Cool and Unusual Punishment

Your Rockies' pitching? It probably doesn't need any major injuries to render it terrible--but given the stresses and strains of Coors Field, physical and mental, you can count on some sore arms by mid-May.

Better those than the dark plague that has struck the game. The great Joe DiMaggio (more on him later) has died of lung cancer at age 84, Darryl Strawberry is fighting back from a cancer of his own, and Yankees manager Joe Torre has just been diagnosed. Last week, Cal Ripken Sr. and ex-Reds manager Birdie Tebbetts died. Back in Atlanta--it could have been right here--the great slugging first baseman Andres Galarraga has also been stricken and will miss the entire season. Jim "Catfish" Hunter, late of the great Oakland A's and Yankees teams of the Seventies, is suffering--irony of ironies--from incurable Lou Gehrig's disease.

Let's return to basics: This year, April is the cruelest month.
Divestiture: No sooner did the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World Series than their owner, Wayne Huizenga, sold his biggest stars to the highest bidder and reduced his championship club to Triple A levels. No sooner did the San Diego Padres get to the Series last October for the first time in fourteen years than their ownership unloaded the salaries of staff ace Kevin Brown, infielder Ken Caminiti and center-fielder Steve Finley. The Padres will be lucky to win 65 games this year.

On the other hand, the rich get richer and they win more games. Consider: In 1998, the eight teams that made the playoffs were all among the top twelve in payroll. The notable exception to the money-wins formula were the Baltimore Orioles, who simply flunked the test. This year a record nine ball clubs will boast an Opening Day payroll of $60 million or more, ranging from the Yankees' estimated $88 million in salaries to your Rockies' $60 million. The other big spenders? Arizona, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Texas, the New York Mets and Cleveland.

What'll you bet that these teams (along with the Houston Astros, of the National League Central) cruise into the post-season? But the somewhat less talented Rockies haven't exactly been cheapskates when it comes to doling out cash: In the last year alone, Colorado has spent $179 million on contracts for only six players--Larry Walker ($75 million), Kile and Castilla ($24 million each), Mike Lansing ($23 million), Dante Bichette ($21 million) and rookie of the year runner-up Todd Helton ($12 million). Whether that makes for a winner remains to be seen, but don't count on it.

Count on this: Crisis will come again in 2002.
In January, Commissioner Selig (there's that man again) appointed a so-called blue ribbon committee to study what the owners call the "competitive imbalance" between big- and small-market teams. The committee is--no surprise--an instrument of the owners and will serve their purposes. It's clear that revenue-sharing among the teams (by which the top-earning team will fork over some $13 million to the poorest club this year) and the luxury payroll tax (by which five big spenders will pay a premium for the portion of their salary total above $76 million) have been inadequate to level the playing field.

So in 2002, when the game's collective-bargaining agreement expires, the owners are almost certain to present a "hard salary cap" plan, like the one in basketball, and the players are certain to reject it.

Remember 1994? The strike that ended the ballgames and forced the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in ninety years? It could--and probably will--happen again.

So before we break out the neat's-foot oil and order up the hotdogs and beer, we baseball fans may as well face future facts. The game we love will never quite get out of the woods, April's sweet dreams notwithstanding.

DiMaggio: Suffice it to say that the Yankee Clipper, working hard and playing elegantly in another time--what seems now like another century--would remain unruffled by these troubles. When Joltin' Joe retired, in 1951, he and Boston's Ted Williams topped out the major-league salary ranks at a mere $100,000 apiece. They didn't question umpires. They didn't bark about salary negotiations. They simply played the game every day, beautifully and well. But because number crunchers now rule baseball along with the rest of the world, a couple of them have computed Joe DiMaggio's value in the current marketplace--as if such a thing were desirable or worthwhile. A Joe D. in peak form would, they say, earn $16.8 million in 1999. He'd be a bargain at twice the price.

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