Baseball loses its spring serenity

JOHN EISENBERG

February 28, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Spring training remains the most peaceful patch of green on the sporting landscape, but to say that it has surrendered some of its famous serenity is understating the matter.

Baseball's mind-bending commerce has turned the spring season into an experience that is more jarring than calming. The season of renewal has become a season of adjustment for those in the game as well as those on the outside looking in.

It used to be the time to loosen muscles, trim pounds and see the possibility in even the most average rookie arm. Now it's the time to get accustomed to the surreal sight of Wade Boggs in Yankee pinstripes and other knockout punches from baseball's annual flesh auction.

In the Orioles' division alone there are enough fundamental changes to dizzy any fan with a memory. The concept of Boggs as a Yankee is preposterous, but no more so than career Brewer Paul Molitor as a Blue Jay or career Blue Jay Jimmy Key as a Yankee.

Dave Winfield, Chris Bosio and Tom Henke are among the big names gone from the division, with Andre Dawson, Jim Abbott and Dave Stewart among the many replacing them. The overall effect is a division resembling a high-dollar get-acquainted party this spring, minus only little name tags with smiling faces.

The only calm outpost in the turbulence is, of course, the Orioles, who will go with the same basic framework (plus a couple of Harolds) this season, in part because they were satisfied with it but primarily because the team was for sale over the winter and the front office was as frozen as your lawn this morning.

What it will all mean when the games start counting in April is virtually impossible to decipher. It's no different than a muddy day at the racetrack. Handicapping is based strictly on that finite art known as guessing.

"You can throw a blanket over all seven teams," manager Johnny Oates said Friday. "There isn't one team you can say is a sure thing to finish last or first. I don't see any way you can pick a winner and feel good about it. And one team probably will end up 18 to 20 games out in last place, but can you tell me who it's going to be?"

The Jays are the consensus choice to win among the people who do the choosing, but that's just a reflex. The defending World Series champs have taken a measurable step backward since October and could finish fifth as easily as first.

"Maybe it's just me trying to be too optimistic, but I try to put myself in [Jays manager Cito] Gaston's shoes, and I would hate to lose that much talent in one year," Oates said. "They added Molitor, but lost Henke, Key, Winfield, [Kelly] Gruber, [Candy] Maldonado, [David] Cone, [Manuel] Lee and [Dave] Stieb. That's a whole lot."

The Brewers were the other team that finished ahead of the third-place Orioles in '92, but they also have taken a step backward, losing Molitor, 16-game-winner Bosio and half their infield.

"Again, I hope it's not my heart talking because I do think we can contend, but they've had some losses," Oates said. "I don't look at Bosio as much as Molitor, Kevin Seitzer and Scott Fletcher, three pesky players on a team that won playing pesky ball."

Whether the Orioles can pass these teams is clearly unclear. They won 89 games a year ago, but needed colossal years from Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson to do it. Cal Ripken, Harold Baines and Glenn Davis -- average age 33 -- will need to carry more of the load. And with Arthur Rhodes just 23, Ben McDonald at .500 for his career and Rick Sutcliffe now 36, is there a sure big winner among the starters other than Mike Mussina?

Adding to the overall vagueness is the apparent improvement of the division's bottom teams. "I like what the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees did over the winter," Oates said. "And you can flat-out see the Indians coming."

Easily the most interesting among that lot is the Yankees, whose rotation of Abbott, Key, Melido Perez and youngster Sam Militello is maybe the best in the division. With a sounder lineup, a healthy Danny Tartabull and a solid bullpen, not to mention George Steinbrenner back and in a spending mode, the Yankees just might win the division. You read it here first.

The Orioles would have been the favorites had they done the right thing and turned some of their Camden Yards profits into Ruben Sierra, but as things wound up, their chances of winning the division are no worse than anyone else's and maybe a little better than most. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

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