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03/16/2008 Archived Entry: "WORLD BASEBALL TODAY: Vol. 2, No. 11"

by Bruce Baskin, Raido Miami International


People who think of spring training as a time when players casually prepare for the season by playing a few innings of exhibition games before heading to the golf links in Florida and Arizona have obviously never seen a Tampa Bay Rays-New York Yankees preseason game. The two teams tangled up in a pair of incidents over the past week that indicated things aren’t always so laid back in training camp.
The first incident occurred March 8 when Rays player Elliot Johnson slammed hard into Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli at home plate, putting Cervelli out of commission for eight to ten weeks with a broken wrist. After that game, New York manager Joe Girardi called the aggressive play unnecessary.
The second incident began last Wednesday when Yankees baserunner Shelley Duncan came barreling into Tampa Bay second baseman Akinori Iwamura spikes high on a play, spiking Iwamura in the right thigh while the Japanese import was waiting for a throw from third baseman Evan Longoria. That brought 225-pound Rays right fielder Jonny Gomes streaking to the scene, knocking Duncan back several feet. The New York first baseman had been one of the most vocal Yankees following the Johnson-Cervelli collision four days earlier. At that point, both benches emptied and the dance was on. Both Gomes and Duncan were ejected, as were Yankee coaches Bobby Meacham and Kevin Long. New York pitcher Heath Phillips was tossed in the first inning after buzzing Longoria with a pitch after allowing two runs and three hits.
While the Yankees are expected to finish ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings once again this season, the Rays are showing they won’t go quietly. Wait until these games start counting in the standings.

Although spring training isn’t usually a time for brawling, it IS a time for renewed hope among veterans and youngsters alike. For Florida Marlins pitcher Jeff Allison, it may also represent a last chance to cash in on his considerable potential.
Allison was taken with the 16th pick of the 2003 draft by the Marlins after being selected as Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year as a senior at Veterans Memorial High School in Peabody, Massachusetts. After signing with Florida in July of that year, the 6-2 righty started three games for the Marlins’ Gulf Coast League team, losing twice but allowing just one run while striking out 11 batters in nine innings. However, it’s all gone downhill from there.
Allison has since battled drug addiction and legal problems, and has collected less than half of his $1.85 million signing bonus. He is on three years’ probation after pleading guilty to four felonies and four misdemeanors in Greensboro, North Carolina, including possession of a stolen vehicle, possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia and resisting arrest. Since his rookie season, he has only pitched 18 games for Greensboro in the Sally League in 2005, going 5-4 with a 4.18 ERA.
Now, at the age of 23, Allison realizes time is running out. “This is it,” he says, “It’s time to grow up, and that’s how they put it: 'If you want to play baseball, then do your thing.'” Allison added that he’s been sober 15 months and “it’s a great feeling.”

Pitching was one of the things that hampered the Atlanta Braves last season, but Braves manager Bobby Cox is optimistic that things will be better in 2008. Cox says this year’s staff is better, and that Atlanta has more depth on the mound than a year ago.
So far this year, there have been no major injuries to Braves pitchers, which in itself is an improvement over 2007, and both Cox and general manager Frank Wren are high on young right-handed pitchers Jair Jurrjens and Jeff Bennett. The result is that Atlanta management believes that they’ll have a strong rotation even though Mike Hampton has battled injuries the past two seasons, Tim Hudson was hurt for most of 2007, and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are both a year older in 2008.

The final three teams to play in this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing have been determined after the Final Olympic Qualifying Tournament was held last week in Taiwan. South Korea, Taiwan and Canada all punched their own tickets to the Games by copping the top three slots in the eight-nation round-robin competition.
South Korea was the first to clinch a berth by putting together a five-game winning streak at the outset of the Qualifier, assuring their spot in Beijing with a 12-1 pounding of Germany last Wednesday. Taiwan and Canada had to wait one more day to secure their berths. Taiwan handed South Africa their fourth shutout in six games with a 4-0 win Thursday, while Canada upset the South Koreans 4-3 behind a two-run homer by Matt Rogelstad and a solo blast from Nick Weglarz.
South Korea finished 6-1 in the tourney, Canada and Taiwan were both 5-2, Mexico and Australia tied at 4-3, Germany was 2-5, Spain ended at 1-6 and South Africa was winless in seven games. Mexico beat Spain 2-1 Friday as Walter Silva and three relievers combined on a three-hitter while Luis Alfonso Garcia had three hits to lead the Mexicans’ fourth straight win after losing their first three contests.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres are meeting this weekend in a pair of preseason games at 12,000-seat Wukesong Stadium in Beijing. The two-game series is being billed as the Major League Baseball China Series 2008. The event is being hosted by the China Baseball Association, and marks the first time two major league teams have played in that nation.
While China is not a strong baseball nation at this time (as evidenced by their winless showing in the 2006 World Baseball Classic), Major League Baseball is intrigued by the sheer numbers of people in China as a potential market for the sport. MLB helps oversee the China Baseball Association, and is largely responsible for the installation of former big leaguer Jim Lefebvre as manager of the Chinese National Team.

The Chicago Cubs have unconditionally released pitcher Shingo Takatsu after the 39-year-old reliever was roughed up in exhibition games this spring in Arizona. Takatsu pitched in five games for the Cubs, allowing five runs in 4.2 innings for a 9.64 ERA. He joined Chicago as a non-roster invitee in a bid to return to the major leagues this year after being released by Japan’s Yakult Swallows following the 2007 season.
Takatsu saved a Japan record 286 games in two stints with the Swallows over 15 seasons, starting in 1991. He also saved 19 games for the White Sox in 2004.

Pinar del Rio pitcher Pedro Lazo has tied Jorge Valdes on Cuba’s all-time wins list following a 15-3 pounding of Industriales last week in Havana in a National Series match. Lazo was spotted eight runs in the first innings by his teammates and cruised through seven strong innings to post his 234th career victory. Lazo allowed just four hits over five innings of shutout ball before allowing three Industriales runs in the sixth. The Vegueros had a 15-0 lead at that point, so there wasn’t much to worry about as he went on to allow three runs on nine hits over seven frames for his eighth win of the season.
With the win, Pinar del Rio maintained their 1.5-game lead over Isla de la Juventud in the National Series Group A standings. La Habana leads Industriales in Group B by seven games, Villa Clara is up six games on Ciego de Avila in Group C, and Santiago de Cuba has an insurmountable 15 game bulge over Guantanamo in Group D competition with about ten dates left on the regular season schedule.

While Mexico’s national team fell short of their goal of reaching the Summer Olympics, their four-game winning streak to conclude the Qualifying Tournament provides a high note as the Mexican League season opens this week. All 16 teams will be squaring off in openers on Wednesday in the first of two-game home-and-away series to kick off the 2008 campaign.
The Mexican League is divided into two eight-team divisions, and plays a 110-game regular season split into two halves. Playoffs occur throughout the month of August, with seeding determined by a points system based on where each team finishes in the standings each half.
The Monterrey Sultanes head into the season as defending champions after beating Yucatan in seven games last August for their ninth Mexican League pennant. The Sultanes beat the Leones 2-1, in the seventh and deciding game last year in front of 27,000 fans in Monterrey as Karim Garcia’s third inning homer was the difference.

Although their national team has reached a pinnacle by qualifying for the Olympic Games in August, two years after reaching the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, many South Korean players are likely to be “rewarded” for their strong showing by taking pay cuts in the Korean Baseball Organization this season.
After news came out that the new Woori Tobacco Heroes will be drastically reducing salaries this year, the Sports Chosun newspaper did some research into changes in KBO player salaries from 2007 to 2008. The Heroes name was finally announced by the Centennial Investments group that will take over for Hyundai in the KBO this season, although Korean media still refers to the team simply as Centennial.
In 2007, Samsung had the highest payroll in the KBO at 6.2 billion won, but will slice that figure to 5.8 billion in 2008. The defending champion SK Wyverns were second with 4 billion won in salary last year, plus 800 million won in bonuses. While the Wyverns, Kia and Doosan will all slightly increase salaries in 2008, Hanhwa and Lotte will join Samsung and Centennial in cutting payroll. The LG team will pay roughly the same as last year.
Hyundai paid their players 4.2 billion won in 2007, but Centennial is expected to cut that figure to less than three billion won for 2008. Among the 61 players the Heroes have under contract, 18 have already agreed to accept pay cuts. As a point of reference, one US dollar is equal to approximately 1,000 Korean won.

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