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Labor talks going nowhere
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
DIAMOND NOTES: May 4
Owners and players met for several hours on Wednesday. The players made a comprehensive proposal, which included some suggestions involving contraction in 2004, figuring that no matter what happens when the arbitrator rules, if they try to contract after this season they face the same chaos they encountered last winter. The owners flatly rejected all proposals, so most of the negotiating session was spent on minutiae, such as bus rides of over two hours.
Now, there's a significant issue. The players likely will offer a no-strike pledge for a promise not to seek an impasse, which they won't get. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, owner Carl Pohlad, with the aid of the local newspaper, is stonewalling any attempt to buy the Twins, making it clear that Pohlad and the paper prefer contraction to an outsider buying the club. Thus, with all the negativity and despair, the Twins went into the weekend down 4,000 in attendance from last season, despite their 2001 improvement and positive 2002 start.
In fact, there is a feeling of doom and gloom, as the people on both sides negotiate towards the inevitability of a work stoppage and the caste system leaves some fans wondering why they are wasting major-league prices -- or time -- on games involving teams that are seemimgly stepsons of the Washington Generals. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to watch a Generals intrasquad game, would you be tempted to go see Tampa Bay against Milwaukee?
Sure, sure, it's early and from Chicago to Boston it's been cold, dank and sometimes windy. But there are some disturbing attendance signs, and not just because the Giants drew their two smallest crowds ever to Pac Bell Park on Monday and Tuesday. There are 10 teams drawing less than 20,000 per game, and four of them were in either first or second place. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh are down more than 10,000 apiece, demonstrating the rapid loss of innocence for new ballparks. Texas is down 5,000 a game, with All-Stars all over its roster. The Braves are hovering right at 30,000 a game, Baltimore barely that. The Indians may drop more than 500,000 by season's end. It's not worth getting into what's happening with the White Sox, who are very good, and the Phillies, who should be.
"What's happening could have a profound impact on the trade market," says one NL general manager. "Who will be able to take on money? The Yankees, yes. The Mets will if owner Nelson Doubleday's sale of his share of the Mets to Fred Wilpon goes through in time. Texas, maybe, if they have a chance. Seattle, a little, but not a lot. The Dodgers and Red Sox say they can't, but we know that if they're in it -- and they should be -- then they will. But that's it.
"When you look around and see some of the attendance drops and realize that several teams like the Indians were budgeted for several hundred thousand more fans than they're going to draw, then you see that to keep some contracts will really hurt them."
For instance, it may be practically impossible for the Toronto Blue Jays to unload either Carlos Delgado or Raul Mondesi and their contracts, and as the Jays try to pare down, play Eric Hinske, Felipe Lopez, Joe Lawrence and kids to build for 2004-2005, the revenues shrink, but the payroll remains constant. There are management people who swear the stated losses will double, whatever that means.
We know that the Marlins will make a run at signing Cliff Floyd, but won't come close, which will predicate a trade, with the Yankees and Mets already lining up. Toronto might trade Jose Cruz Jr. or Shannon Stewart. Philadelphia might decide it's so far out that Scott Rolen has to be traded rather than become a free agent. Ditto Anaheim and Darin Erstad. But how many teams right now can take on the contracts?
Will that make for a buyer's market when it comes to pitchers like Scott Erickson, Jeff Weaver, Mike Hampton, Omar Daal, Chuck Finley, Jamey Wright, Scott Schoeneweis, Paul Wilson, Esteban Loaiza, Jeff Suppan, et al?
Around the majors
"What we do will be toward building for 2003-2004," says Baird. "How we build depends on our young pitching."
Baird was very pleased watching former first-round draft pick Kyle Snyder on Friday night, reporting that Snyder was hitting 94 mph with a good curveball. "With Jeremy Affeldt, Chris George, Jimmy Gobble, Jeremy Hill and some of our other arms, we have the makings of pretty good pitching," says Baird. "But it's our job to develop it."
Needless to say, they are also excited about the quick start of Double-A OF Alexis Gomez, who has been a rising star on the Baseball America hot prospects list.
This and that
It will be interesting to see who Montreal selects with the fifth pick, as GM Omar Minaya admits, "signability will be an issue." The downside is that the Expos' choice might not want to sign with a team that might be extinct in a few months. On the other hand, he could get a signing bonus, then, in the event of contraction, be a free agent again in January.
"Frank Robinson stressed it from the start of spring training," says Minaya of his manager. "But a great deal of credit should go to hitting coach Tommy McCraw. He has worked hard with these players and they've listened to him. We had some veterans he could have used, but he insisted, 'give me Peter Bergeron and Brad Wilkerson,' and it's paying off." McCraw was a very good hitting coach with the Mets and Astros, so this should be no surprise, but the extent to which he has impacted the Expos is remarkable.
"You'll see him in the outfield, as well," says Red Sox manager Grady Little. "What does he do best? Go back for balls hit in the air."
"I'll play anywhere they want," says Offerman. "I've been used to having people doubt me, right back to when I came up with the Dodgers. But I know I can help this team and I want to stay here and do it." He's actually been an effective two-hole hitter.
"Geronimo Gil is making huge strides," says Crowley. "Larry Bigbie has made tremendous strides getting away from his aluminum bat swing and is off to a very strong start at Triple-A Rochester. And (second baseman) Brian Roberts is a player. I really like him. So we're starting to make our way back."
Bowden will talk with Jeff Shaw and agent Joe Bick this week about a possible set-up role, but says that Scott Williamson isn't ready to move back into the starting rotation. Right now, the Reds are focused on getting Ken Griffey Jr. back into the lineup, and his impact on Adam Dunn, Sean Casey and the rest of the lineup.
Three different catchers this week said they thought the umpires indeed were doing just what they professed to be doing -- calling the vertical strike, but cutting down the horizontal zone.
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