Mussina vs. P. Martinez ends in wash

Spring's marquee matchup ends up being all wet

March 20, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- How's this for spring training atmosphere?

Mike Mussina was to face Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, the only pitcher to finish ahead of him in last year's American League Cy Young Award balloting.

Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, planned to sit in the owner's box alongside Peter Angelos to discuss a contract extension for his client. Tellem's orange credential sat waiting on the desk of Syd Thrift's executive assistant, Ann Lange.

Home Team Sports was set to broadcast the matchup back to Baltimore with Tom Davis doing play-by-play. The largest crowd ever to attend an Orioles exhibition at Fort Lauderdale Stadium would serve as backdrop with The Bird flapping atop the first base dugout and about half the team's investors watching nearby.

But on the day of camp's most anticipated game, the Orioles instead became the unwitting victims of bad luck, terrible South Florida weather and worse groundskeeping.

Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss arrived at the stadium around noon and wasted little time making a popular executive decision: the game would be scrubbed, all tickets refunded and the Red Sox sent back across Alligator Alley with some soda and apologies.

Given an estimated attendance of more than 8,500, Foss projected lost receipts at $80,000-$100,000. Alas, the Orioles haven't yet invented the Grapefruit League split doubleheader.

"It was a disappointment for both teams and the fans," said Foss. "It's not a decision you take lightly."

How yesterday's keystone comedy came about only further agitated the club. The Orioles scheduled extra hitting after Saturday's exhibition win over the Minnesota Twins. Rather than have a grounds crew stand by to cover the field afterward, stadium operations avoided overtime by sending them home. The tarp remained around its spool despite an ominous weather forecast.

"The tarp could've and should've been put down," said Foss. "But even had the tarp been put down, the outfield was not in good playing condition."

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove arrived yesterday morning and was welcomed by a field exposed to a monsoon. The grounds crew attempted to move water with squeegies and by hammering holes into the infield to facilitate percolation to drier underlying layers.

Little could be done about the compacted outfield, which had recently been resodded and now held standing water.

"I have nothing printable to say," Hargrove said of his reaction.

Shortly after 9 a.m., Cal Ripken peeked into a dugout transformed into Class III rapids and pronounced: "Unplayable conditions."

Said Foss: "I was surprised and disappointed it hadn't been done."

Added Hargrove, "If the tarp was on, we would've had a better chance to play. They wouldn't have had to do a lot of work to reconstruct the infield. As it was, they said they would've needed two hours to fix the infield."

An explanation that the field was left exposed because rain was not forecast particularly incensed the manager.

"I said, `You'll have to think of a better one than that because I watch the weather report, too,' " he said. "It wasn't on purpose. It was one of those things you hope won't happen again."

With a waterfall forming down the dugout steps, others were less diplomatic. "Somebody bang this game," said first baseman/team sheriff Will Clark with considerable support from teammates. "There are salmon swimming against the current in that dugout."

Advised at about 10 a.m. that the sopping field could be readied for play in 90 minutes, Thrift and Hargrove asked traveling secretary Phil Itzoe to tell the Red Sox to take off from Fort Myers about 2 1/2 hours away. The Red Sox were told the game could start as late as 2: 30 p.m.

Red Sox manager Jimy Williams boarded the bus with something resembling a split squad and ordered Martinez to stay behind, pitching instead in a minor-league game.

The Orioles' patience was further tested with today's day off looming. By 10: 30 a.m., Terry Crowley's hitters had completed their work in the cages and strength-and-conditioning coach Tim Bishop's attempt at finding time for a workout on the back fields had failed.

"They what?" said one player incredulously when told that the Red Sox were Lauderdale-bound.

With water standing on the infield, a decision was then made to roll out the tarp.

Stadium and team officials meanwhile performed a complicated dance taking into account a huge crowd, Angelos and the other investors, the HTS broadcast and the safety of the Orioles players.

"Let's see. We've got $13 million in right, $4 million in center and however much in left," said a clubhouse observer, citing the salaries of Albert Belle, Delino DeShields and youngster Eugene Kingsale. "Let's take a $17 million gamble."

While Clark screeched, somebody wondered about a vote being taken among players whether to play. Rookie left-hander Matt Riley asked camp coordinator Brian Graham if he and others might leave and then return shortly before game time.

Mussina learned he would pitch if the game was played and reacted with disdain. "In a word, ridiculous," he said. Minutes later, he was relieved to learn that he would get his work by throwing five simulated innings indoors.

The Red Sox bus braked to a halt at about 12: 20. Already in uniform, the team herded into the visitors' clubhouse just in time to learn the game had been "banged." Sandwiches were dispensed and the team climbed back aboard for the 2 1/2-hour return trip, leaving Williams to a pre-game press briefing without a game.

"I know what you want me to say," Williams said, "but I'm not going to say it."

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