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AROUND THE HORN ROSS NEWHAN

Suzuki Has .400 Reasons to Improve

June 16, 2002|ROSS NEWHAN

SAN DIEGO — First the news, then the views ...

News: Ichiro Suzuki, trying for his second straight American League batting title, lifts his average to .371 before the Seattle Mariners' series finale against the San Diego Padres today.

Views: Ho hum. Suzuki has a lead of more than 30 points on Johnny Damon. The batting title is his. The only question is, can he hit .400 in the process?

"If any player in baseball can, he's it," Manager Lou Piniella said. "He doesn't strike out, he puts the ball in play, he spreads the defense, he runs exceptionally well and now he's begun to bunt more. The only negative as far as hitting .400 is that he doesn't walk that much. How many at-bats did he have last year ... 650? It's harder to maintain a higher percentage with that many at-bats."

It's not easy to walk Suzuki, who actually had 692 at-bats, because he can do just about anything he wants with any pitch--strike or otherwise--but he is walking more. He drew 30 walks last year while batting .350 and had 33 through Friday, including 14 intentional walks. His on-base percentage is more than 60 points higher than last year and he was on pace through Friday for 252 hits compared to 242 last year.

As a hitter, Piniella was a pro's pro. In his view, hitting .400 for the first time since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 would be a bigger story than Barry Bonds or some other muscular slugger eclipsing the home run record again, especially, he said, since defenses are better, gloves are larger and the strike zone is bigger.

Referring to Roger Maris and his then-record 61 homers, Piniella said: "Once Roger was passed, it's been done a few times. It's been a long time since Williams, so you have to say that .400 is the next frontier. It would be the equivalent of a heavyweight title fight with a middleweight or lightweight winning it."

News: The New York Mets beat Roger Clemens and the New York Yankees, 8-0.

Views: Call Saturday's knockout the best retaliation of all. Now, can the underachieving Mets sustain that production under new hitting coach Chris Chambliss, the former Yankee hitting coach who was hired Thursday to replace the fired Dave Engle?

Two years ago, the Mets fired their pitching, hitting and bullpen coaches in midseason, and promptly blazed into the playoffs. Whether Chambliss can invigorate all of those new and struggling hitters--Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Roberto Alomar--remains to be seen. But it's curious that the Mets never interviewed Vaughn's private tutor, Mike Easler, and that Chambliss, who was serving as a roving instructor with the Pittsburgh Pirates, made a point of saying he would prefer that his hitters get their information "from one source."

"The player shouldn't be hearing from five or six different people," Chambliss said.

News: The Chicago Cubs' bullpen blows Mark Prior's 4-2 lead in a 5-4 loss to the Houston Astros on Wednesday.

Views: The Cubs, remembering the elbow injury suffered by Kerry Wood after he made nine starts of 120 or more pitches as a 1998 rookie, are going to be more cautious with Prior, the former USC star and their No. 1 draft choice of last year. The right-hander has shown a tendency to get stronger the longer he pitches, but he chose his words carefully when lifted after 119 pitches and six innings against the Astros.

"I do feel like I get stronger when I start hitting that 90- to 110-pitch mark," he said. "I feel like I'm in good shape and can handle it with no problem, but they're obviously not going to push me much further than 120, and I don't think any pitcher should really go that far unless it's a must-win game."

News: The players' union has a $108-million strike fund that is almost $100 million less than their $198-million war chest before the 1994 work stoppage.

Views: The money comes from dues and licensing revenue, and is normally distributed to the membership on an annual basis except when a stoppage looms. In this case, percentages of the last three years' distributions have been retained.

Union sources insist that the smaller fund--the result of a decrease in licensing income--will not prevent them from doing what they need to do, but others believe it could be a consideration in the event of a prolonged stoppage. The owners, who did not have a reserve fund in 1994, now have about $210 million, mostly from licensing and national TV and radio revenue that was not distributed over the last two years.

In the meantime, compared to recent stagnancy, there was a degree of movement in the bargaining negotiations last week. The owners made minor changes in their tax and revenue-sharing proposals, and also reduced the proposed discretionary fund that Commissioner Bud Selig would have at his disposal from $100 million to $85 million.

That pool would be generated from payroll tax proceeds and central fund revenue, including national TV and licensing, and would be used--beyond the proposed revenue sharing package--to help clubs whose revenue still lagged behind the wealthier clubs.

In a recent meeting with reporters and editors of The Times, Selig insisted he would no longer prop up clubs in financial trouble, but that message seems at odds with the proposed discretionary fund.

The union believes that $85 million is still far too much to be left at Selig's or anyone's discretion and has proposed that $30 million be taken from the central fund for supplemental sharing.

Negotiators are scheduled to meet again Wednesday and Thursday.

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