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After being traded from the Rockies to the Braves last month, Mike Hampton has an opportunity to re-establish himself as a premier left-handed pitcher.
"It took me two years to find the right airplane," the former Crystal River standout said recently. "We finally made it."
Maybe it was the burden of the eight-year, $121-million contract he signed as a free agent in December 2000 or the result of Denver's thin air, but Hampton hardly looked like the pitcher who won 37 times combined with the Astros in 1999 and Mets in 2000.
"The last couple of years I thought he threw the ball well," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "I just think that what happens when you get in that environment (in Colorado), you have a tendency to over-throw, to try to make pitches and do more than you can."
Which is what Darryl Kile likely experienced.
The late pitcher had a 21-30 record with the Rockies in 1998-99, but went 41-24 in the following two-plus seasons with the Cardinals.
Hampton, whom the Braves will pay $48.5-million over the next six seasons, was 12-9 with a 5.73 ERA in 26 starts at Coors Field and 9-19 with an 8.33 ERA in 36 starts everywhere else the past two seasons. His ERA at the end of a season had been above 3.83 only once before his arrival in Colorado.
"I kind of think Hampton would fall into that same category (as Kile)," Mazzone said. "When I heard about (the trade), I was very happy because he's going to have the opportunity to pitch like he did in Houston and like he did in New York."
SCOUTING REPORT: The Yankees sent four officials to Japan last month where they watched, but reportedly did not speak to, free-agent outfielder Hideki Matsui during the eight-game series between Japanese and American all-stars.
Matsui, 28, batted .334 with 50 home runs in 140 games for the Yomiuri Giants last season and has hit 332 homers during his 10-year career in Japan.
"I have no idea what he's capable of doing, no one does," said San Francisco leftfielder Barry Bonds, the reigning National League MVP. "There's a different style of pitching (in Japan) than there is in the United States. ... You don't know what his capabilities are."
Matsui, who declared free agency after Yomiuri's final game, batted .161 with two RBIs in the eight all-star games.
"He's a good player," Bonds said. "He's a big guy, can play centerfield, runs and gets the ball and he can throw. He's a good left-handed hitter, hits lefties pretty good. But you don't really know until (he gets) here."
HALL OF FAME BALLOT: Eddie Murray, Lee Smith, Ryne Sandberg and Fernando Valenzuela are among 17 players on the ballot for the first time this year.
Kile, who died during the 2002 season, is also on the ballot. The rule requiring players to be retired for five seasons before appearing on the ballot was waived.
Gary Carter, who missed election by 11 votes last year, is among 16 holdovers on the ballot released Saturday by the Baseball Writers Association of America, as are Jim Rice and Bruce Sutter.
To be elected, a player must appear on at least 75 percent of the ballots cast by BBWAA members. Voting ends Dec. 31, and results will be announced Jan. 7.
FREQUENT FLIERS: Should the players association approve baseball's plan to play 22 Expos games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, next season, Montreal players will have some serious traveling to do.
Under the plan, the Expos would begin the season at Atlanta, New York and Chicago, then spend 10 days in Puerto Rico before their home opener in Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
They also would have a 22-day road trip in late May, including interleague series against the Mariners and A's, and would play 27 of their last 37 games on the road.
ODDS AND ENDS: Ten teams will open spring training with new managers. Five of those -- Ken Macha (A's), Bob Melvin (Mariners), Ned Yost (Brewers), Eric Wedge (Indians) and Alan Trammell (Tigers) -- will be rookies. ... The White Sox and Devil Rays have 24 pitchers on their 40-man rosters, most in the majors. The Rockies (12), Braves (15) and Red Sox (15) have the fewest.
THE LAST WORD: One of the prime culprits in the free-agent price wars the past few years, Rangers owner Tom Hicks expects a quiet market this offseason.
"People are trying to correct mistakes," said Hicks, whose team has 11 players under contract next season at a total salary of $81.15-million. "People realize signing big contracts, long-term contracts, is very risky."
The Rangers, however, remain interested in acquiring Roger Clemens.
-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.