BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Astros Learn How the Umpires Live

Owner John McMullen of the Houston Astros has finally negotiated the sale of his team to Texas businessman Drayton McLane Jr., but the new owner, pending league approval, will have to pack a suitcase or two if he wants to follow the team over the next month.

Turning the Astrodome over to the Republican national convention, the Astros begin a 28-day, 26-game trip Monday.

The players already are carrying the baggage of a 13-27 road record, but they will, at least, receive some concessions on this eight-city trip. Among them:

--A first-class ticket for wife or guest from Houston to Chicago and back, when the team makes its sixth stop of the trip.

--Waiving of the club rule requiring suits or sport jackets on travel days.

--A laundry allowance in addition to the $59-per-day meal money that is specified in the collective bargaining agreement.

Second baseman Craig Biggio said he has been speaking with as many umpires as possible to find out how to best handle a month on the road. His conclusion:

"I guess I'll have to bring plenty of deodorant and toothpaste."

Said Casey Candaele: "I was hoping, when I was 50 or 60 years old, to take a trip around the U.S. to see the country. I didn't plan on it happening when I was still playing."

COMPARISON

In the 11-game winning streak that the Atlanta Braves took into a weekend series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, their starting pitchers were 7-0 with five shutouts and a 1.39 earned-run average. Since May 27, the rotation of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Charlie Leibrandt and Mike Bielecki was 26-6 with 10 complete games and a 2.07 ERA.

Some are saying that the Braves' rotation is the deepest and strongest since Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson each won 20 games with the Baltimore Orioles in 1971.

"I think we're comparable to them right now because the focus of our team is on the starting pitching," Glavine said. "In that sense we're similar. I don't want to go as far as saying we're just as good, but I do think we're as good as any rotation since then."

BRAVE(S) MOVE

Unable yet to land Lee Smith from the St. Louis Cardinals to improve his bullpen, Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz took an expensive gamble the other day, trading Juan Berenguer to the Kansas City Royals for Mark Davis.

The left-handed reliever has been a flop since Schuerholz, then general manager of the Royals, signed him to a four-year, $13-million contract after Davis had won the National League Cy Young Award with 44 saves for the San Diego Padres in 1989.

Davis, who had seven saves in 2 1/2 seasons with the Royals, still has about $4.83 million left on that contract, which the Royals were so happy to dump that they are picking up $1 million of his 1993 salary.

"My hope is that by getting him back to the National League, in a role he's accustomed to, he'll be able to regain some of the sparkle he had a couple years ago," Schuerholz said. "If we're able to recapture any of his past, it will be worth the price."

FINANCIAL RELIEF

The Oakland Athletics' decision to give relief ace Dennis Eckersley a two-year, $7.5-million contract extension was not inconsistent with club policy, General Manager Sandy Alderson said, nor does it mean he is ready to deal with the other A's eligible for free agency.

"All we said in spring training was that we would not discuss extensions at that time or through the early part of the season," Alderson said.

"Our position has always been that we would be willing to do it when we reached a point in the season where we were more comfortable with present performance and had a better feel for our financial capability next year."

The remarkable Eckersley initiated negotiations recently with some powerful bargaining tools. He is 31 for 31 in save chances and has a two-year streak of 35 for 35.

His performance, Alderson said, made a decision easier--and possible.

But he implied that many of the other 13 A's won't receive the same reception, that their performances don't warrant that kind of consideration.

Some, he said, won't receive any at all.

"Not unless they come in and say they're willing to take a 50% pay cut, and that might not be enough," Alderson said. "It should be self-evident that our payroll will be down next year."

The 1993 A's payroll is about $39.6 million, a losing proposition, Alderson said. Unlike the Minnesota Twins, who won a World Series in 1987, dropped to the bottom of the American League West while retooling and won again last year, the A's have attempted to retain their championship nucleus.

They remain a threat despite another season of wholesale injuries and patchwork lineups, but this could be a last hurrah for the dominant nucleus of the late '80s.

The A's eligible for free agency are Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, Carney Lansford, Terry Steinbach, Ron Darling, Kelly Downs, Harold Baines, Gene Nelson, Rick Honeycutt, Willie Wilson, Randy Ready, Jamie Quirk and Goose Gossage.

A last hurrah?

McGwire nodded recently and said: "Nobody talks about it, but I think it's inevitable that it is."

ADD A'S

For starting pitchers Stewart, Darling and Downs, their status in the A's plans could be linked to the health of the club's touted 1990 draft class. The desire of the A's to cut their pitcher payroll is on hold. All four candidates for the rotation of the future--all taken in the first or compensation round of the '90 draft--are on the disabled list:

--Todd Van Poppel has not pitched since May 24 and is rehabilitating from shoulder weakness at the A's training facility in Arizona.

--Kirk Dressendorfer made only three 1992 appearances at Modesto after having arthroscopic shoulder surgery last August and soon will have reconstructive shoulder surgery that could sideline him for all of 1993.

--Don Peters is rehabilitating from elbow surgery in Arizona and has yet to pitch this year.

--David Zancanaro, the former UCLA left-hander, may return to the mound at triple-A Tacoma soon after missing the heart of the summer with a mononucleosis-type illness.

EXTENSION

Having put 14 players on the disabled list and used 42 overall, including 21 pitchers and 14 different starters, General Manager Lee Thomas of the Philadelphia Phillies said the 1991 season has been his most frustrating since joining the club in June of 1988.

"I knew we'd take a beating for the first three years, but I thought this was our chance to be respectable," he said. "There's not much you can do when you lose four of your five starting pitchers and your entire outfield for half the season, but it's still a bitter pill to swallow."

Thomas said, however, that he has gained new admiration for manager and close friend Jim Fregosi, whose contract was extended through 1993 the other day.

"I think he's kept this together better than anyone could have," Thomas said. "We were only five or six games out before we lost (Lenny) Dykstra again on the last West Coast trip (before the All-Star game), and it finally fell apart on him. He knows how to handle today's players, and he runs a dugout as well as anyone."

Thomas insisted that he can separate his friendship with former Angel teammate Fregosi from his professional perspective, but he has told friends that when it's time for Fregosi to go, "they'll have to carry me out, too."

In the meantime, Thomas and club President Bill Giles recently had what Giles described as "a little economics class" for veterans Darren Daulton, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Mariano Duncan, Terry Mulholland and Dykstra.

The meeting was called in response to comments from some of those players--"There's no way we can win with the talent we have," Williams said--concerning their perception that the club is more interested in the ledger than the standings.

Giles said he assured the players that the club's desire to win would be documented next winter by the pursuit of a free agent pitcher such as Greg Maddux, Doug Drabek or David Cone.

Thomas said the air was cleared, but he reflected on the players' comments and added: "It's not unusual to hear those things when players get frustrated. There's probably some things I'd like to say about them, but I haven't."

OPINION

If by some interpretation Commissioner Fay Vincent exceeded his authority in ordering National League realignment, so what?

The Chicago Cubs' continuing opposition to it remains the height of hypocrisy and selfishness.

Thirteen of 14 National League clubs favor realignment, recognizing the logic in a geographic alignment at a time when the industry is looking for ways to reduce expenses.

The Cubs, however, are willing to spend thousands of dollars fighting it, basing part of their case on the loss of traditional rivalries.

Really?

--Wouldn't their most traditional rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, be moving to the West with them?

--Wouldn't their longstanding rivalry with the Dodgers, the only National League club to draw more than 30,000 for every date at Wrigley Field last year, be stimulated?

--Wouldn't the adoption of a balanced schedule as played in the American League allow the Cubs to continue to play more games against East rivals than they would play against their new foes in the West?

They talk, too, about the loss of revenue and prime-time audience on their cable network, but how many times have West Coast teams played division games in the Eastern time zones of Atlanta and Cincinnati with the broadcasts ending even before it's prime time on the West Coast?

So Vincent, in the view of some, exceeded his authority. Should that be the issue here, or should it be the Cubs' obstinateness?

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