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Sans Hitman, M’S Can’t Lose Top Pitchman

John Blanchette The Spokesman-

So the GoodFellas of the Bronx have sworn a vendetta against that rival mob boss, Big Unit.

Is there such a thing as a gangland spiking?

If it’s hard to work up a froth over baseball violence, it’s because the modern player is so bad at it. Or don’t you recall the video of 46-year-old Nolan Ryan thumping on Generation Xer Robin Ventura a couple of seasons back?

Happily, there is evidence that clubs are putting increased emphasis on developing a more bloodthirsty player - hence the recent minor-league brawl in Durham, N.C., which dovetailed so serendipitously with “Strike Out Domestic Violence” night.

But that’s the modern player for you: even the savagery takes a backseat to media savvy.

So just what are we to make of the threats issued by New York Yankees catcher Jimmy “Scarface” Leyritz after he took a bullet in the chops from Mariners pitcher Randy Johnson the other night?

Normally, not much.

Retribution for this sort of thing is generally exacted in the batter’s box, and to find that Johnson would require a stop at the corner Texaco to ask directions. This is the American League, where the only wood a pitcher swings in anger has a graphite shaft and Golf Pride grips. True, Johnson’s pitching turn comes up June 10 when the M’s visit New York and perhaps he’ll have to cover first base on a slow roller or home on a wild pitch - without a bodyguard - but perhaps not.

No matter, insisted Leyritz.

“We’ll take care of him one way or the other,” hissed Scarface. “He’s got to go out in public somewhere.

“He just better hope he doesn’t see me out anywhere.”

New York is a big town, he means, and the city has eyes. Leyritz must have heard that someplace. A Scorcese movie, maybe, or George Steinbrenner’s anteroom.

It sounds more like psych than substance - either to disturb Johnson’s rhythm even slightly or more likely to kindle even a sickly flame under the sodden Yankees before Steinbrenner brings in a blowtorch. The tabloids have already spelled out the Boss’ alternative: having Darryl Strawberry as your next-locker neighbor.

So if you’re Scarface Leyritz, you insist Johnson’s 3-0 beanball was a pitch with too much purpose, meant to avenge Steve Howe’s plunking of Felix Fermin the day before.

Just why Johnson would wait until the sixth inning to accomplish this begs reason, particularly being on the hook for the loss at the time. And whatever Johnson’s credentials as a humanitarian, you’d have to think he has a deep and genuine appreciation of the damage one of his 96 mph fastballs can do.

Still, Leyritz has puckered up with the kiss of death, no? So just what measures must the Mariners take?

Do they not let Johnson shower alone? Do they have someone taste his Red Man before he stows it in his cheek? Do they demand a five-day waiting period on radar guns?

The silly melodrama will get thicker as the rematch approaches, but say Leyritz and the other wiseguys do have something in mind. If Johnson were incapacitated in some way, it would settle one buried lie:

That it’s Ken Griffey Jr. who is the M’s MVP that is to say, the one player Seattle can’t afford to lose.

A four-game win streak in the wake of Griffey’s broken wrist has done a good deal to restore the giddiness to Seattle’s season. It could well be fool’s gold. In time, the Martinezes are bound to cool off, Jay Buhner will see nothing in the way of a strike and Alex Diaz will probably go back to being Alex Diaz.

Or not. Perhaps the Mariners can manufacture enough in the way of little-ball offense to compensate for what is truly now the three-hole, where Junior used to be. After all, he hasn’t exactly carried the club during its fastest 30-game start in history.

Johnson has.

His ERA inched over 2.00 before the benches emptied, but the Unit has yet to author a loss - five wins, two no-decisions that the M’s won. He’s the only starter capable of pitching into the seventh inning with any regularity - indeed, he and Chris Bosio seem to be the only starters capable of staying in the rotation for more than two turns in a row. And history says Johnson will only be better in June and August.

The sense of civic doom that settled over Seattle when Junior was ushered off the field was hardly misplaced. What little enthusiasm the city has for showing up at the Kingdome in this post-strike funk is generated by him.

But if it’s a Jim Leyritz line drive that breaks Johnson’s wrist instead of the Kingdome wall doing it to Junior, the damage is far worse. Seven innings and 10 strikeouts every fifth day is something the Mariners can’t even fantasize about replacing.

So if they demand a metal detector at batter’s box for the Yankees series, baseball had better understand.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

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