Clemens' change of heart more a pitch to alter image Baseball

On Baseball

December 27, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was an interesting scene. Five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens called a news conference Tuesday to announce that he was rescinding his trade demand and would report to spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The well-orchestrated announcement was designed to counter the widely held impression that Clemens had demanded a trade as a pretext to reopen his contract and negotiate a megabucks extension with the team that eventually acquired him.

Clemens clearly didn't like being portrayed as just another greedy ballplayer trying to break the bank and -- to use the words of Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker -- "squeeze the last nickel out of the industry."

That wasn't the reason at all, of course. Clemens just wanted to play closer to home, which is why agents Alan and Randy Hendricks reportedly told the Astros that they were looking for a one-year, $27 million add-on to his existing contract to approve a proposed deal that would have brought him within 30 miles of his suburban Houston spread.

Now, he says, he's ready to remain with the Blue Jays and honor the remaining two years of his contract, which would be a major plus for a team on the edge of the American League wild-card race.

If it weren't just spin.

Clemens still wants to be traded. The Blue Jays still intend to trade him. He still has the right -- under the collective bargaining agreement -- to demand a trade again after the first year in a new location, which means that he still has the leverage to exact a huge price before he approves a deal.

He just wants to wash his hands in public, which might make it easier for the Blue Jays to get a deal done in private.

What they should do, however, is take him at his word and start the season with an upgraded starting rotation and a fresh-faced team that played very well during the second half of last season.

Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash acquired starter Joey Hamilton from the San Diego Padres to help fill the expected void created by a Clemens deal, but he should take advantage of the opportunity to field a top-flight rotation at least long enough to see if his team can contend next year.

Club officials have privately expressed concern about the possible negative impact of bringing Clemens back to a club he seemed so eager to leave, but the positive reaction of several veteran players to Tuesday's announcement has allayed fear of a divided clubhouse.

Even former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen, who originally took great personal offense at Clemens' de facto vote of no-confidence in the team, told the Toronto Sun that the possibility of his return in 1999 was "great news."

It would be, but it probably won't happen. The Hendricks brothers will repair their rift with the Astros' front office or Ash will strike a deal with another team -- perhaps the Yankees. And Clemens will get everything he wants.

What he wants right now, however, is to get his image repaired, but he won't know for sure if that has happened until this complex situation has played itself out.

Thomas may be next

No surprise here. The Boston Red Sox reportedly have made inquiries about the availability of Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, who was left behind when Albert Belle and Robin Ventura joined this year's free-agent gold rush.

White Sox GM Ron Schueler insists that he is not trying to deal Thomas -- and nothing came of the Boston inquiry -- but said that the club will listen to any offer.

Nothing is imminent, but the likelihood that Thomas will still be in Chicago at the end of the 1999 season seems remote. The rebuilding White Sox have more to gain by trading him for a group of strong prospects and dumping his big contract than by keeping him around to play in an empty stadium.

If you build it?

Several new stadiums are rising up around the major leagues, but the latest salary surge may have imperiled one of the sacred assumptions of the industry -- that all it takes is a new ballpark to change the fortunes of a struggling small-market team.

Even with a new state-of-the-art ballpark, the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers are not going to have the revenue stream to compete for players with the top large-market clubs, especially with the top payroll pushing past $80 million.

Major League Baseball still has to find a way to create a salary structure that is acceptable to the players union and promotes a greater degree of competitive balance. Of course, it might be easier to put a center fielder on Mars.

Not so fast

South Florida baseball fans would like to see prospective owner John Henry take over control of the Marlins as soon as possible, but reports that major-league owners will approve the sale of the club at next month's quarterly owners meeting in Carlsbad, Calif., seem premature.

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