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THE BALTIMORE SUN

Coming to America

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was supposed to tone down his spending after baseball owners concocted a new revenue-sharing and luxury tax plan that clearly was intended to blunt the huge economic advantage enjoyed by his gold-mine franchise.

So what did he do? He signed Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras and Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui to huge contracts that further enhanced the global appeal -- and the gaudy payroll -- of the Yankees.

Don't think there aren't a few owners out there hoping that the Boss and his new imports go bust. How else will anyone overcome what Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino recently dubbed the "evil empire"?

Collusion course

The Major League Baseball Players Association once got the drop on the owners for $280 million after proving to an arbitrator that they had conspired to shut down the free-agent market in the late 1980s.

Now, the union is involved in a quiet investigation to determine whether the owners again were guilty of collusion when the free-agent gravy train dried up this past offseason.

It's a long shot. The owners have made a strong case that widespread revenue problems have left them no choice but to cut back on payrolls. They probably have acted in concert to some degree, but proving it to the satisfaction of an arbitrator will be difficult.

Vagabond Expos

The Montreal Expos are going to play to sellout crowds this year, but probably not in Canada. The contraction kids will play 22 home games in a cozy ballpark in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to raise a few bucks and create a little added excitement for a franchise in limbo.

Where do they go from there? There is talk the Expos may play half of their home schedule in Puerto Rico in 2004 to buy more time before Major League Baseball decides where to relocate them.

Washington still beckons, but if Bud Selig were going to disregard the objections of the Orioles, why hasn't he done it already?

Orioles' new plan

The Orioles and their fans have suffered through five straight losing seasons and appear destined for at least one more, but there has been a clear change in the direction of the franchise.

Owner Peter Angelos replaced baseball operations chief Syd Thrift with former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan and former Expos GM Jim Beattie, signaling the possibility of a new era for a team that once was one of the jewels of the American League.

The new front office already has set to work revamping the minor league system and tweaking the major league roster. If there is noticeable improvement at the major league level this season, look for Angelos to approve a big push in the free-agent market in November.

Tejada's last stand

Speaking of which, the Oakland Athletics recently announced that they would not try to sign American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada to a multi-year deal after his contract expires this season, which means he'll likely be the most attractive player in the next free-agent market.

Even though the Orioles have had trouble luring free agents to Baltimore recently, they will be a strong candidate to sign Tejada for a couple of reasons: They'll have the money available, and the Yankees, Red Sox and Texas Rangers already have premier shortstops.

Braves under siege

The Atlanta Braves haven't missed the postseason since 1990, but they face a multilateral challenge to their divisional dynasty this year. The rival Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets spent liberally in the otherwise skimpy free-agent market to turn the National League East into one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.

The Braves even helped, trading solid starter Kevin Millwood to the Phillies and standing by while the Mets snatched two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine out of their rotation. But it still appears the Braves are positioned well to get back to the postseason.

General manager John Schuerholz pulled off a complicated deal to acquire Mike Hampton without absorbing all of his huge contract and also picked up starters Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz. If Greg Maddux is still Greg Maddux, the Braves might not miss a beat.

The ephedrine debate

The death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler spurred a new internal debate over baseball's drug and supplement policy. The owners want to ban the herbal stimulant ephedrine, the substance implicated in Bechler's death, and have called for discussions with the union to rewrite the sport's new drug policy.

The union has warned players to avoid products that contain ephedrine, but it is wary of any change in the labor contract that would allow random testing for an over-the-counter product.

Both sides would love to see the Food and Drug Administration step in and restrict the sale of ephedrine-based supplements, something that could happen if the clamor for government action continues to grow.

Can Griffey bounce back?

Superstar Ken Griffey has become a hamstring injury waiting to happen, but he's still one of the most talented players in the history of baseball and he's coming off an impressive spring.

The Reds tried to deal him to San Diego during the winter, but the trade fell through when Padres slugger Phil Nevin refused to go to Cincinnati. Now, Reds officials say they no longer have any interest in dealing Junior, who is the centerpiece of the team that is moving into a new ballpark.

Don't be surprised if Griffey trade talk resurfaces when the Reds begin to sink in the NL Central this summer.

Changing places

Dusty Baker led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series last year. Art Howe took the Athletics to the postseason for the third straight time. Lou Piniella presided over the emergence of the Seattle Mariners as one of baseball's strongest franchises. So, why do these guys all have new jobs? Largely by mutual consent. Baker felt unappreciated in San Francisco. Howe and A's management had grown apart. Piniella wanted to go home to the Tampa, Fla., area.

They may all live to regret their relocation. Howe, now with the Mets, appears to be the only one of the three with a chance to have any immediate success, and it's going to be an uncomfortable place to be if he doesn't. Baker, now with the Chicago Cubs, and Piniella figure to endure some trying times before either returns to the postseason.

Meanwhile, first-time managers Ken Macha (A's) and Bob Melvin (Mariners) have landed in clover, while fellow first-timers Alan Trammell (Detroit Tigers) and Ned Yost (Milwaukee Brewers) must have done something really bad in another life.

Selling out

The Anaheim Angels may be the defending world champions, but that hasn't kept the Walt Disney Co. from continuing to try to sell the franchise. The Los Angeles Dodgers appear to be one of the best teams in the NL, and they, too, are believed to be available to the highest bidder.

What's going on? The Southern California market used to be the most fertile attendance area in baseball, with the Dodgers and Angels combining to draw nearly 6 million fans a year in the 1980s.

Neither team is going anywhere, but the ambivalence of Disney and Fox Sports -- two companies that got into baseball to take advantage of seemingly natural broadcast synergies -- appears to be a bad sign for the industry.

A lineup of lists

Real managerial first names

1. Mike Hargrove: Dudley

2. Ned Yost: Edgar

3. Buck Showalter: William

4. Dusty Baker: Johnny B.

5. Grady Little: William

Rookies to watch

1. Hideki Matsui (Yankees

2. Jose Contreras (Yankees)

3. Francisco Rodriguez (Angels)

4. Michael Cuddyer (Twins)

5. Mark Teixeira (Rangers)

6. Hee Seop Choi (Cubs)

7. Ty Wigginton (Mets)

Strangest names on 40-man rosters

1. J.J. Putz (Mariners)

2. Coco Crisp (Indians)

3. Terrmel Sledge (Expos)

4. Jimmy Gobble (Royals)

5. Jung Bong (Braves)

Rich Garces All-Waistline Team

1. C.C. Sabathia, Indians

2. Mo Vaughn, Mets

3. Sidney Ponson, Orioles

4. David Wells, Yankees

5. Bartolo Colon, White Sox

I'm a superstar, get me out of here

1. Alex Rodriguez, Rangers

2. Vladimir Guerrero, Expos

3. Ken Griffey, Reds

4. Brian Giles, Pirates

5. Mike Sweeney, Royals

Top candidates to appear together on Dr. Phil

1. George Steinbrenner and David Wells

2. Guillermo Mota and Mike Piazza

3. Bud Selig and Donald Fehr

4. Dusty Baker and Peter Magowan

5. Steinbrenner and Derek Jeter

Things you'll see at the Reds' new ballpark before Pete Rose

1. Ken Griffey's next hamstring injury

2. Off-track betting

3. Schottzie IV

4. "Shoeless Joe" Bobblehead Night

5. Big Red Autotote Machine

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