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As is his habit, umps union head makes a bad call for attention

It was just what baseball didn't need during the first week of the postseason -- another ill-timed grandstand play by attention-starved Major League Baseball Umpires Association chief Richie Phillips. But it was not altogether unexpected.

Phillips has made a habit of picking the playoffs to make a publicity play. He spent last October hanging around the media interview room in New York trying to squeeze every last drop of media coverage out of the Roberto Alomar/John Hirschbeck controversy. Now, he has created his own pretext for protest, the so-called "Code of Conduct" that he and the umpires devised last week to counter what they believe is a lack of respect for authority in baseball.

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It is not a new issue. Phillips has made it his life's work to advance the interests of the umpires -- which is admirable -- and he has helped them make great advances in their collective bargaining relationship with management. He just doesn't know when to stop fighting. This is not the time or the place.

Baseball's image is battered. The game has been in a state of near-constant labor unrest in the 1990s, and it has been peppered with one troublesome controversy after another. If that isn't enough, the industry has been in turmoil the last few months because of uncertainty over proposed realignment.

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Enter Phillips, with his code of conduct and a petulant postal exchange with baseball officials last week. He just can't get enough media attention and he just doesn't get it.

The fans have had enough. Baseball's postseason, for all of its scheduling flaws and format problems, is supposed to be a respite from the problems of the real world. The umpires are supposed to be part of the entertainment package -- and they generally do an excellent job of presiding over the games. They should not, however, be the focus of attention either on or off the field.

Though it clearly is a source of frustration for Phillips, it will always be about the players. The umpires are part of the supporting cast. They should not be upstaging the postseason.

Myers should be priority

The Orioles must decide soon whether they are going to make a concerted effort to re-sign closer Randy Myers or gamble that inexperienced Armando Benitez can take over the role next season.

It shouldn't be a tough call, but it is a complicated situation. The Orioles need Myers back for at least one more year, but it may be difficult to convince him to forgo free agency for a one-year contract. Benitez needs at least one more year to mature into a dependable late-inning pitcher, but the organization may be tempted to gamble on his growth and save millions in salary.

The decision may depend on the outcome of the postseason. If the Orioles go on to win the World Series, they may feel that they can afford to take a chance -- the same rationale employed by the New York Yankees when they allowed John Wetteland to become a free agent and replaced him with Mariano Rivera. If they fall short, there will be pressure to hold the bullpen together for another run at the world title.

Colorado Rockies outfielder Dante Bichette had another productive year, finishing with a .308 average, 26 homers and 118 RBIs this year, but there is speculation that he will be shopped to an American League club this off-season.

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Bichette underwent reconstructive knee surgery a year ago and hasn't been the same since. The Rockies are looking for a place to put top prospect Todd Helton, and the logical place is left field, so there is the possibility that general manager Bob Gebhard will try to convince an American League club that Bichette would be a perfect fit as a designated hitter.

Sounds logical enough, if somebody is willing to pick up the final year of his contract at a price tag of nearly $5 million. Bichette has a limited no-trade clause, but said recently he would not stand in the way of a deal or prevent the club from making him available in the expansion draft.

"No way," he said. "The last thing I'd do is force anybody to keep me." He doesn't have a clue what's going to happen, but seems open to just about any possibility -- including an early retirement.

"I don't know whether I should go become a designated hitter in the American League next year, whether I should try to be a right fielder again someplace else or whether I should just go home and watch cartoons," said Bichette, 33. "But my first choice would be to play another five years in Colorado."

Upside potential

The Pittsburgh Pirates proved this year that they could compete on a shoestring budget, but now they face what might be a more difficult task -- improving on their surprising 1997 finish.

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The way to improve on second place is to win the National League Central title -- or win the wild card -- but the club benefited from a soft division to stay in contention into the final week of the season.

"Realistically, we'll probably have to win 10-15 more games next season to have a chance at winning the division," manager Gene Lamont said.

Though the Pirates came out of nowhere to treat their fans to a surprisingly exciting season, general manager Cam Bonifay said recently that the organization does not feel pressure to take another giant step in 1998.

"The only expectations we have to worry about are our own," Bonifay said. "We can't control what the fans or media might think or expect. We still realize we are in the early stages of a rebuilding process, and we're not going to lose sight of that. We're trying to build something for the long haul."

Who's next?

The Toronto Blue Jays have begun the search for a manager, but rumors that the club will ask future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to return to Toronto as a player/manager appear to be unfounded.

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Molitor is a popular figure in Toronto and probably will make a great manager someday, but he likely will play one more season in Minnesota and then take some time off before considering a second baseball career.

Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash has indicated that he would like someone like Milwaukee manager Phil Garner, but the Brewers aren't likely to let him get away.

"I'd like to see an aggressive manager," Ash said. "I don't believe baseball has to be the equivalent of an English afternoon tea. I like some emotion. I believe in hard work."

The list of likely candidates includes Detroit Tigers coach Larry Parrish, Yankees coaches Chris Chambliss and Willie Randolph and Orioles hitting coach Rick Down.

Same situation in Chicago

Chambliss appears to be the leading candidate to replace Terry Bevington, who was fired last week by the Chicago White Sox, but there have been rumors the club will consider fired Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston.

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That seems far-fetched, but Gaston would not be a bad fit on the South Side, where the White Sox have a core of veteran players who might respond well to Gaston's quiet, let-'em-play style of managing.

Showing the money

In this age of cost cutting and small-market angst, it's refreshing to see an owner itching to spend his money. Colorado Rockies chairman Jerry McMorris said recently that the club may again try to beef up its pitching with a free-agent acquisition or two.

That's not surprising from an economic standpoint, because the Rockies are one of baseball's top grossing teams, but it is surprising in light of the club's poor track record with free-agent pitchers. Colorado signed Bill Swift and Bret Saberhagen to large contracts and got little in return.

"I'm not going to say we're going to go out and throw money at stiffs for the sake of spending money," McMorris said. "That's not the name of the game. We'll be willing to take a significant increase in the payroll if we can get value for the money."

The object of the club's interest might be free agent Darryl Kile, who figures to draw interest from a number of teams and command more than $7 million per year. Kile should benefit because several big-time pitchers re-signed over the past few months and will not be entering the market.

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Pub Date: 10/05/97



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