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AROUND THE HORN ROSS NEWHAN

In Arizona, Bats Are Being Misused

June 01, 2003|ROSS NEWHAN

The big news involving the Arizona Diamondbacks wasn't about the bat that Curt Schilling took to the QuesTec camera in Bank One Ballpark, although the reverberations have brought overdue attention to the controversial system that has complicated the plate umpire's job.

The big news involved the bat that Manager Bob Brenly took to his inept offense and what the Diamondbacks finally did about it, which was to trade Byung-Hyun Kim to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman-first baseman Shea Hillenbrand.

"This is getting to be a ... joke."

"I'm tired of watching it."

Those were just a couple of Brenly's milder comments Wednesday about an offense that had produced three runs or fewer in 24 games, the Diamondbacks having lost 21 of those. On Thursday, with his team 8 1/2 games behind San Francisco in the National League West, General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr. completed a trade that had been discussed periodically since December.

"We needed offensive help, sooner rather than later," Garagiola said. "People keep saying there's a lot of time left, but every day there's a little less time left."

The Diamondbacks, burdened by deferred salaries, will save almost $3 million in the exchange, but that wasn't the pivotal number. Hillenbrand was hitting .333 with runners in scoring position whereas Arizona was hitting only .244, and his 38 runs batted in were nine more than Luis Gonzalez had posted as the Arizona leader.

Although Hillenbrand is regarded to some extent as a hitter who sizzles in April and simmers through the summer, he brings right-handed balance to a lineup tilting heavily to the left, and he's 10 years younger than 37-year-old Matt Williams, whose production has deteriorated with his body and who is hardly going out in style. Williams has been booed in Arizona, has taken on the reputation of a clubhouse sulker and may be headed to a reunion with Dusty Baker in a last stand with the Chicago Cubs.

The Red Sox, who will replace Hillenbrand with the better fielding Bill Mueller at third base and will use Kevin Millar and David Ortiz at first, will initially employ Kim as a starter in place of the injured Pedro Martinez. His primary assignment in the division duel with the New York Yankees, however, will be to provide bullpen stability, replacing the dreaded closer by committee.

Kim will long be remembered for his consecutive blowups against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series, but he saved 36 games for a division winner last year, is only 24, and has held big league hitters to a .197 average for his career. In the aftermath of Thursday's trade, reflecting on those wrenching setbacks in the 2001 Series, he told Boston area reporters, "At the time, I felt like I was in hell. Now, as I look back, it was a learning experience. Now, I feel like I'm in heaven."

While Red Sox Nation hopes to share that feeling, the Diamondbacks are counting on Matt Mantei's elbow and shoulder holding up in the closer role and the young Brandon Webb (on the disabled list because of elbow problems) and John Patterson helping to replace the versatile Kim in a rotation hoping to have Schilling and Randy Johnson sound in the second half.

It's later than it was, as Garagiola noted, but is it too late for an Arizona three-peat in the West?

Zoned Out?

The QuesTec system that baseball hopes to have installed in 13 parks by the end of the season and is being used to monitor and grade umpires in the calling of balls and strikes has created so much resentment that one umpire, Schilling said, even encouraged him to demolish a second camera at Bank One Ballpark.

The problem, say the umpires, is the cameras differ from park to park, the photos are read differently by technicians who don't have the strike-zone training that the umpires do, and, because their career is on the line, the umpires try to adjust their zones and outguess, so to speak, the camera.

Thus, there's none of the consistency that hitters, pitchers and managers say is the only thing they really ask of a home plate umpire.

Said Mike Winters, who has umpired for 14 years in the big leagues, "It certainly has an impact on the game, no two ways about it. Major League Baseball wants everybody to conform to the strike zone as the machine says it is, and everybody is trying to do that, but what the machine says is a strike in one park may not be the same in another, and I'm getting downgraded if I don't see it the same as the machine does."

The new umpires union has filed a grievance, scheduled to be heard in July.

Ingratitude?

Agent Scott Boras, who was hired by Gary Sheffield to help restore peace between Sheffield and the Dodgers in that tumultuous spring of 2001; who helped facilitate the trade to the Atlanta Braves that Sheffield wanted; who negotiated Sheffield out of the 2004 contract option so that he can be a free agent next winter and who, sources say, took no percentage for all of his efforts over the last two years, has now been dumped by his gracious client.

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