Baseball expansion candidates line up; pitcher-catcher huddles. Gwynn prefers No. 2 spot in lineup; Thon's return; Altobelli and autos

If major league baseball decides to expand from 26 to 28 teams, and then eventually 32, it won't have to advertise in the classifieds for prospective owners with the proper working capital. The corridor to Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's office is already crowded with groups from Denver, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., central Florida, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Miami, New Jersey, and Vancouver. While no expansion formula has been decided on yet, the first step probably will raise the number of National League franchises from 12 to 14, which would make it equal with the American League.

Any time a professional league expands, it waters down its product. Since most fans don't seem to care, however, foes of expansion have largely had the bats taken out of their hands.

As in the past, expansion rosters undoubtedly will be stocked from current franchises, which probably will be allowed to protect 20 players, with no club losing more than two. Also as in the past, it's a safe guess that teams thus created will have to struggle for a few years before gaining respectability on the field.

What does a catcher say to his pitcher after leisurely walking to the mound for a conference? ``I don't know about other catchers, but Bob Boone, who works most of my games, isn't very diplomatic,'' grinned California's Geoff Zahn. ``Usually Boone says something like: `You know as well as I do that you don't have anything left, so we're going to stall out here until the manager can get somebody warmed up!' ''

Zahn, who delivers the ball consistently under the speed limit but is a marvel at throwing hitters off stride, has won 103 games since turning 30. California publicist Tim Mead insists that the chief reason the Angels finished first in the American League West in 1982 was Geoff's 18-8 won-lost record, at least half of those victories coming in clutch situations.

National League batting champion Tony Gwynn has not yet bought the theory that he'd be more valuable to the San Diego Padres batting third. Manager Dick Williams thinks Gwynn could be an outstanding RBI man if moved just one notch back in the order, but Tony prefers to bat second behind Alan Wiggins, who stole 70 bases last season. ``Any time Wiggins gets on base he upsets the infield because they never know whether he's going to run or not,'' Gwynn explained. ``What that does for me is open holes in the infield that I can steer the ball through. Batting third, I know I'm going to lose most of those opportunities.'' Houston's Dickie Thon, who missed virtually all of last season after being hit on the head by a pitch, has made a strong recovery so far in 1985. But until the Astro shortstop feels completely comfortable at the plate, he will forget about power and simply concentrate on hitting the ball where it's pitched. In 1983, Thon hit 20 homers, the most by any player at his position.

Baltimore Manager Joe Altobelli, whose Orioles finished 19 games behind the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers last year in the American League East, says he stopped being a serious worrier a long time ago. The transition came one year when Altobelli, temporarily out of baseball, took a job in Rochester, N.Y., selling used cars. Despite an unusually cold and snowy November, Joe sold 31 automobiles that month. ``I've always felt if I could do that, I could do anything,'' Altobelli said.

While nobody expects him to equal his father's Hall of Fame statistics, 18-year-old Luis Roberto Clemente nevertheless has been signed to a multi-year contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He'll play for Bradenton, Fla. in the Gulf Coast Rookie League this season. Clemente's 19-year-old brother, Roberto Jr., is already a ballplayer in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

Was relief pitcher George Frazier of the Chicago Cubs serious, or was he just trying to build a psychological edge against rival National League hitters by saying recently that he throws a spitball? Anyway, umpires have been warned to watch Frazier very carefully. George says he learned the irrigated delivery from manager Billy Martin and pitching coach Art Fowler when all three were with the New York Yankees. Frazier also claims that he picks his spots for the spitter, and doesn't use it very often.

From Hall of Famer Willie Mays: ``Joe DiMaggio was always my idol. Because of our difference in age, it was a long time before I got to know Joe well, but today I consider us close friends.'' And like DiMaggio, Willie says, he believed in putting the team first. ``When I was playing I always had the potential to steal 50 bases, only I never stole except when it meant something,'' he points out. ``I never played for records of any kind, either, only to win games.'' As to whether DiMaggio or Mays was the better player, it is probably safest to say they were both one of a kind. However, the longevity records are all with Willie, who played 22 years to Joe's war-interrupted 13; hit 660 home runs to the Yankee Clipper's 361; and led in RBIs 1,903 to 1,537.

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