Players cite conspiracy to cut free-agent pay

Players cite conspiracy to cut free-agent pay

Players cite conspiracy to cut free-agent pay

Major-league clubs are involved in a “conspiracy” to hold down the salaries of free agents, according to the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Mark Belanger, the union’s special assistant, charged in a telephone interview yesterday that “clubs working in concert with each other” is a main reason that 36 of 56 players who filed for free agency in November remain unsigned. “We’re very concerned about this whole issue and we want it fixed,” Belanger said. “We’re alarmed that there are so many free agents who aren’t being signed.” Belanger said the players’ association has “proof” that club executives have banded together during the off-season in an effort not to sign aging or average free agents, thereby keeping payrolls down. “The clubs are calling each other about offers to free agents,” he said. “We have some proof of that. One club will phone another club and say: ‘We’re only offering Johnny So-and-So $300,000 a year.’

And the other club will say: ‘Okay, then we won’t offer more than that.’ We don’t believe it’s proper for clubs to exchange information like that. The players are suffering a great deal because of that.” A clause in the collective-bargaining agreement that expired on Dec. 31 stipulated that clubs are forbidden from “working in concert” with each other in contract matters, but Cleveland Indian president Peter Bavasi denied the existence of a conspiracy involving free-agent signings. “I can understand why the players’ association would think there’s a conspiracy,” Bavasi said. “There are 26 teams and only a few are making money. That means most of us are looking for ways to save money. You do that by increasing revenues or cutting costs. That’s not a conspiracy. It’s just that the same solutions are available to all clubs.” While high-profile free agents were snapped up at exorbitant prices – Rick Sutcliffe, Fred Lynn and Bruce Sutter are examples – most of the free agents are in limbo, and some have filed complaints with the union.

Seven players chosen by more than four clubs in November currently remain unsigned: outfielders Ruppert Jones and Sixto Lezcano, infielder Rob Wilfong, catcher Steve Nicosia, designated hitter Oscar Gamble and pitchers Bob Castillo and Tim Stoddard. The seven have the option of entering a supplemental re-entry draft later this month to determine whether any other clubs are interested in their services.

Nicosia, whom the Toronto Blue Jays chose originally, plans to enter the draft. The only other one of the seven chosen by Toronto was Stoddard, but look for him to sign with another club – probably the Chicago Cubs – this week.

The other free agents still available are pitchers Jerry Augustine, Jack Curtis, Rollie Fingers, Rich Gale, Mike LaCoss, Randy Lerch, Rudy May, Tug McGraw, Bob Owchinko, Rick Reuschel and Craig Swan; infielders Bill Almon, Dan Meyer, Tony Perez, Mark Wagner, Pat Putnam, Chris Speier and Champ Summers; outfielders Ben Ayala, Al Bumbry, Steve Henderson, Gene Richards, Derrell Thomas and Jim Wohlford; designated hitters Greg Luzinski and Ken Singleton; and catchers Gary Allenson, Milt May and John Stearns.

Belanger said the association is working to ensure that calls among clubs concerning free agents will be explicitly outlawed under the new major-league collective- bargaining contract.

Belanger also said the association is attempting to eliminate compensation for clubs who have lost free agents to other clubs. “We’re trying to remove as many of the restrictions as possible,” he said. “We have to make the changes now. We can’t afford to have our players suffering instead of prospering on the free-agent market.”

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First season of Keohohou in the Women’s Softball League

After talking with Wilson for the first time on the phone, Keohohou solicited a trade from the Racers, where she’d won a championship in 2005.

“It was the right timing for me to be able to do that. When I first talked to Paul before it was official I was coming to the Glory, within the first five minutes of talking to him I was sold,” she said. “He’s very easy to trust. I like what he’s about and I want to be a part of it.”

So much so that Keohohou plans to move from Newbury Park, CA to become an instructor at the Glory’s indoor softball facility.

“I just told Paul, ‘I’m here for you. You tell me what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’m just going to wait until the end of the season and he’s going to be my boss and I’m excited about that because he’s a great boss to have.”

Wilson isn’t a typical team owner either. Sure he has a financial investment that’s linked directly to the team’s success but, in many ways, this endeavor is more personal than professional.

He first considered the idea of buying a franchise — the minimum start-up commitment is $300,000 — because his daughter, Gabriella, plays travel softball. That sounds good when she used best softball bats like Louisville Slugger Fastpitch Xeno Yet, over the past seven months, he’s essentially adopted a whole new family.

Each one of the players and both coaches — Dever-Boaz and assistant Erin Goettlicher — were handpicked following hours of extensive research and interviews — all with the idea that forming a relationship with the community meant as much as winning on the field.

“They are investing in what you are building and you are investing in who they are,” Wilson said.

It is a commitment the players accept without pause because the true rewards have nothing to be with cashing a paycheck.

Because of the league’s $100,000 salary cap, the average player makes between $2,500 and $5,000 for a 44-game season and virtually every one has an off-season job. Virginia graduate Sara Larquier, for example, coaches softball at St. Anne’s-Belfield in Charlottesville while outfielder Christa Dalakis, a George Mason grad, owns a fitness center.

Wilson hopes that will change one day.

“Every one of our players has to make sacrifices in their own careers,,” he said. “If the league was in a position where we could pay the ladies enough that they could forget about having a job right away then it might be different.

“I won’t be happy until the ladies don’t have to worry about whether their jobs will allow them to do this again next year.”

BUILDING A SOFTBALL WINNER

On a warm, cloudless evening in early July, Wilson’s focus isn’t on the future. Standing just a few feet from where Larquier is taking a practice swing in the batter’s box, the Glory’s charismatic owner stares pensively at the scoreboard.

It’s the bottom of the seventh inning and his team is trailing — a rare occurrence this season. The deficit gnaws at Wilson. He is not fond of losing. But he has unyielding faith in his players and firmly believes that a comeback is just a couple of swings away.

Perhaps the fans feel it, too.

A handmade sign reading Hoo Ray for Larquier pops up behind the right field fence and the familiar chorus of Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” — Larquier’s signature song — slowly fades away.

In front of the grandstand, which has suddenly come to life, 4-year-old Ellie Spencer doesn’t seem all that concerned. She looks up into the face of the furry, floppy-eared golden retriever leading the fans in a rally cheer and reaches out to give her a hug.

Gloria the K9, the team’s adorable mascot, winks in return and extends a large fluffy paw. Ellie smiles and tries to shove a pair of Thunderstix up Gloria’s nose.

She giggles playfully.

Then a roar of excitement drowns out the laughter.

Larquier has just sent a pitch from Michigan’s Ashley Hamby over the cardboard sign that bears her name for a leadoff home run. The game is tied.

Wilson pumps a fist in the air. The rally has begun. Moore reaches base after getting hit by a pitch, Nichole Thompson singles to center field and, with two outs, Catalina Morris gives the Glory a 3-2 victory with a line drive base hit down the right field line.

“This is a blast,” Wilson exclaims.

Heading into the final homestand of the regular season, Wilson still marvels at how everything fell into place so quickly.

Neil Foster had again broken through with three early wickets

India cricket team fights back

Neil Foster had again broken through with three early wickets

Neil Foster had again broken through with three early wickets

India batsmen fought back in the second innings yesterday after England pace bowler Neil Foster had again broken through with three early wickets on the fourth day of the fourth cricket Test.

India was 246 for four at the close, still needing 134 to avoid an innings defeat thanks to an unbeaten century by Mohammed Azharuddin and 95 by Mohinder Amarnath.

England captain David Gower declared his side’s first innings at 652 for seven, 25 minutes after play was resumed at an overnight 611 for five.

Foster, playing his first Test of the series, put England firmly on the road to victory with a repeat of his first innings performance when he dismissed the first three Indian batsmen for seven runs.

In only the third over, he bowled a good-length ball that flew off the pitch, surprising skipper Sunil Gavaskar who edged a catch to Mike Gatting at Slip. Gavaskar was out for three after making 17 in the first innings.

His next two victims, Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Dilip Vengsarkar, fell to rash strokes.

At the fall of Srikkanth’s wicket, India was in trouble at 22 for three. But Amarnath and Azharuddin showed that aggressive strokeplay, combined with careful defence, could hold the key to India’s survival.

The 190-run partnership ended midway through the last session when Armanath, five short of a century, tried another hook, this time to Cowans off Foster. Cowans made no mistake, even with the sun in his eyes, giving Foster his fourth scalp.

England’s 652 for seven declared in its first innings was a record for a test match in India and the highest by England against the Indians, beating the 633 for Edgbaston, England, in 1979.

Aussies claim rival's language just wasn't cricket

Aussies claim rival’s language just wasn’t cricket

Aussies claim rival's language just wasn't cricket

Aussies claim rival’s language just wasn’t cricket

West Indies cricketer Viv Richards was accused yesterday of using foul language during what degenerated into an acrimonious Test series against Australia.

The charge was levelled by three Australian players following an onfield verbal slanging match in the fifth and final Test, won by Australia.

The committee said Richards, after repeated foul language, also suggested a fist fight to settle differences.

The incident marked another low point in player relations during the series, in which the West Indies won the first three Tests and drew the fourth. When the series began in Perth on Nov. 9, both sides agreed there should be no sledging – cricket’s term for verbal abuse aimed at distracting opponents.

As the Tests progressed, frustrations set in and the gentlemen’s agreement began to slip. Richards became involved in a heated argument with Australian keeper Steve Rixon and skipper Allan Border.

Umpires Mel Johnson and Ray Isherwood, whose stop-arguing orders were ignored for several minutes, reported Border and Rixon for conduct detrimental to the game.

They were accused under the Australian players’ code of behavior, which does not cover the West Indians because it does not apply to touring teams.

The umpires’ report was considered yesterday by the Australian players’ committee of Kepler Wessels, Graeme Wood and Andrew Hilditch.

That players’ committee, after consideration of facts at its disposal, dismissed the complaint against Rixon and Border, leaving the umpires 24 hours to consider whether to appeal to an Australian CricketBoard arbitrator.

THE MERMAID INN An innocent in Edmonton

THE MERMAID INN An innocent in Edmonton

THE MERMAID INN An innocent in Edmonton

THE MERMAID INN An innocent in Edmonton

A few surprises quickly become apparent when one moves from southern Vancouver Island to Edmonton.

One is the absence of fall. I hit town in mid-October – just in time, I thought, for Indian summer. “Bring your bicycle,” said my Edmonton contact. “It can be quite lovely right up to Christmas.” I cherished visions of golden larches like a flame upon the hills, of crickets chirping lazily along the river valley. “It’s an aberration,” she shrugged on Oct. 16, when a Siberian front dumped a thick blanket of snow on Jasper Avenue. Within days it dropped to minus 25, a temperature that wouldn’t even compute on my rain-forest software.

Walking to work across the High Level Bridge, I leaned into icy blasts descending the North Saskatchewan River, my ears encased in muffs that looked like grizzly-bear heads, complete with glass eyes and red felt tongues – a farewell gift from practical, if not fashion-conscious, friends in Victoria. My embarrassment was eased when someone passed me wearing what I took to be a tea cosy.

As the mercury dipped into the bottom of its bulb, faces began disappearing into getups that made it look as if the entire population of the city had been struck with a sudden whim to go rob a bank. Fashion finds its lowest common denominator when the streets are littered with brass monkeys in states of grave disrepair. Soon I began to feel positively trendy.

Eventually, my Edmonton friend stopped mentioning bicycles and began extolling the virtues of block heaters, those odd umbilical cords that prairie cars are born with. “It’s not so bad now,” she cautioned, “but wait until winter comes.” That was just before it went to minus 36. I couldn’t imagine what the numbers meant. The weatherman connected them to some great big numbers he called a wind chill factor, and said they meant exposed flesh freezes in two minutes.

In the evening I went home and nostalgically fondled Belinda, my umbrella.

Eventually, of course, Edmonton will be free of weather. It’s only a matter of time until the Mall swallows up the city. The Mall is West Edmonton Mall, so big you could walk all afternoon and never notice the NHL-sized rink where Wayne and Jari are said to go with their buddies to practice their slapshots. It has a mini-Disneyland you can tour on a train, and giant palm trees, piranhas, monkeys and flamingos.

The downtown Edmonton Centre mall, determined to outshine its competitor, installed a big blue brahma bull recently, but the blue brahma bull sullied its reputation and much else besides the day I saw it; as it was being led along the carpeted hallways among the stores, it paused to refresh itself with the aplomb that only bulls can master in public places.

The West Edmonton Mall is also known for having an indoor lake with water skiers and a submarine. There are even stores – some 470-odd at last count. It is the Ultimate Mall, the Michael Jackson of malldom, so famous that airlines have “Mall Specials” to bring in tourists from mallophile cities like Nanaimo, a mere 1,000 miles away. A brochure distributed by the Mall to households throughout Vancouver Island praises it breathlessly as “The Eighth Wonder,” where “tropical jungles surround statues and sculptures in a setting of glass, brass and marble.” Such descriptive hyperbole can’t fail to appeal to Nanaimigonians, who have surrounded themselves with malls that have killed the downtown core. When I asked a Nanaimo woman what she liked to do on weekends, her eyes went all glassy and she said, “Why, I go out to my favorite anchor store and consume.” Nothing in Nanaimo or Vancouver or Toronto is a patch on the West Edmonton Mall, and the more they come from out of town to consume it, the more it grows. Rumors of the next Edmonton Grey Cup being played inside the Mall are premature, as it’s expected to be a number of years before it engulfs Commonwealth Stadium.

Like all of Alberta, Edmonton is a hotbed of conservatism. A huge graffito on the High Level Bridge says “Save the Cruise.” The University of Alberta has a Tory Building, but no NDP Building. Socialists are treated with amused tolerance, and when Liberals are seen they are photographed as a curiosity to be tucked away in grandchildren’s scrapbooks. A favorite joke going the rounds at the moment sums up the Albertan political scene: “Q. How can you tell a Liberal from a dead skunk on an Alberta roadside? “A. There are skid marks in front of the skunk.” In fact Liberals are almost as rare as two-dollar bills, and that’s rare. One day after a drugstore cashier had laboriously filled my hand with a collection of greenbacks, I asked her why Edmonton cash registers don’t have any twospots. She thought I was demanding one, and reached underneath her cash box to produce a wrinkled brown bill which she furtively passed to me as if it were 1957 and I’d requested a prophylactic device.

Another Edmontonian, who collects two-dollar bills for her grandchildren, surmised that they’re considered kind of phony because they don’t have them in the United States, and they seem to have originated in Ontario, which is always trying to foist unwholesome inventions on the West.

The finest points of Edmonton apparent to a newcomer don’t show up in the tourist brochures on which newcomers rely: an enthusiasm for live theatre without parallel in other cities; the biggest, bluest, sunniest winter skies in the country; cross-country skiing conditions that would make a Finn envious; K. D. Lang, in whose prairie soul Patsy Cline has reincarnated herself for another run at the Grammy awards; long- tailed magpies, blue and black and white, that soar among the pines (long-time Edmontonians seem universally to condemn the magpie as a thief and a braggart, but any creature with the resourcefulness to stay beautiful and sleek at 30 below has to be admired); no sales tax; CBC Radio, so consistently excellent it makes any Canadian city a good place to be.

Edmonton’s a city that could almost win a Lotuslander’s heart, if only it had the occasional winter rainbow and a pod or two of killer whales breaching in the North Saskatchewan, for old time’s sake – but maybe the Mall already has them in its plans.

David Greer is an editor and writer who lives in Edmonton.

ROUNDUP Cricket

ROUNDUP Cricket

ROUNDUP Cricket

ROUNDUP Cricket

England paceman Neil Foster took six wickets yesterday to bowl the touring side to a first- innings total of 272 at the end of the opening day of the fourth cricket Test against India at Madras, India. Foster, playing his first Test of the tour, took six for 104. At the close of play, England openers Graeme Fowler and Tim Robinson had taken their team to 32 for no wicket. At lunch, India was still struggling at 102 for three. . . .

A century by skipper Kim Hughes guided Western Australia to a 21-run win over South Australia on the fourth and final day of the Sheffield Shield cricket match in Perth yesterday. Hughes hit 111 in Western Australia’s second innings of 241. South Australian captain David Hookes had a 73 and Dan O’Connor had a 52. In Melbourne, Shield-leader Queensland is poised for victory today, the final day of its match against Victoria.

At the close of play yesterday, Victoria was 79 for one still needing 382 runs for victory. . . . In Brisbane, Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd lashed 152 runs in a fifth-wicket partnership Saturday as the West Indies coasted to victory over Sri Lanka. A 98 by Richards and an unbeaten 89 by Lloyd set the West Indians on the road to a comfortable 80-run triumph over Sri Lanka in the one-day match. . . .

New Zealand swept to a 110-run victory over Pakistan in the opening one-day cricket international at Napier, N.Z., Saturday. The New Zealanders scored 277 for six. The Pakistanis finished 167 for nine off their full quota of overs. . . . In Agosford, Australia, Australians Peta Verco and Denise Emerson posted a record opening stand Saturday, the first day of the fourth women’s Test against England. The pair put on 114 for the first wicket but their teammates failed to capitalize and at stumps Australia was 232 for eight. Emerson set an individual record for a Test series by taking her aggregate to 368 in four Tests. Australia was 232 for eight. . . .

At Madras, Yorkshire opener Martyn Moxon was left off the England team to play India in the fourth cricket Test yesterday despite scoring a brilliant 153 against South Zone last week. Captain David Gower said the selectors had discussed including Moxon after his century at Hyderabad but decided against it to keep the team more balanced. . . . Former England pace bowler Mike Hendrick has been forced to retire from first- class cricket on doctor’s orders. The 36-year-old Nottinghamshire player appeared in 30 Tests for England but has been hampered by persistent hip trouble.

EMass dominance in baseball, softball gets summer off to great start

EMass dominance in baseball, softball gets summer off to great start

Three Eastern Mass. high school baseball teams and three more softball squads headed to Worcester last Saturday with the same goal: capture the state title. Those teams heeded Caesar’s motto: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

The six victories ran the gambit from one-sided (Brockton baseball and Taunton softball), to heart-stoppers (Middleboro baseball and Dracut softball), to civic pride (Amesbury baseball and softball).

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Ball-playing seniors step up to plat

Ball-playing seniors step up to plate

Long before the sun hits high noon at Nottoway Park in Vienna, a dedicated band of aging athletes will have smacked dozens of softballs into the outfield – some to soar high in the trees, others to hug the ground.

A mid-May sun warms the playing field, where players stretch and loosen their joints in preparation for a slow-pitch softball tournament. Dozens of teams are competing for the chance to go to the SeniorSoftball World Series in September in Palm Springs, Calif. This is a fight not just for first place, but for the pleasure of defeating stereotypes about what the body is capable of achieving after age 50.

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Michael Klein column: Witherspoon tries a new plate

Michael Klein column: Witherspoon tries a new plate

Reese Witherspoon is a heavy hitter, all right. She’s been hitting restaurants for big meals, and this week she’ll be hitting softballs. Witherspoon has been training weekly since February with former UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist to improve her form for the James L. Brooks comedy she’s shooting here. Witherspoon plays a softball star torn between the affections of a businessman (Paul Rudd) and a Washington Nationals player (Owen Wilson). It’s crunch time as Witherspoon takes to the diamond at Drexel and Temple Universities to shoot game footage. It won’t be crunch time, exactly. To protect her perfect proboscis, Witherspoon will wear a custom fielder’s mask during practice. About 20 top softballplayers and coaches arrived the other day to prep under Enquist’s direction all this weekend. Erin Goettlicher, who runs the online Softball Network, helped assemble the group, including Taryne Mowatt, Amber Jackson, Carri Leto Martin, Tammy Williams, Audrey Rendon, and Shanna Diller. As for Witherspoon’s recent restaurant recons: Last weekend, she took her son and daughter to Jones, at Seventh and Chestnut, where they shared nachos, fried chicken and waffles, chicken noodle soup, and chicken Caesar salad. She wrapped with a slice of banana cream pie — the third time she’d had it. The next day, Witherspoon and kids hit Morimoto for maki. On Tuesday, her assistant picked up an 8-ounce filet, stuffed hash browns, asparagus, and a slice of chocolate fudge cake from Butcher & Singer.

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Super normal: Softball makes the extraordinary things

Standing quietly behind him, littered with the day’s dirt, gloves, bats and helmets, was the dugout Mark Pruis decorated with his bare hands.

“Me and my brother and my father did it,” Pruis said of the wooden benches, helmet stalls complete with nameplates and the sound system. “My dad passed away since then … ”

His voice trailed off, the smack of 16-inch softballs playing tunes with aluminum bats interrupted his train of thought.

Standing not so quietly in front of the Sauk Valley Community College softball coach Monday was his latest project, the one he built with hope, mind and a little bit of luck — the 2007-08 Skyhawks.

“All right, ladies,” he shouted. “Four more swings and that’s it. The TV guy is here, so let’s get ready.”

Lindsey Coward and Jennifer Lillie and other Skyhawks took their hacks. Pruis, he just took it all in as the cameraman panned in on his players.

“The last time we were on TV was two years ago,” he said. “We got whacked by Black Hawk 25-0 in a Tuesday regional. They were the No. 1 seed and we were the No. 8 seed.

“That was kind of embarrassing.”

So there Pruis stood, in the middle of nowhere, headed for the middle of somewhere. Finally.

Sauk Valley will be one of 12 teams at the National Junior College Athletic Association nationals in Normal this week. The Skyhawks are schedule to begin play at 4 p.m. Thursday against the winner of the Kankakee (Ill.)-Iowa Lakes C.C. winner.

The Region IV champions, Sauk received a first-round bye thanks to a quirky rule that states that the representative from any team from a region that finished in the top four the previous season gets an automatic bye.

That Sauk is here, practicing in May, just off a rural stretch of Route 2 between Dixon and Sterling, is more than surprising.

On the bench that Pruis built sat a single, laminated piece of paper with big, black letters. On it were goals, in order, for this 2007-08 team.

1. Beat Black Hawk. Check. The Skyhawks took one of four from their rival.

2. More than a .500 record. Check. The team that was 1-25 last season is 25-11 now.

3. Place at Oklahoma.

4. Team chemistry.

5. One run an inning.

6. Give 100 percent on the field at all times.

7. Stay positive the whole game.

Nowhere to be found was win a regional. Play at nationals. Shatter records.

“No, not really,” Pruis said. “Our goal was to win conference, win 20 games (previous school record) and maybe get a home game during the regional.”

The guy from Morrison who spends 9 to 5 as a tool and dye maker, who spends his spare time making furniture, was aiming for optimism after a miserable season last year.

This season, something changed. Pruis changed — if only a little.

Pruis never was a big believer in conditioning. “My feeling was, if they know how to hit, what’s the use if they can run?”

Now, the Skyhawks are running. They are in better shape. They are bonding.

“We probably have more fun than most teams do,” he said, short, gray hair blowing in the wind.

His team moved to the diamond to take infield and do more interviews. The TV camera followed.

“How many ‘ums’ did I say?” pitcher Danielle Henry said with a giggle as she retreated to the dugout after getting some face time.

“A lot,” a teammate shot back.

Later on Monday night, as they watched the 10 o’clock news, the Skyhawks saw themselves staring right back at themselves.

“Hopefully we don’t go down there and say ‘Oh, we’re down here, let’s stop playing,’ ” catcher Breanna Knowles said. “We want to keep winning.”

The dugout is full again, with laughter and small talk and big dreams.

To see more of The Daily Gazette or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.saukvalley.com/.

Copyright (c) 2008, Daily Gazette, Sterling, Ill.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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