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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Reward Will Be Punishment for Seattle’s Lefebvre

Showing steady improvement under Jim Lefebvre, the Seattle Mariners won 73 games in 1989, 77 last year and have a chance to break the club record of 78 this year while finishing at .500 or better for the first time in the 15-year history of the franchise.

In the process, the Mariners set an attendance record of 1.5 million last season and have broken it, with a chance to reach 2 million in 1991.

Lefebvre’s reward?

It is believed that he will be fired when his three-year contract expires at the end of the season. The reason isn’t clear, but it has become a daily distraction for the Mariners, much as the financial problems facing owner Jeff Smulyan have dominated headlines in Seattle since mid-season.

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“I can’t worry about it,” Lefebvre said when reached in Boston the other day.

“I appreciate the opportunity I was given to manage in the major leagues and am proud of what we accomplished. We turned the city on, proved the Mariners could draw and successfully changed the attitude in the clubhouse.

“The players came into this season believing they could win. We’ve come a long way, but if it isn’t good enough, I’m prepared to move on. I think people in baseball recognize what we’ve done.”

Sparky Anderson knows and reacted heatedly to stories in the Seattle papers last week on Lefebvre’s situation and, in particular, to a quote from an anonymous Mariner executive claiming that General Manager Woody Woodward doesn’t believe Lefebvre can take the club “to the next level.”

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“What the hell level have they ever been at before?” asked Anderson, the Detroit Tiger manager who was in Seattle at the time. “If they had given Jimmy another player or two, he would have already taken them to that next level.”

The need for another right-handed power hitter thwarted the Mariners’ bid to climb in a division that was open to the most aggressive taker this year. It became grist for the Seattle media mill, and management felt Lefebvre was stirring the flames.

“The only thing I’ve ever said was that we can’t do some of the things other teams can do because of our financial situation,” Lefebvre said. “I was supporting the owner in that because he’s said the same thing many times.”

Smulyan is strapped by bank loans that may force him to sell or move the team or both. Some perceive the scenario to be similar to that of the movie, “Major Leagues,” in which the club triumphs despite obstacles management puts in its path.

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The only major trade Woodward has made in the last three years was the one in which Mark Langston was sent to Montreal for pitchers Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris, a deal Woodward was forced to make because of Langston’s imminent free agency and the Mariners’ inability to satisfy his contract demands.

A master of motivation, Lefebvre has operated with virtually the same roster for three consecutive seasons, yet Smulyan gave Woodward a two-year extension in mid-season. Woodward responded by saying that Lefebvre’s status would be evaluated after the season.

It’s an unfortunate affair that makes sense only in that it doesn’t make sense, which fits the franchise’s pattern.

Stability? Continuity?

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Consider that Lefebvre, in less than three years, is only eight victories shy of breaking Darrell Johnson’s record for the most wins by a Seattle manager, achieved in four seasons.

“I feel good about that,” Lefebvre said of the potential record. “But it also illustrates the instability. There’ve been too many changes.”

The sad irony is that there apparently will be another.

BUSCH RENOVATION

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In Los Angeles the other day, St. Louis Cardinal Manager Joe Torre was talking about the plans to reshape Busch Stadium next year, shortening the power alleys by eight feet and the distance to center field by 12 feet.

“We discussed the pluses and minuses and simply felt it would be a fairer park,” Torre said, acknowledging that Busch has long been baseball’s toughest park in which to hit home runs.

Fairness aside, there were two other factors:

--The Cardinals, buoyed by their unexpected success of this year, believe that Todd Zeile and Felix Jose, two outstanding young hitters, will benefit by the reduction more than the St. Louis pitchers might be hurt by it.

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“If we get the same pitching and defense, we’ll have the chance to win with one swing instead of needing three or four hits, like we now do,” Torre said. “The opposition will have that same chance, but not if we do it in the bottom of the ninth.”

--They will have a better chance of signing attractive free agents, such as Wally Joyner.

“There’s no doubt about that,” Torre said. “When I was managing in Atlanta (where the park configuration favors hitters), we tried to sign pitchers like Goose Gossage and Floyd Bannister at a time when they were in their prime. I mean, this was when (owner) Ted Turner was handing out blank checks, but they wouldn’t sign and the ballpark had a lot to do with it.

“We think the hitters will find Busch more appealing now.”

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WALLY’S WORLD

It is ironic that the Cardinals, Whitey Herzog’s former team and a team he left, in part, because of concern over what he believed to be corporate budget tightening, may offer the stiffest competition in the Angels’ bid to re-sign Joyner.

There is also early speculation that the Dodgers could become involved if they elect not to re-sign Eddie Murray, although Joyner would leave them even more lopsided with left-handed hitters.

Attorney Barry Axelrod, who, in association with Michael Watkins, represents Joyner, isn’t closing any doors, of course.

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“The area is not going to be a determining factor,” Axelrod said. “Wally is not locked into Southern California. His dedication to his family will allow him to be comfortable anywhere.”

WHITEY’S WORLD

Herzog gives the Angels instant credibility and the valuable insights of a field leader in the front office for the first time since Fred Haney resigned as general manager in 1968.

The arrangement faces two tests:

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--Can Richard Brown, who has been active in every area as the club president, back off, in his own words, and become primarily a business administrator without interfering with the baseball decisions of Herzog, Dan O’Brien and Buck Rodgers?

--Can Herzog continue to resist the managerial bug? Eleven years ago, at 49, as the new general manager of the Cardinals, Herzog handed the managerial reins to Red Schoendienst on an interim basis, spent a month thinking about Dick Williams and other full-time candidates, then re-hired himself.

Soon to turn 60, having quit as the Cardinal manager, in part, because of his inability to motivate the modern mercenary, Herzog is less likely to return to the frustrations of the dugout, though that’s “not etched in stone,” he said.

ADD HERZOG

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His reputation as a talent evaluator doesn’t stem strictly from his scouting and signings with the New York Mets in the late ‘60s or his trades in rebuilding the Cardinals in the ‘80s.

He has also displayed a shrewd touch with his front office appointments. The two biggest in St. Louis: Fred McAlister as scouting director and Lee Thomas, now general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, as personnel director. There will be more with the Angels.

BUCS AND BUCKS

Faced with re-signing Bobby Bonilla, who is eligible to leave as a free agent when the season ends, the Pittsburgh Pirates made what could be an expensive acquisition when they traded for Texas Ranger third baseman Steve Buechele last weekend.

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Nevertheless, General Manager Larry Doughty said: “How many times do you get a shot at a championship? Who knows if we’ll be in this position next September?”

With Jeff King, their regular third baseman, out much of the year with a bad back, and John Wehner, his impressive replacement, sidelined by sciatica, the Pirates, eyeing more than a division title, gave up two top prospects for Buechele, who was having his best season and can follow Bonilla to the market when it ends.

As the preeminent third baseman among those eligible for free agency, Buechele undoubtedly will pursue a contract comparable to those signed last year by Terry Pendleton, four years at $10.2 million with Atlanta, and Gary Gaetti, four years at $11.4 million with the Angels.

Buechele, a former Anaheim Servite High star, hit a career-low .215 in 1990 but had career-best numbers at the time of the trade, including a .267 average, 18 homers, 66 runs batted in and only three errors in 121 games.

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The Rangers figure they have a successor in Dean Palmer, had concern about their ability to re-sign Buechele and were attracted by the Pirates’ offer of pitchers Kurt Miller, a No. 1 draft choice last year, and Hector Fajardo, who began the year in Class A and and at one point made two starts for the Pirates.

“There’s no way anyone would give up players of that potential to rent a player for a month,” Buechele’s agent, Alan Meersand, said.

Buechele may have as long as two months in the national spotlight to increase his leverage. As Doughty suggested: Timing is everything.

PALMEIRO’S PUNCH

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This is the fourth consecutive year that Rafael Palmeiro has led his league in hitting at some point, but he has yet to win a batting title. He led in his last year with the Chicago Cubs and in all three years with the Rangers.

“I’m trying not to think about it, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t,” he said. “I really want to win one.”

He is in the midst of a battle with Julio Franco, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett for the American League batting crown.

Once criticized as an opposite-field singles hitter who rarely drove in runs, Palmeiro has made major adjustments, becoming more of a pull hitter with potential for power.

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He is on a pace to drive in more than 90 runs and could become only the second American League batting champion--Fred Lynn was the other in 1979--to hit 25 or more home runs since Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski won triple crowns in 1966 and ’67.

Palmeiro, despite his yearning for a batting title, says he is helping the Rangers more by driving in runs.

“Wade Boggs’ goal is to win a batting title and he goes about it that way,” he said. “I want to help my team, which is by being the best I can be. I’d rather hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs than hit .340 with eight homers and 50 RBIs.”


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