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Piazza tables talks until season's end

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza already has set a major-league record this year -- most money ever turned down by a major-league baseball player. The Dodgers offered him a six-year contract worth $14 million per year ($84 million) and Piazza responded by breaking off negotiations.

Piazza announced that decision after Dodgers fans booed him on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday and kept the heat on him the following night.

"I have let the talks become a distraction, and for that I apologize to my teammates and our fans," Piazza said in a prepared statement. "For the rest of the season, I will focus completely on bringing a championship to Los Angeles and will not discuss my contract status with anyone until the season ends."

That's probably a smart move, considering that agent Dan Lozano has built a huge arbitrary wall between the two sides by insisting that Piazza become the first $100 million player. He may be worth that in today's market, but it still appears that his demands are as much ego-driven as market-driven. It just isn't clear whose ego -- Piazza's or Lozano's -- is in the driver's seat.

The Dodgers have made a reasonable offer, but Piazza apparently is intent on breaking the nine-figure barrier. Everyone assumes that he'll succeed if he becomes a free agent, but that depends on how many clubs are willing to bid at that level.

Dodgers general manager Fred Claire also released a diplomatic statement that echoed Piazza's announcement.

"Both sides have agreed this is the best course of action to take at this time," Claire said. "It probably is the only thing we have agreed on."

The Dodgers have a two-week window after the World Series to negotiate exclusively with Piazza, but the probability of him becoming a free agent and leaving the club increased dramatically over the past week.

Just to put the whole thing in perspective, consider that the Dodgers' offer is $9 million richer than Pedro Martinez's record six-year contract and that the gap between the club's offer and Piazza's demand is roughly equivalent to the size of the three-year contract extension Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina signed last spring.

A place for McDonald

Injured right-hander Ben McDonald -- who was released recently by the Milwaukee Brewers -- is drawing some interest from the Texas Rangers, where general manager Doug Melvin and manager Johnny Oates remember him fondly from their time together in Baltimore.

"I'd have to look at the medical reports, but based on our past association, I think we might have some interest," Melvin said recently.

Orioles officials, by the way, already have said that they have little interest in McDonald, who will be out all season recovering from surgery.

Tough customer

The Minnesota Twins are still fuming about the incident eight days ago, when Kansas City Royals rookie shortstop Felix Martinez allegedly kicked veteran Otis Nixon in the face and broke his jaw.

Twins GM Terry Ryan has forwarded videotape of the incident to American League president Gene Budig in the hope that the league office will look deeper into the matter.

Martinez apparently has a history of volatile behavior. His poor behavior in the Double-A Texas League led to a series of ejections and fines in 1995, including a five-day suspension for accosting an umpire.

Texas League president Tom Kayser told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Martinez was pulled away by a teammate as he cocked his arm to punch the umpire after an argument escalated into a bumping incident.

"Felix is as volatile a player as I've had," Kayser said. "Felix is very, very lucky he had a teammate as close as he did when he bumped the umpire. If the guy wasn't standing next to him, it certainly appeared as if he was about to strike the umpire.

"If that had occurred, he would have been suspended for a long time. He certainly would have been suspended all of that year and part of the next. He's a handful."

It will be interesting to see if Budig takes action, and -- if so -- whether the Major League Baseball Players Association jumps blindly to Martinez's defense. He sounds like a candidate for an anger-management seminar.

Honesty is best policy

Florida Marlins manager Jim Leyland stopped trying to sugarcoat it after his club lost its eighth straight game on Wednesday in Philadelphia.

"We stink right now," Leyland said. "We're getting just what we deserve. When you play the way we're playing right now, you get beat. We're not doing any phase of the game well right now."

Good deal

Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove has no regrets about the deal that sent top hitting prospect Sean Casey to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Dave Burba, perhaps because Burba has been one of the most consistent pitchers on the staff since his abrupt arrival just before Opening Day.

Burba has made two starts for the Indians, giving up just three runs in 14 innings (1.93 ERA). He was charged with the only loss on the club's season-opening road trip, but only because the Cleveland offense finally took a day off. The Indians were averaging eight runs per game before they were shut down by A's left-hander Kenny Rogers on Wednesday.

"If we give Dave any kind of run support, he's going to win a lot of games for us," Hargrove said.

Marked man

Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Devon White has been ejected from three games in his three-plus seasons in the National League, each time by the same umpire -- Angel Hernandez.

"Every time he's behind the plate, I'm not going to get a good pitch because he will call anything," White said. "This has been going on for three years."

Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola Jr. called National League president Len Coleman to talk about the situation after the latest incident last week and White was scheduled to speak to Coleman by this weekend.

"I think he definitely has a vendetta," White said. "Leonard Coleman should look at the situation. Three years in a row, the same two guys are going at it. Something's got to be wrong. They should find out what's going on. I'm not saying everyone's perfect, but you have to be consistent. He [Hernandez] is consistent, throwing me out of games."

Breaking up is hard to do

He could be politicking for a new stadium. He could be telling LTC the hard truth. One way or the other, San Diego Padres owner John Moores is letting it be known that the club could be broken up after this year if something doesn't happen to spur revenues.

The Padres' payroll already stands at $46 million and veterans Kevin Brown, Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley and Wally Joyner will be free agents at the end of the season.

"It's a real problem, I'll tell you," Moores said last week. "It's going to be tough to keep Caminiti and Finley, let alone Joyner and Brown. Caminiti and Finley got here at the same time I did. I don't like the idea of having a team they're not on, like the universe would be out of sync. The thought of not having those guys makes me want to throw up.

"These guys are going to find out what they're worth at the end of the season and I can't begrudge them. I'm sure they're going to want more, although I can't say how much more. Clearly it will take more revenue to keep them here. One possibility would be a new ballpark stimulating ticket sales."

Heating up early

April isn't usually a big month for Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who entered 1998 with just five career homers during the first month of the season. But something is clicking this year.

Jones had 14 hits in his first 28 regular season at-bats, with four home runs and 11 RBIs.

"I'm not known for my Aprils," Jones said. "I'm not a cold-weather hitter, so I want to ride this wave as far as it will take me."

Out of proportion

Through the Boston Red Sox's first seven games, three players had combined for 20 of the club's 30 RBIs. Mo Vaughn, Nomar Garciaparra and Scott Hatteburg have been carrying the offense, which explains why the Red Sox are doing a perfect imitation of the punchless Toronto Blue Jays.

Time to pack it in

The Chicago White Sox should have moved to Tampa when they had the chance. The club drew just 25,358 for its home opener Monday, the smallest crowd for a White Sox opener since 1975.

That's not the worst of it. The "White Flag" Sox -- as some of their fans have begun to think of them since the unpopular decision to dump several key veterans at midseason last year -- did not even outdraw the inaugural game of the Chicago Fire, whose Major League Soccer debut a week earlier brought 36,444 to Soldier Field.

In their defense, the Sox were going head-to-head with Monday's Mets-Cubs game across town, but White Sox officials have long contended that the Sox and Cubs do not draw from the same fan pool.

Quote of the week

White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura, on what it's like now that Ozzie Guillen is no longer on the club: "It's a lot quieter, and there's not as much voodoo paraphernalia hanging around."

Pub Date: 4/12/98

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