Two Big Hellos and a Likely Goodbye in Baseball

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

EVEN given baseball's current dark labor and economic situations, last week's announcement that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Phoenix Diamondbacks would become the 29th and 30th major league organizations in 1998 was cause for special rejoicing on Florida's west coast.

The likely departure of a minor-leaguer who batted .202 last year, however, was cause for some trepidation.

The Bay area had tried for 20 years to get a major-league team, and had even built a stadium -- the ThunderDome, completed in 1990 -- in hopes of landing one. A steep $150 million franchise fee couldn't discourage Devil Rays' owner Vince Naimoli, who may rename the team -- by popular demand -- the Manta Rays but will stick to a green, gold, purple, black, and blue color combination.

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At one point three years ago, the Tampa Bay area was so frustrated in being blocked from luring the San Francisco Giants to St. Pete that it filed two lawsuits against Major League Baseball.

The long-anticipated expansion should help offset the many millions of dollars lost due to the strike, which began last August. The on-again, off-again negotiations come to Orlando this week, with a renewed sense of urgency. Opening Day is April 2.

The minor-leaguer who may quit, of course, is Michael Jordan, who many believe will rejoin the Chicago Bulls. Jordan, like many minor-leaguers, appeared uneasy with the disruption the strike was causing him in his new career. If he returns to Chicago, Floridians know it could spell trouble for the Orlando Magic. With Jordan, the Bulls might instantly pose a threat to Orlando, which is currently the hottest pro team and will enter the playoffs as leading contender for the championship.

Lendl talks about retirement

IVAN LENDL, like fellow Czechoslovakian-turned-American tennis star Martina Navratilova, retired from the sport late last year. Whereas Navratilova went out a Top 10 player (No. 8 on the 1994 year-end rankings) and Wimbledon finalist, Lendl bowed out less gloriously, in 54th place on the men's tour.

In its current issue, Tennis magazine asks him about his reaction to whispers about his ''sad'' descent. ''My feeling is that everybody should go out on his own terms,'' Lendl says. ''Tennis isn't a team sport, where other players can pull you along when you're having problems. Martina came close to going out with a bang at Wimbledon, but she still probably would have lost the last official match she played. It's just the way it is in individual sports.'' Navratilova did, in fact, lose in her final match, falling to Gabriela Sabitini in straight sets in the first round of last November's Virginia Slims Championships.

Touching other bases

*Pop quiz: Charles Schulz, the creator of the ''Peanuts'' comic strip, is enshrined in what American sports hall of fame? (See answer at end.)

*Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy, is alive -- and living in Norway. Speed skater Johann Olav Koss, the winner of three gold medals at last winter's Lillehammer Olympics, continues to garner good press a year after his Olympic feats. He's won numerous Sportsman of the Year honors, partly because his athletic achievements are matched by his humanitarian efforts.

Koss contributed more than $30,000 in Olympic bonus money to children in Africa and has visited and played soccer with youngsters in some of the world's trouble spots.

*Ron Luciano's recent passing called to mind his animated, flamboyant work as a major-league baseball umpire. The former Syracuse University football lineman knew how to have fun, and it showed even when explaining his job.

Of his vocation, Sports Illustrated reports he once said, ''Umpiring is best described as the profession of standing between two seven-year-olds with one ice-cream cone.''

*The old-fashioned, stationary basketball backboards that once sprouted from garage roofs face extinction. They are being replaced by adjustable-height models, which have been popular in the institutional market for years.

Now home-unit sales are taking off, according to Greg Hege, president of Porter Athletic, which makes the backboards. Adjustable backboards are popular ''because smaller kids can shoot at these baskets with better form, and larger kids can dunk,'' he says.

*The O.J. Simpson case marks the nadir of the sports-memorabilia business. Trading cards autographed by Simpson in the Los Angeles County Correctional Facility are being sold through newspaper ads for $99 apiece. This looks like a case of legal fees triumphing over image.

*Quiz answer: Charles Schulz, an avid promoter of senior ice hockey, was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn., in 1993.

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