Big-pitch Mets add to Boss' headaches

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No one seriously believes that the New York Mets will finish the season with a better record than the defending world champion New York Yankees, but that doesn't mean they can't make The Boss sweat for a while.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner can't be happy with his club sitting so far behind the Orioles in the American League East standings, but he had to be downright embarrassed that the fledgling Mets have a better record than their cross-town rivals.

This is a New York thing. You wouldn't understand.

Steinbrenner loved the way his team took over the town last year. The Yankees succeeded where the Knicks and New York Rangers failed. They have a chance to do that again. The Mets were never supposed to be part of the equation.

Consider their pitching staff: Manager Bobby Valentine arrived at spring training expecting to have a starting rotation led by

veteran right-hander Pete Harnisch and populated with promising youngsters Jason Isringhausen, Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher. Harnisch is at home battling depression and none of the three top pitching prospects has thrown in the majors this season.

Nevertheless, the Mets' pitching staff entered yesterday ranked third in the National League in team ERA and the team stood 1 1/2 games better than the Yankees at 29-23. How galling that must be the same week that Steinbrenner had to write a $2.8 million revenue-sharing check to help prop up baseball's small spenders.

"No question, he won't stand for that," Darryl Strawberry told the New York Post early last week. "I think he wants to be the New York team, not only from the standpoint of the Mets and Yankees, but with the Knicks and Rangers losing, he wants to be the one team that stands out. Last year, of course, we did that. This year, so far, we have not accomplished what we're capable of. I'm sure that bothers him more than anything."

The Mets have little chance of competing in a National League East that is dominated by the big-spending Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins, but a third-place finish and a .500 record would be a big step in the right direction for a developing club.

Six members of the pitching staff have ERAs under 3.00, including starter Bobby Jones, who improved to 9-2 and 2.32 with a four-hit shutout Wednesday. New first baseman John Olerud has rebounded from a couple of disappointing seasons and second baseman Carlos Baerga appears to have reawakened at the plate, giving Mets fans hope that the club can break a string of six straight losing seasons.

That's no lock, but the Mets surely would love to give the Yankees a beating when the New York teams meet in regular-season competition for the first time in a three-game interleague series June 16-18 at Yankee Stadium.

Welcome to George Steinbrenner's nightmare.

Irabu contract irritating

There already was a lot of grumbling going on in the Yankees' clubhouse by the time the club officially announced that Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu had signed a four-year deal (including 1997) worth a guaranteed $12.8 million. The final numbers -- though slightly lower than anticipated -- probably won't do anything to calm his new teammates.

Irabu, who has never thrown a pitch in the majors, will arrive in New York making more money than 18 of the 25 players on the Yankees' roster.

"I think it's [expletive] that he's getting all that money, but if he can get it, he can get it," Yankees pitcher David Wells said after news leaked of the deal early in the week. "Does he deserve it? No. Personally, I don't care, but a lot of guys in here are going to be offended when the deal gets done."

That may be true, but some members of the Yankees' scouting department think that he may be the guy to help the club return to the top of the AL East standings. And at least one influential player believes his teammates should look at the bigger picture.

"They fail to realize that Irabu's presence will have a long-term impact on the game," said pitcher David Cone. "He's the wave of the future -- the global aspect of baseball. Irabu's just gotten out from under a prohibitive free-agency system in Japan. He stood up to them. We should admire the guy for what he did."

Too much too soon

The June amateur free-agent draft begins Tuesday and everyone is wondering just how much it's going to cost to sign this year's crop of top high school and college players.

The expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks raised the bar when they handed $10 million packages to Travis Lee and Bobby Seay, and raised alarm in front offices throughout both leagues.

"It's a little bit disturbing to see that happen," said Texas Rangers GM Doug Melvin. "It got a little bit ridiculous what those salaries are for unproven players. I don't think it was right they gave them that kind of money. I don't understand it. I have trouble understanding how you can give an unproven player that kind of money."

The Irabu situation is different, since he was an established player in Japan, but his contract is further proof that baseball's salary system is even more out of whack than it was before the owners finally succeeded in imposing a luxury tax on big payrolls.

Million-dollar madness

The Braves have unveiled an area on the left-field roof at Turner Field where any fan who catches a home run ball will win $1 million.

Of course, there's a catch. Sky Field, which is sponsored by the Coca-Cola Co., is 475 feet from home plate and 80 feet above left field.

"No chance," said Braves left fielder Ryan Klesko. "It's too far away. The only guy who has a chance is Mark McGwire. He has the best chance with the wind blowing out at 80 miles per hour."

Said pitcher Tom Glavine: "If I'm going to give one up that far, I'm sure glad somebody is going to win a million dollars."

Justice prevails

Cleveland Indians outfielder David Justice has done just about everything necessary to replace Albert Belle but chase the local school kids around town with his car, but he still wants to overcome the perception that he is getting fat on thin American League pitching.

"All I hear the media say is that the pitching is bad in this league," said Justice, who is hitting .383 with 16 home runs and 44 RBIs. "In other words, a guy coming over from the National League can't be that good. And that if I was in the National League, I wouldn't be hitting like this.

"I've never seen an asterisk next to Ken Griffey's name or Frank Thomas' name. The way the media talks, Griffey and Thomas wouldn't be good in the National League. But if the pitching is that bad here, everybody should be hitting like those guys, and I don't see that. They have great hitters in the American League. More than in the National League. I think they should get some credit."

Just say Mo

Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn met with general manager Dan Duquette on Wednesday to discuss Vaughn's future with the club, but no contract extension appears to be forthcoming.

Vaughn is signed through 1998 and the club holds an option for 1999, so Duquette has little incentive to tear up the existing contract and compete with the giant deals that have been given to the likes of Belle and Gary Sheffield.

Though Vaughn has given indications during the past few months that he might want to leave Boston, he sat down with Duquette hoping to end the suspense early.

"I don't want it to come to that in '98 and become a free agent," he said.

The only thing he got from Duquette during the meeting, however, was an assurance that the club is not trying to trade him.

Ryne on the pine

Does the Mendoza Line mean that it is close to the end of the line for Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg? That's the way it seemed after manager Jim Riggleman looked at Sandberg's .200 batting average and decided to platoon him.

"I told him this is how it will be for the immediate future," Riggleman said. "It could change in a few days. Through the course of the next few days we'll see where this is taking us. He'll be pinch hitting, and maybe something clicks in and you're out there every day."

Cincy shake-up

Cincinnati Reds manager Ray Knight shook up his coaching staff Tuesday. He didn't fire anybody, but he changed several coaching assignments in the hope of improving the performance of both the staff and the team.

Denis Menke, the hitting coach, became the bench coach. Ken Griffey, the first base coach, became the hitting coach. Joel Youngblood, who was the third base coach before Knight took over that job himself, will coach first base and work with the outfielders. Pitching coach Don Gullett, bullpen coach Tom Hume and defensive coordinator Ron Oester remained in their original roles.

Knight explained that he made the changes because he needs Menke in the dugout and Griffey already was acting as an ad hoc hitting coach. Of course, if the Reds don't get out of the NL Central cellar soon, they might all be out on the street.

Extra bases

With left fielder Al Martin and shortstop Kevin Elster on the disabled list, the Pirates' 25-man roster does not include a single player with a seven-figure salary. Reserve infielder Kevin Young is the highest paid on the active roster at $350,000.

When Omar Olivares shut out the Angels on Monday, he became the first Detroit pitcher to throw back-to-back shutouts at Tiger Stadium since Denny McLain in 1969.

The Marlins' Jim Eisenreich had three more RBIs against the Dodgers on Tuesday. He has a .421 lifetime batting average against Los Angeles, with 43 RBIs in 183 at-bats. Not bad for a guy who averages about 12 career RBIs against the other NL teams.

Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa and Pirates infielder Tony Womack hit inside-the-park home runs in the sixth inning of Monday's game at Three Rivers Stadium. It was the first time two insiders were hit in the same inning since Toby Harrah and Bump Wills did it on consecutive pitches on Aug. 27, 1977, at Yankee Stadium.

Pub Date: 6/01/97

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