Expansion more closely resembled expensive

November 19, 1997|By George Vecsey | George Vecsey,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In spring training of 1962, a young pitcher named Aubrey Gatewood was trying to gain a spot with the New York Mets, an expansion team that had not yet played an official game.

"I'd like to keep you," explained Casey Stengel, the manager of the new team, "but I got some experienced pitchers here and we may be fighting for the pennant, so I got to go with experience."

Pennant? Did the manager actually utter the word "pennant?" Gatewood had been feeling sorry for himself, but what the heck, if the manager was fighting for a pennant, surely the Mets had to go with experience. The Mets promptly became the Worst Team in the History of Baseball, winning 40 games that year and losing 120. Now that was an expansion team.

What transpired all day yesterday and well into the night in Arizona was not an expansion draft. Not with expensive and capable players like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Matt Williams backed up like so many 747 jets on a runway, waiting for the draft to be over so they just might be sent on their way.

This expansion draft was just window dressing. Back in the good old days, general managers could basically force new teams to accept the lame, the halt, the aged and the inept, prompting Casey to frequently exclaim, "It's a joke!"

These days, all those fancy lawyers and agents and judges and mediators and arbitrators have arranged a system of free agency rTC that makes it impossible to condemn new teams to years of incompetence.

Casey's bloodshot old eyes would have twinkled at the draft held Tuesday for the Tampa Bay Arrivistes and the Arizona Nouveaus. At first, the new teams went for low-budget talent, most of whom were strangers to me in this era of 26, no make it 28, allegedly major-league teams. But soon, free-agency money will send familiar names flying all over North America.

The manager of Arizona is Buck Showalter, who, just like Casey Stengel, is a former Yankees manager. There are a few differences between them, however. Casey never slept in his office the way Showalter has done after his self-imposed overnight sessions of watching films of baseball games.

In that first Mets season, Casey tended to go out drinking after watching Elio Chacon play shortstop. Showalter's first shortstop will not drive his manager to a bar stool. Jerry Colangelo did not pluck the capable Jay Bell from the expansion draft, but rather spent $34 million for a five-year contract for Bell on Monday.

The current owners were terribly affronted by a new owner like Colangelo tossing money around in grandiose fashion. Their attitude was, "What's Colangelo doing, trying to make fun of us by imitating us?"

Colangelo was miffed by the criticism from his new lodge brothers. He said: "Everyone ought to look in the mirror before anyone casts stones. We have a game plan and we plan to stick to it. And whatever we do is not going to be something that has to be torn down and sold."

That little zinger was aimed at Wayne Huizenga, who in his five-year stewardship of the Florida Marlins claims he was amazed by two things -- how it rains every afternoon at 5 p.m. in South Florida, and how expensive baseball players are. This only proves that Wayne does not read the weather map or the sports pages.

Although I dozed off after midnight on the last Sunday in October, I vaguely recall these very same Florida Marlins winning the World Series. Now Wayne is tearing down the big tent. I'm just guessing that Wayne is going to make out like a bandit in selling the club, which is what he does -- buy low, sell high, and no long commitment to people or product.

I would advise Colangelo to wait a year or two before making his boasts, because who knows what miscalculations he has made out there in the desert. Still, his basic premise is correct. Everything is speeded up. The Colorado Rockies made the playoffs in only their third season. Next year is the only year that matters, which is why the Yankees should keep Bernie Williams for the last year of his contract.

Given free agency, smart operators could scoop up some young talent in an expansion draft, then judiciously spend a ton of money, and make them play together. For all we know, we may have seen the 1998 World Series champions being assembled yesterday.

Next spring training, Buck Showalter might tell a latter-day Aubrey Gatewood, "We may be fighting for a pennant," and say it with a straight face.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.