St. Louis Cardinals superstar Mark McGwire has drawn his line in the sand. Baseball's reigning home run king figures to be well into the 600s by the end of the 2001 season, but he reiterated recently that he will not even attempt to challenge the all-time home run mark if baseball delays or interrupts another season with a work stoppage.
"If there is a lockout or strike after next year, you won't see me in uniform as a player again ever," McGwire said during the Cardinals' recent visit to Arizona's Bank One Ballpark. "I don't care what they try to do. I will walk away. I don't care to go through that again. What we did to the game in 1994 was absolutely horrendous. To do that to the game again, I would be embarrassed. I would think the other players think that way. I hope the owners think the same way."
McGwire said the same things when he helped rescue the game from itself with his amazing 70-homer performance in 1998. Now, with the possibility of labor trouble on the horizon again, he wants everyone to know he means it.
"Face it," he said. "There is nothing going wrong with the game of baseball. The owners are making money. The players are making money. Listen. This is the greatest game of all time. Look at the new stadiums. Look at the attendance. The bottom line is, it's common sense. Life is common sense. But do a lot of people use common sense? No. That's where the game has been embarrassed."
At the rate he's going, McGwire will finish 2000 with about 575 homers and likely would become only the fourth player to reach 600 sometime before next year's All-Star break. If history holds, that will be about the time the labor rumblings begin in earnest - and the players union will have to decide whether to threaten a late-season strike to pre-empt a possible winter lockout by ownership.
Give McGwire credit for standing up to be counted before it reaches that point. Maybe his influence among the rank-and-file players will have an impact on the situation before it reaches a critical point. And then, maybe not.
Stay tuned. The owners and players union just might call his bluff.
Remember a few weeks ago when everyone - starting right here - was making statistical comparisons between Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax? Well, they just keep getting better.
Johnson's sixth victory (on April 30) gave him an almost identical record with Koufax with an almost identical number of innings. The point was to show that Johnson already deserves Hall of Fame consideration, even though he is not yet near the traditional statistical plateaus for certain admittance.
Well, he's still at it. His 10-strikeout game Wednesday night was his 10th double-digit strikeout performance of the young season and gave him 131 after 12 starts. That total projected over 35 starts would give Johnson 382 in a full season, which - coincidentally - was the total that Koufax compiled to set the still-standing National League record in 1965.
Incidentally, Johnson's sixth strikeout Wednesday gave him 2,820 for his career, passing Cy Young to move into 14th place on the all-time list. Barring injury, he seems very likely to surpass the 3,000-strikeout plateau before the end of the 2000 season.
White flag time
The Chicago Cubs are fast coming to the realization that they need to make drastic changes to be competitive. They entered play yesterday with a 22-33 record and a frightening 57-105 mark dating to June 9 of last season - the worst record of any major-league franchise during that period.
"Everybody wants to win, but eventually this team might have to be restructured," said new manager Don Baylor. "I mean, two years running, struggling the way we've struggled ..."
Baylor stopped short of saying that it was time to give up on the 2000 season, but he didn't stop that short.
"We haven't gotten there yet," he said, "but you have to think about the future of this club."
Chicago White Sox pitcher James Baldwin seems to enjoy the great indoors. He defeated the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday with the roof closed at new Safeco Field, running his career record indoors to an amazing 15-1.
Baldwin can't explain his dome-ination, but he has been winning everywhere this season. He improved his record to 8-1 with the victory to join Pedro Martinez and David Wells as the American League's only eight-game winners at the time.
The Cincinnati Reds still are trying to catch lightning in a bottle with troubled reliever Mark Wohlers. The veteran right-hander, on a rehab assignment after 1999 elbow surgery, pitched well in a Single-A game Monday.
He threw 25 pitches (16 strikes) to five batters, striking out three, walking one and giving up a home run to an 18-year-old Seattle Mariners prospect named Chris Snelling. It wasn't perfect, but it was a step in the right direction for a pitcher whose career as one of baseball's dominant closers nearly ended because of an anxiety disorder that made it impossible to find the strike zone.
"I'm just trying to keep things in perspective," Wohlers told reporters afterward. "Looking back on where I was 10 or 11 months ago, I would have given anything to stand out there and give up a home run. If there is a plus, it's that that pitch was a strike."
If Wohlers can regain his arm strength and throw strikes, he could show up in the Reds' bullpen sometime after the All-Star break.
Steve Finley update
Former Orioles prospect Steve Finley entered the weekend with 19 home runs and52 RBIs. He's on pace to hit 58 homers and drive in 159 runs for the full season.
"That was the whole idea, not to throw him any strikes," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "We couldn't be any more explicit."
It didn't seem like a bad strategy, considering Helton's major-league-leading .421 batting average and strong run-production numbers, but it took awhile for Dierker to get his point across.
Helton got a couple of strikes and hit two home runs in the series opener. Even when the Astros' pitchers followed directions, the strategy backfired. Helton doubled and drove home a run with a sacrifice fly on Tuesday, and the second of three walks forced in the go-ahead run in a 10-7 Rockies victory.
The Philadelphia Phillies could be forgiven for entering the 2000 season with a sense of hope that the team could be competitive in the tough National League East. They did, after all, have three starting pitchers who were on last year's NL All-Star team.
Trouble is, staff ace Curt Schilling, newcomer Andy Ashby and surprising Paul Byrd all have gotten off to disappointing starts. They are a combined 4-14 with a 6.57 ERA after winning a total of 44 games last year.
"If somebody had told me that was going to happen in spring training, I wouldn't have believed them," said Byrd, who is 1-5 with a 7.86 ERA after his breakthrough season in 1999.
Schilling has an excuse. He is recently back from shoulder surgery and still is trying to recoup his velocity.
Ashby (2-6, 6.27) and Byrd are just struggling - and it is reflected in the team's league-worst 19-33 record through Friday.