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ARRIVAL OF AUTUMN LEAVES SOME GRUMPY

Fall is in the air. October beckons. That means pennant races and the postseason are upon us.

It does not mean, of course, that there is joy across the land. For every win, there is a loss. For every team that finishes first, there's one that finishes last. These are immutable laws of baseball.

For some, these are unhappy days indeed.

In Tampa Bay, designated hitter Greg Vaughn is unhappy with his teammates.

"I'm tired of all the excuses. I'm tired of all the pouting," Vaughn said after the Devil Rays lost for the 11th time in 13 September games. "This ain't no day-care center. Nobody here is a baby sitter.

"Everyone here is a grown man. Start acting like grown men and let's go.

"If you're tired or if you want to quit, go tell somebody. If you're being messed with, I'm sure they can work it out so you can get a different job.

"You've got to keep pushing, keep grinding. You've got to get rid of the excuses and stop feeling sorry for yourself and carry on. . . . I hope everyone here is embarrassed. I'm embarrassed."

In Boston, first baseman Rico Brogna is unhappy that his dream of ending his career with the Red Sox has turned into a nightmare.

He has all but disappeared since rejecting a rehab assignment in mid-August and he's furious that general manager Dan Duquette was quoted as saying the team wanted him to go to the minors because he lacks bat speed.

"I don't want to be a disruptive influence because it's not my nature or my character. But at the same time, when people question my abilities, that hurts. And that's the part I don't like," said Brogna, who can be a free agent at the end of the season.

In Los Angeles, left fielder Gary Sheffield is unhappy because he doesn't think general manager Kevin Malone did enough to improve the team before the trading deadline.

"You can't have question marks when you're trying to win a pennant," Sheffield said. "There were a lot of question marks going into the season and I wouldn't say we're close (to winning a championship) because there are still a lot of question marks.

"If you're trying to win and you have question marks at the trading deadline, then you fix those question marks and you go from there. You don't stomp your feet in spring training, put all your marbles in one basket and say, 'This is the team I'm going with. We're going to win.' You have to have a backup plan."

Sheffield also pointed a finger at his teammates. "You can't have selfish players. (Management) is going to have to address that," he said. "That's the bottom line. If a guy is only concerned with himself, you can't accomplish team goals."

The scoop

A fan tossed a baseball to Cubs president Andy MacPhail recently. "Sign the ball first, then sign (first baseman Mark) Grace," he said. Replied MacPhail: "Can't make any guarantees." Grace, who can be a free agent at the end of the season, said he's been given no indication the only team he's ever played for wants him to return. "But you know what? There have been about five seasons in my career where it's been, 'This may be your final homestand, this may be your final at-bat as a Cub,' and I've always come back," he noted.

White Sox general manager Ron Schueler has started dropping hints that he might be getting close to stepping aside, even though the Sox are just one of two teams in the majors (along with the Giants) with a .600 winning percentage.

The Royals say they'll go all-out to try to sign first baseman Mike Sweeney to a long-term contract this winter. And Sweeney said he'll be receptive. "My main focus is to stay in Kansas City as long as I can," he said. "I'd love to finish my career here like George Brett and Frank White did."

Rangers infielder Scott Sheldon this year joined Bert Campaneris (1965 A's) and Cesar Tovar (1968 Twins) as the only players to appear at all nine positions in a single game. Now Tigers infielder Shane Halter could do that one better. Consideration is being given to having Halter play all nine positions after starting the game as the designated hitter.

And furthermore . . .

Giants left-hander Shawn Estes is tempting the baseball gods. "We feel that if we play the way we've been playing, we'll be in the playoffs and it's not going to end there," he bragged. "In 1997, we were just happy to be there and we lost three in a row. We feel we can get there and do great things. You want to be a team that wins the World Series. That's our focus right now."

Barry Bonds cringed when he heard what Estes said. "I'm not even thinking about the World Series," he said. "Every time I think about it, I go home early."

The Giants' Armando Rios beat the Astros with an emotional home run in the ninth inning Wednesday, two days after returning from his grandmother's funeral in Puerto Rico. She was killed in a bus accident.

"She always helped people," a tearful Rios said. "We were very close. She was a huge fan of the game."

Two offseasons ago, outfielder Adam Hyzdu was selling mobile homes in Arizona. An older man found out that he was a baseball player and a conversation was struck up. "He told me I could never make it to the big leagues because I wasn't aggressive enough," Hyzdu, 28 and a veteran of 1,208 minor-league games, said after the Pirates recalled him from Double-A Altoona last week.

Responding to complaints from infielders about the bumpy dirt at Turner Field, the Braves grounds crew has begun to drag the infield twice during games. The players say that's helped a lot.

By the numbers

The Indians went 0-5 in coin flips for possible tiebreaker sites. So in case of a sudden death playoff they would have to travel to Toronto, Boston, Oakland, Anaheim or Seattle.

The Giants have nine players with at least 10 home runs. And third baseman Russ Davis, with eight, could join that list before the end of the season.

When he was with the White Sox, John Snyder won 13 of his first 15 big-league decisions. Now with the Brewers, he's gone 14 straight starts without a victory.

Remember the Runnin' Redbirds? The Cardinals have just 84 stolen bases this year and are likely to finish with fewer than 100 for the first non-strike year since 1978.

Atlanta's Kevin Millwood has allowed five or more earned runs 10 times this year. While winning 18 games in 1999, he did that only twice.

Roger Clemens is 9-0, 2.21 ERA since coming off the disabled list on July 2 and right on schedule to start Game One of the Division Series opener.

The Astros averaged 32,277 per game while winning their third straight division championship last season. They've averaged 37,700 at brand-new Enron Field this year despite falling out of contention early.

21st-century ball

Here's a scene from a thoroughly modern pennant race: Mariners manager Lou Piniella was in his office at Seattle's Safeco Field before Wednesday night's game. Seattle's closest pursuer, Oakland, was trying to put together a ninth-inning rally to overtake the visiting Twins.

The Athletics were down, 7-4, entering the ninth, but had scored twice and had runners on first and second with two outs. Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus called Piniella's phone to have him listen to the final at-bat. The radio booth had the A's radio network piped in.

Then Seattle general manager Pat Gillick called Piniella on another line.

He was charting the game's progress through Internet updates. Coach Larry Bowa also stopped by periodically to give his updates. Bowa was following the game on his paging device.

So there was a simultaneous sigh of relief throughout the office and hallways when the Twins closed out the win with a strikeout.

It sure makes old-fashioned scoreboard-watching seem quaint, though, doesn't it?

Quote-unquote

Angels right-hander Tim Belcher, on the difference between the leagues: "Since coming to the American League, I've learned not to get upset about giving up even four runs early. So many games can resemble beer-league softball, where guys are just hammering out runs. So it doesn't make sense to get upset."

Indians manager Charlie Manuel, on prospect Russell Branyan: "He's got a Mickey Mantle swing and a Mickey Mantle strut."

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