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Skippers Sail New Courses

Having been distracted by a World Series in which the hitters should be forced to swing noise sticks to compensate for the pitiful pitching, let’s see if I have this right:

* The New York Mets, unwilling to wait for Dusty Baker and unable (or is that unwilling as well?) to meet the compensation demands of the Seattle Mariners for negotiating rights to Lou Piniella, were suddenly willing to settle on Art Howe as their next manager, agreeing to overpay (four years, $9.4 million) a man the Oakland A’s seemed eager to show the door.

* Piniella, upset at the Mariners for not allowing him to negotiate with the Mets but eager to manage a team in the same time zone at least as his Tampa home, had his options reduced to basement time with the hometown Devil Rays. They surprisingly stepped up with a four-year, $14-million contract that isn’t worth anything unless Piniella has decision-making influence on General Manager Chuck LaMar and bumptious owner Vince Naimoli, who so far hasn’t managed to spoil property values in the gated community where Piniella also lives.

* The A’s, who wouldn’t allow bench coach Ken Macha to interview with the Boston Red Sox last spring but didn’t hesitate in letting Howe meet with the Mets and didn’t demand compensation for letting him out of the last year of his contract, will now elevate Macha, who a) was just about everyone’s choice as the best interviewee among managerial candidates from coast to coast, b) chose to remain with the A’s over a multiyear managerial offer from the Milwaukee Brewers and c) coached with the Angels under Buck Rodgers and Marcel Lachemann in the early ‘90s, when he wasn’t the hot ticket that he became during the current managerial merry-go-round.

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* The Brewers, snubbed by Macha, apparently will now focus on the four other candidates they have interviewed -- Arizona bench coach Bob Melvin (no relation to new Milwaukee General Manager Doug Melvin), Brewer bench coach Cecil Cooper, New York Yankee third base coach Willie Randolph and Atlanta third base coach Ned Yost -- with Melvin and Yost thought to be the front-runners for a task more foreboding than trying to pick a winner in the nightly sausage race at Miller Park.

* The Mariners, dumped by Piniella, late in jumping on the Macha bandwagon and probably unwilling to meet what are expected to be industry-high salary demands by Dusty Baker, have a long list of candidates, including such former managers as Don Baylor, Cito Gaston, Phil Garner and Lee Elia, along with Angel pitching coach Bud Black, who has never managed, a probable drawback for a club that figures to contend again in the wickedly competitive American League West, a division enhanced when the Texas Rangers beat several of these same teams to Buck Showalter, who will join Texas owner Tom Hicks and General Manager John Hart in a union of micro-managers.

* The Chicago Cubs, who liked both Showalter and what they heard from Macha and may have Bobby Valentine as a fallback, have put their search on hold because of a willingness to do what the Mets wouldn’t, which is wait to talk with Baker when he becomes a free agent -- either later tonight if the San Francisco Giants win the World Series by defeating the Angels in Game 6 or after Sunday night’s Game 7, no matter who wins.

All of this has kept the rumor mill grinding and annoyed Commissioner Bud Selig, who has a gag order banning clubs from making announcements that might distract from the World Series and who is likely to set an example by fining the Mets, even though they won’t officially announce Howe’s hiring until Monday. The Mets blame Alan Nero, the agent who represents Howe, Piniella and Macha, for being the source of the leaks.

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The business of baseball is business, of course, and it’s difficult to control that or stop people from talking. It’s doubtful, for example, that Selig fined himself last year when it took him less than 48 hours after the final out to distract from the memory of an outstanding World Series with his announcement that two clubs would be eliminated, a scenario doomed from the start.

Are Howe and Piniella similarly doomed in their new environments?

The Devil Rays have lost 206 games in the last two years, play in baseball’s worst ballpark and had the 28th lowest attendance in the major leagues.

All of that is similar to what Piniella inherited in Seattle, where he helped bring down the Kingdome and save what is now one of the most prosperous franchises.

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The difference is that he had Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez to work with, while Tampa Bay is still a team on the come, still more suspect than prospect, an organization lacking a clear-cut philosophy under LaMar and Naimoli while wasting millions of dollars in an effort to appear presentable.

Piniella won in Cincinnati and in Seattle, and Tampa Bay brings a new challenge at a time when he might have gone stale in Seattle and was angered by the refusal of Mariner ownership, despite cashing in on the ATM that is Safeco Field, to provide the midseason help he needed.

The size of his contract and the willingness of the Devil Rays to send All-Star center fielder Randy Winn to the Mariners as compensation brings a new degree of credibility and commitment to an organization in need of it, but it may take all of the four years -- or more -- for Piniella to produce a homecoming party.

The Mets, meantime, are being blasted in the New York media for failing to be more persuasive in the compensation talks with Seattle (an industry source said they offered nothing comparable to Winn) for the right to talk with Piniella and for failing to wait for Baker.

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The A’s went to the playoffs each of the last three years under Howe, but he never seemed to win General Manager Billy Beane’s endorsement. If that alone should have raised a red flag for the Mets given Beane’s evaluation skills, Howe’s image (embellished certainly) as nothing more than a laid-back stabilizer for the A’s self-motivated frat house seems at odds with the combustible Mets’ perceived need of an iron fist at the helm.

Then again ...

In the aftermath of the manipulative and media-conscious Valentine, that quieter and calmer style might prove to be exactly what the Mets need -- if, indeed, any manager can compensate for the fallout of a fractious and frustrating summer and the signing mistakes of last winter.

Oh, well. If all managers weren’t hired to be fired, the merry-go-round wouldn’t be spinning at its current speed.

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