Midterm Grade: F

Look: The children are coming in from recess, and it's clear that the fractious ten-year-old everyone calls Rockie needs more counseling -- maybe even another personality transplant. Rockie still fails to heed his teachers. He doesn't play well with others. As usual, the poor kid's flunked his midterms and will surely get left back again at the end of the year, just like those other sweaty little misfits on the playground -- Padre, Tiger, Pirate and D-Ray. He's one major-league disappointment, this boy. Of course, the blame must be shared by the entire administration at Blake Street Elementary...

It's the same old story, isn't it? With 88 games played and 74 more days and nights of misery yet to come, your Colorado Rockies find themselves mired in fourth place, a dozen games behind the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, and there's scarcely a speck of hope that they'll stir themselves from lethargy before golf and boating season gets under way the first week of October.

Already this year, the team has fired another manager, juggled its mediocre infielders, weathered a dispute about the amount of moisture in its balls and watched in despair as its number-one starter, the haughty and ill-tempered lefty Mike Hampton, has become the least effective zillionaire pitcher in baseball this side of, well, this side of Denny Neagle, who happens to be Hampton's teammate. Hampton and Neagle's combined record is a dismal 9-15, with an earned-run average over 6. After giving up ten runs to the Giants in the first two innings last Tuesday, Neagle explained: "I felt great warming up." Yes, and JFK felt great flying down to Dallas.

Manager Clint Hurdle is now talking about sending his two falling stars to the bullpen. Nonsense. They should start earning their keep washing uniforms and driving the team bus to the airport. Meanwhile, the Rockies' finest, heretofore most injury-free player, first baseman Todd Helton, has recently been plagued by mysterious shooting pains in his upper back. Watch out, fellow oxygen-deprived. If the Rox are unlucky enough to lose slugger Helton for any length of time, they can kiss all hope goodbye.

They've already lost their sense of humidor.

Is the news brighter elsewhere as the teams return from their All-Star break? Well, yes. Here and there. By all accounts, only 30 or 40 percent of the players are whacked out on steroids, and only about half of those will wind up at age sixty looking like the Phantom of the Opera. Meanwhile, real baseball fans -- not the people pointing and grinning at each other from opposite sides of Coors Field as they yak on their cell phones, but real fans -- are reveling in the plucky performances of the lowly Montreal Expos and the tough-as-nails Minnesota Twins. Last year, both teams found themselves on Commissioner Bud Selig's hit list for "contraction" -- baseball's euphemism for summary execution. The Expos remain on Death Row, but to its credit, this underpaid, almost invisible team, recently empowered by the acquisition of Cleveland ace Bartolo Colon, remains in mid-July within striking distance of the mighty Atlanta Braves in the National League East. The Twins, meanwhile, occupy first place in the American League Central, seven and a half games ahead of the gloomy, underachieving Chicago White Sox. Those who believe in magic can pray for an Expos-Twins World Series. In any event, let's hope these upstarts thrive and prosper in their hour of need.

Some things never change, of course. The imperious New York Yankees recently shot past (who else?) the gasping Boston Red Sox to lead their division by two games, and the pitching-rich Braves have opened a nine-and-a-half-game gap on the aforementioned Expos. Seattle's on cruise control in the American League West, while certain teams that always fail, despite the best hopes of their beleaguered fans, continue to do so. Yes, the Chicago Cubs have slipped once more into fifth place and fired scapegoat manager Don Baylor, despite 28 home-run hops, chest thumps and finger kisses by the estimable Sammy Sosa. The newly reconfigured New York Mets, who never saw a $100 million payroll they couldn't waste, collapsed in June, and neither the ravings of their manager, Bobby Valentine, nor the astonishing girth of first baseman Mo Vaughn will likely bail them out. The Kansas City Royals? They've got the same shot at the World Series Elton John has at knocking out Mike Tyson.

Meanwhile, ex-Met relief pitcher Jesse Orosco, a hero of that club's unlikely 1986 World Series win over the luckless Red Sox, is still on the mound, as durable as an Aztec icon. On May 7, at age 45, Orosco earned his first save since 1999, for the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the other hand, Dodgers starter Kevin Brown is not still on the mound. Brown makes $15.7 million a year, but he remains on the disabled list with a 2-3 record and a 4.04 ERA.

Speaking of finance -- and the consequences of finance -- you needn't be Arthur Andersen to see that baseball is once more in deep trouble, money-wise: Club owners will have to pay $3.5 billion worth of guaranteed contracts to 229 players over the next five years -- regardless of the game's economic health. Not surprisingly, the Yankees top the list, with $383.6 million in guaranteed payroll for just eleven star players, but at least owner George Steinbrenner gets something for his money. His team has won four of the past six World Series and came within an out of beating the Arizona Diamondbacks last year. The last-place Texas Rangers wouldn't mind being in George's shoes: The $241 million they'll have to shell out between 2003 and 2007 will get them the services of shortstop Alex Rodriguez ($27 mil per year) and a nice view of the American League West cellar.

Guess who's third on the payroll chart, with $211.8 million in payroll obligations to six players? That's right. Your Colorado Rockies. Messrs. Hampton and Neagle, who couldn't get a heater past Stevie Wonder at the moment, will collect a huge chunk of that money unless some other team is dumb enough to take them off GM Dan O'Dowd's hands. Things could be worse, though. The Baltimore Orioles will have to pay disabled (and thoroughly unlikable) outfielder Albert Belle $12,368,790 this year, despite the fact that he will not once don a pair of spikes. Matter of fact, Belle hasn't played a game since October 1, 2000, but the Orioles must keep writing the checks. Oh, and have you heard about Damion Easley, the Detroit Tigers' $6.25 million second baseman? When last we looked, he was batting .134, with one home run and four runs batted in, for a team that posted an $11 million operating loss in 2001 and lost 96 games. As for outfielder Derek Bell, whose most notable gift is his right-on clubhouse impression of Sammy Davis Jr., he will collect nearly $5 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates this season -- despite being cut from the team in spring training.

Realistically, the same eight highly paid, big-market teams that always have a shot at the post-season will wind up there again this year -- unless there is no post-season. The Americans didn't learn from the French in Vietnam, and neither major-league players nor club owners have learned much from the work stoppages that crippled baseball in the past. Although the players' union has not voted to strike, players' reps are polling their teammates to feel them out about potential action later in the year that could force a new collective-bargaining agreement. But what if the two sides fail? What if the notoriously mulish billionaires who own the game and the notoriously self-absorbed millionaires who play it refuse to make the right concessions? When the 232-day strike of 1994 finally came to an end, the game lay in ruins and the fans were unbelievably angry. It took a juiced-up new baseball and the suspiciously timed, artificially vivid home-run theatrics of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to bring most of them back.

But the game's at an even more crucial juncture now. Lingering fan resentment and a sagging economy have drastically reduced major-league attendance -- get a load of all those empties at the Humidor these days -- and another work stoppage could literally kill the game. Hey, Barry Bonds. Want your adoring public to forget all about you and splurge on season tickets to the monster truck races? Go out on strike and see what happens. Hey, Steinbrenner and McMorris. Want to prove your manhood? Get all stubborn and imperial again with Donald Fehr in the room and do your best to wreck the negotiations. You'll get what you want. In two years, Yankee Stadium will be a shopping mall and Coors Field will be hosting pro lacrosse.


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