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Cool and Unusual Punishment

By acclamation, April is the coolest month. Confident that last year's ignominy will be transfigured into this year's triumph, baseball players and full-grown fans enter this month with the wide-eyed wonder of children, fond dreams intact and energies aloft. In Pittsburgh's April dawn, the Pirates win the pennant going away. On Detroit's clattering assembly lines, the Tigers are world-beaters. In April on Blake Street, Pedro Astacio is Cy Young material. In Charlie Parker's hometown, the Royals play bebop on the egos of the Chisox and Tribe. April in Cleveland? The Yankees are mortal. In Montreal? Greg Maddox and Tom Glavine get lit up but good and les Expos win a hundred games, awash in a bilingual sea of cheers.

Ahhh, early April. Darryl Kile's earned run average is exactly zero. In Philadelphia, Rico Brogna is the second coming of Mark McGwire. In St. Louis, Mark McGwire is a likable single father who will hit eighty dingers this year.

Imagine the joy, this early April, of Vinny Castilla. The best major-league ballplayer that most fans in Minneapolis, Boston and New York have never heard of, the Colorado Rockies' sure-handed, power-hitting third baseman will this Sunday realize the sweetest spring dream of all. He will play Opening Day, the fourth day of April, in his native country. The Rox face the San Diego Padres in Monterrey, Mexico, Sunday evening, and for Castilla, it will be the most glorious moment of his career.

"I cannot wait," Cousin Vinny says. Because in Mexico, they know Vinny Castilla. Vinny Castilla could be the president of Mexico if he wanted to. But what he wants instead is to make his countrymen proud, pick the ball cleanly at the hot corner and maybe--just maybe--hit one out. That would make his year.

But baseball is not all sweetness and light this April. It is not suffused with the usual untarnished hope. Following one of the most uplifting baseball seasons of all time--Way to swing, Big Mac! Muchas gracias, Sammy!--Opening Day arrives with a forecast of rain. To wit:

Discontent: Little matter that the Toronto Blue Jays' ex-manager lied to his players about having served in Vietnam and was fired in disgrace. Little matter that a country singer who earned $50 million last year found his accomplishments inadequate and began imagining himself a ballplayer. Garth Brooks, a publicity stunt wearing spikes, will depart the Padres spring-training camp just as he should--without a hit.

More important, a U.S. senator who's held office since the Coolidge administration recently imagined himself an umpire. Jesse Helms, the ancient segregationist from North Carolina, wrote a letter to every member of the Baltimore Orioles explaining why they should not go to Havana to play the Cuban national team. Mike Mussina and company ignored Helms as they would ignore a drunk howling in the third-base boxes. On Sunday at Estadio Latinoamericano, once home to Tony Oliva, Tony Perez, Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant and Mike Cuellar, the O's beat the Cubans 3-2 in eleven thrilling innings. Memo to the senator: Albert Belle didn't join a farming commune, and Fidel didn't pitch the bottom of the eighth.

Consider for a moment the fix real umpires are in--or think they're in. Over the shape of an imaginary rectangle. As baseball intimates know, on February 19 Commissioner Bud Selig sent a memo to all thirty teams promising stricter enforcement this season of the "strike zone"--a largely mythical notion that has in recent years grown shorter and wider (especially in the National League), provoking occasional outrage in the dugouts and sending strict constructionists back to the rulebook. Now, Selig says, umpires will be required to lift and narrow the area in which a pitched ball is called a strike.

Problem one: Selig didn't ask the umpires, a prickly lot to start with, what they thought. So on March 12 they filed a grievance to block the new interpretation of the strike zone. Problem two: Players and managers are openly laughing at the edict. Problem three: Friction between the men in blue, players and fans could this season reach its highest pitch since umpire Tim McClelland disallowed George Brett's home run because he had too much pine tar on his bat.

What to do. Heed, if you will, Hall of Famer George Montgomery Ward: "Outside of the nine players on each side," Ward once explained, "there is another important personage, known as the 'umpire.' He is not placed there as a target for the maledictions of disappointed spectators. He is of flesh and blood and has feelings, just the same as any other human being. He is not chosen because of his dishonesty or ignorance of the rules of the game, neither is he an ex-horse thief nor an escaped felon...indeed, in private life he may even pass as a gentleman."

Words to live by, 111 years after they were written.
Disarmament: As if the Creatine-powered, Andro-fueled sluggers of the day needed any more help putting the horsehide in orbit, major-league pitching looks lamer than ever. It has been diluted by expansion, of course (four new teams in the Nineties, including your beloved but pitch-poor Rox), but this past winter the injury bug also ran rampant. The great hope of the Chicago Cubs, 1998 rookie of the year Kerry Wood, hurt his arm so badly that he'll likely not pitch again until 2001, when he's 23. In Atlanta, another Kerry, reliever Ligtenberg, is also on the shelf with major elbow problems, and the McGwire-led Cardinals have lost two of their starters--Alan Benes and 24-year-old Matt Morris, once projected to be the staff ace. While the Yankees signed five-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, the Mets lost the top 1994 draft pick, Paul Wilson, to his third injury in as many years. Even the Braves, who have the best starting rotation in baseball--maybe ever--could be vulnerable this year. If umpires do enforce a more vertical strike zone this year, it could help hard-throwing guys who don't mind risking the high strike. But it could unnerve finesse pitchers like Maddox and Glavine, who've always nibbled at the corners and, because of who they are, are used to getting the called strike even when the ball's five or six inches off the plate.

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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