Baseball: Fields full of foreign dreams: Aliens invade US - Richard Weekes on the overseas players in baseball who begin a new season today

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The Independent Online
A SEASON of change in major league baseball was signalled when Chan Ho Park, a 20-yearold South Korean pitcher, came up to bat for the Los Angeles Dodgers during spring training, turned to the home-plate

umpire Terry Tata, doffed his cap and bowed. The hardened pros on the Dodgers bench, more used to calling umpires SOBs out of the corner of their mouths, could not have been more astonished had Park spat on the official.

A sport already struggling to digest the prospect of three divisions, rather than the previous two, in each league this season, wild-card teams in the play-offs, and the absence through retirement of such former greats as Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount and Carlton Fisk, now has to swallow Asian

politeness.

Foreigners are gradually chipping away at the walls of major league baseball. Of course, Latin Americans have a long and distinguished history in the game, but with the arrival of Park and Makoto Suzuki, an 18-year-old Japanese pitcher at Seattle, from Asia, a handful of Australians achieving success in Millwaukee, New York and San Diego, and even a couple of Europeans making their presence felt in the minor leagues, the sport's traditional indifference towards the outside world is slowly eroding.

'I think we've been a little slow in reacting to the international scene,' admitted George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, where the pitcher Mark Hutton, 24, born in Adelaide, broke into the first team last season. 'David Stern, (the commissioner) in pro basketball, has set the mark in encouraging development of the game worldwide and now we should wake up.

'We are the great old American game and maybe that's why we've been too slow, but we should get serious because there are some fine athletes out there, as we discover every four years in the Olympics.

'We've got a request from some people in Bosnia, who are trying to play baseball, despite all that they're going through, and we'll send some equipment over there. But I think we have to do more to develop the team aspect, rather than just grabbing individual players.'

Much of Major League Baseball's development effort is concentrated in Australia, which now has 200,000 people playing the game, and where the eightteam Australian Baseball League draws crowds of up to 12,000.

Graeme Lloyd, 26, from Victoria, was introduced to the sport by a friend at the age of 10. 'It was sort of a fluke,' he said. 'The first day, I just grabbed the ball and started throwing it, never dreaming what it would lead to.' Now the 6ft 6in Lloyd is a relief pitcher with the Milwaukee Braves, forming a regular combination with the team's first-choice catcher, David Nilsson, 24, from Brisbane.

Most of the Australians playing in the major leagues at some point had to choose between baseball and cricket. That choice was made a lot easier for Glen Williams, 16, last September, when the Atlanta Braves signed the Sydney schoolboy to a minor league contract worth dollars 940,000 ( pounds 635,000), more than Allan Border has earned in his entire Test career.

Of course, Border can find compensation in the endorsement deals that derive from his status as a national hero, something Williams can never aspire to, something that grates with Hutton. 'The only deals I've had back home so far have been nothing more than pocket- money, but if I have some good years with New York, that recognition will come.'

With a Korean population of half a million in Los Angeles, recognition has already come to Park, even before he plays his first major league game for the Dodgers. The club are prepared for 'Chandemonium' to sweep the city this year, following the years of 'Fernandomania' when another foreign rookie pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela, burst upon the scene from Mexico in 1980.

That sort of impact is still but a dream for the pick of this year's European intake, the Dutch players Robert Eenhorn, a shortstop with the Yankees, and Rikkert Faneyte, an outfielder with the San Francisco Giants. Both must start their climb from the lower reaches of the minor leagues. But this season, a real World Series has moved a step closer.

----------------------------------------------------------------- WHO'S WHO IN THE NEW DIVISIONS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST ----------------------------------------------------------------- BALTIMORE are the team who have made all the moves, their new ownership paying millions to bring the powerful Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo to a team rich in young pitchers. The New York Yankees hope Xavier Hernandez will solve their closing problem, Boston will need a resurgent Roger Clemens, and Detroit have their usual mix of powerful batting and suspect pitching. Toronto, seeking a 'three-peat' World Series, have lost Rickey Henderson's speed, but if they can fill the left-field spot, there are no other weaknesses, and they should prevail again in Cito Gaston's final year as manager. Prediction: Toronto Blue Jays ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL ----------------------------------------------------------------- MICHAEL JORDAN will not be a factor, but the Chicago White Sox should still dominate, especially as they have removed the destablising influences of George Bell and Bo Jackson from their clubhouse. Cleveland, in a new stadium, may run them closest, with Dennis Martinez and Jack Morris adding experience to their starting pitching. Kansas City have plenty of pitching, but can the trouble-prone Vince Coleman can jump-start their offence with his base-stealing speed? Milwaukee will miss Robin Yount's experience and leadership and Minnesota will probably spend the year in the basement. Prediction: Chicago White Sox ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST ----------------------------------------------------------------- LOU PINIELLA won the whole thing with Cincinnati four years ago, and he should guide his young Seattle team into the play-offs. In Ken Griffey Jnr the Mariners have the game's most exciting talent, and last year's strike-out king, the 6ft 10in Randy Johnson, will be mowing them down again. Texas, also in a new ballpark, have plenty of punch, with Will Clark teaming up with a rejuvenated Jose Canseco and home-run leader Juan Gonzalez, but the pitching depth is suspect. Oakland plummeted from first to worst last year, and will not be picking themselves up in a hurry, while California are weak beyond starting pitchers Mark Langston and Chuck Finley. Prediction: Seattle Mariners ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST ----------------------------------------------------------------- ALTHOUGH Philadelphia shocked Atlanta with their play-off victory last October, it is just their bad luck to find themselves in the Braves' division this year. Over the long haul, Atlanta's four- man pitching rotation of Greg Maddux, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz should prevail. Deion Sanders now has the centrefield and lead-off spot to himself, and can use his speed to good effect in both jobs. If John Kruk recovers quickly from his operation for testicular cancer, the Phillies can pick up momentum and secure a wild-card spot. Montreal should threaten again, but the loss of starter Dennis Martinez may hurt them, while the New York Mets will be fighting a private battle with Florida to avoid last place. Prediction: Atlanta Braves ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL ----------------------------------------------------------------- THE most even division of all, with Houston, in a new uniform and under a new manager in Terry Collins, well placed to emerge from their years of mediocrity. Starting pitching is second to none, with right-handers Doug Drabek, Darryl Kile and Pete Harnisch balanced by lefty Greg Swindell, and of course the Wild Thing, Mitch Williams, who recorded 43 saves for Philadelphia before he served up Joe Carter with his World Series-winning shot. St Louis look good for next best, with Cuban emigre Rene Arocha becoming a star on the mound alongside Bob Tewksbury. Closing pitcher Rob Dibble starts the season injured for Cincinnati, a bad sign, while Pittsburgh lack a proven closer and the Chicago Cubs are too weak in the outfield. Prediction: Houston Astros ----------------------------------------------------------------- NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST ----------------------------------------------------------------- TOMMY LASORDA, the Los Angeles manager, was overheard during spring training telling the Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that 'we fancy our chances of kicking the asses of any team we come up against'. Tell that to San Francisco, cruelly pipped by Atlanta on the final day of last season, but who can now enjoy a ride to the play-offs on left fielder Barry Bonds's bat. The Dodgers will gain from signing Delino DeShields at second base, but for Lasorda's boast to come true, outfielder Darryl Strawberry will have to recover his health after back surgery and return to his 1990 form. San Diego, having stripped their line-up of high-paid stars to save money, had better find some return on their youth policy, while Colorado, for all their 70,000 crowds, cannot yet hope to contend. Prediction: San Francisco Giants -----------------------------------------------------------------

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