The stories of spring

Spring Training 2000

February 16, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff

Let's face it. No matter how much everyone is looking forward to the start of the 2000 season, there is little chance that spring training will be as exciting or eventful as the just-completed off-season.

Quick review: The Seattle Mariners traded away the most popular player in the sport. The Texas Rangers traded away one of the game's most prolific hitters. The umpires overthrew their union. The owners gave Bud Selig new power to solve baseball's economic problems. And, of course, a fresh-faced young redneck from Georgia turned the industry on its ear when he told Sports Illustrated magazine just how much he hates New York.

How do you top that?

No chance. But spring training will feature some intriguing subplots nonetheless, many of them springing from the same headlines that made the winter go by so fast. Here's a thumbnail look at some of the story lines that figure to be prominent as the 30 major-league teams prepare for Opening Day:

The mouth that roared

Embattled relief pitcher John Rocker became the poster boy for political incorrectness with his stinging diatribe in SI against gays and immigrants. Now, the Atlanta Braves are trying to pick up the pieces.

It won't be easy. Whether Rocker's 28-day suspension and spring training ban are upheld or not, his comments and their continuing fallout figure to be the overriding themes at the club's Disney World training complex.

Braves officials already are trying to make the situation a non-issue by insisting that club personnel will not answer questions about it this spring. The issue isn't going to die because there are too many advocacy groups that benefit from keeping it alive.

There will be pickets on the first day of workouts, especially if an arbitrator overturns Selig's disciplinary action.

Starless in Seattle

Griffey finally got his way. He convinced new Mariners GM Pat Gillick that he couldn't play in Seattle anymore and was traded last week to the Cincinnati Reds. Now, the focus shifts to superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who will be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2000 season and seems intent on testing the market.

That creates another huge dilemma for Gillick, who cannot relish the prospect of presiding over the departure of the two most popular players in Mariners history.

The M's want to re-sign Rodriguez. Who wouldn't? But they'll have to consider trading him -- during spring training or at midseason -- if they can't find a way to guarantee that he'll be back for the 2001 season. His status is certain to become the dominant theme at the Mariners' camp.

Cal's back

The countdown to 3,000 hits will not resume until Opening Day, but future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken will be one of baseball's most closely watched players during spring training.

He underwent surgery last fall to repair the lower back problem that sidelined him for extended periods during the 1999 season. There is no guarantee he'll be as good as new this spring, but he has worked hard to put himself into position to play regularly again.

Ripken's determination never has been in question. Even as he grappled with his first serious injury, he put up some of the best offensive numbers of his career when he was sound enough to answer the bell. But he still has to get through six weeks of camp without a relapse before he re-establishes himself as a premier player and accumulates the nine hits he needs to reach 3,000.

If all goes well, he could force the Orioles

to consider a contract extension. If there are any problems, speculation will surely follow about his impending retirement.

International relations

The Chicago Cubs and New York Mets reported to spring training before the other 28 major-league teams to prepare for baseball's first overseas season opener. The two clubs will travel to Japan next month and play a short regular-season series as part of MLB's continuing international outreach.

The Orioles were the point team for that effort last year, traveling to Cuba at the end of spring training for an exhibition game and then playing host to a team of Cuban all-stars at Camden Yards in May.

The Cubs and Mets face a far more grueling travel schedule, which could affect their performance in April. There was some grumbling in Baltimore that the Cuban goodwill trip created a distraction that contributed to the Orioles' poor start. The same convenient excuse will be available to the Cubs and Mets this year.

Threepeat?

The New York Yankees return to spring training with largely the same team that has won three of the past four world titles.

What will they do for an encore?

Probably cruise through the regular season again.

The Yankees didn't make any blockbuster moves during the off-season, but they didn't have to. The second-place Boston Red Sox aren't dramatically improved, and the other divisional contenders still have serious flaws -- the Orioles in particular.

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