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Savran: For Penguins, Selig, it's a matter of size

Sunday, January 21, 2001

Apparently, size does matter. This week, there were two separate approaches to sports surgery. One was cosmetic, attempted by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. The other, a Frankenstein-like reconstruction by Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick. In both instances, size was the motivating factor. Both could wind up being cases where the operation was a success, but the patient died.

What Patrick did this week wasn't a trim-'n'-tuck. It was a full- scale transplantation -- grafting well-muscled arms and ripped torsos onto the Penguins' lithe but decidedly 98-pound weakling body. Was it necessary? Certainly, but to what degree?

Patrick knew, even before Mario's return, that he needed to make this team bigger and tougher. It's just that the players he was seeking, or the players being sought in return, didn't mesh until this week. It seemed rather curious that mere hours after Lemieux was roughed up by Boston's Hal Gill and cuffed around by the Islanders' Zdeno Chara -- both of whom are about the size of your average NBA power forward -- the doorbell rang and there on the doorstep stood Steve McKenna, Krzysztof Oliwa and Kevin Stevens, 20 feet and 750 pounds of brute force. And if that wasn't enough, Billy Tibbetts is called up just in case there's a free-for-brawl during the game or a riot after it. Timing is everything, but a couple of Mario maulings and all of a sudden a fourth line of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis shows up in the Penguins' locker room.

Given the hockey mentality, such additions are often necessary. But how much is enough?

Maybe that's not entirely fair because Oliwa can actually play the game, and everyone hopes Stevens still can. Tibbetts has shown that his skills extend beyond his knuckles. And that's what you're looking for - third- and fourth-line guys who can grind during their shift and grind an opponent.

When you get to the playoffs and fighting is limited, your tough guys need to be more than tough. They better be hockey players. Gritty, feisty, and hard working, not just assassins.

All the members of the Bob Errey-Phil Bourque-Troy Loney line could handle themselves, but that's not why they were there. A further reminder of the value of fourth-liners on the Stanley Cup teams: Randy Gilhen and Jiri Hrdina were invaluable without ever throwing a punch.

Plus, if you're bigger and tougher, you're likely to take more penalties. Given the Penguins' penalty killing of late, that represents a whole new problem. The first step toward good penalty killing is not to take as many.

While Patrick did in one weekend what it takes body builders months to achieve, Selig is attempting to penalize the wrong kind of size. This week, he proposed a draft designed to level baseball's lumpy competitive playing field.

The eight teams with the best records over the past three seasons would expose players to the eight teams with the worst records (the Pirates would be included) over the same period of time. The top eight would be allowed to protect 25, each team selecting/losing just one player.

If such a draft were held today, the eight haves would be the Yankees, Mets, Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco, Boston, Houston and Cincinnati.

Anyone see what's wrong with that? Cincinnati and Cleveland are small-market teams that have managed to win through their own devices, not because they receive flood-level revenue streams. The Giants and Astros are in top 10 markets, but aren't blessed with the kind of TV money thrown at the Braves and the New York teams. Selig's proposal would penalize clubs for their baseball expertise, for fielding winning teams despite being at a financial, thus competitive, disadvantage.

The biggest problem, though, is it doesn't address the real problem: the financial imbalance that creates the competitive imbalance. It penalizes the top teams, not just the big teams, and those two aren't always the same thing. The idea isn't to spread the talent around, it's to spread the wealth around that buys the talent.

Which is why meaningful revenue sharing is the answer.

Size of revenue, not size of winning percentage, is the central issue. Selig is trying, but he's just dipping his toe into the pool to test the water. Baseball has to dive in. Headfirst. If they don't, and soon, they'll find an empty pool.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show weeknights at 8 on WBGG-AM (970).

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