And nine other story lines for the season

IS IT SAMMY'S TURN? ...

March 31, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

1. Labor pains

Baseball will open the 2002 season without a labor agreement, which is the same situation that existed at the beginning of the 1994 season. And we all know what happened that year.

Negotiations have begun, but the owners and players are far apart on a deal to allow clubs to share more local revenues and levy a new luxury tax on high-payroll teams.

The good news is, the owners haven't uttered the words "salary cap" and the players haven't made any overt threats to go on strike during the coming season. But tension between the two sides appears to be building, which means that a work stoppage either this year or next remains a very real possibility.

Possible 2002 marketing slogan: If you've got a glove, you've got a lawyer.

2. Ownerless in Montreal

The Montreal Expos don't have to worry about their owner losing patience with them, because they will play the 2002 season under the stewardship of Major League Baseball.

Former owner Jeffrey Loria turned the team over to the commissioner's office and took over the Florida Marlins in an ownership chain reaction that allowed former Marlins owner John Henry to form the group that bought controlling interest in the Boston Red Sox.

Confused yet? They are in Quebec, where Frank Robinson will manage the Expos for this year only and it's anybody's guess where the club will be in 2003.

3. Waiting in Washington

Meanwhile, prospective ownership groups in Washington and Northern Virginia remain optimistic that the Expos will be moved to the nation's capital.

Commissioner Bud Selig left the door open when he said this winter that Washington was the "prime candidate" for relocation. That comment sent a shiver through the Orioles' organization, which strongly opposes a second team in the region, but baseball is going to have to find someplace to put the Expos if the players union succeeds in its legal attempt to block the contraction plan.

There has been speculation that the Orioles would receive compensation to alleviate the economic impact of a second team in the Baltimore-Washington area, but don't expect them to give up D.C. without a fight.

4. Record going, gone?

Barry Bonds made such short work of Mark McGwire's 1998 single-season home run record that there is room to wonder just how long his 73-home run performance will hold up in baseball's homer-friendly environment.

Could this be the year that Sammy Sosa steps up? He's been in the 60s three times in the past four years and might end up as the most accomplished home run hitter of his generation, but it certainly wouldn't hurt his legacy if he stepped out of the shadow of McGwire and Bonds.

Trouble is, the dramatic increase in the home run totals of the game's top sluggers is threatening to puncture the aura around baseball's most awe-inspiring play.

5. Subway Series II?

The New York Yankees flexed their considerable economic might during the off-season, signing superstar first baseman Jason Giambi to beef up an offensive lineup that had been losing steam the past couple of years.

Not to be outdone, the crosstown rival Mets pulled off a couple of major trades to upgrade their offensive attack. The arrival of premier second baseman Roberto Alomar and power-hitting first baseman Mo Vaughn (among others) gives them considerable punch, though they'll need to prove they can pitch before they can be considered a legitimate World Series contender.

6. Saving the Twins

The controversial plan to contract the Expos and Minnesota Twins ran aground at least temporarily when a judge in Minnesota ordered Major League Baseball to honor the final year of the Twins' lease at the Metrodome, buying more time for local officials to work toward a deal to build the club a new ballpark.

If they succeed, the Twins may be saved from oblivion, but it is possible that they are about to play their last season.

That's too bad, because they are a viable club with a chance to win the American League Central title. Will that be their swan song?

7. Falling stars

Baseball lost a great deal of star power when Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn retired at the end of last season, and the timing couldn't have been worse.

The game has reached another critical juncture in its labor history, but it will have to get through this dangerous period without some of the people who saved baseball from itself the last time.

Ripken was largely credited with restoring the sport's sullied image with his feel-good pursuit of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in 1995. McGwire helped complete the healing process when he engaged in an exciting home run race with Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa in 1998.

This time, there doesn't appear to be anything on the horizon that might serve as a rallying point for disgruntled fans if there is another damaging work stoppage.

8. Tough act to follow

The Seattle Mariners tied a major-league record with 116 victories last year, even though they had lost three of the game's best players during the previous 31 / 2 seasons.

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