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Inside Baseball

Elite free agents and rich teams approach each other warily

The General Manager of one American League club, who asked not
to be identified, said last week that he wants to sign
free-agent centerfielder Bernie Williams but has yet to contact
Scott Boras, the player's agent. "I don't want to give Scott any
more bullets than he has," the G.M. says. "We'll wait until the
market shrinks and see where we're at. We don't want to be used."

The gamesmanship between this winter's premier free agents and
the clubs who can afford to sign them has only just started. The
Yankees, for instance, don't expect Williams to decide on a team
until next month. Teams also have noticed that righthander Kevin
Brown, another Boras client, is in no hurry to sign. Boras
scared off the Rockies when he said that Brown, who'll be 34 in
March, won't settle for anything less than a six-year contract.
Boras compares Brown to Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Steve
Carlton, who were durable and reliable pitchers into their late
30s. "I guarantee you he'll get at least five," one National
League general manager says of Brown, "and probably six, if one
team thinks it has to step up to get him."

When Tom Reich, the agent for first baseman Mo Vaughn, tried to
slow down negotiations with the Red Sox--sources say he was
waiting for the Dodgers to make a play--Boston G.M. Dan Duquette
accelerated them with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $63 million
over five years. The Angels had already made Vaughn an offer
worth $72 million over six years, so Duquette seized upon
Vaughn's public statements that he would take five years and
less money to stay in Boston.

"Once he said that, he gave Duquette an easy way out," one agent
says. Vaughn decided he wasn't done listening to offers and
turned down Duquette's, ending a 10-year association with the
Red Sox in which he became the most popular athlete in Boston
since Larry Bird. Within 48 hours Duquette happily signed
infielder Jose Offerman (four years, $26 million), who had a
.403 on-base percentage last year and is the sort of contact
hitter Duquette prefers over sluggers such as Vaughn.

The elite free agent who will sign first figures to be
lefthander Randy Johnson, who was considering Arizona, Anaheim,
Los Angeles, Texas, the Yankees and Houston. After a meeting
with the Diamondbacks, one Arizona official says, "He told us he
wants to play for us. He just had questions about what other
moves are coming."

The Diamondbacks told Johnson they intend to make a full-bore
run at the switch-hitting Williams and add a lefthanded-hitting
outfielder, perhaps Todd Hollandsworth or Cliff Floyd, both of
whom are arbitration eligible. Johnson's chances of signing with
Arizona are so good that one of his agents, Barry Meister,
called off a pending deal with Arizona for another client--a
lefthander who is a fringe major leaguer--because of the
probability that the team's rotation will be stocked with

Bret Boone's Going Places

The annual retooling of the Braves began last week with the
acquisition of a second baseman who hit .223 in 1997, such a
poor showing that his club was chagrined not to have lost him in
the expansion draft after the season. But Bret Boone spent six
weeks that winter working in a batting cage with his father,
former big league catcher Bob Boone, who adjusted Bret's feet in
the batter's box and worked on improving his stride and balance.

"Sometimes you just need someone who knows you very well to look
at you," Bob says. "I didn't change him. I helped get him back
to where he was."

Boone rebounded in '98 with an All-Star season in which he hit
.266, drove in 95 runs and won a Gold Glove for fourth-place
Cincinnati. "Once in a while during the season I'd get a call
and come in to work with him," says Bob, a Reds scout. Bret
improved his value so dramatically that Atlanta was willing to
send a 16-game winner, lefthander Denny Neagle, to Cincinnati in
order to get him. The Reds also included lefthander Mike
Remlinger in the deal and received outfielder Michael Tucker.

Within an hour after getting Neagle, Cincinnati G.M. Jim Bowden
received trade inquiries from 11 teams about him. Bowden told
all suitors he wasn't available--yet. Meister, Neagle's agent,
told the Reds he will exercise his right to demand a trade after
next season. Bowden is likely to trade Neagle near the July 31
deadline. In the meantime Bowden hopes a rotation that includes
Neagle, Pete Harnisch and Brett Tomko will give his team some
credibility with the Cincinnati fans.

After getting Boone, the Braves presented a four-year offer to
free-agent outfielder Brian Jordan. The Mets, Orioles, Red Sox
and Yankees are also courting Jordan, though he has told friends
he prefers to play rightfield, where the Braves would play him,
rather than center, where the Yankees would use him. "Bret is a
great start," Braves G.M. John Schuerholz says. "If we have to,
we won't hesitate to call his dad in."

"I work for Jim Bowden now," Bob said with a laugh. "John's
going to have to go through proper channels."

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Nobody's sure where Vaughn will land, but it won't be back in Boston. [Mo Vaughn in mid-air fielding in game]