Friday, February 19, 1999

Astros still better than Reds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — The clubhouse television was tuned to ESPN. Of course it was. If the Nielsen people ever measured athletes' allegiance to SportsCenter, the ratings would make Seinfeld look like Sermonette.

        Peter Gammons was reporting from Tampa, where the New York Yankees are spending spring training trying hard to be humble. As Gammons spoke, several members of the Cincinnati Reds crept closer to the screen, raising their eyes and lowering their voices. They wanted to know how the winningest team in the history of baseball had hooked the only five-time Cy Young winner in captivity.

Trade coverage
from Associated Press
        They wanted the inside dope on the Roger Clemens deal.

        “Good trade, huh?” said Eddie Taubensee, the catcher. “Thank God he's not in Houston.”

        What appears an astonishing windfall for the world champions might also create some happy ripples for the Reds. The Houston Astros remain the ranking power in the National League Central Division, but their superiority is perhaps not as plain as it was last September. Houston has lost Randy Johnson to free agency and, despite earnest efforts, has failed to replace him with a pitcher of comparable pedigree. Once regarded as the front-runner in the Clemens fire sale, the Astros open camp with no ace who qualifies as a trump card.

        Generally speaking, anything that afflicts Houston comforts the home team. If enough bad stuff befalls its rivals, a club can sometimes improve its competitive posture through inertia, as basketball's Indiana Pacers have done in the wake of Michael Jordan's retirement. Those teams with more aggressive agendas — and Reds General Manager Jim Bowden could make George Patton seem patient — stand to make up a lot of lost ground when the defending champ falters.

        Yet there is a potential danger in Thursday's development, if it prods the Reds to trade tomorrow for today, to swap a promising young pitcher such as Brett Tomko for a journeyman leadoff man like Milaukee's Fernando Vina. The danger would be if the Reds confuse improvement for con tention, and forsake long-term goals for fool's gold.

        Twenty-five games separated the Astros and the Reds in last season's standings. Randy Johnson, 10-1 during his Houston holiday, accounted for barely a third of that gap. Bowden's acquisitions of slugger Greg Vaughn and starter Denny Neagle make the Reds a much more interesting team, but Jack McKeon's lineup is still a conspiracy of ifs.

        Aaron Boone and Sean Casey — the corner infielders — have logged 542 big-league at bats between then. Pokey Reese, the presumptive second baseman, played three games at that position last year. Center fielder Mike Cameron is fresh off a .210 season. Dmitri Young is asked to duplicate a .310 season. At the end of the day, on the first day of camp, there were still several more questions than answers.

        “My honest opinion is Clemens is only going to go out there every four or five days,” McKeon said, “and they (the Astros) have got to be the club to beat. They've got four professional (run) producers: (Craig) Biggio, (Jeff) Bagwell, (Moises) Alou and (Derek) Bell.”

        The Reds do not. McKeon's hope is Vaughn's formidable presence serves to spur the growth of the young players around him, but he is not so bold as to bank on it. Roger Clemens notwithstanding, overhauling Houston still figures to be a long haul.

        Pokey Reese was seated on a picnic table adjoining the Reds batting cages when he was told Toronto had sent Clemens to New York for pitchers David Wells and Graeme Lloyd and infielder Homer Bush. His first reaction was “Whee,” the sound a small child customarily makes riding a roller coaster.

        “We love facing the best,” Reese said. “I'd like to face Clemens. But now we'll have to wait till the World Series.”

        Pete Harnisch was more pragmatic. The Reds pitcher was walking through the clubhouse during Gammons' ESPN discourse, and heard the announcer explaining why the deal was such a good fit for Clemens and the Yankees. Gammons cited Clemens' “obsession” with adding a World Series ring to his jewelry collection.

        “And he'll get it, too,” Harnisch said.

        The Yankees will be mighty hard to beat. The Astros, however, aren't much easier.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at


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