The 5 stories of spring

February 21, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff

1. McGwire: What do you do for an encore? If you're Mark McGwire, there has to be a part of you that is looking forward to spring training and another part of you that is dreading it. Where do you go from 70 home runs?

The 1998 season was one of the most exciting in history, thanks largely to the heart-stopping, heartwarming competition between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but McGwire pushed so far past Roger Maris' record of 61 that it would be foolish to think that he can challenge his own record this year.

Foolish or not, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa set that bar even higher when he said last month that McGwire could hit 75.

Now, if he hits 55, which would make him the first player in history to hit 50 or more in four straight seasons and usher him into the elite 500-homer club, some people are going to be disappointed. Go figure.

2. Rich get richer: As if they really needed to improve. The New York Yankees pulled off a blockbuster deal for five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, improving the deep starting rotation that carried them to a record 125 regular-season and postseason victories.

The Yankees got the can't-miss Hall of Famer into pinstripes by trading 18-game winner David Wells, reliever Graeme Lloyd and prospect Homer Bush to the Toronto Blue Jays. The defending world champions already were a strong favorite, but owner George Steinbrenner doesn't know the meaning of enough when it comes to star power.

The only way this would be a bigger story is if Wells and the Blue Jays parlay their new talent into a surprising divisional challenge. If that happens, the Yankees will be kicking themselves for ignoring the first rule of management: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

3. Frugal Friars: The natives are restless in San Diego, where the Padres spent the winter waving goodbye to many of the players who carried them to the National League pennant.

Critics are comparing the departures of pitcher Kevin Brown, outfielder Greg Vaughn, third baseman Ken Caminiti, outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Joey Hamilton to the Marlins meltdown a year ago, but the Padres insist that is not the case.

The situation is particularly galling to local fans because they just voted to provide public funding for a new ballpark, but the situation really isn't comparable to last year's fiasco in Florida. The Padres are not slashing payroll. They are just trying to keep it at about the same level it was in 1998.

Nevertheless, the Padres have a chance to be the second National League team in a row to go from the World Series one year to the cellar the next.

4. Davey and the Dodgers: It is a dynamite combination -- Davey Johnson, Kevin Malone and all the money in the world. The Los Angeles Dodgers open spring training with more expectations than McGwire, and deservedly so. They reshuffled the front office, hired the winningest manager around and committed $105 million to sign the best pitcher in the free- agent market.

In short, they have to win this year. There will be no excuse for anything short of a playoff appearance and extreme disappointment if the club doesn't reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.

Trouble is, the Atlanta Braves are the best team in the National League, so it's still going to be tough.

5. The Orioles' volatile chemistry: If the New York Yankees play anything like the way they did last year, the American League East race is a dead issue, but the Orioles are not the same team that stumbled into fourth place in 1998.

Newcomers Albert Belle and Will Clark bring a heightened level of personal intensity that is certain to change the chemistry of the team, though there is still room to wonder if that will be enough to carry the Orioles back to the postseason.

Manager Ray Miller is on the hot seat after the disappointing 1998 season and the bullpen is a major area of uncertainty, but the club should have enough character -- and characters -- to be far more entertaining than last year's model.

Pub Date: 02/25/99

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