On Monday, nearly a third of the teams in baseball really thought they were on the verge of concluding trades of stunning long-term importance. Would Juan Gonzalez go from Detroit to the Yankees? Or would the world champions shift their focus and grab Sammy Sosa of the Cubs? The word was out that the Yanks had told both the Tigers and Cubs, ''Whoever bites first, the deal is done.''
Would the Orioles trade Scott Erickson? To the Mets or the Red Sox? Or would B.J. Surhoff, Mike Bordick or Charles Johnson be the first dominos to fall in a Baltimore chain reaction of trades that would ripple through baseball? Speculation buzzed that Moises Alou of the Astros or Ellis Burks of the Giants might be the ultimate object of George Steinbrenner's affection for a hard-hitting outfielder.
In press boxes nationwide, lists were being tabulated of the most promising prospects in baseball, all of them seemingly up for grabs if the price was right. Who would get Yanks shortstop prospect Alfonso Soriano, stockpiled behind Derek Jeter? Three top Yankee minor-leaguers were all suddenly taken out of the lineup Monday before their games to prevent an injury that might derail a Gonzalez or Sosa swap. That usually happens when an announcement is ''imminent.''
Then, to almost everyone's amazement, nothing happened. And a delicious, ominous silence fell over baseball Tuesday. Big doings are about to get done. But who knows where or when? That's baseball's new mid-season guessing game. And it has enlivened what used to be baseball's dullest mid-season stretch: the Dog Days from mid-June to the end of August.
Now that's all changed. Over the past dozen seasons, the sport has come to learn that, when the weather gets scorching hot, even the most exalted star may find himself on a new team. And, conversely, some of the most brilliant future prospects also change hands for prices that, in a few years, seem insane.
Everyone in baseball is on red alert for the deals that come down at this time of year. Will it be Mark McGwire going to St. Louis for three Oakland A's who, so far, have left no mark whatsoever? That trade changed the sport three years ago.
If Sosa becomes a Yankee, it will affect the game even more. Sure, Sammy's 180 or so strikeouts might disrupt the subtle chemistry of the Yanks lineup with all its patient hitters. But will that matter to George Steinbrenner? The Yankees have a new cable contract coming up and adding Sosa might drive that deal much higher.
If Randy Johnson can be dealt in mid-season (from Seattle to Houston two years ago), then why couldn't Mike Mussina leave the Orioles? In his free-agent year, Mussina is tangled in the same exasperating contract troubles the Big Unit had then. Johnson was 9-10 and in a funk when traded, just as Mussina is 5-7 now. Johnson went 10-1 and got the Astros in the playoffs. Mussina might do the same.
If the Orioles end up in a Must Trade situation with Mussina, let them consider who Seattle got back for the Unit: Freddie Garcia (17-8 in '99), well-respected young starter John Halama and infielder Carlos Guillen. It's a dangerous gamble.
Fans tend to remember stars who get traded in their prime and the glory they often bring to their new teams. Harold Baines has been dealt four times in just such mid-season reshuffles, while Rickey Henderson (three times) and David Cone (twice) are also repeaters. Fred McGriff gave the Braves almost five big years, including two visits to the World Series after being traded in 1993 by San Diego for Melvin Nieves, Vince Moore and Donnie Elliott. All proved to be suspects, not prospects.
But the number of current stars who've been plucked -- for discount prices -- in these mid-season deals is almost staggering. Giants all-star second baseman Jeff Kent, who is in his fourth season of doing a Rogers Hornsby imitation, was in such July deals twice. And neither the Mets nor the Indians knew what they had in him. Both re-traded Kent.
Remember Jeff Bagwell to Houston from Boston for Larry Andersen? Bagwell was Rookie of the Year the next season.
Who can forget Brady Anderson and Curt Schilling going to Baltimore, also from Boston, for an aging Mike Boddicker? New Englanders lost two eventual stars in a trade for one vet with one good season left in him. What's the problem with the Red Sox -- are they in a coma from Memorial Day to Labor Day?
Hard as it is to believe, the Red Sox were back at it four summers ago, trading Jamie Moyer to Seattle for Darren Bragg. Moyer turned into one of the league's best lefties. Nobody brags about Darren. So what team is right back in the middle of the rumor mill-for everybody from Sosa to Erickson? The Red Sox, of course.
Long ago, nobody foresaw that free agency and huge long-term contracts would give birth to this nutty summer-long trading mart. But it has. Teams with high hopes on Opening Day are despondent and ready to dump big salaries by the Fourth of July. And unexpected contenders suddenly say: ''This is our big chance. Let's go for it.'' Stars in their free-agent year suddenly fall out of love with their teams, or vice versa, and amazing players, like a Mussina, are suddenly available.
Baseball must love irony. Syd Thrift, the point man of the Orioles' embattled front office, was actually the man who, as much as anybody, helped start this trend when he was with the Pirates. Late in July 1986, he traded pitcher Jose DeLeon for a White Sox outfielder with only two home runs in 234 at-bats. But Thrift saw promise in Bobby Bonilla. Of course, Bonilla carried the Pirates for five years.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.