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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

McGwire's Heel Injury Has A's Reeling

March 17, 1996|Ross Newhan

PHOENIX — The negotiations collapsed when the San Diego Padres rejected the Oakland Athletics' demand for prospects in return for first baseman Mark McGwire.

So the Padres traded for Wally Joyner, and McGwire remained with the A's, one of the last links to the championship years during a rebuilding and refinancing process that has returned the A's to square one.

But now even that powerful link has broken.

The 6-foot-5, 240-pound McGwire tore connective tissue in his left heel running the bases Tuesday and may be out until midseason. A similar injury in his right heel cost him much of the 1994 season. Heel and back injuries have limited him to 178 games in the last three years and, at 32, he is dejectedly talking about retirement.

"I'm going to be talking to my family and close friends," he said. "I mean, this is just mind-boggling. My goal was to play 155 games this year. That's pretty much gone now."

Now, catcher Terry Steinbach is virtually the last link to the A's glory. The A's have insurance to cover the financial impact of McGwire's frequent absences--he is guaranteed $5.6 million in the fourth year of a five-year, $28-million contract--but it is a worst-case scenario for a team being redeveloped under new owners Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman.

Unable to trade McGwire for prospects last winter, the A's will still be without his potent bat and celebrity in a no-name lineup for much of the season and, in all likelihood, unable to trade him now to a contender down the stretch.

"I'm still in denial," General Manager Sandy Alderson said of the injury to a player who was on the disabled list twice last year, missed 33 games in an already shortened season and still hit 39 home runs, or one every 8.1 at-bats, the best ratio in major league history.

The rebuilding process?

Alderson denies it is a fire sale.

"This is a strategy that has a beginning and end," he said. "We're not just patching and hoping we get lucky. We should have done this after we won the division in 1992, but we continued paying big salaries to protect ourselves at the gate and it didn't work.

"First and foremost, this is not a plan born out of the new ownership's desire to cut salaries. It is a baseball decision. The new owners want a championship team, and we're going to do it by rebuilding with young players. It's going to be a tough and demanding year, but a lot of good teams have gone through it.

"I credit the new owners for having guts enough to weather the early stages. They could have come in and spent a lot of money to satisfy their ego, but that would have been the wrong move."

The goal was to begin reshaping the A's by cutting the payroll from $34 million to $25 million. Alderson has it down to about $21 million, including the portions of Danny Tartabull's and Dennis Eckersley's salaries that the A's will continue to pay. Both were traded after last season.

Then there was a mass migration. Rickey Henderson, Mike Gallego, Stan Javier and Steve Ontiveros left Oakland as free agents, Dave Stewart retired, Ron Darling was released and Todd Stottlemyre was traded.

Even Manager Tony La Russa left for the chance to win now with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"More evidence it's the end of an era," Alderson said. "And I frankly think Tony is better off [with a veteran team] in St. Louis and we're better off with Art Howe [as the new manager]."

Patience is the watchword for Howe. No member of his probable pitching rotation has won in double figures in the majors. A few may not be shaving yet.

Eventually, the franchise itself may leave for Sacramento or the Pleasanton area, rather than share a reconfigured park with the Raiders.

"We want to see what it looks like and how it plays," Alderson said of the Oakland Coliseum. "We want to see how the fans react."

To the stadium or the A's?

*

Inside stuff:

--Although he was considered architect of the collusion era while commissioner, leaving a bitter taste with some owners, Peter Ueberroth will apparently have no problems gaining ownership approval if he buys the Angels, Dodger owner Peter O'Malley and others say.

No opposition? "Absolutely not," O'Malley said.

--Despite media speculation to the contrary, owners are prepared to restore the service time players lost during the strike. It is a bargaining chip, but management knows it won't get a labor agreement without that restoration.

Talks resume in Phoenix Thursday, with management sources saying they will make a counter-proposal aimed at accelerating the progress that has been made in the last month. Owners will also meet here Wednesday and Thursday, and may approve an interim revenue-sharing agreement for 1996, pending a long-term agreement as part of a labor contract.

An interim agreement would also require union approval, but it has been bargained to the verge of approval during the labor talks.

*

Is this mid-March or late August? In the week that was:

--San Francisco Manager Dusty Baker angrily broke up a clubhouse shouting match between Barry Bonds and Mark Carreon.

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