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Sunday, March 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone / Baseball reporter

Torres arms his comeback with wisdom of Salomon

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BRADENTON, Fla. — You never know who you're going to find in spring training. This is the haven of the hopeful, the land of the last chance

Mariners fans might faintly remember the name Salomon Torres. Fans of the San Francisco Giants might have an even stronger memory, because Torres was designated as the next Juan Marichal — like that would be easy for a young Dominican to live up to — after he started his minor-league career in the San Francisco organization with a 27-6 record his first two seasons.

Torres eventually fizzled with the Giants, earning lasting infamy for starting and losing the final game of the 1993 season at Dodger Stadium, when the Giants and Braves were tied with 103 wins. That was before the days of the wild card, and Torres would never quite live down that failure.

Two years later, in a trade of problem cases, the Giants shipped Torres to the Mariners for a promising lefty named Shawn Estes, who had frustrated the Mariners in the minors. Estes developed into a 19-game winner. Torres never developed, though he did win a key game against the Angels down the stretch in 1996 that kept the Mariners in the race to catch Texas, which eventually won the division title anyway.

Torres had a shot to win a starting job in '97, but had a terrible spring and was released. The Montreal Expos picked him up, thinking he might thrive under Dominican manager Felipe Alou. But Torres' career went farther downhill, and he rebelled against what he felt was an unfair opportunity to pitch. When the Expos sent him down in August, he packed up and went home to the Dominican.

Torres convinced the Expos to let him be the pitching coach of their Dominican League team. He kept pitching in the Dominican winter league, kept coaching, but he was now a private citizen, ready to get on with his life after baseball. Torres was 26. His career record stood at 11-25.

Last year, a Korean team, the Samsung Lions, saw Torres pitch in winter ball and offered a contract. He took it, and pitched well. This past winter, several major-league scouts saw him pitch, and six offered contracts. He signed with the Pirates, feeling they gave him the quickest route back to the majors.

And so it is that Torres, now a month away from turning 30, married six years and with an infant daughter, is toiling at Pirates camp, trying to recapture the promise of a career that was a classic tale of a phenom gone sour. He signed a minor-league deal, with an invite to major-league camp. If he doesn't get cut, he'll likely start the year at Class AAA.

"Those three years were the best I ever had," Torres said of his hiatus. "Even though I had no money — I was a rookie, I didn't make any money — I was content with what I had. I had the time to spend with people in my church, and my family. All those years, teams kept calling me, do I want to go back? No, I'm not ready, I said. I want to be devoted to this game, not be halfway."

Now, says Torres, he has learned not to take slights so personally. A sensitive sort, highly intelligent, he believes he is still young enough to finally master his talent.

"Being away from the game, it might be the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "It gave me a chance to look at the game from the outside and really learn. It's unbelievable, how mature I am. I don't even recognize me anymore. I have the same passion for the game, but I've learned not to be surprised at some of the moves that might affect you. I know I can't control what happens upstairs."

Pirates General Manager David Littlefield says his expectations for Torres are low. Littlefield is realistic, knowing how hard it is to come back after so many years away. But this is the time to dream.

"I have a fresh start," Torres said. "I'm a new pitcher. I could be better, because I have the same stuff, the same velocity, but I'm smarter. I'm older. That should account for something."

Emperor A-Rod

While Ken Griffey Jr. gets lambasted on seemingly a daily basis in Florida, there have been whispers that Seattle's other departed mega-star, Alex Rodriguez, wields too much power in Texas.

Rodriguez has the ear of owner Tom Hicks — maybe the whole body, critics claim, after Hicks gave Rodriguez $252 million over 10 years to lure him to the Rangers last year. Some believe he has undue influence over personnel decisions, more power, some say, than General Manager John Hart.

They cite the fact A-Rod occasionally golfs with Hicks, that the team boasts eight clients of Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, and that he had a hand in bringing aboard ex-Mariners coach Steve Smith and retaining batting coach Rudy Jaramillo at a substantial raise.

At Rangers training camp in Port Charlotte, Rodriguez is slightly irritated by the insinuations. He points out that his primary influence this offseason was deferring part of his salary so the Rangers could sign free agents like Juan Gonzalez and Chan Ho Park.

"That's funny, because they said something about playing golf with our owner," Rodriguez said. "People don't realize, I played golf with Howard Lincoln and Bill Gates. I probably had more influence in Seattle, because Howard Lincoln was really good to me, and asked for my opinion on some moves.

"I still have done more things with Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong than I've done with the Rangers. The only difference was, over there I was making less money."

Asked if it's fair to say he has the ear of Hicks, Rodriguez said, "If it's fair to say I had it in Seattle, too. I think a lot of players — Pudge (Ivan Rodriguez), Raffy (Rafael Palmeiro), Juan (Gonzalez) and I, we're going to be approached from time to time by management ... we're going to give our honest opinion. But I don't think we'd ever volunteer information. But if anyone approaches, we would give them an honest answer. That happens anywhere."

It's hard to fathom that a highly successful GM like John Hart would be anything but his own man, and he's already put his stamp on a Rangers team that finished 43 games behind Seattle last year.

"When you're here for 10 years, and you have money invested in you, you're obviously going to be more than just another guy," Hart said of Rodriguez. "Believe me, Tom and I talk every day. There's things we wanted to do. I've been doing this a long time, and had success.

"The exciting part for me is that Alex wants to win. He wants to do what he can do, whether it's defer money, or whatever, to help get players in. You always need somebody to get on the phone and call people you're trying to sign. He's been outstanding to me. I've known Alex a long time, and we've got an outstanding relationship."

Hart calls speculation about A-Rod's power in the organization "almost laughable. I don't see that as anything but a positive. We have an owner that respects the player, and a player that respects the owner. We've got a good group of baseball people. We're going to be a very aggressive, active group over here."

The Grave truth

Griffey's ex-Reds teammates, meanwhile, are pouring the abuse on Junior, with Pokey Reese, Dmitri Young and former coach Ron Oester all charging him with various infractions, most of which center on the fact that Griffey operates under different rules than the rest of the team.

That's hardly a revelation. All superstars, from Cal Ripken Jr., who stayed in a different hotel on the road than the rest of the team, to Barry Bonds, are given latitude. It's tolerated as long as the player is producing. It was only when Griffey and the Reds struggled last year that matters seemingly became intolerable.

It would be nice, however, if Griffey takes the criticism to heart and makes an effort to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Nice, but doubtful. Not after more than a decade of privilege.

"To be honest, everybody in the clubhouse is blowing it off," Reds pitcher Danny Graves told the Dayton Daily News. "To me, it is not a big deal. If people want to say stuff, that's their prerogative. If stuff like that really bothers them, why couldn't it be taken care of before?

"Sure, Junior does his thing, Barry (Larkin) does his thing ... we all do our own little things that a lot of people aren't happy about, whatever it may be. I mean, me and Pete Harnisch and Scott Sullivan hung out by ourselves last year. If somebody had a problem with that, they could have said something. But everybody is different and everybody has their own thing."

The complaints against Griffey included the fact that he often skipped pregame stretching, didn't follow the rule prohibiting cell phones in the clubhouse, and was given special consideration during extra batting practice, which Reese called "Junior batting practice." Team captain Larkin, one of Griffey's best friends on the team, was also dragged into the fray.

"If 10 guys are late to stretch, do you pick on Junior?" Graves asked. "Did we pick on Dmitri if he was late? No, nobody says anything. If it's that big of a deal, get in somebody's face. Our guys need to be more vocal about stuff like that, and I will be so it doesn't get out of whack again."

Killer B's

Keeping this theme of superstar privilege going, Astros veterans Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell have found themselves having to deny innuendo that they orchestrated the firing of Manager Larry Dierker after Houston lost in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth time under Dierker. Both players have a strong relationship with owner Drayton McLane.

"It was not like somebody came down and said Bagwell and Biggio got the manager fired," Bagwell told the Houston Chronicle. "I think it was just an opinion from somebody that got run so much that people started taking it seriously. I think that doesn't show enough respect for our organization to think Craig and I make all the decisions around here and would have that kind of power. Trust me, I've lost a lot of good friends over the years that if I had enough power would still be here."

"Craig has quick thoughts on every subject in the world," McLane said. "That's part of his personality. But of the 10 years I've owned the club, we've never talked about baseball decisions."

Of course, it didn't help perceptions that the locker between Bagwell and Biggio at The Park Formerly Known as Enron had a nameplate that said "McLane," originally put up as a joke but left hanging much of the season.

"Instead of ripping it down after the joke was over, it stayed up there," Biggio said. "Then, all the people that came in, they saw it day in and day out, day in and day out. Then they just started to think and assume things for themselves. That was the whole thing. I guess the mistake of the whole thing was that it should have just been ripped down from the beginning."

What could have been

Here's a scary thought for Mariners fans. Carl Everett, the moody outfielder who feuded with players and management in Boston, wanted to come to Seattle. Instead, the Red Sox traded him to the Rangers, taking on the bloated contract of left-hander Darren Oliver in return.

"This is where I wanted to be, and I'm here," Everett said last week. "I like what they have, I like the personalities. The only other club I would have gone to is Seattle. Me and Lou are close. We're both Tampa natives."

Larry Stone can be reached at 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

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