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FERNANDEZ CLOSE TO SIGNING WITH JAPANESE TEAM

Tony Fernandez, who was hitting .400 as late as June 29 last year, is expected to sign with a Japanese team early this week.

Fernandez hit .328 last season for the Toronto Blue Jays with six homers and 75 RBIs. The 37-year-old infielder, who finished with the eighth-highest batting average in the American League, became a free agent after the season. However, teams didn't show much interest in the 16-year veteran, who has a .288 career average.

Adam Katz, Fernandez's agent, declined comment on the talks, which were confirmed by a baseball official who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition he not be identified.

Third baseman Ed Sprague, who hit .267 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, also is closing on a deal with a Japanese team, the official said.

Milwaukee catcher Dave Nilsson already has signed with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Central League.

In other baseball news: Former major league outfielder Elliott Maddox faces grand theft charges for exaggerating a knee injury to collect workers compensation.

Records show Maddox, a counselor for Florida's Division of Children and Families, collected $36,000 in pay and medical benefits for nearly all of 1998 and 1999 because he claimed he had a severe knee injury, the Sun-Sentinal of Fort Lauderdale reported.

Maddox, 51, was running baseball camps for the city of Coral Springs and his company was paid at least $49,000 during those years.

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