Last Thursday's trade of outfielder Orlando Merced, infielder Carlos Garcia and pitcher Dan Plesac to the Toronto Blue Jays for six minor leaguers makes Pittsburgh look even more like a Triple A outfit. Since Opening Day 1996, the Pirates have jettisoned 12 major leaguers and manager Jim Leyland and have trimmed their payroll from $21 million to $14.5 million, which would likely be the lowest in baseball in '97. (Consider that on Monday free agent Albert Belle was close to signing a $10 million-a-year deal with the Chicago White Sox.) Pittsburgh general manager Cam Bonifay is currently listening to offers for shortstop Jay Bell, a former All-Star, and infielder Jeff King, the team's best power hitter.
"It's not a fire sale," Bonifay says. "We want young talent that will take us where we want to be over the next four years." But of the 15 players Bonifay has acquired in the shake-up, only four have big league experience and none of the minor leaguers is considered an All-Star prospect.
The Pirates are a perfect example of why the proposed revenue-sharing system, funded by a so-called luxury tax on big spending clubs and a 2.5% tax on players' salaries, should be implemented. Although the Montreal Expos contended this season with the third-lowest payroll ($17.2 million), the talent gap between baseball's richest and poorest teams is growing. The three teams with the highest payrolls this season—the New York Yankees ($61.5 million), the Baltimore Orioles ($55.1) and the Atlanta Braves ($53.4)—were among the final four in the playoffs. When the owners failed to approve the revenue-sharing system, it cost Pittsburgh about $5 million in 1997.
Bucs owner Kevin McClatchy says that by 2000 he would like to field a contending team in a baseball-only 33,000-seat ballpark. He hopes that park will be built largely with public funds. But no government funding proposal is in the works. And it's not easy to persuade taxpayers to build a new home for a last-place team in a sport threatened by lockouts and strikes.
After four straight losing seasons in which Pittsburgh's attendance has dropped to this year's 1.3 million, no one is sweating out the labor unrest more than the Pirates. For as long as there is no labor deal, the Bucs' woes won't stop here.
Kids, It's Just a Game
Mike Cito, the Albuquerque football player who was expelled from St. Pius X High School for wearing a chin-strap buckle honed to razor sharpness in an Oct. 12 game against Albuquerque Academy (SCORECARD, Nov. 4), is contesting his expulsion. Bernalillo County district attorney Bob Schwartz hasn't gotten around to the case; he says that, with all the violent crime in Albuquerque, Cito's situation is not a priority, and perhaps he's right. But the buckle incident is emblematic of what has been a disquieting autumn in high school sports.
On Sept. 17 two boy soccer players at New Jersey's Pinelands Regional High in Little Egg Harbor were arrested and detained overnight on assault charges after a brawl during a game with Manchester Township High. In the fight, a Manchester player was kicked repeatedly in the head and suffered a concussion.
On Nov. 8, three weeks after Cito's buckle left several opponents slashed and bloody, Gilbert Jefferson, a linebacker at Wingate High near Gallup, N.Mex., was arrested outside the school's stadium for attacking referee Allen Bainter. Moments after being ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct in the fourth quarter, Jefferson took a running start of 30 yards and crashed into Bainter from behind, knocking the referee unconscious. Bainter was hospitalized and treated for a concussion. Jefferson is expected to be charged with aggravated battery.
And then last Wednesday, in a nonviolent but nonetheless troubling incident, Providence's Central High was stripped of its just-won state soccer title because its star goalie had graduated from the school's vocational division in June and had played this season under a different student's name.