Team of '90s might have top manager, too, in Cox

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Atlanta Braves uncorked the champagne for an unprecedented sixth straight division title Monday, the baseball world bowed again to the power of great pitching and the importance of a big payroll in the 1990s. But it would be unfair to overlook the accomplishment of manager Bobby Cox.

He is too quiet to blow his own horn, but Cox has emerged as one of the best managers of his generation. He now owns seven division titles, equaling Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda for the most by a manager since the beginning of divisional play in 1969.

"I'm a one-year-at-a-time guy, although I know what's happened," Cox said. "I'm not oblivious to it."

Of course, like Lasorda, Cox will always have to battle the notion that he was merely the caretaker of a talent-laden team, but he deserves his share of the credit. Granted, you don't win that many titles without talent, but plenty of managers have had great talent and not had great success.

There is something to be said for keeping a good club focused for knowing when the best button to push is none at all for just not screwing it up. Cox is a good, solid manager who has had success in both leagues and probably is going to have a lot more.

The Braves have spent a ton to keep baseball's best starting rotation largely intact for the rest of the decade. The club already is "The team of the '90s," -- no one is in range of equaling six titles -- and is in excellent position to remain on top. Cox has been rumored to be headed back to Toronto to help return the Blue Jays to prominence, but don't bet on him walking away from the near-perfect environment he has helped develop in Atlanta.

Fearsome foursome

The 1971 Orioles own the distinction of being the only team since 1920 to have four 20-game winners on the same staff, but this year's Braves rotation might be just as good, even though only Denny Neagle reached 20 victories.

Keep in mind that today's starters work in five-man rotations and get significantly fewer starts than Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson did in the early '70s, yet Neagle won 20, Greg Maddux came close and Tom Glavine had a combined 2.84 ERA in his 11 no-decisions. Even John Smoltz, who appeared to have a disappointing year after last year's Cy Young performance, pitched well enough to win a lot more games if he had gotten sufficient run support.

"You've got to catch an awful lot of breaks to win 20 games," Maddux said recently. "To see four guys in the whole league do it, let alone four guys on the same team [is rare]. Everybody here has certainly pitched well enough to do it."

Avery's $3.9 million game

Did Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams unilaterally take a stand for the credibility of the organization when he decided this week to put struggling left-hander Steve Avery back in the rotation for Thursday night's start against the Detroit Tigers?

Williams sent Avery to the mound even though his start would cost the Red Sox $3.9 million, the amount the club would have to guarantee next year if Avery made his 18th start of the season. He made the decision after consultation with both GM Dan Duquette and CEO John Harrington, but there was speculation that the decision was made over Duquette's objections.

Williams indicated that he wanted to remove the stigma that has been attached to the Red Sox organization by the unhappy departure of Roger Clemens and the feud between Mo Vaughn and the front office. He cited no-trade-to-Boston clauses in the contracts of Cleveland Indians veterans Marquis Grissom and David Justice as proof that the club has an image problem.

"I believe you've got to have good credibility," Williams said. "Free agents. I want them to come here. We don't need these stipulations in their contracts. There are 26-27 other teams. Why pick on us? That bothers me. I want them to come to Boston. Trust and credibility I think are important."

There is one other possible explanation. The Red Sox may have agreed behind closed doors to start Avery and put a positive spin on it rather than end up giving him the $3.9 million anyway after the players union files a grievance charging he was improperly denied the right to fulfill his contract.

Oh, by the way, Avery turned in his best performance of the year Thursday night, giving up two hits over five scoreless innings, but it only dropped his ERA to 6.42.

Sandberg's last day

Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg is scheduled to play his final game today at Busch Stadium, and says that this time -- even though he's batting over .300 since June 1 -- he's retiring for good.

"I never said I couldn't play," he said. "Other people have said I couldn't play. I have other things that have changed my life. It's just time. I feel like I've put in my years and have had my fun with it. Time to do something else."

Sandberg said last week that he wants to remain associated with baseball, but doesn't see any future with the Cubs organization. There has been speculation that he might end up joining the new Arizona Diamondbacks organization in some capacity.

Jack's back

It's probably fair to say that 66-year-old Jack McKeon surprised everyone when he took over as Cincinnati Reds manager and turned the team around. That earned him a contract for 1998, but the environment will be entirely different next year.

McKeon took over with absolutely no pressure to win. The Reds already were a lost cause, and he was installed as interim manager to integrate the club's best young prospects into the major-league lineup. The club probably is more than a year away from being a contender, but McKeon won't have quite the same free ride next season.

He was given a one-year contract and likely has to finish above .500 with an inexperienced club to hold the job, but he didn't seem particularly interested in a multi-year deal.

"That's not an issue with me," he said. "Security is for guys that don't have any confidence. I look forward to being here for a few years. One-year contracts don't bother me. Every time I had a long-term contract, I got fired."

Not-so-bold prediction

During the Cleveland Indians' on-field celebration Tuesday night, left-hander Brian Anderson grabbed the microphone and told the assembled multitude: "I'm starting tomorrow. Don't expect too much."

Sure enough, Anderson started in place of playoff-bound rookie Jaret Wright and gave up seven runs on 10 hits over four innings.

"That's too much prophecy for me," Anderson said. "What an idiot thing to say. It came back and bit me on the butt."

Gwynn: Walker is MVP

Future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who has jousted with Larry Walker all season in pursuit of his eighth National League batting crown, says Walker is the obvious choice for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

"I look at the total package," Gwynn said. "He's a Gold Glove outfielder. He's the best base runner in this league. He has 30 steals. He's playing hurt. He's hitting the ball with power. He's driven in a boatload of runs. And he's leading the league in hitting. What else can you ask for?"

For the record, Gwynn also favors Montreal Expos starter Pedro Martinez for the NL Cy Young Award.

Fielder's departure

Tough crowd. Cecil Fielder hit his 300th career home run on his 34th birthday last Sunday, but it was hard to enjoy the moment because Yankees fans had been booing him all day long.

"You've got to remember where you're at," Fielder said. "I understand what's going on. If that's the way it's going to be, hey, I've handled it this far. I'm just going to finish handling it, and I'll go and choose what I'm going to do.

"It's been very difficult to enjoy [the season], going out there and hearing that stuff, especially after we won the World Series. I think I had a pretty good part of that. It's like I didn't hit .400 [.391] in the World Series or help us win."

Fielder has had a terrible season, however, and made Yankees fans forget his big World Series by engaging the club in a spring contract dispute. He has hit just 12 home runs, or just a little more than one for every million dollars he earned this year.

Dunston changes tune

Shortstop Shawon Dunston wasn't happy when the Chicago Cubs traded him to Pittsburgh, and he didn't make a secret of it. But now he says he is open to the possibility of signing a one-year contract to remain with the Pirates for the 1998 season.

"I'll be a free agent, but I'm also a Pittsburgh Pirate now," he said. "I'd give the Pirates the first crack at signing me. If they want me back, I'd be happy to try to work something out that would keep me here.

"I didn't feel comfortable about coming here at first. I didn't want to leave the Cubs and I didn't know how I'd fit in with this club. But it hasn't taken me long to become happy here. I've been made to feel welcome, and I appreciate that."

Crooked numbers

Starter Charles Nagy, the Indians' leading winner with 15, won't start until Game 3 in the Division Series against New York. He was awful against the Yankees this year, going 0-2 with an 18.00 ERA in three starts -- 18 runs, 24 hits in nine innings.

Roger Clemens can break his career mark for strikeouts in a season (291) if he gets eight today against his former team, the Red Sox, in the regular-season finale at SkyDome. He needs 16 to reach 300, which is unlikely but he has done it against the Red Sox once this year.

The Red Sox may have found themselves another starter for 1998. Butch Henry, who had not started since 1995 because of arm problems, went 2-0 with an 0.73 ERA in four late-season starts before giving up three runs in 5 2/3 innings in a 3-0 loss to Toronto on Friday.

Former Orioles pitcher Kent Mercker will finish the season with an 8-11 record, but with an explanation. He entered the final week of the regular season with the worst run support of any NL starter (2.92 per start). That's why the Reds likely will re-sign him after the expansion draft.

Phillies pitcher Mark Leiter lost for the 17th time on Monday, giving him the most losses by a Phillies pitcher since Steve Carlton went 13-20 in 1973. Carlton had a far better year, however, with a 3.90 ERA (to Leiter's 5.67) and 223 strikeouts.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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