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Balls cleared in HR binge

A day after a record six grand slams and 56 home runs were hit in the majors, a van full of baseball executives showed up at the Rawlings factory Monday for a long-scheduled look at how baseballs are made.

Their conclusion: It's not the balls' fault.

"We came away very impressed with the operations here," Sandy Alderson, the majors' executive vice president for operations, said after a 2{-hour tour of the plant where all major- and minor-league baseballs are made. "We weren't looking for surprises, it was an educational process."

With Rawlings balls flying out at a record pace, Alderson said he took a tour of the unassuming, about 900-employee factory in Costa Rica's coffee-growing region to "get more familiar with what goes into making a baseball."

"It's not enough for us to tell the media and the fans that there's nothing wrong with the ball," said Alderson, who was careful not to say the word "juiced."

"We need to be more familiar with the process ourselves."

UMPIRE TALKS: Progress has been made in negotiations for a new labor contract for umpires, but the sides remain apart heading into a critical period for the talks, the union said.

The sides agreed in March to extend the terms of the expired contract through at least June 14. But starting May 31, either side can give 15 days notice that it intends to start a strike or lockout.

Negotiators for the union and Major League Baseball met for four days last week and said talks will continue this week in New York and Baltimore.

PUDGE ON THE PIVOT: One of baseball's best catchers might one day play second base. The Rangers said Ivan Rodriguez will start learning the position during the off-season, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

The 28-year-old catcher plans to spend a week at Bucky Dent's Baseball School in Boca Raton, where his instruction might include the mechanics of playing second base, the newspaper said.

Manager Johnny Oates said the tutoring is aimed at finding a position where the 1999 AL MVP is least likely to be injured.

Rodriguez said he's not planning a position switch soon, but he added, "It will be good to start working a new position."

ANGELS: Shortstop Gary DiSarcina is scheduled for an arthroscope of his right shoulder Thursday. DiSarcina went on the 15-day disabled list May 8 with stiffness in the shoulder of his throwing arm. Reliever Mark Petkovsek was placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to Wednesday with a virus that has caused headaches, fever and dehydration.

ASTROS: Right-handed reliever Jay Powell was placed on the 15-day disabled list. The contract of right-hander Kip Gross was purchased from Triple A.

BLUE JAYS: Outfielder Todd Greene, released by the Angels in spring training, made his first appearance for Toronto. He went 1-for-3.

BREWERS: Left-handed pitcher Horacio Estrada was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis. Left-hander Rafael Roque was recalled.

DODGERS: Left-handed reliever Trever Miller, obtained on waivers from Philadelphia last week, was activated.

INDIANS: Left-handed pitcher Andrew Lorraine signed a minor-league contract after he cleared waivers from the Cubs.

WHITE SOX: They are in the midst of a 38-game stretch in which they play 22 against the Yankees and Indians.

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez won in the AL, and Padres third baseman Phil Nevin won in the NL.