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Game extends fences - to Near East


If you need any more proof that baseball has become a truly global sport, Major League Baseball International has expanded into the Middle East, signing a contract with an Israeli sports marketing firm to promote baseball in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers public relations executive Chuck Harris, who emigrated to Israel and founded the international marketing firm Coast-2-Coast Communications five years ago, will head the effort to enhance the popularity of baseball in an area that has had little contact with the sport.

Baseball is relatively new to Israel and its surrounding countries. The Israel Association of Baseball was created just 13 years ago, but now includes 71 teams and about 1,000 players, some of them Palestinian.

Baseball officials hope that expanding the game into Jordan and the Palestinian Authority also will play a small role in helping to reduce ethnic tensions in the area.

"Baseball is a game that lends itself to friendship and understanding," said former Montreal Expos owner Charles Bronfman, who instituted a baseball exchange program in Quebec to promote better relations between the English-speaking and French-speaking communities.

It may be decades - if ever - before any of the Middle East countries become major international baseball powers, but the decision to actively promote the game there is another indication that Major League Baseball intends to plant interest in baseball in every corner of the globe.

Baseball's international efforts already have included a regular-season series in Japan, last year's Orioles goodwill trip to Cuba and several other international exhibition games.

Major League Baseball International, which keeps offices in Sydney, London and Toronto, already has set up similar promotional partnerships in Japan, Germany, the Dominican Republic and South Africa.

Rich get richer

Everything's coming up pinstripes. No wonder the Orioles are hesitant to make a deal with the rival New York Yankees. Every time Brian Cashman has made a move this year, it has worked out great for the two-time defending world champions.

He deals for David Justice and the veteran outfielder drives in 15 runs in his first 20 games. He deals for Denny Neagle, and the Baltimore area native is nearly unhittable in his first two starts.

Even the lesser acquisitions have been doing great things. Dwight Gooden has returned to win his first three decisions. Glenallen Hill homered off Orioles rookie John Parrish in his first Yankees at-bat. And Jose Vizcaino entered the weekend batting .338 since the June 20 deal with the Dodgers.

Gooden almost looks like his old self, giving up just five runs in his first 22 innings back in the Yankees' rotation. But looks can be deceiving. Gooden is getting better results because he is beginning to adjust to life as an aging pitcher.

He has added a split-fingered pitch that he uses as a changeup and has reduced his dependence on power to get batters out. He also has embarked on a new muscle-manipulation program with Tampa-based trainer Al Meilus that has helped him recover some of his lost velocity.

His fastball is topping out at about 92 mph, which is still well below what he threw as one of baseball's most overpowering pitchers in the mid-1980s. Meilus has told him that he should be able to get back to about 95 mph with the arm-stretching exercises, but the pitcher says the added velocity is not the most important thing.

"All I know is I got looser quicker and I'm not as sore the next day," Gooden said. "That's what matters most. The velocity is nice, but I'm not at that stage of my career anymore, trying to blow hitters away."

Non-deal review

New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips clearly is miffed at the way the Barry Larkin non-trade went down. He told reporters he was "astonished" when he learned that the veteran shortstop had vetoed a trade to the Mets and re-signed with the Reds last weekend. Phillips apparently felt he was misled by Reds GM Jim Bowden, who reportedly assured him that Larkin would accept the trade.

"I guess I got Barry a contract," Phillips told reporters. "Maybe I should call his agent and collect a fee."

If that didn't hurt enough, the Phillies also spurned several Mets offers for pitching ace Curt Schilling before trading him to Arizona, a team that the Mets are likely to face in the playoffs if they overtake the Braves in the NL East or win the wild-card berth.

What are the odds

In the San Diego Padres' 3-2 victory over the Giants on Tuesday, manager Bruce Bochy ordered shortstop Kevin Nicholson to sacrifice - with pitcher Woody Williams on deck.

Williams entered the game with a .348 average and had three hits in his previous start against Giants starter Kirk Reuter. This time, he nearly hit a three-run home run, but ended up with a sacrifice fly when his drive to deep left field was caught at the fence.

"You don't say this too often, but Woody's in a zone at the plate," Bochy said. "He looks so good up there. It's obvious by the way he's taking pitches."

Price of success

San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker has gained so much respect during his years running the club that he's now getting tired of dealing with rumors about where he might end up next.

The issue arose last weekend in Los Angeles, where Baker spent most of his playing career and where Davey Johnson could be on the way out if the Dodgers don't reach the playoffs.

"I have no interest in coming back to L.A.," Baker said. "I really don't need no distractions. My interest is in winning the pennant in San Francisco. Am I going to have to cover this wherever I go where a manager has got the heat?"

Probably. But Baker's lack of interest in the Dodgers should not be surprising, considering the ugly way he was released by the club. He left the team under a cloud because of unsubstantiated rumors of drug use - dropped in one of the local papers by an unidentified club source.

Also, Baker has better things to worry about. The Giants moved into a virtual tie with Arizona on Wednesday after picking up nine games on the NL West leaders in seven weeks, but found out the same day that the D-backs had acquired Schilling for the stretch.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Baker said. "We've got to worry about ourselves and got to do what we can do. You can't necessarily be reactive on something they do. ... Certainly, he's a great pitcher. That's the best right-left combination you can have around. If you face them back-to-back, you better pack extra bats because they're going to break them."

The Giants have a chance to face them back-to-back twice in the final two weeks of the season. They play eight of their last 12 games against the Diamondbacks, so it would probably be a good idea to pull away from them right now.

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