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Could he be closing in fast?

Don't be surprised if you see Craig Hansen, the highly touted closer drafted in the first round by the Red Sox, in Fenway Park this afternoon. No, he hasn't signed yet -- he says talks between the Sox and his adviser, Scott Boras, are only just beginning -- but the St. John's star and Long Island resident was thinking of driving up for the weekend to take in a game.

Hansen and a couple of his pals were in Yankee Stadium last week watching the Bombers beat the Pirates.

''You know where [Jason] Giambi hit his game-winning home run in the upper deck?" Hansen said by phone the other day. ''That's where we were sitting, in the last row of the upper deck. It was great."

On draft day, about the only people among the gathering of family and friends who didn't want the Yankees or Mets to take Hansen were St. John's third baseman Jimmy Martin, who is from Norwood, and St. John's sports information director Michael ''Mex" Carey, who is from the Albany area but is such a Sox fanatic that he prompted his toddler daughter to give a hometown parish priest the raspberry when the good father mentioned he was a Yanks fan (''I may go to hell for that," Carey said, ''but it was worth it.").

But both New York teams passed, and Hansen, who had been followed all spring by Sox scout Ray Fagnant, was taken with the 26th pick overall. He almost certainly would have gone higher if teams weren't scared off by the Boras factor.

''I'm very happy Boston picked me," said Hansen, who last week was named a first-team All-American by Baseball America after already being named Big East Pitcher of the Year. ''I always wanted to be a part of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, the greatest in sports."

How quickly Hansen becomes a part of the rivalry is the subject of some delicious speculation, fueled in part by the fast track to the big leagues taken by a couple of other college closers. Two years ago, Chad Cordero was pitching in the College World Series for Cal State-Fullerton. Now pitching for the Washington Nationals, Cordero leads the majors in saves with 21, including a terrific outing last week against the Angels in which he got out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam of his own making to preserve a 1-0 win. Huston Street, meanwhile, has become the closer for the Oakland A's less than a year after finishing his college career at the University of Texas.

The Sox already have another college pitcher, Jon Papelbon out of Mississippi State, knocking on the door. Papelbon is pitching very well for Double A Portland, and there's some thought of breaking him into the big leagues as a reliever by the end of this summer.

With the Sox bullpen in need of reinforcements, it's not surprising that Hansen's name would surface as a long shot, depending on how quickly he signs.

Hansen already has been to Fenway Park. He was here last summer, when he was playing in the Cape League, and worked out for Theo Epstein and Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace. ''[Wallace] taught me my changeup," said Hansen, who now has a third pitch to go along with a fastball that has been timed as fast as 97-98 miles an hour and a hard slider that scouts say is already a plus big-league pitch.

Some scouts say Hansen could start. ''I really don't have a preference," he said. ''As long as I'm helping the team, I'll do what they want me to do."

He's making no predictions on when he'll sign, or at what level he expects to break in.

''Right now we've laid off for a few days, since my season just ended," he said. ''I'm relaxing, keeping in shape. Negotiations should start soon, and hopefully we can get this done quickly.

''The only thing I can do is prove myself and pitch. It's not my decision whether I move up quickly."

An example of a sticky situation

In the aftermath of last week's Glovegate, in which Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly was ejected after umpires discovered pine tar on his glove, some of his teammates were convinced that former Angel Jose Guillen ratted Donnelly out to Nationals manager Frank Robinson. Robinson vehemently denies that Guillen was his source.

How customary is it to ask players who have changed teams to spill the beans on their previous teams? ''As soon as you walk in the door," said former Red Sox infielder John Valentin. ''They ask you about signs, who cheats, who doesn't cheat, tendencies, everything."

Jason Varitek says that's one reason teams use a different set of signs in spring training than they do in the regular season, and will frequently change signs when facing a team with a former teammate.

Kevin Millar, asked if he would expose a former teammate who was doing something illegal, said it was a ''funny area. Me, personally, I don't go into that," he said. ''Shoot, we had a big guy [Jose Canseco] rat out all of baseball."

But Reds pitcher David Weathers wasn't buying the contention made by Angels manager Mike Scioscia that putting pine tar on the glove was an accepted practice for pitchers wanting to improve their grip.

''I know guys who take it, dab their hands with it, and rub it in," he said, ''because people won't believe how slick a new baseball can be. But in the glove? That's a rarity. But [the Angels] don't have a right to be ticked at anybody. The bottom line is somebody saw something and had it checked out."

Ballpark figures will favor Yankees

While the Red Sox have put a happy face on their long-term commitment to Fenway Park, you have to wonder whether there will be some owner envy over the Yankees' announcement last week that a new stadium will be built adjacent to the existing structure, with a 2009 target date for opening. The Bombers are on the hook for the full $800 million price for the stadium itself, with another couple of hundred million in public monies earmarked for infrastructure. But in reality, the deal will cost the Yanks nowhere near that much.

Under the Basic Agreement, the Yankees can subtract all stadium construction debt from their gross revenue, which will reduce, by some estimates, at least $30 million a year in their contribution to the revenue-sharing pool. They plan to have around 50 luxury suites, nearly triple the number they have now, and they may be open to selling naming rights to various parts of the stadium, which could generate tens of millions more.

So a new park will only expand the tremendous financial advantage the Yankees enjoy over their rivals. But in an e-mailed response to a question on how he feels about the fairness of the rule allowing the Yanks to reduce their contribution to the revenue-sharing pie, Sox majority owner John W. Henry, who once owned a small piece of the Yankees as a limited partner, couldn't have been more gracious.

''Construction costs are a legitimate and necessary deduction for revenue-sharing purposes," Henry wrote. ''Because the Yankees pay so much in revenue sharing, all clubs will eventually benefit from the new Yankee Stadium. From what I can see, the Yankees have made a very good business decision in moving forward. The city and the state will benefit as well over the long term."


Alumni report
Hoffman, now third base coach of the Dodgers, sustained what was termed a mild concussion after being struck in the right ear by a batting-practice liner. Tomo Ohka, dumped by the Nationals for second baseman Junior Spivey after a run-in with manager Frank Robinson, last Tuesday became the first pitcher to throw a shutout in his Brewer debut since Tom Filer on May 24, 1988. Brian Daubach's promotion to the Mets from Norfolk of the International League, where he was hitting a team-high .356 while also leading the Tides in doubles (20), home runs (11), and RBIs (42), could mean a reduction in playing time for Doug Mientkiewicz, who was batting just .208 (.156 in Shea Stadium, .184 since May 1) and can no longer blame the low average on irregular playing time, as he did last season with the Sox. Daubach comes full circle with his return to the Mets, the team that drafted him on the 17th round in 1990, eight years before he finally made it to the big leagues with the Marlins. John Wasdin keeps finding his way back to the majors. Wasdin wasn't even on the Rangers' 40-man roster last week, but is now in the running for the job as Rangers setup man after two strong outings, including four hitless innings against the Marlins. Meanwhile, the Rangers are on the verge of dropping Pedro Astacio (2-8, 6.04 ERA) from the rotation. Derek Lowe has yet to win on the road for the Dodgers; he's 0-4 after a 9-6 loss to the Royals Thursday. Pokey Reese continues to progress slowly in his recovery from shoulder surgery, and with the way rookie shortstop Mike Morse is playing for Seattle, there may not be a job waiting when he gets back.

Buddy system works
It may just be the temporary bump that often follows when teams change managers, but the sad-sack Royals went 11-4 after Buddy Bell became manager, including sweeps of the Yankees and Dodgers. ''Buddy Bell has helped turn this locker room around," said first baseman Mike Sweeney. ''It's that simple. Schaef [bench coach Bob Schaefer] did a good job in the interim. He started the transition of making this clubhouse respectable. But Buddy Bell is finishing the job, and it's a fun place to be right now." Obviously, that's no endorsement of the job done by Tony Pena, who abruptly quit this season.

Support system
Most misleading won-lost record in the big leagues? How about Chan Ho Park of the Rangers, who comes into the weekend 7-1? In five of his last 10 starts, the Rangers have scored 7 or more runs while Park was in the game. He's 6-0 in that stretch despite a 5.08 ERA.

Beginning of the end?
Could a last-place team make more news in a week than the Devil Rays? Manager Lou Piniella popped off, not at the usual villain, incumbent owner Vince Naimoli, but the new investor in the club, Stuart Sternberg, blaming him for the team not spending money. This appears to be the beginning of an exit strategy for Piniella, whose agent, Alan Nero, met with general manager Chuck LaMar Thursday and may be looking for a way out for Sweet Lou while finding a way to protect the $5 million still owed him. The D-Rays took another major hit when blossoming star Rocco Baldelli, who was on the verge of returning from knee surgery, learned that he will require Tommy John elbow ligament surgery that places the beginning of next season in some jeopardy.

Brave new world
The injury-riddled Braves started seven rookies Wednesday for the first time in almost 27 years. On Oct. 1, 1978, against Cincinnati, the seven were center fielder Eddie Miller, second baseman Glenn Hubbard, first baseman Bob Beall, right fielder Larry Whisenton, third baseman Chico Ruiz, catcher Bruce Benedict, and pitcher Mickey Mahler. The seven Wednesday were second baseman Pete Orr, pitcher Kyle Davies, catcher Brian McCann, third baseman Andy Marte, shortstop Wilson Betemit, left fielder Kelly Johnson, and right fielder Ryan Langerhans.

Trade that hurts both teams
Safe to say that the A's trade of Tim Hudson hasn't worked out the way GM Billy Beane envisioned. While the Braves are fretting about placing Hudson on the disabled list with a strained side muscle -- the type of injury that has plagued Hudson in the past -- the A's have gotten no return on the players they got from Atlanta. Outfielder Charlie Thomas was sent down batting .105, pitcher Dan Meyer is hurt, and reliever Juan Cruz, who was supposed to be the prize, is about to be demoted to Triple A.

Battery sparks
Randy Johnson may finally be pitching the way the Yankees expected, but he may not be making many new friends. Jorge Posada hasn't caught the Big Unit in either of his last two starts, yielding to John Flaherty, and Flaherty felt compelled to visit the mound during Johnson's last start when it appeared the Unit was gesturing unhappily over Flaherty's pitch-calling. ''He didn't call me out," Flaherty said. ''I went out to find out what was going on. He made some animated gestures about, I guess, in and out. I wanted to make sure those gestures were not directed at me because I'm not going to let him make gestures like that toward me behind the plate. So we just had a nice conversation and figured out what was going on and went forward from there."

Gordon Edes can be reached by e-mail at Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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