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Tigers tread deliberately

Progress, especially after a 109-loss season, can be hard to evaluate. But the Detroit Tigers say they really are getting better.

"We're definitely moving in the right direction," GM Randy Smith said.

While Smith has been wheeling and dealing since taking over in October 1995 (23 trades in 17 months), the most significant changes have been internal. Showing the Tigers' commitment to rebuild the old-fashioned way, Smith virtually revamped the scouting and player development departments.

He changed scouting directors, hired 12 additional scouts (giving them 34), and equipped the staff with laptop computers and a 160-page manual detailing the new philosophy. He also increased the number of roving minor-league instructors (from two to seven) and added a coaching position for each minor-league team.

"The foundation," Smith said, "has to come from within."

With 1B Tony Clark, OF Bobby Higginson and 3B Travis Fryman, plus newcomer OF Brian Hunter, the Tigers believe they have a good nucleus. And they have some top pitching prospects _ Mike Drumright and Seth Greisinger _ on the way.

Organizationally, the Tigers hope to return to prominence in 1999 or 2000, coinciding with their move into the new Tiger Stadium. But from the human standpoint, Smith and manager Buddy Bell hope to see improvement this season.

"Our goal," Bell said, "is to play a meaningful game in September."

Meaningful meaning having a chance at a playoff berth?

"An outside chance," Bell said. "It has to be a goal of ours. We have to play for something."

Said Smith: "This does nothing to change our long-range objectives. I know we still have a long way to go. But our plan from Day 1 has been to steadily grow and win as fast as we possibly can.

"To achieve, you have to believe. And our ultimate goal is to play meaningful games in October, not September. We're not going to get away from that."

THE COMMISH: Now that Tommy Lasorda is done campaigning for the Tampa Bay manager's job, the newest Hall of Famer has his sights set on the commissioner's office. "If they wanted me, I'd do it," Lasorda said. "But realistically, I think I would be a good choice to represent the commissioner's office, if they needed me."

BENCH WORK: Johnny Bench officially came back to the Reds last week as a special consultant, with plans for him to help the catching staff and offer input on personnel decisions. But don't expect to see too much of old No. 5. "I told them not to call me between tee times," Bench said. "I'll help them before tee time and after I get off the 18th. I made one stipulation. I will not work for a living."

LOU-LOU: Nothing like a seven-game spring losing streak to get Mariners manager Lou Piniella into midseason form. "We're fortunate we have three weeks to go, because we're not anywhere near ready to start the baseball season," Piniella said. "Maybe they've been reading their press clippings. I don't see any chemistry or any unity or anything. I'll be honest with you. I'm displeased. I really am. I'm not upset, but we're going to do something about it. We're going to work harder."

STAR POWER: From the Hel-lo, is anyone home? department, Major League Baseball finally has decided to launch a campaign promoting its star players, including John Smoltz, Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton and Mike Piazza. "That's where the connection is for the young fans," new marketing whiz Greg Murphy said.

WORKING MAN: Former major-league reliever Danny Cox has a new pitch. He has invested in and is working for a new sports apparel company, Game Face, which hopes to compete with No Fear and other trendy lines.

LONE STAR: Former Mets manager Dallas Green doesn't think much of his old club. Of the team, he said: "You can't fool the public. You can't sell this team as a contender." And of his replacement, Bobby Valentine: "Bobby's always going to be Bobby. He's going to sell Bobby Valentine. Most everybody in baseball does not like and does not respect Bobby Valentine. It's closer to 100 percent than it is to 50 percent."

ROOM SERVICE: Expos manager Felipe Alou wasn't sure why phenom Vladimir Guerrero showed up early Monday morning with his two suitcases. "I got to thinking maybe this boy thought he'd made the team and was going to rent an apartment for the rest of the month," Alou said. "He said he'd been told by the hotel that he was moving to the minor-league hotel. All sorts of things started to go through my mind and I said: "I got to find out what's going on here.'

" Turns out the hotel staff was inquiring about Guerrero's phone bill, but he didn't understand and thought he had to move out.

MOUTHFUL: With Jeff Montgomery still recovering from shoulder surgery, the Royals are likely to use right-hander Jamie Bluma as the closer. Bluma, who was 5-for-5 in saves in September for the Royals, also is a bit of a character. As a freshman at Wichita State, he wanted to lighten the mood after a doubleheader loss, so he ate the bugs on the grille of the team bus.

HE SAID IT: Comebacking Cardinals outfielder Andy Van Slyke on his condition: "I'm running on retreads anyway. There are no fresh tires on this body. I'm that plug that you buy at the local auto store just to get to the next station."

MISCELLANY: The Astros are counting heavily upon Tampa's Derek Bell to make the move to centerfield, allowing them to play rookie Bob Abreu in right. The Orioles may be interested in Phillies' 1B Darren Daulton as a DH. The Rockies are convinced pitcher Bill Swift finally is recovered from shoulder problems. "I'm done crossing my fingers that he's back," manager Don Baylor said.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.