BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Pirates Off to Hot Start This Season

In a spring of walkouts, holdouts, shoutouts and other displays of unhappiness by a baseball work force with an average salary of $700,000, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the most explosive situation--as evidenced by the screaming match between Manager Jim Leyland and insolent Barry Bonds.

"You didn't need a diploma to know there's been tension here," Leyland said 24 hours after telling Bonds he could leave if unhappy.

The unrest confounds many members of the National League's defending East Division champions, among them center fielder Andy Van Slyke, who said of the griping the other day, "It's beyond my comprehension."

He added that it should be a time of euphoria for the Pirates. Instead, there's tension and an air of uncertainty in the clubhouse.

"Everyone strives for fame, fortune and success, and we have it all," he said. "What better atmosphere would you want in the workplace?

"I think every player should be forced to work on the Chrysler or GM assembly line. You'd never hear another complaint."

There are no lunch pails in the clubhouse corner occupied by close friends Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, 1-2 in voting for the National League's most valuable player award.

Each has rejected Pittsburgh offers of $16 million for four years, labeling the offer of lifetime security too little too late. Bonilla, eligible for free agency after the 1991 season, says he has closed no doors. Bonds, who can't leave until after the 1992 season, has said he would not re-sign with the Pirates for $100 million.

Each was a loser in arbitration for a second consecutive year, if a $1.45-million raise to $2.3 million for Bonds and a $1.15-million raise to $2.4 for Bonilla is losing.

They resent having had to go to arbitration again and say they don't understand how two of the most valuable everyday players in the league lost again, whereas teammate Doug Drabek, the Cy Young Award winner who works every five days, won his bid at $3.35 million, an arbitration record.

"I'll kiss Doug's feet for helping us win last year, but I don't understand how he can be making $1 million more than Bobby and me," Bonds has said.

There may be some validity to that, but it doesn't ease the situation. Bonilla retains some of his normal ebullience, but Bonds gives the strong impression he would rather be anywhere else.

"You'd have to be blind not to notice that Barry hasn't been giving his best effort," General Manager Larry Doughty said the day after the Leyland-Bonds blowup. "But some players are national anthem players. They give their best when they step between the white stripes."

So, is he concerned?

"You have to be," Doughty said. "You can't compete at the major league level without being prepared, but I suspect he'll be up to the task when an opposing pitcher is on the mound."

Leyland agreed, saying he has never seen Bonds give less than 100% in a game and that the incident--a tension breaker, he suggested--is behind them.

"My only problem with Barry is that he talks about not being respected," Leyland said. "I'm not sure by whom.

"Nobody respects him more than me. I've said repeatedly that he's the best player in the National League, that he'll have Hall of Fame credentials if he goes about his career the way he should. What more can I say? Isn't that respect?"

The Pirates may be ready to show it in another way. This is an organization that lost first baseman Sid Bream, platoon third baseman Wally Backman and a valuable fourth outfielder, R.J. Reynolds, to free agency and frequently bemoans the limited attendance and radio-TV revenue in its comparatively small market.

Doughty, however, was scheduled to meet with club President Carl Barger this weekend and press for a more aggressive policy.

"We can do it right or stick our head in the sand," Doughty said. "The key to our immediate future is to sign Bonilla, Bonds, Drabek and Van Slyke to long-term contracts."

A definitive plan would represent a blessing for Leyland, who was given a two-year extension during the October playoffs but is trapped between management's uncertain direction and daily inquiries from players wanting to know if the club is going to be kept together.

"They deserve answers I don't have," Leyland said. "We need a plan. We can't remain unsettled. Scouts work a lifetime to come up with players like Bonds, Bonilla, Van Slyke and Jose Lind. I don't want to lose them."

Leyland managed in the minors for 11 years, riding buses, eating at hamburger stands, dreaming of an opportunity now threatened by the disruptive behavior of a 26-year-old adolescent in his fifth major league season and the financial policy of his front office.

Van Slyke said: "A key word in baseball now is foresight, and the Pirates haven't shown much of it. They could have saved a lot of money by signing Bonilla and Drabek to long-term contracts a year or two ago. We're like an expensive automobile that has to be maintained with expensive parts and I hope they realize that."

Van Slyke is in the final year of a three-year, $5.5-million contract and will be eligible for free agency when the season ends.

"I don't know if I could find a manager I would more prefer to play for than Jim Leyland," he said. "At the same time, I feel like I've been an important part of the rebuilding process here and it's important to me to know that if I sign an extension, I won't be playing before 3,000 people in two or three years. It can fall apart that quickly."

In the meantime, Van Slyke, unlike Bonds and Bonilla, is taking a quiet approach to his contract situation.

"We're not the Moscow Reds," he said. "I don't have problems with them expressing free speech. I may disagree, I may not like the grumbling because it gives the perception all players are grumbling, but they have the right to say it."

Can the Pirates survive and thrive again despite what may be the central theme of a long summer?

"The only thing that will make this situation go away is if we win," Van Slyke said. "Winning is the Pepto-Bismol of any clubhouse problem."

TIGER TRACKS

Detroit Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson praised Leyland's in-your-face response to Bonds.

"I don't think Jim ever did anything more important for his managerial career," Anderson said in Lakeland, Fla. "He established his leadership, if it had ever been in doubt, and he showed any owner looking for a manager in the future that he can handle a situation when it gets hot.

"He also helped every manager in baseball, including me. I haven't had a run-in with a player in a long time, but he reminded us how to handle it if it comes, and it will."

Preparing for his 22nd season as a manager in the majors, Anderson is in control at Tigertown, but some are at his heels. It has been whispered and speculated that he has lost touch with the young players and that his coaches are too old.

He doesn't mention names, but Anderson says he knows where it is coming from, clearly pointing his finger at Bill Lajoie, the former Tiger general manager whose recent resignation left a perception that he was suffocating between the egos of the manager and club President Bo Schembechler.

"People can say what they want about me because it helps keep me on my toes, but I don't understand this thing with the coaches," Anderson said. "The rap is that they're too old to pitch batting practice. Big deal. I didn't know they were hired for that purpose. I thought they were hired for their knowledge and experience."

Anderson's longtime coaches are Alex Grammas, 65; Billy Consolo, 56, and Dick Tracewski, 55. He is also assisted by Billy Muffett, 60; Vada Pinson, 52, and the recently hired Jim Davenport, 57, who is tutoring the touted Travis Fryman in his move from shortstop to third base.

Management, meaning Lajoie, wanted to fire two of the coaches after the 1990 season, Anderson said, but he wouldn't have it and was supported by longtime ally Jim Campbell, chairman of the board.

"People say that with Bill gone, I'll be on a power kick, but that's not true," Anderson said. "Going back to when I first came to Detroit, Jim guaranteed I'd always have the final say on coaches and players, so nothing has changed.

"I can't conceive of a manager accepting a position under any other conditions, since it's the manager who has to pay the price if it doesn't work out."

All of this has helped provide motivation and energy for Anderson, who at 57 should pass Bill McKechnie and Gene Mauch and move into eighth place this season on the list of winning managers.

"I want this year to be really good for us to show we can get down and get with it," he said, referring to his coaches and himself.

How good? A 90-victory season would put him in seventh place, ahead of Casey Stengel, but Anderson cited the 59 and 79 victories of the past two seasons and said, "At that rate, I'll have to be Moses with a beard to the floor to catch the guys at the top of the list."

STRIKE FORCE

With free agent Rob Deer and trade acquisition Mickey Tettleton joining Cecil Fielder in the heart of the Tiger lineup, it may be boom or bust. The three hit 93 homers last season, led by Fielder's 51.

Fielder also led the majors in strikeouts with 182; Deer holds the American League record for strikeouts in a season with 186 in 1987, and Tettleton struck out 160 times in 444 at-bats last season with the Baltimore Orioles.

Fielder and Deer struck out 329 times in 1990, which would have tied the league record for teammates, had they been teammates then, and would have been just two shy of the major league mark, set by Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1975.

"There's no question we're going to lead all of baseball in strikeouts," Anderson said. "But we also should score more runs than anyone in our league."

Toward that end, Anderson said he has told his three free swingers that with a runner at third and fewer than two outs, he wants contact.

"In that situation, they may have to give something up, take something off their swing," he said. "Any other time, they can go for it, air condition the stadium if they want."

DO FIGURES LIE?

The Toronto Blue Jays had better hope so. They lost 351 total bases and 102 walks in the winter exchange of George Bell, Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez and Junior Felix for Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar and Devon White.

PALMER WATCH

Jim Palmer faces a significant step in his comeback bid Monday when he makes his exhibition debut against the Boston Red Sox.

Steve Stone, who won a Cy Young award as Palmer's teammate with the Orioles in 1980 and is now an analyst on Chicago Cub telecasts, doesn't see much hope for Palmer.

"Jim couldn't get anyone out in '84, so how can he get anyone out now?" Stone asked the other day. "Granted, Jim Palmer is an exceptional person and great athlete. One of the best pitchers of all time? Absolutely.

"But he never did have much of a curve, so that means he has to get 'em with a fastball--and he hasn't thrown one in seven years. As for me, I can't even throw a tantrum."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°