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BASEBALL'S ON-FIELD EXPLOITS FINALLY TAKE OVER

At last, it's baseball to the rescue!

Not baseball on steroids; not Mark McGwire and Bud Selig making fools of themselves before a congressional committee; not Barry Bonds blaming the media for his soup getting cold; not Kimberly Bell, Bonds' ex-mistress, dumping his dirty laundry right back on his lap.

No, baseball in its traditional form. It's here to knit up the sport's raveled sleeve of care and make us forget that hockey should be gearing up for the Stanley Cup playoffs instead of laying the groundwork for another winter of empty arenas.

By all means, take me out to the ballgame.

One happy byproduct of a light being shined on the steroid scandal and its product, phony home runs, is that all those cable TV highlight shows may put something other than homers on the screen. The warmed-over home run is almost always one of the most boring sights on television. Any triple is far more exciting, and a triple with men on base triples the pleasure.

Which is more entertaining: Some idiot regurgitating home run cliches as if they were coming out of an assault rifle -- "back-to-back taters," "it's a Big Fly," "dinger" and "he went yard!" -- or watching Derek Jeter being Derek Jeter at shortstop?

For that matter, Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies, Orlando Cabrera of the Angels, Edgar Renteria of the Red Sox, Carlos Guillen of the Tigers and a platoon of other shortstops could provide a nightly highlight show. There aren't nearly as many superb third basemen, but catching a glimpse of Eric Chavez of Oakland or Bill Mueller of Boston protecting the foul line and then gunning down the base runner is a treat.

It's also fun to see young outfielders who can do everything. Tampa Bay is on its way up the ladder to mediocre, but Carl Crawford is the truth. So is Juan Pierre of the Marlins. Coco Crisp, the ex-Bison playing outfield for Cleveland, isn't in their class, but he's worth watching.

Speaking of those who can do everything well, Bonds, 40, is no longer the best all-around player in baseball. If new Met Carlos Beltran can handle playing in the New York spotlight he's a candidate for that. My pick is Andruw Jones. It seems he's been around for an eon. He already has 250 homers, but he's just 27 and has a new batting stance, changing his former close-legged one for a much wider approach. It seems to be working since he hit 10 homers this spring.

The team to watch? The consensus seems to be either the Yankees or Red Sox again, maybe both. But the other three teams in the AL East, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay, are improved. Putting up those amazing won-lost records may not be so simple for New York and Boston.

Once baseball reaches the inevitable doldrums of deep summer, the subject is likely to return to the bulky boys -- McGwire, Bonds and Sammy Sosa -- and their chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Here's my handicapping, even though I don't have a vote:

Bonds -- Sure he's churlish, a preening peacock, an all-around jerk, but he already crafted his Cooperstown credentials before steroids became an issue. I say he makes it on the first ballot.

McGwire -- Before the sudden outburst of homers, especially the 70 that broke Roger Maris' record, he was considered a slugger with limited skills in the other important phases. The steroid scandal shot him down. Maris didn't make it, and he wasn't scandal scarred. The feeling here is McGwire has no chance.

Sosa -- He told Congress he didn't take steroids, or lawyer-crafted words to that effect. So how do you explain his sudden, explosive growth from a 165-pounder to a 220-pound behemoth. He has a 165-pound chance, not heavy enough.
Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.