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'Neon Deion' can light up an arrival, but exits are dark

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two-sport superstar Deion Sanders has always known how to make an entrance, as he clearly illustrated Tuesday with his 3-for-3 performance in his 2001 debut with the Cincinnati Reds.

The trouble is, he also knows how to make an exit, something he almost certainly will do when the grass gets a little greener again in the NFL.

Sanders' triumphant return helped the Reds generate some additional fan interest in the absence of injured Ken Griffey, but the Reds' on-again, off-again relationship with Neon Deion sends the wrong message to the rest of the club.

He is an exciting player, whatever kind of field he decides to play on, but he is not a committed baseball player. In fact, the jury remains out on whether he is a particularly valuable one.

Baseball types have always been enamored with his terrific speed, which translated into 56 stolen bases the one season (1997) that he played more than 100 games in the major leagues. But Sanders is a career .266 hitter who has never produced a .350 on-base percentage and has never scored more than 58 runs in a season.

Maybe this is the year that he breaks out with a truly great all-around performance, or even a good enough performance to convince himself that it's a lot better to be a 33-year-old baseball player than a 33-year-old defensive back. It seems more likely that he eventually will see baseball again for what it has always been to him - a way to create leverage with whatever NFL team he wants to play for next.

What's unclear is whether the Reds already suspect this or actually believe that he'll be around in September. Maybe it won't matter once Griffey returns to the everyday lineup and starts pumping home runs out of revamped Cinergy Field.

Lowe and lower

Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams finally admitted on Tuesday that struggling reliever Derek Lowe was no longer the club's full-time closer, a news flash that surprised no one - including Lowe.

The 27-year-old right-hander saved 42 games last year, but he entered the weekend 1-4 with a 6.46 ERA and two blown saves, and he's about the only thing standing between the Red Sox and a Seattle Mariners-like early-season performance.

"I'm not saying he's going to stay completely away from closing, but we're going to go to some other guys, too," Williams said. "We do need him to help us win because he's very important to this team."

Lowe accepted the demotion without rancor. What else could he do with the club in first place and the rest of the pitching staff on an amazing roll?

"When you don't do your job, you have to look at other options," Lowe said. "Now what I have to do is earn back his trust."

'Pen mightier in Chicago

Who would have thought that the Chicago Cubs would have a closer controversy? Free-agent acquisition Tom Gordon has returned from the disabled list after elbow surgery, but fill-in Jeff Fassero has proved to be one of the game's most effective closers.

Gordon said recently that he trusts manager Don Baylor to do whatever is best to keep the team moving in the right direction.

"Don has his work cut out for him," Gordon told the Chicago Sun-Times. "A manager usually does. We'll see. ... It's a blessing any time you can have a guy [like Fassero] step into a tough role like that."

Bowa constricted

New Philadelphia Phillies manager Larry Bowa has always been known for his fiery personality, but he has yet to be ejected from a game this season. Low-key Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has been thrown out twice. Easygoing San Diego Padres skipper Bruce Bochy has gotten a couple of hooks. Even stoic Bob Boone has been bounced a few times in Cincinnati.

So, when the Phillies lapsed into a four-game losing streak recently, the Philadelphia Daily News started a new promotion entitled "When Will He Blow?" - which gives fans the opportunity to win prizes for predicting the game and inning of Bowa's first ejection.

Bowa was unmoved. "I guess some people have too much time on their hands," he said.

Give Moose his due

It's OK for Orioles fans to disagree about Mike Mussina. The complexity of both his contract situation and his relationship with the Orioles' front office leaves plenty of room for mixed feelings about his departure.

That's why Mussina thinks that he'll get a mixed reaction today when he takes the mound at Camden Yards in the uniform of the hated New York Yankees. Even though he shouldn't.

No matter how Baltimoreans feel about Mussina's defection or owner Peter Angelos' reluctance to pay a market price to keep him, Orioles fans should get up and give him an unequivocal standing ovation when he takes the mound.

Mussina pitched 9 1/2 years here and never did anything to embarrass the franchise, the city or its fans. He just compiled one of the highest winning percentages in the game and helped the club reach the American League Championship Series in 1996 and '97.

He may garner some local resentment because he didn't stay around to gut out the rebuilding project. He certainly offended a lot of diehard fans by jumping to a team that most Orioles fans hate with a passion. But he played by the rules and spent half of a potential Hall of Fame career here.

That's what the fans should think about today when he walks to the center of the diamond in those awful gray uniforms. Mussina has always been a class player and Orioles fans have always been a class act.

Now is the time to prove it.

Umpires need to step up

Umpire Charlie Reliford may or may not have made the right call on the questionable play that helped decide Thursday night's game between the Orioles and Yankees, but his refusal to comment publicly afterward played like an admission that he wasn't so sure.

The Orioles felt that infielder Alfonso Soriano left too early from third base on a fly ball by catcher Joe Oliver. Hargrove got thrown out of the game for arguing the call after the Orioles threw to third on an appeal.

It isn't important whether Reliford saw it one way or the other, but the umpires need to be available to explain close calls.

The new umpires union fought during their first labor negotiation to maintain the right of umpires to speak freely with the media, but they seem increasingly reluctant to exercise that right.

Fairy tale beginning

Cleveland Indians manager Charlie Manuel has been pleased with the energy shown by his club during the early weeks of the season. He considers it a necessity if the team is going to fend off the surprising Minnesota Twins in the American League Central.

"I'm getting tired of having the Cinderella story come out of the Central every year," Manuel said. "Last year it was the Cinderella White Sox. Now it's the Cinderella Twins.

"But if you look at those teams and you can see how they can get through the tough times of the season. They're young and they have energy. There are times when we come out and look flat. We can't play that way."

Time marches on

It's almost hard to believe, but Willie Mays - the "Say Hey Kid" - turns 70 today. He doesn't have the most home runs, the most RBIs or the highest batting average, but - from this angle - he was the best all-around player ever to put on a baseball uniform.

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