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WARMING BY THE HOT STOVE I tried very (okay, somewhat) hard to make it through December without turning my attention to baseball. Alas, impossible. Among the beauties of this offseason is the fact that pitchers and catchers report for spring training on February 14th. Yes, Valentine’s Day. My brain may be on football and basketball time . . . but my heart, as always, is on the diamond.
  • New Redbirds manager Tom Spencer said all the right things in meeting the local media December 5th. “I like to make it fun for my players,” said the 51-year-old native of Tucson, “but they must respect my position as manager. We require players to work hard, and practice hard.” Spencer should be a nice fit in a very structured Cardinals minor league system under Bruce Manno, the team’s director of player development. He was no big-league star by any stretch (29 games with the White Sox in 1978) and acknowledges a defense-first approach to coaching. Which is precisely the kind of tutelage Triple-A players require. By the time they reach Triple-A, baseball players can either hit or they can’t. It’s the details -- glove work, bunting, pushing runners over -- that will get the marginal players to the big leagues. Spencer last managed in the PCL with the Tucson Sidewinders (2000-01) and was the International League’s Manager of the Year when he led Charlotte to the IL title in 1999.
  • Who would’ve thought a year ago that Andy Benes’ retirement would leave the Cardinals thin in the starting pitching department? Matt Morris, newly re-signed Woody Williams and former Redbird Jason Simontacchi seem locked in for 2003, but the last two spots in the rotation appear to be anyone’s guess. St. Louis came close to reaching a one-year deal with 40-year-old free agent Chuck Finley last week, only to see it fizzle as the winter meetings in Nashville began. Turning to Plan-B, the Cards acquired Brett Tomko from San Diego on Sunday for former Redbird Luther Hackman. Tomko is an inning-eater who went 10-10 last season for the Padres. An important variable in the five-man equation is Garrett Stephenson, who won 16 games in 2000 but missed most of the last two seasons with various ailments. Should he regain his peak form, Stephenson will fill the fifth spot in the rotation, with former Blue Jay Chris Carpenter -- signed as a free agent last week -- competing for innings upon his return in July. Anyone seen Rick Ankiel of late?
  • Talk about a sagging economy. Where is all the free agent activity? Big Frank Thomas essentially slanders the club he’s played with for more than a decade . . . and he can’t find a better deal elsewhere. Less than 10 days till Christmas and Greg Maddux -- the best pitcher of his generation (sorry Randy, Roger) -- is without a contract. The biggest deal thus far was the Phillies’ signing of former Indian slugger Jim Thome. Add Thome’s bat to a lineup already heavy with the likes of Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Jimmy Rollins, and former Giant David Bell and you’ve got your 2003 NL East champions.
  • Finally! Baseball’s very own Marx brother -- commissioner Bud Selig -- has taken a positive step in meeting with black-balled hit king Pete Rose about possibly reinstating the most deserving non-member of the Hall of Fame. There has to come a time -- hopefully before Charlie Hustle is pushing up daisies -- that baseball comes to grips with the scale of Rose’s penalty in relation to his alleged crime. The saddest part in the whole mess is that if Rose would just offer an official, heartfelt apology for soiling the national pastime -- and he’s done this by his behavior since 1989 whether or not he gambled on his Reds’ games -- you get the feeling bygones would be bygones. I want to make something very clear: I wouldn’t allow Rose within 50 yards of my property, especially if my wife and daughters were home. (He simply doesn’t know how to behave. The guy runs a collectibles shop directly across the street from Cooperstown’s Hall.) But for a player of his style and achievement -- a winner, a grinder, a player who would have played for free -- to be excluded from baseball’s shrine of shrines, well, there comes a point where that itself is the crime.
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