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Monday, September 4
Rumblings and Grumblings

Labor peace is here for one more year. That's what the headlines told us this week, when the players' union exercised its option to extend baseball's labor agreement one more year.

But what exactly constitutes "peace?" That's the question to contemplate over the next 14 months, between now and the end of the current labor deal.

Those storm clouds will gather almost daily in those 14 months. You can bank on that. The only mystery is what will fall from those clouds when the deal is up.

We've talked to sources on both sides. Here's what they expect:

Free agent battle ground
The fight actually begins this winter, when one of the most star-studded free-agent classes in history hits the market. There were mild rumblings about collusion last winter, when a far more mediocre free-agent group had trouble scraping up any big offers. Expect agents and players to turn up the volume on that talk this winter.

"A-Rod will get his money," predicts one prominent baseball man. "But with some of these other guys, it could get ugly."

The next-best bomber, Manny Ramirez, is going to hear far more about the $15 million a year Chipper Jones just signed for than he has in mind. But it's the next tier down -- Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, Jeffrey Hammonds, Charles Johnson, etc. -- that figures to find itself in the nastiest test of wills. There has already been conversation among clubs about keeping a lid on this market. And the glut of theoretically big names out there -- out of proportion to the number of teams willing and/or able to pay big bucks -- plays right into management's hands. Not by accident, either.

Extend now or fight later
Once that smoke clears, the next tip-off on where we're heading will revolve around when talks on a new labor deal actually begin.

"On balance," says one management source, "the sport is doing well. So it makes sense to start talking about an extension sooner rather than later. I would think you'd see talks start up early next year and then continue steadily throughout the year."

But that's an optimist talking. Not everyone is convinced things will go so smoothly.

"I expect it to get ugly, and I'm preparing for the worst," says one high-profile agent. "Every sign points to the hawks being in control. And that ain't good."

One dovish owner says: "We should know by now this union will never agree to a cap, so why waste our time? We can't risk shutting down the game. So it's time to make the best deal we can."

But even that owner admits he isn't confident his side will be thinking that way when it gets to the table. And you know where that will lead.

Nuclear winter
That brings us to the winter of 2001-2002. The current labor deal expires immediately after the season ends -- unlike previous deals, which expired earlier and almost invited shutdowns. But the October expiration date invites a different sort of shutdown.

"Once that deal ends, they'll shut down the signing season," says one pessimistic agent. "They want players sitting there all winter with no teams, no contracts and no security, trying to scare them into a bad deal. But these players are stronger than they think."

At any rate, that free-agent non-market figures to serve as the backdrop for a winter of contentious talks about the structure of the next labor agreement. And you can bet your Marvin Miller scrapbook those talks will head into February looking bleak. But then what?

Behind the scenes, the hawks in ownership are already talking about a spring-training lockout. The moderates are preaching a softer stance, trying to base a deal on a revised luxury tax, with a payroll floor that would force smaller-market teams to spend their revenue-sharing money on players, thus narrowing the payroll disparity. But even that deal probably wouldn't get hammered out until the eve of spring training.

Which side will win out? It's anyone's guess. The commish, Bud Selig, says only that "we have to solve our problems without a work stoppage." And common sense would tell you everyone else ought to agree.

"But you never know with these guys," says one peace-preaching owner. "So it's up to Bud. It's time for Bud to rise above his small-market constituency and make sure we do what's best for the sport. And what's best for the sport is knowing that whatever we do, we can't shut down the game."

List of the week
The Detroit Free Press' John Lowe reports that multi-talented Tigers shortstop Deivi Cruz is working on a rare daily double. He's both the hardest player to strike out in the American League and the hardest to walk. The last five players to achieve that dual feat, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau's Rob Tracy:

1998: Mike Caruso, AL
1996: Ozzie Guillen, AL
1955: Don Mueller, NL
1954: Don Mueller, NL
1947: Emil Verban, NL

  • It's 10 months now since the Tigers traded for Juan Gonzalez. And the question today is the same question people were asking back then: Can the Tigers sign him?

    After months of grousing about Comerica Park, Gonzalez recently was mysteriously quoted as saying he was "80 percent sure," he'd be back in Detroit next year. But considering Gonzalez's history of telling people what he thinks they want to hear, who knows what to make of that?

    "I still think we have as good a chance as anybody, if not better," says GM Randy Smith. "That doesn't mean it's going to happen. But we've played better. He's comfortable in Detroit. He likes the organization, the manager, the front office.

    "And remember that when we made the trade, we knew the guy wanted to stay in the American League. He doesn't want to play in a big city. So it looked in November like there might be five teams that would be a nice fit. Now there might be less. So I really think it will be between us and a couple of clubs.

    "I said back then and I still say now that if he was a free agent and we just went out to try and sign him, I don't think he'd have looked at us. But now he's seen what we're all about. And I think we have a better-than-average chance."

    Gonzalez continues to gripe about the ballpark. But Smith isn't concerned about that, either.

    "He's a guy who can hit it out of any ballpark ever built," the GM said. "This is a first-year ballpark, so naturally, there's a period of adjustment. But you get used to it. And the more time has gone on, the more he's gotten used to it."

    There may have been some questions at times whether the Tigers even wanted Gonzalez back. But they're convinced he's still a presence in the center of their lineup, even in a down year. And the more you look at the free-agent landscape, the tougher it gets to figure out where else Gonzalez will get a ton of money.

  • There are continuing indications in Philadelphia that the Phillies' brass is mulling the firing of Terry Francona after the season. GM Ed Wade has backed off his summer-long flat vote of confidence. And the possibility of Francona's dismissal seems to become a more public topic every day.

    Two writers who cover the Phillies regularly, the Courier Post's Kevin Roberts and the Wilmington News-Journal's Doug Lesmeris, embarked on a research project that showed that only two other teams in the last century hired a rookie manager, retained him through four straight losing seasons and then brought him back for a fifth season. Those teams were the 1932 Phillies, who kept Burt Shotton for six seasons, and the 1938 Phillies, who retained Jimmy Wilson, then fired him midway through the '38 season.

    In fact, only two other teams even kept experienced managers for a fifth season after they had losing years in their first four -- the '73 Expos (Gene Mauch) and '78 Tigers (Ralph Houk).

    That said, between injuries, a killer April schedule and a ridiculously thin bullpen, Francona never had a chance with this club.

  • Across the state, the Pirates are in even greater free fall than the Phillies. And there seems no way Gene Lamont will keep his job. Owner Kevin McClatchy refused this week even to suggest that a spirited finish would save Lamont.

    "Nothing will change the decision I've made that I'm going to evaluate the situation at the end of the year," McClatchy said.

  • The situation in Baltimore keeps getting stranger. Mike Mussina now has taken himself out of three straight starts after seven great innings (in which he allowed a total of one earned run) with minor injuries -- once because of a callus, two other times because of groin strains.

    When pressed following Thursday's self-imposed quick hook (after 86 pitches) on whether there might be other factors weighing on him, Mussina replied, mysteriously: "There's a lot of stuff happening this year, both on and off the field. There are some things I don't think everybody needs to know about."

    Despite this strange behavior and his obvious unhappiness with the organization's moves at the trade deadline, it still wouldn't be a shock to see Mussina stay in Baltimore, out of sheer comfort.

  • With the state of the AstroTurf in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium at maybe an all-time low and the number of Turf parks in other locales dwindling rapidly, the Phillies are a good bet to go to a surface similar, if not identical, to the one in Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field by next season. The only question is the feasibility of using it in a stadium that hosts both baseball and football.

    After Arizona pitcher Geraldo Guzman recently sprained a knee on that AstroConcrete, Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter fumed loudly over the dangerous condition of the Turf and even urged the players' union to get involved. But the Phillies need to change surfaces, if only to give themselves a chance of retaining Scott Rolen after his contract expires in two years.

    Following his first experience playing in Tampa Bay, former Phillies first baseman Rico Brogna, now with Boston, told us he likes the Trop's surface " better than some grass fields. That's how good it is. It's got a nice cushion. And it's so real, the way it feels."

  • Not everyone is thrilled with Bud Selig's personally anointed new unbalanced schedule. When told that his team would play up to 19 games a year with the other AL Central clubs, Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus replied: "Nineteen? That's too many times to play one team. We'd be playing the Twins more games than an NFL season has. That's overkill."

    But Selig dismisses this and similar grumblings: "There's always some complaining," he says. "This is just the first step. We've got more to do."

    Useless information dept.
  • Pedro Martinez feat of the week: His 13-strikeout one-hitter in Tampa Bay means he now has an incredible 10 starts in his three-year Red Sox career (counting the postseason) in which he has racked up at least 10 more strikeouts than hits. Wow.

  • Pokey Reese did the impossible Thursday: He stole a base against Atlanta's Terry Mulholland, the human stolen-base vaccine. It was the first steal against Mulholland all year and only the second in the last four seasons combined.

  • Carl Everett finally broke the Red Sox jinx of having no outfielders hit 30 home runs in a season since 1984. With the help of the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR's David Vincent, we determined that in between 30-homer seasons by Red Sox outfielders, 110 other outfielders did it -- including 11 times by Giants outfielders alone (eight of them by Barry Bonds).

  • Speaking of droughts, there's no team out there quite like the Twins -- a club with no closer and no 20-homer guys. They finally hit their first grand slam of the season last weekend (by Jay Canizaro). Not only were they the last team to hit one this year, all the other teams hit 200 slams in between Twins grand slams.

  • In The Year of the Homer, don't forget the Royals. They gave up their 200th homer of the year Saturday -- in their 129th game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that ties them with the '96 Tigers for quickest team ever to reach 200 gopherballs. The Angels gave up their 200th four games later, which ties them with the '99 Rockies for the third-fastest ever. Can't beat that drama. Fastest team to 200 before the rocketball era: the '64 Kansas City A's (139 games).

  • Darrin Fletcher thumped his way into a fun group last weekend. By hitting all three home runs in his three-homer game Sunday off one pitcher (Rick Helling), he joined six other active players who have done that, according to David Vincent. The others: Barry Larkin (off Jim Deshaies on June 28, 1991), Mark McGwire (off Zane Smith, on June 11, 1995), Frank Thomas (off Tim Wakefield, on Sept. 15, 1996), Mo Vaughn (off David Wells, on Sept. 24, 1996), Tino Martinez (off Scott Sanders, on April 2, 1997) and Sammy Sosa (off Cal Eldred, on June 15, 1998).

  • The other nine AL catchers who have hit three homers in a game: Mickey Cochrane (1925), Bill Dickey (1939), Don Leppert (1963), Bill Freehan (1971), Mike Stanley (1985), Ernie Whitt (1987), Dan Wilson (1996), Ivan Rodriguez (1997).

  • Mets pitcher Pat Mahomes has joined the "other" 40-40 Club. He gave up Gary Sheffield's 40th homer of the year on Aug. 19, then served up Jeff Bagwell's 40th 10 days later.

  • Greg Maddux allowed five earned runs just in the first inning Monday. He had five different whole months in the '90s where he gave up five earned runs or fewer.

  • The Elias Sports Bureau's Ken Hirdt reports the Braves now have given up five runs or more in the first inning four times this year. They did that three times in the previous three seasons combined.

  • Let's say this again: If Todd Helton hits .400, it ain't about Coors Field. Helton was 29 for 55 (.527) on the road last month.

  • The Tigers and Twins lead the league in one strange category: Most games including a catcher's interference. The Tigers won two games in Minnesota in May that involved catcher's-interference calls on the Twins. The Tigers then returned that favor twice in August, losing two games to the Twins that included catcher's-interference calls on Brad Ausmus, both with Jacque Jones at the plate. They have one series left to break the tie.

  • The Yankees and Expos both had their final scheduled off day of the year Thursday. Yankees radio voice Michael Kay reports that if neither gets rained out the rest of the way, they'll become the first big-league teams ever to play games on 31 days in a row.

  • The Braves went 200 games in between four-game losing streaks. Amazing franchise.

  • In minor-league news, how about this irony? Astute reader Regina Litman reports that on the exact 10th anniversary of the fabled ESPN telecast of Aug. 21, 1990 in which the Dodgers blew an 11-1 lead in a 12-11 loss to the Phillies, the Johnson City Cardinals of the Appalachian League blew an 11-1 lead to Burlington -- and also lost, 12-11. How great is baseball?

  • Minor-leaguer of the week: Howe Sportsdata reports that Idaho Falls first baseman J.P. Woodward drove in 11 runs in one game Tuesday in a 25-12 win over Ogden in the Pioneer League. Woodward -- the Padres' 14th-round draft pick this June -- did it with a two-run single in the second inning, three-run homers in the fourth and fifth, an RBI single in the sixth and a two-run double in the ninth. Woodward leads the league in RBI, with 90 -- a Pedro-esque 30 more than the next-closest pursuer.

  • Minor-league dubious-achievement awards of the week: Tie between Portland Rockies first baseman Jorge Sosa, who has struck out in 40 consecutive games (28 for 133, with a mind-boggling 74 strikeouts), and Yuma Bullfrogs left-hander Tobias Price, who gave up 15 runs, 13 hits, three walks, one hit batter and three home runs in two innings of a 25-3 loss to Zion in exotic Western League action.

  • Finally, it's been a big year in the automotive industry. Mercedes (Jose) now has beaten two Japanese imports (Mac Suzuki, Hideo Nomo). But he missed out on his chance to start against Ford (Ben) and GM (Greg Maddux). He was clearly in neutral when he lost in April to Jim Parque. Now the Orioles play the Twins next week, giving him a chance to match up with Mandy (Alfa) Romero or possibly Mike Lincoln, if he's recalled in September.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Rumblings and Grumblings will appear each Saturday.

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