In Chicago, early winds blowing ill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It took several months, but a legitimate argument finally has been developed to support the wisdom of interleague play.

When the Cubs and White Sox face each other this season, a Chicago team is certain to win.

No such guarantee exists at the moment. The Cubs have gotten off to the worst start in franchise history -- which is saying quite a lot -- and the White Sox have become the symbol of baseball's quixotic crusade for cost control.

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf spent $75 million on two free agents last winter in an attempt to improve flagging attendance and overtake the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central.

The Cubs also did some modest free-agent spending during the off-season, hoping that a little fine-tuning would be enough to carry them back in contention in the soft National League Central.

Nice try. The two Chicago teams are a combined 2-15 after yesterday's Cubs loss, just the thing to further alienate frustrated fans in the Windy City, several hundred of whom showed up at Comiskey Park for a game the other day.

It's early, of course. The White Sox are only a couple of games out of first place and it is only a matter of time before Frank Thomas and Albert Belle start crushing the ball, but manager Terry Bevington has little margin for error. His job undoubtedly depends on the club remaining in contention and reaching the postseason, so patience won't be a virtue for long.

The Cubs are another story. They were a marginal team when the season began, and they don't have the talent to make up a big early-season deficit. If they don't make a dramatic turn soon, their postseason hopes may not last long enough for the ivy to sprout at Wrigley Field.

Northside fans weren't particularly happy with the club's management team to begin with, and their perception of the franchise's commitment to winning did not improve when Tribune Co. executive vice president/media operations Jim Dowdle outlined ownership's priorities in a story in the Chicago Tribune last week.

"We're a company that wants to win," Dowdle said. "You have to say that for us to go out and spend money sort of frivolously, as other teams have that don't stand a chance of winning on the bottom line, or even coming close on the bottom line, that's part of the whole [problem].

"We have stockholders, and there is the idea that we're up $8 million [in payroll] this year. Just because other teams have sort of lost economic sense doesn't mean we have to jump off the bridge, too. With the money that we're spending, we've got some attendance gains in there, but it's still going to be tough for us to make money. Beyond the $40 million [payroll], it'd be close to impossible to make money."

Loosely translated, the Cubs are willing to spend just enough money to keep the fans coming, even though they have the strongest corporate backing in baseball. In one respect, you have to give them credit for trying to maintain some sense of economic sanity, but this is a club that hasn't appeared in a World Series since 1945 and doesn't have much hope of getting there any time soon.

The White Sox were hit with some tough luck at the end of spring training, when Robin Ventura went down for most of the season with a frightening leg injury, but owner Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't figure to be in the mood for excuses after signing Belle to a record $55 million contract. The fans obviously aren't sold on the club, if the early attendance figures are any indication, but the real test will be when the White Sox and the weather warm up.

Right now, it's not a good time to be a baseball fan in the Second City. Not a good time to be a manager there, either. But it's early.

Insult to injury dept.

It was bad enough that the Cubs dropped to 0-8 on Thursday, but the manner in which they did it had to be even more painful for long-suffering Chicago fans. Former White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez pitched the best game of his career, carrying a no-hit bid into the ninth inning, to lead the Florida Marlins to another victory.

Granted, Cubs fans don't usually care about the White Sox, but the loss of Fernandez was considered a major blow to the city's chances of being host to postseason play this year. The loss to Fernandez on Thursday just brought it all home again.

Duking Duquette

It remains open season on unpopular Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, who further inflamed passions in Beantown last week when he let beloved Red Sox instructor Johnny Pesky know that he no longer is welcome in the club's dugout during games.

That caused more consternation in the clubhouse and created another opportunity for former Red Sox slugger Jose Canseco to take some gratuitous rips at the organization and its hands-on GM while the Red Sox were visiting Oakland early in the week.

"Dan Duquette is destroying the organization," he said. "With Roger [Clemens] and me, we would have had a shot this year. I think, definitely, if Dan would have just left the team alone -- left everything how it was -- this year would have been a great year for the Boston Red Sox."

We'll never know, but Canseco says that he knows the details of the contract dispute that prompted Clemens to bolt from Boston and sign a record contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"Clemens didn't want that much money. He would have stayed with Boston -- he even told me -- for $5 million or $6 million a year, and they wouldn't even give him that. So, I don't understand them. If this is mathematical logic, then I don't want to know about mathematical logic. There's no logic to it. It's total control [Duquette wants]. It seems like he had a total obsession with it. To-tal con-trollll You move now. You jump on it. If a player went to the bathroom, he wanted to know."

No 25-ring circus

The New York Yankees did not get their World Series rings at their home opener on Friday. The rings are expected to arrive a month late because manager Joe Torre and owner George Steinbrenner spent too much time agonizing over the design last winter.

Even when the much-coveted jewelry does get to Yankee Stadium, there is a chance it will not be handed out during an on-field ceremony. Steinbrenner is said to be hesitant to do anything to show up the opposing team.

That, of course, is ridiculous. The Yankees earned the right to be honored in front of their fans, and no opposing team is going to be the least bit put off by a pre-game ring ceremony.

Ice station zebra

Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates had the right idea when he bumped pitcher John Burkett from his scheduled start in Thursday's game at near-freezing Milwaukee County Stadium.

Oates figured that the last thing Brewers hitters would want to see on a day like that was a hard fastball, so he moved veteran Bobby Witt into the starting assignment and told him to turn it loose.

Witt did just that, throwing eight strong innings with a cold wind at his back. He gave up just three hits and struck out five before closer John Wetteland came on to pitch the ninth for his first Rangers save.

Tigers and Twins chill out

Several games were played in all-but-empty stadiums during the bitter Midwestern cold snap over the past week. There were only a couple of thousand fans -- at most -- at Tiger Stadium for Thursday's game against the Minnesota Twins, creating an eerie atmosphere in the old ballpark.

"I don't think I've ever played before when I could hear the play-by-play on the speaker in the concourse," Twins veteran Paul Molitor said. "It was a little strange to take a pitch and hear them say, 'That's ball one.' "

Home of Braves not perfect

They're still trying to work the bugs out at Turner Field, where Braves players are complaining that the lighting is positioned so poorly they have to wear sunglasses in the outfield at night.

"If you look into the lights for a couple of seconds, it's going to blind you," outfielder Ryan Klesko said. "You can't fight through it. It's like looking at the sun. They're so bright you can't look at them."

Club officials are studying the situation and could decide to reconfigure the lighting.

Old school has closed

Even after the Colorado Rockies hit a club-record seven home runs in last weekend's 15-run performance in Montreal, Expos manager Felipe Alou was not tempted to order his pitching staff to throw a couple of fastballs up and in to knock the Rockies off the plate.

"We don't play that kind of game here," Alou said. "That's not Felipe Alou baseball. I have never asked one of my pitchers to hit anybody in any league.

"I happen to be from a baseball family. Those things happen, but the order won't come from this man's office. I don't want my son Moises having to dive to the ground to avoid being hit because Gary Sheffield hit a home run in front of him."

Road warriors at last

The Rockies had one of baseball's worst road records last year, but they opened the season with a solid 4-2 road trip to Cincinnati and Montreal, batting a combined .273 and scoring 40 runs. They also hit 15 home runs after not hitting their 15th homer on the road last year until mid-May.

"We talked about it in spring training, and it wasn't going to be a factor," manager Don Baylor said. "We were going to let '96 go by the boards. We have veterans on this club. This is how they answer back."

The difference could be a healthy Larry Walker, who spent much of last season on the disabled list.

"A lot of people were saying, 'Same old Rockies,' after the first two games. 'Nothing has changed,' " said Walker, who led the home run barrage with six in the first eight games of the season. "Well, it has."

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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