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Caution: Very Hot Stove

It's riveting, in a way, to see the Red Sox and the Yankees
divide all of baseball between themselves, like Roosevelt and
Stalin splitting Europe at Yalta. (George Steinbrenner is Stalin,
of course, and Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is Churchill,
custodian of an empire that is, even in the first hours of the
victory celebration, already dead.)

There's something scandalous, too, about the Expos--married to
Montreal but shacking up with San Juan--casually ogling
Monterrey, Mexico, as a possible partner. Monterrey's signature
dish, cabrito, or goat meat, might yet supplant 73-year-old
Florida manager Jack McKeon as the most gristly item in the
National League.

In fact, as the Expos continue their inexorable migration south
(to Tierra del Fuego and, inevitably, the Amundsen-Scott South
Pole Station), it's worth noting that baseball, alone among
sports, has an off-season even more interesting than its

For the Boys of Winter, the past six weeks have been an
alcoholic, Balcoholic blur. Mets superscout Bill Singer, speaking
gibberish mock-Chinese to an Asian-American Dodgers executive in
the bar of a Phoenix hotel, learned that her ancestors had come
from China. "Which country in China?" inquired Singer, who later
said that an addling combination of alcohol and a low-carb diet
triggered his low-carb diatribe--and his eventual dismissal.

Elsewhere this winter, a galaxy of stars is insisting that Victor
Conte, founder of the Bay Area health-supplement firm BALCO, did
not supply them with steroids. Rather, he was simply the
scientist best qualified to provide world-class nutritional
analysis, based on his previous job as bassist for the soul band
Tower of Power. Among the group's hits is Soul Vaccination,
dedicated to eradicating, with needles, the world's crippling
epidemic of "honkypox."

While National League MVP Barry Bonds was appearing before a
grand jury investigating the Conte case, the American League MVP
worried that he was in danger of disappearing. We've forgotten
Alex Rodriguez, the way you might forget a relative sentenced to
a 10-year stretch in prison. In this case, the prison--Swing
Swing--is the bleak Ballpark in Arlington. He might be the
highest-salaried man in sports history, but Rodriguez is no
longer even the highest-profile A-Rod among athletes, a
distinction he's ceded to Andy Roddick.

The shortstop's last hope is a poignant appeal for parole to one
of baseball's two remaining teams: the Red Sox or the Yankees.
Days after the Sox signed ace righthander Curt Schilling from
Arizona, the Yanks signed ace righthander Javier Vazquez from
Montreal/San Juan/Monterrey. And so the Bosox and the Bombers,
whose combined payrolls might approach $400 million next season,
continue to obsess, in the most unseemly way, over which
franchise has the bigger Dick. (By one historical measure:
Boston's Dick Radatz, who's 6'5", over New York's Dick Tidrow,
who's 6'4".) It never ends. As the Yankees were poised to sign
free agent Gary Sheffield last week, the Red Sox were indeed
flirting with the addition of A-Rod and another Green Monster,
his $252 million contract.

Boston is the Athens of America, and America, the Athens of
baseball, will not be playing baseball in Athens. The U.S. team
didn't qualify for next summer's Olympics, though there's little
shame in that. After all, we don't send our best players, and the
Netherlands does.

Speaking of mediocrity, the Brewers have announced a reduction in
payroll from $40.6 million to $30 million for next season. Sure,
management had vowed to become competitive if taxpayers built the
team a $400 million stadium, and taxpayers did just that. Three
seasons after Miller Park opened, the promise, like the roof, has
proved retractable.

But never mind. The first Topps cards of 2004 have been pressed,
which is all that really matters at the moment. And fired Red Sox
manager Grady Little--in wraparound sunglasses, cap tugged low,
his whole face thrown into shadow--appears to have gone into
hiding even on his baseball card.

It is comforting, as snow drifts against the window, to open a
pack and see--squinting against sunshine, standing before a
cactus, bat on his shoulder--A's prospect Marcus McBeth,
evidently awaiting a pitch, in the Arizona desert, from Wile E.
Coyote. McBeth calls to mind Macbeth, Shakespeare's baseball
play, with its "Double, double" and its "Fair is foul" and its
"Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,/And thrice again, to make
up nine."

And, sadly, its "Out, out, brief candle." Dernell Stenson,
mild-mannered outfielder for the Reds, was murdered in Arizona
this off-season. In eulogizing him, the Reverend Marshall Stenson
said that his nephew had in fact been drafted into the
"Supernatural League," adding, "With as many people who love
baseball, heaven's got to have a baseball team."

Here's another cheering thought: Tigers pitcher Mike Maroth
became a father in October. Though he lost 21 games last season,
more than any other pitcher in 29 years, Maroth named his boy ...
Nolan. And that's the best thing about baseball in winter: Nearly
everyone's an optimist.


Baseball, alone among sports, has an off-season even more
interesting than its on-season.