Lucchino, Steinbrenner give AL East some comic relief

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

January 05, 2003|By Peter Schmuck

Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino was so circumspect when he held the same position in Baltimore that it was difficult to get him to take a strong public position on anything. So why has he so willingly turned into the chief antagonist of controversial New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner?

Lucchino, frustrated over another round of profligate Yankees free-agent spending, recently labeled baseball's most storied franchise "the evil empire" and has been involved in a nasty little verbal feud with The Boss ever since.

Steinbrenner fired back, calling Lucchino the industry's "foremost chameleon" for supposedly adjusting his economic principles to the size of whatever market he is working in, and hinting that Lucchino had left the Orioles and San Diego Padres in worse shape than he found them.

Who said baseball is boring? The war of words has recharged the fiercest rivalry in baseball history and provided some much-needed comic relief for the struggling also-rans in the American League East. The only question is whether it was a case of spontaneous combustion fueled by Steinbrenner's $32 million offer to Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras, or something more calculated.

Lucchino is not immune from an occasional fit of temper, but he has long been known for choosing his words carefully in public. When informed of Steinbrenner's latest outburst, he may have given a hint about what he was up to.

"I don't think he even got the reference," Lucchino told the Boston Globe.

The reference, of course, was a play on former President Ronald Reagan's bold description of the old Soviet Union, and it would come as no surprise if Lucchino intended for Steinbrenner to grasp the significance of the comparison.

The Yankees, despite a new luxury tax system and revenue-sharing plan that will add millions to the cost of every expensive new player they sign, continue to spend wildly in Steinbrenner's attempt to remain baseball's dominant franchise.

Reagan has been credited by some with speeding the collapse of the Soviet Union by fueling Russian paranoia about American technological superiority and encouraging the massive military spending that undermined the Soviet economy.

Lucchino apparently envisioned a pinstriped parallel when the Yankees outbid the Red Sox for Contreras. The Yankees continue to push their payroll higher while the vast majority of major-league teams are trying to keep costs under control. They have the revenues to support their huge payroll - at the moment - but the combined impact of the new competitive balance measures eventually could cause the organization to sag under the weight of its huge expenditures.

The nasty front-office rivalry only figures to strengthen Steinbrenner's desire to spend what it takes to stay on top of the division, which could end up being his team's undoing.

The fall of the Yankees' empire does not appear imminent, but the Red Sox have proved to be a patient bunch.

Ready for Eddie

Former Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray is a lock to be elected to the Hall of Fame when results of the balloting are announced Tuesday.

"The only question," said former teammate and current Orioles executive Mike Flanagan, "is what percentage of the vote he gets."

That's true. Murray, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are the only players to amass more than 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. He was a solid defensive first baseman and the offensive leader of an Orioles team that reached the World Series in 1979 and 1983. He deserves to be elected on the first ballot with at least 90 percent of the vote.

No doubt, Murray will lose a few votes because of his distant relationship with the media, but the vast majority of the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America will leave that in the shadow of his amazing career numbers.

"The man in the clubhouse was a leader, a role model and everything a teammate could ever be," Flanagan said.

A vote for L. Smith

Relief pitcher Lee Smith also made his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot this year and deserves to go straight to Cooperstown, though his chances of getting there in his first year of eligibility remain unclear.

Smith was the game's most prolific save machine in an era when the importance of the closer role became paramount. Late-inning relievers have been largely ignored by Hall of Fame voters - Rollie Fingers is the exception - but it's time for them to get their due.

Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter also were on this year's ballot, but neither has come close to induction in previous elections.

Daal solidifies rotation

Flanagan and executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie have moved cautiously in the first month of their attempt to reinvigorate the Orioles' organization, but they have not been indecisive.

The new leadership team has moved methodically to shore up the roster for the 2003 season, signing veteran shortstop Deivi Cruz two weeks ago and announcing the arrival of free agent left-hander Omar Daal on Friday.

Daal probably isn't going to win the Cy Young Award this year, but he is a solid starting pitcher who is capable of winning 15 games while finally giving the Orioles a left-handed presence in the rotation.

The Orioles still need to add a dynamic offensive force to the starting lineup, which could come with the signing of free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Rodriguez still is looking for a richer deal, but he still appears to be a likely fit in Baltimore.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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