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OWNERS FIRE FIRST SHOT IN BATTLE OVER DH

Baseball owners may bench the DH after this season.

Teams notified players Friday this may the final year of the designated hitter, prompting an angry response from the players' association.

Management negotiator Randy Levine emphasized owners have not made a final decision on the DH, which has been used by the American League since 1973. Levine said owners sent the notification Friday only because baseball's labor agreement requires one year's advance notice for a unilateral change to the playing rules.

"What is crystal clear, your comments notwithstanding, is the warning shot you have just fired," union head Donald Fehr wrote in a letter to Levine, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press. "I must and will advise the players you have chosen to set the stage for and begin these discussions with a threat. To say the least, this is not an auspicious beginning."

The fate of the DH is tied to the future of interleague play. Under the current labor agreement, interleague play ends after this season, but owners want to extend it. The union is not under any obligation to play interleague games after this season.

"The message," Fehr wrote, "cannot be mistaken: If we do not conclude our interleague play discussions in a manner satisfactory to the clubs, the clubs reserve their right (if any exists) to unilaterally eliminate the DH rule."

Tribe bats boom in spring finale

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The Cleveland Indians left Florida on a positive note with the kind of offensive show that has become their trademark during a run of three straight AL Central titles.

With an 8-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in their final Grapefruit League game, the Indians helped ease concerns about a 10-17 exhibition record.

Sandy Alomar, recovering from a pulled left groin, returned to action, hitting a grand slam. He reported no pain.

"I can't really worry about it," Alomar said. "I'm either going to blow it out or I'm not. . . . I'm just going to play."

Meanwhile, Cleveland pitcher Melido Perez retired rather than accept a demotion to minor-league camp. Perez, 32, went 78-85 with a 4.17 earned run average in nine seasons with Kansas City, the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees.

Since undergoing surgery on his right elbow in April 1996, Perez hasn't pitched again in the major leagues.

In four appearances this spring, Perez went 0-2 with an 11.05 ERA.

Ramirez paces Herd

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Alex Ramirez collected three hits, including a double, triple, and drove in three runs to lead the Buffalo Bisons to a 5-4 exhibition win over the New Orleans Zephyrs.

Ramirez also scored once, while David Miller added two hits and two runs in support of winning pitcher Anthony Young, who allowed three hits over five innings.

The Herd has an intrasquad scrimmage at 1 p.m. today in Winter Haven.

Around the horn

Hideki Irabu had a problem-free 15-minute workout in the New York Yankees' bullpen and was cleared to start an exhibition game next week. Irabu, who had not thrown from the mound since being diagnosed with right elbow tendinitis last Saturday, will start Monday in an exhibition at San Diego State.

Rejecting the latest contract offer from the team, Bosotn Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn said for the first time he is planning to file for free agency after the season. "There will be no deal before opening day," he said after hitting his major league-best 10th homer of the spring. "You owe it to yourself, if it gets to that, to see what's out there."

The former AL MVP was offered a $20.4 million, two-year extension on Friday and immediately rejected the proposal. Vaughn said there will be no more dialogue with Boston until after the season.

Brady Anderson has a chipped bone in his left hand, but the injury is not expected to keep the Baltimore center fielder out of Tuesday's season opener. Anderson was hit in the hand by a thrown ball while stealing a base Thursday against the Florida Marlins. He immediately left the game, and X-rays in Fort Lauderdale on Friday revealed the damage.

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