Opening Day.
The Brewers' 15-9 victory over California on Opening Day included 37 hits and four hit batsmen.
The Phillies went 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position in their first two games -- and went 1-1.