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WITH MERRILL GONE, DOWN HELPS CLIPPERS MOVE UP

STUMP MERRILL'S hiring hasn't worked miracles for the Yankees, but it has done wonders for the Columbus Clippers.

The Clips have gone 16-6 since Merrill was promoted to New York and replaced by Double A Albany manager Rick Down. In two of those victories Columbus rallied from three- and five-run ninth-inning deficits.

Down is becoming the Billy Martin of the Yanks' minor league system. When King George summoned Bucky Dent from Columbus last season, Down, then a roving hitting instructor, stepped in and went 9-7.

What's this? The Yankees developing a prospect? At mid-week first baseman/outfielder Hensley Meulens was tied for the International League lead in homers (16) and was first in RBIs (52). Wonder what journeyman pitcher he'll be dealt for?

The runaway escalation of salaries at the major league level has obscured the plight of the minor leaguer.

The only minor league players receiving a decent wage are those who have spent time in the big leagues or were selected high in the draft.

Bob Sparks of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues says the minimum salary for a first-year minor league player is $850 -- a month. Jose Canseco makes twice that each pitch of each at-bat, whether he swings at it or not.

And if the minor league player was signed as an undrafted free agent the minimum is $300 -- a month.

Most Triple A players who haven't been to the big leagues and weren't high draft picks receive about $2,000 a month. But only for the season's five-month duration. That's why most players are forced to find off-season jobs. Bison manager Terry Collins was a substitute teacher.

As criminal as the salaries is the per diem minor league players receive on the road. Major leaguers get $54 a day to wine and dine. Triple A players receive the bread-and-water sum of $14. At least half of that goes toward clubhouse dues, which include a postgame meal. So Triple A players must dip into their pockets to afford a second decent meal.

Per diems drop to $12 at the Double A level and $11 at Class A. It's cut in half at all levels if a team commutes to its games.

Baseball officials keep talking of how they must get better athletes in the game instead of allowing them to drift to football and basketball. It wonders why many of its players are injury-prone and out-of-shape.

Geez, any guesses?

On top of that, seldom are minor league coaches and managers paid a reasonable rate. That's why so many players with coaching and managerial aspirations find other work once their baseball careers are finished.

The Player Development Contract that determines salary minimums and establishes per diems expires after this season. Hopefully major and minor league operators will see fit to end the era of slave labor. But don't count on it.

Here's what Bill Murray, director of baseball operations in the commissioner's office, recently said about low minor league salaries: "Quite frankly, we look at the National Association as a sort of apprentice-type arrangement. The real job is in the major leagues."

That's a crock. Attendance is up at all levels of professional baseball, and the worth of minor league franchises is appreciating at a phenomenal rate.

If the Indianapolis Indians can clear $200,000 a season working on a shoestring budget, then Triple A teams can afford to dispense a $25 per diem. And the increase should follow proportionately to baseball's lower levels.

Ed Nottle, one of the finer people in the game, is at least temporarily out of baseball. The Boston Red Sox fired Nottle as manager of Pawtucket this week and replaced him with 70-year-old Johnny Pesky. Always progressive thinkers, those Red Sox.

Now that Nottle's out the door, Boston is pondering assigning Pawtucket a full-time pitching coach and hitting instructor. Imagine hiring specialized coaches to assist the development of prospects? It just might catch on.

Nottle's downfall was saying what's on his mind. And the Red Sox made sure Nottle had a lot on his mind. Boston rarely goes outside the organization to sign players and Pawtucket's record (62-84 last year, 30-43 at the time of Nottle's firing) shows it.

Still, in four-plus seasons with Pawtucket, Nottle sent 34 players to the major leagues.

"I'm a damn good Triple A manager," Nottle said after his firing. "If anybody's interested in one, I'm available. If anybody's interested in a big league coach, I'm available. I know nobody's interested in a big league managing job for me, except me, but there's not a helluva lot I can do about that."

Pawtucket's Tim Naehring, one of the organization's top prospects, told The Boston Globe that Nottle was made a scapegoat.

"I'm going to stick to my guns on this. I don't think Ed was the reason for this," Naehring said. ". . . I think the players have to take most of the responsibility for the way this year's gone."

Outfielder Mickey Pina concurred, saying, "I feel that we let him down." So Nottle's out, Pesky's in and its back to the past in Pawtucket.

"I really like that Naehring kid," Pesky said. ". . . reminds me of that big kid Cleveland had."

Cory Snyder?

Nope.

Luke Easter?

"That's right," Pesky said. "Luke Easter. Played with Feller and Lemon and Wynn. Tremendous power guy."

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