O's-Yanks illustrates sad state of suspense



NEW YORK -- The lords of baseball need only look a few miles from their corporate headquarters to see the trouble they have wrought. The New York Yankees and Orioles were playing what should have been a crucial four game series at Yankee Stadium, but the uneven regular-season schedule and the current playoff format has rendered divisional showdowns all but obsolete.

Yankees manager Joe Torre discounted the importance of head-to-head play last week when he said it was "not realistic" for his club to expect to catch the first place Orioles in the American League East.

That may be true, but the series would have taken on do-or-die significance if the Yankees were not in a position to sit on a comfortable wild-card lead and get the better postseason matchup.

The Orioles weren't terribly fired up, either, since all they had to do was hold a 12/2-game lead over the Anaheim Angels to reach the postseason.

The fans certainly seemed nonplused by the showdown. They didn't exactly pack the stadium for Game 1, and they left in droves after the Yankees fell a couple of runs behind Thursday night. The crowds were bigger on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, but not in the eighth inning. The new baseball slogan should be: "Wildcard fever. Catch it on the way home."

There still is suspense. because the wild-card format keeps many marginal teams in playoff contention, creating artificial excitement in those cities. Whether that is a good thing is a matter of opinion, but the impact on the individual division races should be enough to convince the owners that baseball doesn't need to add any more wild-card teams.

One of the "radical" realignment plans under consideration would pare the leagues back to two divisions each and put the first two teams in each division into the postseason.

That's good for TV, but it is an ill-advised assault on the traditions of the sport. That scenario would make the September showdowns between the second- and third-place teams in each division more important than the head-to-head matchups between the two top clubs.

That just doesn't make sense, and the series this weekend at Yankee Stadium should be an audio-visual aid for anyone who thinks otherwise.

Demotion raises concern

The decision by the Boston Red Sox to drop left-hander Steve Avery out of their starting rotation should not have come as a surprise to anyone, but the Major League Baseball Players Association still might make an issue of it.

The Red Sox held a qualifying incentive option on Avery far 1998, and if he had made one more start -- his 18th of the season-the club would have had to guarantee him $3.9 million for next year.

It doesn't take a team of union lawyers to figure out that the timing of his demotion was not coincidental. Avery has struggled badly the past month and has not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the club. The Red Sox can be forgiven for not wanting to throw good money after bad by allowing him to make another start and guarantee next season, but technically are not allowed under baseball rules to reduce his playing time solely for the purpose of avoiding a quantitative incentive plateau.

The club likely would argue that Avery's disappointing performance (6-6, 6.57 ERA) contributed more to the decision than the pending option rollover, but the union probably would love the chance to argue the timing of the move before an arbitrator. Trouble is, Avery isn't likely to cooperate.

"The way I've pitched the last four times out [0-4, 18.47 ERA] has kind of driven them to make a decision," Avery said Monday. "I don't know if it's a permanent or final decision right now, but it seems to me they're saying, 'Maybe he's better off somewhere else next year.' If so, that's fine. I don't honestly feel like I deserve another start right now.

"I haven't done anything earn the right to come back.... If they don't want me back next year, well, I've been through that not too long ago. It's not like a big shock to me. I still have plenty of confidence in myself. Being 27 years old, I'm sure if these guys don't want to take a chance and see what I can do over a full season, then someone else will."

Larkin surgery goes well

Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin is expected to be running without discomfort by the time the club opens spring training next February. Doctors performed extensive surgery on

his left foot Wednesday to repair a torn tendon and remove bone spurs from his heel and big toe.

"This went as good as can be expected," said team physician Tim Kremchek, "and we expect that by spring training the Barry Larkin of old will be at shortstop."

A Rose is a Rose

It took nearly nine years to get an opportunity, but Pete Rose Jr. finally got a hit in the major leagues Monday at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati, and what otherwise would have been a historically insignificant single by a Reds rookie put him into the record book with his famous father.

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