Baseball 2002: Changed rosters alter pennant chase

Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2002

That little bloop single by Luis Gonzalez proved to teams and fans everywhere that indeed it was possible: the New York Yankees could be beaten.

Now, who's next?

It could be those always on-deck Atlanta Braves, boosted by Gary Sheffield. Maybe the revamped New York Mets, rejuvenated with Robbie Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz. Perhaps the Boston Red Sox, spurred by a healthy Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra.

Get the picture?

All of a sudden, there's hope all over, cracked open by Gonzo's cracked-bat single off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 that won the World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Heck, even the poor, orphan Montreal Expos are optimistic they might play well for their new owners -- the other 29 major league clubs.

''That would be a great story,'' commissioner Bud Selig said.

Provided, of course, the Yankees don't sweep in at the July 31 trading deadline and steal Vladimir Guerrero from the Expos. Then again, the team that came within a double-play grounder of winning its fourth straight title already did its damage in the winter.

Because while the rest of baseball was still getting used to Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn being retired, free-agent prize Jason Giambi was putting on pinstripes and homering in his first at-bat of spring training.

''It's an exciting feeling to be the lead dog, and not chasing it,'' the former AL MVP said.

David Wells, Rondell White and Steve Karsay also headed to the Bronx, becoming teammates with Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens and Bernie Williams.

''The Yankees are the Yankees,'' Dan Duquette said, a couple of months before being fired as Boston's general manager. ''We have to compete against them, and I'm sure we will. But there isn't a team that has the resources to compete with the Yankees.''

Of course, that did not stop the San Francisco Giants from spending $90 million to keep home run king Barry Bonds. His beyond-belief 73 homers, by the way, were nearly as hard to fathom as his kooky feud with Sammy Sosa.

The wild-card St. Louis Cardinals spent freely, signing Tino Martinez and Jason Isringhausen. AL MVP Ichiro Suzuki and the record-breaking Seattle Mariners also improved themselves, picking up Jeff Cirillo.

Oakland and Houston, which now plays at Astros Field rather than Enron Field, both boast outstanding young pitching that put them in the playoffs last year.

AL Central champion Cleveland can count on its young ace, Bartolo Colon -- wait a second, he's 28 instead of 26 after getting caught in an age discrepancy. No matter, he'll start for the Indians in this year's major league opener Sunday night at Anaheim.

And don't forget the current kings of the hill, World Series co-MVPs Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and their Diamondbacks.

At 38, Johnson is coming off a season in which he beat out Schilling for his fourth Cy Young Award.

''My age is the age that I am and I'm pitching the way I am,'' the Big Unit said. ''There's no rhyme nor reason except that I've worked extremely hard and I take a lot of pride in what I do.''

One thing the players and owners definitely must do: reach a labor agreement to avoid yet another devastating strike or lockout.

So far, no deal. Certainly not after management tried to get rid of the Expos and Minnesota Twins in November, while the glow of a glorious World Series was still bright.

And it wasn't a good sign when Paul Beeston, the game's chief operating officer and a person the players trusted, recently resigned.

''There has been a step backward since June,'' said Gene Orza, the No. 2 official at the players' union. ''I think it's in large measure why Paul's not with us anymore.''

There's been a lot of movement since last season.

The Yankees saw Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius retire and watched Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch become free agents.

Lured by Sosa, Moises Alou left the Astros and signed with the Cubs. Juan Gonzalez rejoined Texas and a combustible clubhouse that includes John Rocker and Carl Everett.

The Cubs, after losing closer Tom Gordon to a shoulder injury in spring training, got Antonio Alfonseca from Florida in a six-player trade a week before opening day.

Rickey Henderson and Johnny Damon signed with Boston, and the bargain-hunting Expos took a gamble on Andres Galarraga.

''I like challenges,'' Montreal general manager Omar Minaya said. ''That's one of the reasons I took this job. But this is the greatest baseball challenge I've faced in my life.''

Also fresh for 2002:

Three franchises were sold, and they all hired new managers. Jeff Torborg moved from Montreal to Florida, Frank Robinson took over the Expos and Grady Little went to Boston. Also, Ron Gardenhire replaced the retired Tom Kelly in Minnesota.

The interleague play schedule was changed. For the most part, it'll be NL West vs. AL East, NL Central vs. AL West, and NL East vs. AL Central. Traditional rivalries, such as Yankees-Mets and Cubs-White Sox, will remain.

''God Bless America'' will be sung during the seventh-inning stretch in each team's first homestand of the season, extending the practice that began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Also, American flag patches will be worn on the jackets of all 30 teams this season.

The All-Star game will be played in Miller Park. There were rumors the players might boycott the event in Milwaukee, where Selig once owned the Brewers, but the union said it had no such plans.

Bob Watson replaced Robinson as baseball's disciplinarian. The new man was busy, handing out several suspensions and fines after the Angels and Padres brawled in an exhibition game.

There's another effort to speed up games, which took an average of 2 hours, 54 minutes last year, down four minutes from 2000. To be emphasized: Pitchers must throw within 12 seconds of the hitter getting into the batter's box when no one is on base.

There are no new stadiums this season, although this will be the final year for 32-year-old Cinergy Field in Cincinnati.

Five of the 22 umpires who lost their jobs during a failed mass resignation plan 2 1/2 years ago have been rehired.

Ozzie Smith will be the only former player inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.



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