When the Oakland Athletics of the mid-90s were trying to get back to respectability, Tony La Russa used to tell his players, "get to .500, then we can talk."
To those in New York and Boston whose theme songs are "Death or Glory," .500 doesn't seem like much. But if you're Dave Dombrowski and your Tigers haven't been .500 since 1993, Dave Littlefield and your Pirates have had no winning seasons since Barry Bonds left in 1992 or Doug Melvin and your Brewers have had 12 losing seasons since '92, it means plenty.
"It means something in terms of getting back to respectability and making a run back at contention," says Melvin, the Brewers' general manager.
Jose Mesa could very well finish the season right where he started it -- with the Pirates.
"Our fans have been promised the future too long," says Littlefield, the Pirates' GM. "We want to start moving forward."
In Detroit, owner Mike Ilitch has said "I'll keep spending until we win." And in Oakland, GM Billy Beane wants to ride his starting rotation back over .500 before the season ends.
So, while the big market media may cavalierly throw out the names of players on every small- and medium-market team that isn't clearly in the heart of a wild-card race, the fact is there aren't the number of teams looking to dump salaries that there have been in normal years.
"The Rockies and Royals may do some moving," says an AL GM. "But most teams are in better financial shape than they've been in a long time because more teams have studied the Oakland and Minnesota models."
"There are so few teams that are already out of it," says Melvin, "I don't think there will be much [trade] activity until about a week before the [July 31] deadline."
The Tigers began Sunday with a better record than the Yankees and Mets, one game over .500. They may get Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez back this week, with the Pistons' season over and in time for a week's homestand with the powerful White Sox and Yankees that could be the beginning of an attendance spike and a real buildup in interest.
The Brewers had a sellout crowd Saturday night that saw Prince Fielder's game-winning pinch-hit home run, culminating a week of good crowds for the Cubs and rival Twins.
"In years past, I had free agents that I intended to trade near the deadline," says Melvin. "This year, I don't have anyone I'm interested in dealing. Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and our young players have really given us a spark. Carlos Lee has been outstanding. Our starting pitching is [third] in the league [in ERA] and keeping us in games. We're thinking about the wild card, and we're definitely thinking about having a winning season. I think it's important.
"I've had a couple of calls on Lyle Overbay, and I've told them he's not available (Fielder will probably go back to the minors this week). I've had a call on Tomo Ohka. We'll see later on him. I think with a position player, you always can make a better deal during the offseason. With a pitcher, if there's a lot of need, sometimes you can make the good deal during the season. It depends.
"We have a lot of good things going here. Billy Hall works with Hardy and Weeks every day. Jeff Cirillo is great with the young infielders; he's out six weeks, but wants to go on the road with us and lockers next to Weeks. Lee has been a tremendous addition to the clubhouse, as has Damian Miller, and Brady Clark's professionalism rubs off on everyone. We don't want to break it up, and we think we will only get better in the second half. Remember, Ben Sheets missed seven starts."
"In years past," says Littlefield, "we had to move contracts and get our payroll down. We got it down $20 million. Now we're right where we have to be. We don't have to move payroll, our attendance is up 20 percent and we now want to start winning. There is no one we have to move. We have an option on Jose Mesa for next season, and I think it's good for Mike Gonzalez to break into the closer role with Jose [on our team]."
Littlefield brought up right-handed pitcher Ian Snell this weekend, has lefty Zach Duke sitting at Triple-A Indianapolis with a 12-3 record in 16 starts and will get right-hander John Van Benschoten and lefty Sean Burnett back for the 2006 season. "We need some more power and production," Littlefield says. "But we're getting better. This winter we can start to do some things. For now, I'm not interested in Double-A prospects. If someone wants to make a trade, it has to be for someone who can help the Pirates now."
According to the Korean News Bureau, South Korean Doosan Bears' pitcher Park Myung-hwan twice lost his cap while delivering a pitch and each time frozen cabbage leaves fell off his head twice in a game on June 19. The frozen cabbage leaves inside the cap were used to keep his head cool.
The Korea Baseball Organization has been moved to rule that wearing cabbage leaves inside a baseball cap constitutes an "alien material" that may disrupt a game, prohibited according to the organization's rules, the organization said in a statement Tuesday.
Detroit has invested heavily in Pudge Rodriguez, Ordonez and Troy Percival. When they went to trade Ugueth Urbina, some around the game questioned why they didn't take Florida's offer of two top minor league pitchers. Answer: Placido Polanco helps them win now.
With rookie Chris Shelton, who can hit, dividing the first base/DH jobs with Dmitri Young and Polanco, Guillen and Brandon Inge (10th in the American League in runs created) the Tigers lineup could be very dangerous. And with right-handed pitchers Justin Verlander (who punched out the first seven hitters in his Double-A debut) and Joel Zumaya coming fast at Erie, the Tigers are trying to merge the present and future in what is becoming the most interesting division in either league.
Beane has told everyone who calls that he will not trade Barry Zito during the season, as he believes that with Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Kirk Saarloos and Huston Street at the end, the A's could have a big second half.
Beane will trade Mark Kotsay to the Cubs or the Yankees in the right deal if a contract extension doesn't get done with Kotsay; Nick Swisher could play center field, Daric Barton (batting .470 since May 1 in the Class A California League at age 19) has convinced the A's people he can play the outfield, this year's No. 1 pick Cliff Pennington, a shortstop, is going to come fast and Andre Ethier could be in the Oakland outfield by midseason 2006. Two prime prospects might give Oakland another five-year run, especially if left-handed pitcher Dan Meyer's shoulder comes around.
"Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them I'm not trading Zito," says Beane.
Hey, J.P. Ricciardi has the same deal. When, for instance, the Phillies called about a Ryan Howard-Ted Lilly deal, Ricciardi said he won't trade Lilly. Still, stories keep cropping up. "I'm not trading Lilly," says the Blue Jays GM. "He's signed through next year to a reasonable contract, he's a starting pitcher and we're trying to build a winning atmosphere for the kids like Aaron Hill and Russ Adams, who are winning players who need to be playing in a winning atmosphere."
In Boston and New York, there's the attitude that because their teams want and need someone, that the Pirates, Tigers, Brewers, Athletics and Blue Jays should give them up. Think again.
Around the majors
• Whomever designed that park in Philadelphia was an idiot. The home-road run numbers are the same as Coors Field.
• Lou Piniella might make it through the year, as lawyers for Stuart Sternberg, the possible new managing general partner for the Devil Rays, believe they can oust present boss Vince Naimoli after the World Series. None of this would have exploded had ownership fulfilled its promises to modestly increase payroll, not cut it.
• Let's see: The same law firm represented Peter Angelos and MLB in the Washington deal. No wonder Angelos is making more than $350 million out of it.
• And you don't think bullpens are unpredictable and drive GMs to drink? Hector Carrasco, 35, is throwing 94-96 mph with the best slider of his career pitching for the Nationals.
• Meanwhile, Washington's No. 1 pick, third baseman Jeff Zimmerman from the University Virginia, is already playing in Double-A and homered in his debut Saturday night.
• Colorado is one of the teams that has tried to get catcher Kelly Shoppach from the Red Sox. Boston didn't seem interested in first baseman Ryan Sheely (whom they tried to get for Byung-Hyun Kim) or Joe Kennedy, but that bears watching.
There is a lot of anticipation in Boston for second base prospect Dustin Pedroia, but Sox officials say that because Pedroia doesn't have to be protected on the 40-man roster, if something happened to Edgar Renteria, they would likely bring up shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez.
• Teams keep calling the Mariners about Eddie Guardado, but thus far they have resisted interest and want to see where they are after the All-Star break.
• Florida tried hard to acquire Brian Fuentes from Colorado, but he is the Rockies' only semblance of someone who can close games and is not going anywhere right now. Right now, all is quiet on the Preston Wilson front. Washington also said no on a trade in which it would have had to deal Ryan Church.
• Twins GM Terry Ryan says, "we're just not playing very well right now. It's our defense. We're doing things fundamentally that we ordinarily don't do." Ryan is convinced the pitching will be fine, but with Michael Cuddyer continuing to struggle, the GM's looking for a third baseman. Joe Randa? With the Reds having rookie Edwin Encarnacion to play third base, Randa is a possibility to be moved.
• Ryan doesn't anticipate using Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano or J.D. Durbin as a reliever down the stretch. "I want them to start and [to pitch] innings," says Ryan. "Starting pitching is hard to find."
• And Bostonians think they're more sophisticated than the rest of the country? At a recent Jimmy Fund auction, a baseball signed by Red Sox GM Theo Epstein went for $115, a ball signed by Bronson Arroyo for $165 and one by surefire Hall of Famer Greg Maddux? $15.
Batting when it really counts
Do you wonder which batters have had the most RBI opportunities this season. From the Elias Sports Bureau (through June 22):
Hitting with the most men on base this season
248 Rodriguez, Alex, NYY
238 Matsui, Hideki, NYY
237 Lee, Carlos, Mil.
232 Burrell, Pat, Phi.
225 Renteria, Edgar, Bos.
222 Pujols, Albert, St. L
221 Jones, Andruw, Atl.
220 Glaus, Troy, Ari.
218 Burnitz, Jeromy, ChC
217 Abreu, Bobby, Phi.
217 Ortiz, David, Bos.
Hitting with the most men in scoring position this season
131 Rodriguez, Alex, NYY
128 Lee, Carlos, Mil.
121 Matsui, Hideki, NYY
119 Jones, Andruw, Atl.
119 Renteria, Edgar, Bos.
118 Burrell, Pat, Phi.
116 Burnitz, Jeromy, ChC
114 Gonzalez, Luis, Ari.
114 Tejada, Miguel, Bal.
110 Bell, David, Phi.
Decline in power at first base in the AL
(Through June 22. Source: Elias Sports Bureau.)
This and that
• Thanks to DirecTV, the MLB package and all the games on ESPN.com, we all get to hear local announcers throughout the game, a treat when they are analytical and balanced. A small poll I did came up with the Giants (Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow), Yankees (Jim Kaat, Michael Kay, Ken Singleton, Paul O'Neill) and Cubs (Len Kasper, Bob Brenly) as the best announcers, although New Englanders worship Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo.
• Go buy the soundtrack to "Lords of Dogtown" just to hear Social Distortion's remake of the Clash classic, "Death or Glory." Hence the lead to this column.