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Story Lines

March 30, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

Coming to America

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was supposed to tone down his spending after baseball owners concocted a new revenue-sharing and luxury tax plan that clearly was intended to blunt the huge economic advantage enjoyed by his gold-mine franchise.

So what did he do? He signed Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras and Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui to huge contracts that further enhanced the global appeal -- and the gaudy payroll -- of the Yankees.

Don't think there aren't a few owners out there hoping that the Boss and his new imports go bust. How else will anyone overcome what Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino recently dubbed the "evil empire"?

Collusion course

The Major League Baseball Players Association once got the drop on the owners for $280 million after proving to an arbitrator that they had conspired to shut down the free-agent market in the late 1980s.

Now, the union is involved in a quiet investigation to determine whether the owners again were guilty of collusion when the free-agent gravy train dried up this past offseason.

It's a long shot. The owners have made a strong case that widespread revenue problems have left them no choice but to cut back on payrolls. They probably have acted in concert to some degree, but proving it to the satisfaction of an arbitrator will be difficult.

Vagabond Expos

The Montreal Expos are going to play to sellout crowds this year, but probably not in Canada. The contraction kids will play 22 home games in a cozy ballpark in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to raise a few bucks and create a little added excitement for a franchise in limbo.

Where do they go from there? There is talk the Expos may play half of their home schedule in Puerto Rico in 2004 to buy more time before Major League Baseball decides where to relocate them.

Washington still beckons, but if Bud Selig were going to disregard the objections of the Orioles, why hasn't he done it already?

Orioles' new plan

The Orioles and their fans have suffered through five straight losing seasons and appear destined for at least one more, but there has been a clear change in the direction of the franchise.

Owner Peter Angelos replaced baseball operations chief Syd Thrift with former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan and former Expos GM Jim Beattie, signaling the possibility of a new era for a team that once was one of the jewels of the American League.

The new front office already has set to work revamping the minor league system and tweaking the major league roster. If there is noticeable improvement at the major league level this season, look for Angelos to approve a big push in the free-agent market in November.

Tejada's last stand

Speaking of which, the Oakland Athletics recently announced that they would not try to sign American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada to a multi-year deal after his contract expires this season, which means he'll likely be the most attractive player in the next free-agent market.

Even though the Orioles have had trouble luring free agents to Baltimore recently, they will be a strong candidate to sign Tejada for a couple of reasons: They'll have the money available, and the Yankees, Red Sox and Texas Rangers already have premier shortstops.

Braves under siege

The Atlanta Braves haven't missed the postseason since 1990, but they face a multilateral challenge to their divisional dynasty this year. The rival Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets spent liberally in the otherwise skimpy free-agent market to turn the National League East into one of the most competitive divisions in baseball.

The Braves even helped, trading solid starter Kevin Millwood to the Phillies and standing by while the Mets snatched two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine out of their rotation. But it still appears the Braves are positioned well to get back to the postseason.

General manager John Schuerholz pulled off a complicated deal to acquire Mike Hampton without absorbing all of his huge contract and also picked up starters Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz. If Greg Maddux is still Greg Maddux, the Braves might not miss a beat.

The ephedrine debate

The death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler spurred a new internal debate over baseball's drug and supplement policy. The owners want to ban the herbal stimulant ephedrine, the substance implicated in Bechler's death, and have called for discussions with the union to rewrite the sport's new drug policy.

The union has warned players to avoid products that contain ephedrine, but it is wary of any change in the labor contract that would allow random testing for an over-the-counter product.

Both sides would love to see the Food and Drug Administration step in and restrict the sale of ephedrine-based supplements, something that could happen if the clamor for government action continues to grow.

Can Griffey bounce back?

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