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Playing Field Doesn't Appear Level

July 07, 2002|ROSS NEWHAN

So, the Boston Red Sox complete a five-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays, and Commissioner Bud Selig can forget about lifting his gag order on fellow owners. The standings speak eloquently about competitive imbalance.

It's true that the Minnesota Twins, once bound for contraction, and a couple other smaller revenue teams are in the playoff hunt, but it's also numbingly true that an unprecedented six teams--San Diego and Milwaukee in the National League and Toronto, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Kansas City in the American--are arriving at the All-Star break on pace to lose 100 or more games.

Mismanagement may be a factor, but Red Sox Chief Executive Larry Lucchino quickly picked up the Selig script and hammered the point.

"Competitive imbalance is alive and well in Major League Baseball," he said.

Of course, no one has taken more advantage of those four AL patsies than the Red Sox. They started the weekend 23-4 against the Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals and Devil Rays compared to 1-11 in their interleague games against Atlanta, Arizona and the Dodgers.

Owners are speaking out on labor issues because Selig, stressing a united front as the union's executive board meets Monday in Chicago to discuss a possible strike date, lifted his threat of a $1-million fine, providing owners stick to the negotiating points outlined in a memo they received from the commissioner's office.

Houston Astro owner Drayton McLane promptly got into an exchange with his closer, Billy Wagner, who seemed to be mocking McLane's theme of "what have you done to make us a champion?" when he said "you can't be a champion" when cutting veterans and asking too many young players to play above their heads.

"I understand Drayton and the money issue," Wagner said. "That's OK, but don't say we're going to be champions when you don't give us a chance."

McLane said he respects Wagner, but the Astros have lost more than $160 million in nine years and no one can continue to subsidize that pattern.

"We've got a terrible system in baseball," McLane said. "It works for four teams--the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Dodgers. They all have payrolls in excess of $100 million. Clubs can't continue to take substantial losses and stay in business. We're hurting the game when success is narrowed to only a few teams."

Border War

Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko, insisting they spoke for a majority, reacted to a rash of pitching injuries and staff turnover by saying that inflexible guidelines in the San Diego minor league system were not preparing young starters to pitch at the big league level because they are not permitted to pitch out of late-inning jams. At the same time, Nevin said, relievers in the minors are being overtaxed, which is why "many of them are blowing out" after joining the Padres.

San Diego started the weekend having used 27 pitchers this year, including infielder D'Angelo Jimenez in a rout. Eight of the pitchers were making their major league debuts, combining for a 3-10 record and 7.54 earned-run average.

Suggesting Nevin and Klesko were far off base, General Manager Kevin Towers said the guidelines were designed to protect young starters from injuries, and that while some of those who debuted this year may not have been ready, they will all benefit from the experience, particularly when the club moves into its new ballpark in 2004.

That's no solace to Nevin or Klesko, but Ted Simmons, the club's vice president of player development and scouting, wasn't offering sympathy when he told the San Diego Union-Tribune that "Nevin has no idea of what we're doing in the minor leagues. If he can rehab [from a broken arm] to the extent that he can get back on the field and run minor league operations at the same time, then he's a very interesting man. My recommendation is that he stick to rehabbing, and he stick to getting himself back on the field."

Influence Peddling

Certainly, the Blue Jays traded Raul Mondesi to the Yankees to get out from under his contract and continue rebuilding, but dealing him for a minor league player who is more suspect than prospect underscored concern that his erratic behavior--in and out of uniform--was having a negative influence on Felipe Lopez, the talented young shortstop who prompted the Blue Jays to trade Cesar Izturis to the Dodgers.

Meantime, the Yankees' acquisition of Mondesi closes the door on Cliff Floyd, leaving Seattle, Boston and San Francisco as the rumored front-runners for the Florida Marlin right fielder. Floyd had summoned agent Seth Levinson to Miami on Tuesday in a futile bid to reach a long-term agreement with the Marlins. He now believes a trade before the July 31 non-waiver deadline is inevitable and is mystified why his overtures drew no response when Mike Sweeney and Bob Abreu recently got long-term deals from Kansas City and Philadelphia and neither of those teams is "as good as us."

Broken Bats

It's hard to know what the fired Don Baylor was expected to do differently when his underachieving Chicago Cub offense was near the bottom in virtually every National League category, utility man Mark Bellhorn had more home runs (10) than Moises Alou, Todd Hundley and Alex Gonzalez, touted second baseman Bobby Hill batted .182 before returning to the minors and ballyhooed Corey Patterson had a .320 on-base percentage in the leadoff role. If Sammy Sosa didn't do it, the Cubs didn't do it. Worse yet, as coach Rene Lachemann told them in a blistering clubhouse meeting on Friday, they went about it as if they didn't care.

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