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The Anaheim A's? It's possible

Special to

June 9
Random thoughts on some matters:

Attendance, TV ratings and contraction

Attendance at major-league games is -- well -- OK. The Twins are up considerably, but that is relative; this past week they failed to top 25,000 in any of the four games in a first-place showdown with Cleveland. The Phillies are second to the lowest in the NL to the Expos, whose theme song is "Splendid Isolation."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, through June 6, the average attendance was down significantly in 12 cities, down slightly in five, up significantly in seven and up slightly in six others.

On the other hand, local television ratings are apparently up, in some markets they're going through the roof. Seattle has drawn a 22 rating, the Red Sox claim that one Yankees game on their cable outlet NESN was the highest-rated program in the Boston market that night and that NESN and over-the-air ratings are off the charts.

The Marlins say their ratings are up 70 percent, the Blue Jays had a record April, Minnesota and Philaelphia are up from 60 percent to 225 percent on their various over-the-air and cable outlets and the Padres, Tigers and Brewers are up from 26 percent to 29 percent. The Expos telecast ratings are up to the point that they are even with or slightly ahead of the regular-season ratings of the NHL's Canadiens.

Disney so wants out of baseball that it would consider folding the Angels, which would allow owners Ken Hofmann and Steve Schott to move the A's from Oakland to Anaheim.
Of the 20 teams that responded to the inquiry, 11 reported significant increases, four slight increases, two (Reds, White Sox) significant decreases and three slight decreases.

So the interest is there. However, it raises three issues:

  • Are ticket prices approaching the maximum limit? Is there so much television entertainment that people are staying home and watching whatever is on the tube?

  • With so many fans getting their primary information from TV, those cities where player/analysts are allowed to speak their minds and discuss the game rather than play hucksters, those analysts have more influence than any media members before them.

    Examples are the following: Jim Kaat and Ken Singleton in New York, Jerry Remy in Boston, Mike Flanagan in Toronto, Don Sutton and Joe Simpson in Atlanta, Kirk Gibson in Detroit, Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper in San Francisco, John Cerutti in Toronto, to name just a few. This is where Larry Dierker, Bob Brenly and Buck Martinez all came from, and if some or many of the current announcers wanted to move into management, they could. If White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson, who has a tremendous baseball mind, had moved into management at the right place or time his management career might have been different.

  • Does this mean that baseball is booming and that the notion of a November freeze is fading?

    Yes and no.

    "No matter what the local ratings say and how much we love the notion of the Twins and Phillies being in first place," says one management source familiar with the workings of the Blue Ribbon Commission, "the bottom lines are not good. The core economic problems of this system are still in need of an overhaul. The Twins and Phillies are like the White Sox and A's last year. One-year deals."

    The source insists the owners still want to eliminate four teams, but would settle for two. Ownership is apparently united -- as ownership can be -- against Jeffrey Loria keeping the Expos in Montreal, do not want him to be able to move and reap a windfall on that withered franchise and figure that he will run out of patience losing money and will fold. The two Florida teams remain in limbo; if Tampa Bay could be folded, Florida could be moved west of Orlando. But what has readily been discussed is a shocker. And that is that Disney so wants out of baseball that it would consider folding the Angels, which would allow owners Ken Hofmann and Steve Schott to move the A's from Oakland to Anaheim.

    "What we still may see are a lot of owners that are losing money worried about the labor situation and the winter -- remember, if there's a freeze, it could greatly slow ticket, corporate and TV revenues --then they may force their general managers to slash budgets," said one AL GM this week. "Teams like the Yankees that can afford to wait and take one or two big contracts could really benefit. But look around."

    Royals owner David Glass told another owner this week that he is prepared to move any player who is making good money, from Jermaine Dye to Jeff Suppan, Roberto Hernandez to Joe Randa, and that they will immediately begin another reconstruction.

    The White Sox, meanwhile, have shopped contracts, although not only was the David Wells interest apparently vastly exaggerated, but now concerns about his back are even greater after he walked off the mound Friday. Jerry Reinsdorf knows that Royce Clayton and James Baldwin likely have no markets, but that a needy team like Boston might take Sandy Alomar and that with Keith Foulke crossing the $6 million plateau this winter, he could be used as trade bait as well.

    Tampa Bay heightened attempts to move Albie Lopez, Greg Vaughn, Fred McGriff, Gerald Williams, John Flaherty and/or Mike DiFelice. Montreal is at the point that it just needs a taker for Ugueth Urbina; the way the Yankees are having to work Mariano Rivera and Mike Stanton, it may be worth their while to trade for Urbina. The Reds reportedly have marketed a number of players from Pokey Reese (the L.A. rumors have been heard), Dmitri Young and others. If Marlins owner John Henry tires of fighting his good fight, will he decide to move salary, such as Cliff Floyd?

    "Oakland is still a wild-card contender, but if they don't know they have a home next year and they're out of it in July, don't they have to move (Jason) Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen?" asks an NL GM. "And I'd keep my eyes on Anaheim."

    The owners do not buy the Northern Virginia baseball people's conclusion that a team in that area would have minimal impact on the Orioles. As for the notion of reparations, one ownership source suggests, "You can't even decide how much or for how long. They are a bad concept."

    The Anaheim A's? The Polk County Gators? There are many of us who still refuse to believe that, in the end, the owners will pull off contraction any more than they were going to implement some of their hairbrained systems, from pay-for-performance to a salary cap. But it's worth discussion, and a watchful eye.

    Is the strike zone bringing back the classic curveball?

    There has been more discussion about the new strike zone than there has been legitimate impact, at least thus far. But one conclusion that's commonly voiced is that it is bringing the old-fashioned 12-to-6 curveball back into the game.

    "There's no question that the high breaking ball is being called, and it's bringing the curveball back," says one veteran major-league scout. "It's really helped Pat Hentgen, who seven or eight years ago had that great hard curveball and gave it up because it wasn't called (the feeling is that was a major factor in Hentgen's comeback, although his current arm fatigue may stem from using a pitch he hadn't thrown in a few years). It's helped Aaron Sele, Jason Isringhausen, Paul Shuey, Steve Karsay, even Tim Wakefield (who when he didn't have a good knuckler Thursday threw a lot of curveballs). It's really helped Troy Percival, who now that he's healthy is throwing his curveball, and has had the best stuff of any closer in the game -- and has had the best season. It really also helps Tom Gordon."

    One pitching coach suggests that because hitters haven't been conditioned to swing at high breaking balls for so long, they're taking some hangers that could be hit out of the park. "But when they start to look up for them instead of consistently looking down," says the pitching coach, "it will in turn help the pitchers because then it will be easier to get outs down in the strike zone. What it's doing is making it easier for pitchers to change the hitters' sight plane."

    Four pitchers this week suggested that the strike zone has impacted slap hitters who try to crouch away from breaking balls, get a lot of pitches and get on base for the run producers.

    Through Friday's games, the leadoff on-base percentages for the American and National Leagues were .325 and .319 respectively. Last season, they were .349 and .345. Last season, there were five players with 300 or more plate appearances in the leadoff spot who got on base at least 40 percent of the time. This season, the only players above .400 are Benny Agbayani and Damian Jackson, not necessarily regular leadoff hitters. Only Shannon Stewart (.394) and Ichiro Suzuki (.390) are above .365 in the AL, Barry Larkin (.394), Juan Pierre (.383), Paul Lo Duca (.375) and Quilvio Veras (.372) above .366 in the NL. At the other end of the spectrum, there are eight regular or semi-regular players whose leadoff on-base percentage is under .285.

    "I know it's tougher to find a great on-base leadoff hitter who can score runs than it is a cleanup hitter to knock them in," says Phil Garner. "Now, a Manny Ramirez or Jason Giambi is in a separate category, but it's very difficult to find a young player who can see a lot of pitchers, get on base and get pitches for other players the way Rickey Henderson used to do."

    By the time the bonus numbers on this year's draft are completed, will this force an overhaul of the current draft system?

    Likely, if as anticipated, Joe Mauer will get $6 million for five years from the Twins, Mark Prior $16 million from the Cubs and Mark Teixeira $14M from the Rangers. The White Sox have a deal with the 16th pick, right-handed pitcher Kris Honel, for $1.5M and the A's reportedly have the same deal with the 26th pick, righty Jeremy Bonderman, a high school junior from Pasco, Wash.

    There are several interesting sidelights:

  • The Rangers were allowed to take Teixeira, the slugging, switch-hitting Georgia Tech slugger, because owner Tom Hicks was convinced by GM Doug Melvin that after Prior and Dewon Brazelton there were no impact college pitchers and that Teixeira has a chance to be a star. Hicks has apparently been convinced that the Rangers cannot compete next season, and that if Melvin can build on what he has, develop some of the young pitching like Joaquin Benoit, Colby Lewis and Ryan Dittfurth and allow Carlos Pena, Jason Romano, Mike Young and Kevin Mench to develop around Alex Rodriguez that they can build a good team for the long run. So Melvin is apparently safe, which is good news to anyone associated with the franchise.

  • One of the most interesting top picks was Seattle using its first selection, 36th overall, on Michael Garciaparra, Nomar's switch-hitting younger brother, who played at Don Bosco High School in La Habra Heights, Calif. They took him at pick 36 rather than at 49 because they were afraid Boston would nab him at 48. To some, it was a surprise, because Garciaparra had hurt his knee and played only four games this spring, and before last summer had concentrated on soccer. Red Sox scouting director Wayne Britton worked the younger Garciaparra out twice, but the Mariners knew him best.

    "We know him well, and really like him," says Roger Jongewaard, Seattle's scouting director. "He played for our winter team, so while he played four games in the high school season, he played a season for us. Our area scout knows him well."

    Well? The scout, Derek Valenzuela, was a high school teamate of Nomar's, who in turn was the best man in Valenzuela's wedding. Michael is signed with the University of Tennessee, but the fact that the Vols do not have soccer indicates that the younger Garciaparra -- who, incidentally, has many of his brother's idiosyncrasies -- signed there underscores his dedication to baseball. So he likely will sign with Seattle.

    "I was ready to sign out of high school with the Brewers," says Nomar. "It really was a very small monetary difference, then some other issues crept in."

  • In 2000, righty Matt Harrington was the seventh overall selection in the draft and University of San Francisco 3B/1B Taggert Bozied was a sandwich pick by Minnesota. Neither signed. This year, they were selected in the second and third round respectively by San Diego. Harrington, who is pitching in the Northern League and was clocked at 95 in his last start, and his family are going to San Diego this week. If both insist on last year's money, they both might end up in the Northern League.

  • Most teams wanted Kent State slugger John VanBenschoten as a hitter, but two teams wanted him as a pitcher, and one of those clubs -- the Pirates -- drafted him. So when VanBenschoten gets to the New York-Penn League, he will pitch and DH a coupe of days a week.

  • Seminole (Fla.) High School had six players drafted on the first day, including first baseman Casey Kotchman to the Angels with the 13th overall pick and shortstop Bryan Bass in the sandwich round (31st overall) to Baltimore.

  • "The two teams that had the best drafts," says one NL GM, "were the Indians with all their pitching and the Padres." But another scouting director chimed in with the Orioles, with Cumberland College left-hander Chris Smith, LSU second baseman Mike Fontenot and Bass.

  • The Royals got the two players they wanted, righty Colt Griffin from Marshall, Texas, and outfielder Roscoe Crosby of Union, S.C. They tried to get Crosby to sign a deal stating he would give up football, but they couldn't get it done. Thus, they played it safe by selecting Griffin at No. 9, then came back and selected Crosby later (with the 53rd pick in the second round). The bet here is that Crosby will play baseball in the summer and football at Clemson in the fall.

  • Mauer and Crosby were first team high school All-Americans in football. So was Midland, Texas running back Cedric Benson, but he wasn't taken until the 12th round by the Dodgers, which will try to buy him out of his deal with the University of Texas. Boston also faces trying to sign outfielder Antonio Gonzalez, an all-state QB-DB from Framingham, Mass., who is signed to play at Boston College.

  • In 1997, Tyrell Godwin was the first pick of the Yankees, but picked an academic scholarship at North Carolina. In 2000, he was a sandwich pick of the Rangers, but flunked Texas' physical, had an operation, graduated and this time went in the third round to Toronto.

  • In the spring, many projected Harvard right-hander Ben Crockett to go in the sandwich round. But even though he finished the season with a perfect game, Crockett slipped to the 10th round to the Red Sox because his medical history showed a slight ligament tear. "He can go to the Cape for a few starts to prove he's healthy," says a Red Sox scout, "and he could be a steal, because he could come quick."

  • The joke around baseball is that the Yankees took Florida State outfielder John-Ford Griffin -- an outstanding hitter -- so George Steinbrenner could further annoy Tampa Bay's ownership. Griffin's father was a limited partner with the Rays before stepping aside due to some issues.

    What in the world is going on in Boston?

    Since Tom Yawkey died in 1976, it has been an ownership of fractured chaos, owner vs. owner, 25 cabs for 25 guys and now Dan Duquette vs. Jimy Williams, without an ownership strong or courageous enough to come out of the trainer's room and put an end to it. The relationship has been tenuous for years, from Williams' playing Steve Avery and Mike Stanley to meet contract rollovers to Duquette dumping Mike Benjamin because he was the manager's favorite utilityman to Williams' refusal to play Izzy Alcantara to Duquette's public siding with Carl Everett against the manager last September, a move that has since undercut Williams' authority and encouraged $6 million players to whine about playing time.

    Duquette can't abide by some of Williams' unusual lineups, and one of Jimy's advocates in the front office implored him not to so infuriate the general manager. Now here they both sit, free agents at the end of the season, the club up for sale and Duquette using his radio show to feed the flames of discontent.

    Monday night, Williams and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan removed Pedro Martinez after 90 pitches in a game they led 4-3 and eventually lost to the Yankees. That spewed the foam out of talk show hosts' mouths, and 90 minutes after Martinez explained to the media that he was behind the move and essentially asked for it, Duquette on his pregame radio show said that Williams owed the "market" more of an explanation.

    Now, before you giggle at The Duke's reluctance to confirm a weather forecast, the next night, when informed that Martinez had supported the manager, Duquette said if you read between the lines that Martinez wanted to stay in and later second-guessed Williams for ending up with defensive replacement Darren Lewis hitting behind Manny Ramirez, saying "the main reason for the four intentional walks was that Lewis was hitting behind him." In fact, Lewis was behind Ramirez for two of the walks.

    "The most important thing is for us to keep Pedro healthy and respect his well-being," says Kerrigan. "He's 175 pounds, dripping wet. He's not a Clemens or a Schilling. He's gone on four days rest three times, and this was back-to-back outings, tough, grueling games against the Yankees in which he'd thrown 241 pitches. As soon as that second start in Boston was over, I walked into Jimy's office and the first thing we each said was that we had to limit Pedro to 90 pitches in New York. He might have actually liked the extra day, but we couldn't do it because of our staff being shot in Toronto. It's been right at this time each of the last three years that Pedro's had a minor breakdown and ended up on the disabled list. We don't want that happening, and if someone can't see that, too bad."

    Tigers manager Phil Garner and Phillies skipper Larry Bowa arrived in Boston in the midst of all the controversy. "You'd think they were in last place," said Bowa. "I look out at that team and wonder how in the world they're doing what they're doing," said Garner. "They're amazing, for the personnel they have."

    "I've been on a lot of teams," says one veteran player. "But this is the most insane place I've ever been around. There's always something going on."

    Is that the Orioles creeping toward .500?

    Indeed, even without Pat Hentgen, the Orioles have done remarkably well because of their young pitchers -- Sidney Ponson and Josh Towers, 24, Willis Roberts, 25 and Jason Johnson, 27. And look down below to the young pitchers like Beau Hale and Rich Stahl and the rebuilding of the pitching has begun.

    Ponson has begun to mature and harness his 92-93 mph fastball and big-time stuff. Towers, who is so self-confident he asked for Mike Mussina's number 35 (Mike Flanagan points out that between Mike Cuellar, Mussina and Towers, that number had 283 wins), is a control, count guy who has a 15/3 strikeout/walk ratio in his first 31 2/3 innings and Friday shut out Montreal to lower his ERA to 1.99.

    Roberts has a live arm and had early success. And Johnson is now up to 5-3. The former Devil Ray touches 95 on the gun on occasion, but the biggest reason for his maturation is that he has found that the device that he attaches to his hip has solved his long-running diabetic problem by automatically monitoring his insulin. In the past, Johnson wasn't as attentive to the diabetes as he should have been, and as a result had problems. The device he now wears has alleviated that, and has allowed him to become one of the hottest pitchers in the league.

    Towers, as stated earlier, has Mussina's old number. When Hentgen signed with the O's and asked for his number 41, Johnson gave it to him and now wears 16, which by the way is Scott McGregor's old number.

    OK, Jim Palmer's 22 is retired and no one has recently worn Flanagan's 46. Think they'd loan them to Beau Hale and Rich Stahl?

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     Can Jason Giambi and the A's expand by contraction? ESPN's Peter Gammons explains.
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