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O's-Cuba exhibition needs to fly for charity's sake


Major League Baseball has steadily increased its emphasis on international outreach over the past several years, but the decision by the U.S. State Department to allow the Orioles to travel to Cuba may test that commitment.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has given the go-ahead to begin work on the proposed goodwill exhibition series, but Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association have withheld final approval until more of the details have been worked out.

In the meantime, MLB and the players union will be trying to ascertain whether there is sufficient support among the owners and players for the trip.

It's a sticky issue, of course, and there are certain to be pockets of resistance within ownership and the union, but the games should go on.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been trying to get a trip like this off the ground for several years, well aware that his desire to make an overture to the Cuban people would be controversial, but nonetheless committed to using baseball to bridge the ideological gap between the countries.

He is willing to take the risk. Major League Baseball should be willing to join him in the effort.

There are a number of major-league players of Cuban descent -- most notably former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro -- who are opposed to the overture, and that is understandable in light of the hardship that their families faced because of Fidel Castro's repressive regime. But the potential of the exhibition series to generate revenue for charities that directly benefit the Cuban people should not be ignored.

If Angelos and MLB International can put together a suitable broadcast agreement during the next couple of months, the two games could provide millions of dollars worth of food and medicine for needy Cubans.

No doubt, the trip will be a hot topic at the quarterly ownership meeting that starts Tuesday in Carlsbad, Calif. Selig doesn't figure to allow the mission to go forward if there is not widespread support among the other 29 major-league clubs, but it might be too early in the process to look for a consensus.

Hopefully, resistance will be minimal and Angelos will be able to move ahead with plans for the historic venture.

Going global II

There will be at least one major-league event in Latin America this spring. The San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies will open the regular season on April 4 in Monterrey, Mexico. The game won't really be baseball's first international opener -- they've been playing major-league baseball in Canada for the past 30 years -- but it is another important overture to a huge baseball-loving population south of the border.

Top to bottom again?

It's beginning to look like the Padres will become the second National League team in a row to go to the World Series one year and then tumble all the way to the other end of the standings the next.

The Florida Marlins bought the world title in 1997 and then downsized so dramatically that they won just 54 games and finished 52 games out of first place in the National League East last year.

Maybe the Padres aren't in danger of dropping to that level of indignity, but the events of the past two months have created the discouraging possibility that they could slip all the way to the bottom of the vastly improved National League West.

The club's top starting pitcher of 1998 signed a seven-year contract with San Diego's top NL West rival. One of the best center fielders in the league became a free agent and signed with another division contender. And the 1996 NL MVP left to sign with the defending NL Central champion.

Where do you go from there?

The departure of pitching ace Kevin Brown was not unexpected, but the impact of the loss was doubled when he signed a $105 million contract to spend the next seven years with the Dodgers.

The loss of center fielder Steve Finley and third baseman Ken Caminiti might not be quite as damaging, but taken in total, the off-season exodus clearly has reduced the Padres to something less than a divisional contender.

If that wasn't troubling enough, the Padres also lost successful pitching coach Dave Stewart, who was credited with instilling the winning attitude that turned the Padres' pitching staff into one of the best in baseball. He left to become the assistant general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays and helped engineer the deal that sent Padres No. 3 starter Joey Hamilton to the Jays last month.

The Padres still have big-swinging Greg Vaughn and future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, but it appears that Padres fans have been left with two choices: Spend next season reflecting fondly on 1998 or look ahead to the opening of the club's new state-of-the-art ballpark three years hence.

Six said no

Legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan said he was humbled to receive the second-highest percentage of votes for admittance into baseball's Hall of Fame. Just about everybody else was wondering who could possibly have voted against him.

Six of the 497 eligible voters left Ryan off their ballots. Only one -- Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin -- has gone on record with his reasoning.

Conlin explained in both a column and on a radio show that he couldn't put Ryan on the ballot the first time eligible because he had 292 career losses. Presumably, that had something to do with the decisions of the other five voters who opted against him.

The trouble is, Ryan played for losing teams for a significant portion of his career. His winning percentage with the California Angels during the 1970s was only marginally over .500, but the club's combined record over the same period was decidedly below that.

To hammer home that point, consider his 1987 performance with the struggling Houston Astros. Ryan was just 8-16, but he led the league with a 2.76 ERA, 270 strikeouts and an opponents' batting average of just .199.

Every decade or so, there is a player who deserves to be elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame. It should have happened with Willie Mays. It should have happened with Hank Aaron. It should have happened with Ryan. But the diverse nature of the huge selection committee makes it almost impossible to get a unanimous vote.

There usually are a couple of voters who refuse to vote for a first-ballot player regardless of his credentials, and there always will be a voter or two with a personal bias against an individual player -- though it would be hard to imagine anyone not having a high opinion of the gentlemanly Ryan.

Logic doesn't always figure into the equation. Conlin, for instance, didn't vote for Ryan but did vote for marginal candidate Gary Carter.

Go figure.

(Note to readers: Peter Schmuck does vote in the Hall election and did vote for Ryan and the other two successful inductees.)

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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