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Baseball Notebook: Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale ...

Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Montreal Expos play at PNC Park June 16-18. They'll be leaving Montreal tonight. That's right. No mistake. Tonight.

Now, The Guy In The Stands realizes times are tough all over in the airline and travel industries. But even he knows it doesn't take 22 days to get from Montreal to Pittsburgh, Tom Ridge's Orange Alert and construction around the Fort Pitt Tunnel and the West End Circle notwithstanding. He's not even sure it took 22 days when the French used to slink down to liquor up the Indians before the commonwealth monopolized the industry back in the days before free agency and Cyril Wecht.

It takes 22 days, though, when Major League Baseball sends you to Pittsburgh by way of Miami ... Philadelphia ... San Juan ... Seattle ... and Oakland.

And so begins one of the great odysseys of this major-league season. Greater even than David Wells trying to find his way back to the team hotel in Boston after turning 40 Tuesday night. Twenty-two games, 25 days.

Any guesses on the over/under for bags lost? Or times Vladimir Guerrero will change batteries in his Gameboy in the eight hours it takes to fly from San Juan to Seattle? Or what they'll think when they see Skipper and Gilligan strap themselves into the cockpit? And for heaven's sake, will anyone even remember Ruben Studdard by the time the Expos play another game in Stade Olympique?

"It's comical," says Ian MacDonald of the Montreal Gazette. And he isn't even making the 11,131-mile odyssey that comprises 14 percent of their season.

"Most of these guys don't even have that many clothes."

"I'll just dress a little dirtier," cracked pitcher Joey Eischen when the schedule was announced.

You'd think the schedule makers might at least have put the Philadelphia stop first. Make it Philly to Miami to San Juan. "Guess that's too easy," said a club front-office official who asked not to be identified. Most likely out of fear the commissioner's office might find them guilty of logic.

Then again, because the Expos are wards of the commissioner's office, the schedule makers are also the club owners, which leads to one stunning conclusion: The bosses have finally found a way to do the anatomically impossible to themselves.

Technically, of course, this is not a 22-game road trip. Games against the Angels and Rangers June 3-8 at San Juan's Bithorn Stadium are "home" games, part of a 22-game package the league negotiated with promoters in Puerto Rico. And players get to take their families along. And they get to stay in a nice "homey" hotel, complete with casino and indoor waterfall. What player doesn't have a craps table and an indoor waterfall in the foyer?

But it's still not home. A home. Any home.

"When anyone looked at the schedule, the thinking was they'd be dead by [the time this trip came up]," MacDonald said.

Instead, the Expos are 31-18, two games behind the front-running Atlanta Braves in the National League East and own the second-best record in the National League. And instead of being the freakish joke it seemed in December, the trip could actually have a bearing on the playoff races.

"Now, you just wonder if this will knock them out," said MacDonald.

Maybe Kevin Young would care to comment.

"We do have some challenges, no doubt," said Expos GM Omar Minaya before the season. "Last year, the challenge was contraction. This year, it's Puerto Rico and the road trips."

Challenges? The only difference between these Expos and the cinematic "Major League" Cleveland Indians is that the Expos' owners haven't turned off the hot water in the showers yet and fans in Montreal haven't rallied around their underdog heroes. (They drew 16,966 total for a three-game series vs. the Marlins this week.). Minaya can't even guarantee that the club won't trade off Guerrero (a free agent after the season) or Javier Vazquez (likely due big money in arbitration) at the trade deadline.

"The players sort of laugh about [the trip]," MacDonald says. "They're not looking at it with as much doom as you might think."

Then again, the Professor and Mary Ann thought it was only going to be a three-hour cruise, too.

Brotherly love (to boo)

On the subject of time and place, the schedule makers and Athletics Manager Ken Macha didn't conspire against Terry Francona. Really, they didn't. Macha's daughter graduates from Franklin Regional High School June 6. That will leave the A's in the hands of Francona, Macha's bench coach. So? So the A's just happen to be at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia that weekend, where Francona managed the Phillies to a less-than-distinguished 285-363 record as manager from 1997-2000. Phillies fans likely haven't forgotten. "Whoever starts that day is going nine innings," Francona has already told his pitchers. "I'm not going out there to make any changes."

Rocket ready

Was there really any doubt that New York's Roger Clemens would make his start tomorrow against Boston? He never had any, not even after taking a line drive off the back of his pitching hand Wednesday in Boston. And the reason he'll start tomorrow is the same reason he'll become only the game's 21st 300-game winner and first since 1990. Tomorrow. Next week. Soon.

It manifested itself when he came off the mound at the end of the inning in which he was hit. "They are going to have to hit me in the head to get me out," he screamed in the dugout.

It is why at age 40 he is 6-2 with a 2.92 ERA and more strikeouts (67) than innings pitched (64 2/3). It is also why he just might be the last 300-game winner we see.

From Fenway, with venom

The Red Sox might have lost two of the three games to the Yankees this week at Fenway Park, but they got their licks in. And not just off Roger Clemens' knuckles. In a perfect bit of juxtaposition while playing a team club president Larry Lucchino referred to as the Evil Empire this off-season, the Red Sox had conductor John Williams -- composer of the "Star Wars" music -- throw out the first pitch before Wednesday's series finale. This gave the club an excuse to play the menacing "Imperial March" just as Clemens was making his way in from the bullpen. Coincidence? Yeah, right.

Bathroom humor

In baseball parlance, a home run is often called a jack. In San Diego May 16, the Padres found calling it a john a bit more accurate. In the third inning, Padres third baseman Sean Burroughs sliced a drive down the left-field line that got past a diving Atlanta left fielder Chipper Jones. And then the fun began.

TV replays showed the ball went through an open gate that leads to a bathroom near the San Diego bullpen. It then hit a trash can and caromed back out of the bullpen and onto the playing field. But it happened so quick in real time that umpires could not get into position quick enough to see what happened, let alone invoke ground rules.

End result: An inside-the-park homer for Burroughs. "Give their bullpen credit," said Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox. "They were smart enough to close the door real quick after the play."

This 'n' that

ESPN's idea to spotlight voices of baseball past this season with its "Living Legends" series on its Wednesday night games is, to borrow a term from the heydays of many of the honorees, boffo! ... Chilling comment of the week: From Curt Gowdy, 83, the first ESPN legend, when asked by the New York Times' Richard Sandomir about friend Ted Williams: "I still find it hard to believe he's hanging upside down in a frozen locker." ... In Cincinnati, the slugging tandem of Adam Dunn (17 HRs, 36 RBIs) and Austin Kearns (13 HRs, 44 RBIs) has been dubbed The Baby Boomers. ... Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly extended his scoreless innings streak to 24 1/3 before giving up an RBI double to Baltimore's Jay Gibbons Thursday. ...

Go figure. The Braves are an NL-best 33-16 and Greg Maddux is 3-5. ... That the Padres had to bring up Charles Nagy and his cartilage-less right elbow last week should say all that needs said about a two-year run of injuries and bad luck to the Padres' pitching staff (major-league-worst 5.78 ERA). It ultimately cost pitching coach Greg Booker his job. Said Booker: "You can prepare a donkey to run in the Preakness, but he probably won't run very well." ... Thursday marks the one-year anniversary since the Braves last lost a game in which John Smoltz appeared. ...

Despite the fact that he has 4,254 fewer hits than Dad, Pete Rose Jr. continues to show he's really not a whole lot different than Pop when it comes to viewing reality. Upon joining the Joliet (Ill.) JackHammers of the Northern League this month -- his 19th minor-league town, his third already this year -- Junior told David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune: "I don't think I've ever been released for a baseball reason." Wanna bet?... The Guy gushed when Red Sox GM Theo Epstein used the word alchemize a few weeks ago. But he's even more impressed with Tigers first baseman Carlos Pena, who, after making the final out on a night in which he also knocked three homers against the Indians, explained it thusly to John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press: "It's a baseball paradox." ... And finally, did you realize it's only nine days until the Tigers (12-35) visit the Padres (13-35) to open interleague play? Get your tickets early.

Shot and a jeer

Shot: The Mariners are riding high in the AL West, but that didn't stop a Seattle-area golf course from having its fun at the expense of third baseman Jeff Cirillo this week. It charged golfers just $2.39 to play a round Tuesday in "honor" of Cirillo's .239 average.

Jeer: The abuse former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette has taken for saying Roger Clemens was in the "twilight" of his career in 1996 and sending him on his way has become legendary in New England. But the fact of the matter is, if it weren't for Duquette putting a chip on Rocket's shoulder 107 wins ago -- "If I had listened to one guy, I'd be done. I'd be a fringe Hall of Famer, maybe," Clemens said this week -- he might not be going for No. 300 tomorrow.

Steve Ziants can be reached at sziants@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1474.

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