Some teams just can’t avoid dark clouds

March 13, 2001 6:18 AM
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Baseball spring training is traditionally a time for optimism. Rookie phenoms appear. Aging veterans discover the Fountain of Youth. Every team claims that, if all goes well, it can be a championship contender.

But all never goes well. Dark clouds already hover over some clubs.

The dark cloud over the Boston Red Sox is the injured right wrist of star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. When it was first revealed, it was said he’d be sidelined for a week or two. That prognosis subsequently was raised from two to three weeks. Now there’s the possibility of an operation that could keep him out of action for two to three months. The loss of the two-time American League batting champion would greatly diminish Boston’s chances of overtaking the Yankees in the league’s East Division.

The Bosox also discovered that when they signed Manny Ramirez, they got a prima donna who wishes to dictate what position he will play in the outfield. Fenway Park fans had better get used to the fact that, whether Ramirez plays right field or left field, he’ll make 30 errors during the season.

But if there’s a dark cloud over the Red Sox, what’s already hit the Baltimore Orioles is a cloudburst. The great Cal Ripken, Jr. is on his last legs. Ace pitcher Mike Mussina jumped ship to join the Yankees. A degenerative hip condition has ended the playing career of Albert Belle. In the 1990s, Belle was one of baseball’s premier sluggers. Even last year, when hobbled, he led the Orioles with 23 homes runs and 103 runs batted it. He could be Hall of Fame material.

Even with Belle’s career cut short — he’s still only 34 — he connected for 381 homers, 1,239 RBIs and a .295 batting average. What’s against him is that his demeanor on and off the field made him, at least for a time, the most unpopular player in baseball. Chances are if he ever gets to Cooperstown, it will be through the Veterans Committee. In the meantime, you can figure the 2001 Baltimore Orioles for last place.

"Last" is also the operative word for the Montreal Expos. Aside from trying to avoid last place in the N.L. East, the Expos could be in their last year in Montreal. Sparse attendance, lack of radio and TV contracts, and revenue in Canadian dollars with player salaries paid in American dollars add up to a total disaster.

There’s been some talk about terminating the franchise, along with that of the troubled Minnesota Twins, as part of an overall restructuring plan for the major leagues. More likely, however, is moving the franchise. There are potential buyers available in several cities.

After almost a month of spring training, St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel had yet to face a batter in an exhibition game. In the wake of the young southpaw’s bizarre performance in last year’s N.L. championship series, manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan decided to use an unusual method of preparing Ankiel for the coming season. He has mostly been working out early in the morning, but not against live batters. LaRussa and Duncan report that Ankiel has been throwing well and will be in the starting rotation the first week of the season.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Gary Sheffield has become the poster boy for all that many fans believe is wrong with baseball: greedy players. Unhappy with a contract that will pay him $10 million per year for the next three years, Sheffield has publicly ripped management (and his teammates) and demanded a trade. There’s no doubt that any team would be glad to have Sheffield’s bat in the line-up, but whether it would be worth the cost in clubhouse chemistry is another matter.

Also with the Dodgers, third baseman Adrian Beltre two months ago had an appendectomy performed by some banana republic doctor. The result is complications that had to be corrected and will keep the player sidelined for a hopefully brief time.

Fleeting fame

Less than two months ago, Trent Dilfer was on top of the world. He had quarter-edbacked the Baltimore Ravens to Super Bowl triumph and was awarded the coveted trip to Disney World. But now that the Ravens have signed Elvis Grbac, Dilfer has joined the ranks of the unemployed, seeking a position as backup quarterback on any team that would have him.

Andy Warhol was right when he said everyone in the world has at least 15 minutes of fame. Dilfer’s 15 minutes are over.