On May 1 umpire Joe Brinkman issued a warning to Red Sox righthander Pedro Martinez for hitting the Mariners' Edgar Martinez in the helmet with a curveball, even though pitchers rarely use breaking balls when throwing at hitters. Eight days later, however, plate ump Al Clark did not issue a warning when Boston second baseman Chris Stynes had his cheekbone fractured by a fastball from Seattle's Aaron Sele. Clark did issue a warning when Boston starter Frank Castillo retaliated a half-inning later by throwing a fastball that grazed John Olerud's derriere, but no one was ejected even though another batter was plonked and several others buzzed with fast-balls. "The new rules are predicated on our judgment as to any intent involved," Clark said after that game. "If I thought any pitches that came close to guys were intended to hit them, they certainly would have resulted in ejections."
"It's hard to understand sometimes when you're going to get a warning," says one National League starter. "There doesn't seem to be any clear-cut rule on when you get one, and that can be a problem."
That's the flaw in the anti-beanball decree: The interpretation of a pitcher's intent varies from umpire to umpire. "You have to have a feel for the game, for what's flagrant and what's not," says veteran umpire Bruce Froemming. "They want consistency, and we're trying, but are you going to get it every single night from every umpire? No. You can't clone umpires."
Sheffield's Labor of Glove
Gary Sheffield has been many things to many people. A slugger. A leader. A whiner. The one thing Sheffield has never been, however, is a top-notch outfielder. On good days Sheffield has been borderline mediocre. On bad days he has been a stumbling bumbler.
As the Dodgers continued their surprise run to the top of the National League West last week, left-fielder Sheffield had been shockingly good. Through Sunday he'd committed no errors and was tied with the Phillies' Pat Burrell for the league lead in outfield assists, with five. Although that statistic is often misleading (outfield assist leaders are frequently the players opposing teams run on most), Los Angeles manager Jim Tracy has praised Sheffield's defensive improvement. "We can all talk about what a great offensive player Gary is," says Tracy. "The fact remains he's already won two games for us with his glove."
In the first inning of the Dodgers' 6-5 win over the Pirates on April 25, Sheffield threw out two runners at the plate. Against the Marlins on May 9, Sheffield threw out Eric Owens trying to score from second on a single to left. Perhaps his best play came on April 20 against the Padres. In the sixth inning Tony Gwynn slapped a hit down the leftfield line. The ball was hit so well that after turning first, Gwynn began cruising toward second. When he saw the speed with which Sheffield got to the ball and came up throwing, Gwynn sped up. Not only was he out by two feet, but he also left the game and wound up on the DL with a strained right hamstring. "The first thing I do every day when I step on the field is work on fly balls and ground balls," says Sheffield. "I work on my weakness first and then my hitting. I'm going to show I can play defense."
Unlike some other less-than-ept outfielders ( Benny Agbayani of the Mets and Ben Grieve of Tampa Bay come to mind), Sheffield has—but, to his credit, rarely uses—a fair excuse. In 1986 he was signed by the Brewers as a shortstop, the position he'd played throughout his youth. Milwaukee moved him to third base, where he remained after he was traded to the Padres in '92 and then to the Marlins midway through the following season. Florida soon moved him to right field. He arrived in Los Angeles in '98, and the Dodgers shifted him to left the next season. For the first time since moving to that unfamiliar spot, Sheffield is talking about the ultimate reward. "Everybody wants to win a Gold Glove," he says. "I want it because of the way it looks. It looks better than the MVP trophy."
All Talk, No Contraction?
The joke that pops up in baseball circles whenever contraction is discussed is that the revenue disparities that hamper competition could be evened out by eliminating two teams: the Yankees and the Mets. In fact, for all its currency as the sport's current buzzword, contraction doesn't carry much more weight right now than that one-liner. A few owners publicly support the idea—the Giants' Peter Magowan has called the Expos "about as compelling a case for contraction as there is"—and the lack of a surefire market into which a team might relocate makes folding franchises a more attractive alternative than it otherwise might be. Commissioner Bud Selig continues to say he views the elimination of one or more of baseball's financially weaker teams as a "serious option," but his office has yet to offer any concrete plan for how it might fold teams or, for that matter, evidence that it can do so without the cooperation of the players' union.