THE BIG PAYOFF?
Just before spring training began, the Mariners pushed the
Dodgers to make a trade that would have sent lefthander Randy
Johnson to Los Angeles for righthander Ismael Valdes, lefthander
Mark Guthrie and second baseman Wilton Guerrero. After
unsuccessfully trying to substitute righthander Ramon Martinez
for the younger and cheaper Valdes, the Dodgers walked away from
the deal. "The reason I was told," says Seattle general manager
Woody Woodward, "was that they didn't want to take on more
The Dodgers may be less hung up about adding to their payroll
now that ownership of the team has passed from the O'Malley
family to Rupert Murdoch, the global media giant who has been
known to overpay sports announcers, never mind the athletes who
actually play the games. Major league owners welcomed Murdoch
into their club last week by a 27-2 vote, with only the Braves'
Ted Turner, himself a global media giant, and the White Sox'
Jerry Reinsdorf voting nay. (The Mets abstained.) If some owners
feared that Murdoch might use the long reach and deep revenues
of his News Corp. to create a superteam in Los Angeles, they
could find out quickly whether those apprehensions are
justified. Murdoch could authorize the acquisition of Johnson as
well as the signing of catcher Mike Piazza to the richest
contract in baseball history even before the paint is dry on his
new parking spot at Dodger Stadium.
A source familiar with the Johnson trade negotiations says
Murdoch's arrival "makes it more likely" that the Big Unit will
be a Dodger. Still, Woodward says L.A. general manager Fred
Claire never suggested that he would be more willing to pull the
trigger after the sale of the club was approved.
Seattle scout Stan Williams continues to shadow the Dodgers just
in case talks are rekindled. He's keeping an eye on Valdes, 24,
who missed a start last week because of soreness in his throwing
Johnson, 34, has simmered ever since the Mariners told him last
November that they would not talk about re-signing him because
they don't think they will be able to afford him when his
contract expires after this season. Now there are indications
that his anger and uncertain future could become corrosive to
the team. Johnson, who is 53-9 in his last 83 starts, recently
told manager Lou Piniella that his situation is distracting him
on the mound and that he wants to be traded as quickly as
Like Johnson, Piazza could be a free agent after this season. He
first gave the Dodgers a Feb. 15 deadline to negotiate a
contract extension but amended that to Opening Day because of
the ownership change. Piazza's agent, Dan Lozano, says he has
not discussed contract terms with the team, though Piazza, 29,
is believed to be seeking a seven-year deal worth nearly $100
million. "Mike would like to retire with the team he signs
with," Lozano says.
MACHISMO BUSTS OUT ALL OVER
Who says spring training games don't count? The usual calm among
the cacti and palm trees has been unsettled by scattered
beanball wars, replete with the posturing and machismo usually
found during the dog days of August--or a press conference
before a heavyweight bout.
Yankees exhibitions have come to resemble the milk-bottle target
game on a carnival midway. Twenty-nine players (including
opponents) were hit by pitches in New York's first 23 spring
games, nearly triple the regular-season rate of last year.
Indians righthander Jaret Wright broke the wrist of Luis Sojo
with a pitch headed toward the Yankees second baseman's
head--one of six batters either hit or brushed back in that
game. Blue Jays righthander Roger Clemens plunked New York
shortstop Derek Jeter in the ribs after a tiring Hideki Irabu
had hit Toronto shortstop Alex Gonzalez on the batting helmet.
"I think it's a Yankee thing," said New York's new DH, Chili
Davis, who is with his fifth team in 17 years. "I've never seen
it like this before."
Yes, with their huge payroll and favorite status in the American
League East, the Yankees are easily disliked. The Blue Jays held
a spirited meeting the day after the Irabu incident. "We were
told it's going to be a war with those guys," one Toronto player
said, "and we're not about to back down."
It's not just the Yankees, though. On March 13 Kansas City
lefthander Jose Rosado drilled Detroit's Bip Roberts as payback
for Roberts's unkind public comments about his former team,
prompting the Tigers' A.J. Sager to plunk the Royals' Jed
Hansen. "It's going to be like this all year, huh?" Roberts
yelled to Rosado. "Then you'd better watch out."
After one of his players was hit by an Athletics pitcher,
Brewers manager Phil Garner set off on a mission of revenge and
bused his entire team--including 6'8", 265-pound Jeff Juden, who
had pitched the previous day--to its next meeting against
Oakland. Brewers righthander Cal Eldred opened the game by
throwing two pitches behind Oakland utilityman Jason McDonald,
finally nailing him with the third.
Such actions prove that baseball's old and oft-misguided code of
retaliation is very much alive, even for a Bible-toting rookie
manager in spring training. After Willie Blair of the
Diamondbacks hit Frank Thomas, White Sox spiritual leader Jerry
Manuel gave his players an eye-for-an-eye speech. "The message
was, We will not tolerate the guys who are the heart and soul of
the team getting hit," Manuel said. "If it's intentional, I'm
going to hit the other team's best player. Even if [the
opponent] misses, we have to retaliate."
Who can be sure what's intentional? Any pitch near a batter's
noggin can spark a feud--even in March. So heads up, everyone.
Just wait until the season starts. "It's inevitable these things
carry on," Yankees pitcher David Cone says. "Once they get
started, it's difficult to end them."
TRYING TO GET OFF TOBACCO ROAD
Ever since his father died of cancer in 1988, Phillies ace Curt
Schilling has fretted over his habit of using smokeless tobacco.
Last spring, after Schilling learned that his close friend and
former teammate Pete Harnisch had quit dipping, he made a
promise to himself to do the same. Schilling wore a nicotine
patch and didn't dip for a stretch of three weeks in April and
May until he began suffering withdrawal symptoms. After several
disappointing starts, Schilling began using tobacco again. "I'm
starting to wonder what it's going to take for me to quit," he
said last May.
Schilling got his answer on March 8 when he underwent a routine
oral exam that revealed a lesion on the inside of his lower lip.
The lesion was not malignant, but Dr. Daniel Melker told
Schilling he must stop chewing immediately. "The treatment is to
stop dipping," Melker said last week. "If he continues, in all
likelihood it would become cancer."
Schilling, who had been dipping for 15 years, quit--again--on
March 16 and says he won't allow himself to think about the
potential side effects. (There were none last Saturday when he
held the Indians to one run and six hits in six innings.) He has
tried to quit at least 10 times in the past three years and
became ill during two previous attempts. "I have to quit,"
Schilling says, "because I want to watch my kids grow up."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES BETTER TO RECEIVE Now that Murdoch owns the Dodgers, Piazza could become the game's first $100 million man. [Mike Piazza in game]