Don't look now: It's time to play ball Big bucks to Big Unit, season full of subplots

February 14, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The labor war is over. The free-agent frenzy has subsided. Spring is in the air, even if it still feels a lot like winter here in chilly Baltimore.

In Florida and Arizona, the grass is green and the fields are manicured, ready to show off their first serious cleat marks this weekend. Pitchers and catchers have started reporting to camp, and most will begin spring workouts tomorrow.

Orioles pitchers and catchers, for instance, officially are scheduled to begin reporting to their Fort Lauderdale complex today, though several players already are working out. Manager Davey Johnson will hold his first organized workout tomorrow, with the full squad scheduled to report Wednesday.

If it doesn't seem that long since the New York Yankees celebrated their first World Series championship since the 1970s, it isn't. The last major-league out was recorded just 3 1/2 months ago, but a lot has happened since the Bronx erupted in celebration the night of Oct. 26, 1996.

The players and owners finally ended their bitter, four-year labor dispute, settling on a new contract in late November and setting the stage for the first season since 1992 that will not be played under the cloud of labor unrest.

The market rallied in anticipation of that good news -- the free-agent market, that is -- and the game's salary spiral resumed just when the new labor contract was supposed to return some economic sanity to the game.

The Chicago White Sox took baseball salaries to a new level when they signed free-agent outfielder Albert Belle to a record five-year, $55 million contract.

The Toronto Blue Jays pushed the price of pitching into the stratosphere when they signed Roger Clemens to an annual salary of $8.25 million.

And the Florida Marlins went on an $80 million spending spree they hope will help them finally overtake the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.

DTC Time to start finding out. Here's a look at some of the subplots that figure to bring baseball fans out of hibernation over the next six weeks:

The gambler: Belle's impending arrival at the White Sox's Sarasota training facility figured to be one of the biggest stories of the spring, and it just got even bigger.

Belle, who has vowed to be on his best behavior this year, gave sworn testimony this week that he recently lost $40,000 betting on football and basketball games. That admission isn't expected to affect his playing time this year, but he could be placed on probation by acting commissioner Bud Selig.

The White Sox probably would have preferred a quieter entrance, but Belle has proven that he can produce -- and sometimes thrive -- under this kind of pressure. Barring more damaging revelations, he'll pair up with Frank Thomas on Opening Day to form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in baseball history.

The big switch: Orioles hero Cal Ripken will report to camp next week, ready to make the permanent switch from shortstop to third base.

The controversy over the change already has subsided, but the installation of free agent Mike Bordick at shortstop still is expected to be one of the major stories of spring. It may be the most heralded defensive replacement since Doug DeCinces replaced Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson at third base.

The Big Unit: The outcome of the American League West race -- and perhaps the playoffs and World Series -- could depend on how Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson looks this spring. Johnson underwent back surgery late last season, but is expected to reclaim his reputation as the most overpowering pitcher in the game.

Considering that he was 5-0 and struck out 85 batters in 61 1/3 innings with the back injury last year, he's a good bet to be back in Cy Young form. The Mariners also added front-line starter Jeff Fassero during the off-season, and should be in position to overtake the defending division champion Texas Rangers.

Big fish: Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga obviously got tired of watching the Braves cruise to victory in the National League East every year, so he authorized an off-season spending spree that should turn his team into a strong contender.

The club signed new manager Jim Leyland and free agents Alex Fernandez, Moises Alou and Bobby Bonilla to big contracts, improving a team that already features 1996 NL ERA leader Kevin Brown, big-hitting outfielder Gary Sheffield and flashy center fielder Devon White. Now, it's time for the big chemistry experiment.

The damn Yankees: The Yankees put it all together last year, but manager Joe Torre may have his hands full trying to reformulate the winning chemistry that carried the club to its first world title since 1978.

The club lost World Series MVP John Wetteland to free agency and appears to have gotten the wrong end of the Jimmy Key/David Wells free-agent swap with the Orioles.

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