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An empty seat at the Jake? Could be

The Indians lost a bit of luster last season by failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993. And they have lost quite a bit of talent by not re-signing Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar, David Segui and Jason Bere.

Soon they may lose something else: Their major-league record streak of 454 consecutive sellouts at Jacobs Field.

Having grown quickly accustomed to the Indians being winners, fans around the lake are apparently growing restless.

About 3 percent of their 26,000 season-ticket holders have canceled, and the renewal rate is reportedly slower than years' past.

With a season-ticket waiting list of about 1,000, the Indians are confident they will maintain their base.

But the excitement apparently has dimmed, and the result is likely show up soon, say, an April 4 sure-to-be frigid weekday night game against Chicago, when there are unsold seats at Jacobs Field for the first time since 1995.

Why the discontent?

To replace Ramirez, Segui and Alomar, who combined for 67 homers and 267 RBI last season, the Indians have signed sore-kneed 36-year-old Ellis Burks, backup catcher Eddie Taubensee and part-time player Marty Cordova. And in addition to losing Bere, who went 6-3 in 11 second-half starts, they are uncertain one-time ace Charles Nagy will be healthy enough to pitch.

HALL CALL: Ballots for Hall of Fame election are due today, and the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have some difficult choices. Results are announced Jan. 16.

Dave Winfield, with 3,110 hits and 465 home runs, seems like the leading candidate. From there, first-timers Kirby Puckett and Don Mattingly will get considerable support, along with Gary Carter, Dave Parker and Jim Rice. Relievers Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter also will be strong candidates.

RED TIDE: Remember how the Reds were going to be contenders after acquiring Ken Griffey? Not gonna happen.

Their rotation going into the season looks like this: Pete Harnisch, Elmer Dessens, Rob Bell, Osvaldo Fernandez and Scott Williamson (whom they are trying to trade). The five were 35-30 last year with a 4.27 ERA.

RAYS REPORT: Strength and conditioning coach Kevin Harmon was let go; a replacement has not been named. Manager Larry Rothschild used 138 lineups last season, second only to Boston's Jimy Williams (140). Vinny Castilla is hitting .339 with six homers and 17 RBI in 62 at-bats with Hermosillo of the Mexican League. Other winter-ball numbers: shortstop Felix Martinez, hitting .226 for Aguilas in the Dominican Republic; infielder Damian Rolls, .313 for Lara, Venezuela; Aubrey Huff, .274 with four homers for Santurce, Puerto Rico.

MONEY MATTERS: Sometimes you have to wonder who makes these decisions.

Not only did the Brewers sign injury-prone centerfielder Jeffrey Hammonds to a mind-boggling three-year, $21.75-million deal, they still owe Marquis Grissom, their fourth outfielder, $10-million over the next two seasons. A trade of Grissom or rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz may be forthcoming.

And after getting solid production from rightfielder John Vander Wal, who had 24 homers and 94 RBI and signed a relatively cheap contract extension ($3.7-million over two years), the usually penurious Pirates handed Derek Bell a two-year deal for $9-million.

"I've never seen a guy have a season like I had and lose his starting job in the winter," said Vander Wal, who is talking about waiving his no-trade clause.

WINTER WONDERS: Texas appears to be the front-runner to sign David Cone, offering him a spot in its rotation. The Mariners still are trying to get third baseman Phil Nevin from San Diego but are reluctant to give up top shortstop prospect Antonio Perez. Since trading Charles Johnson on May 15, 1998, the Marlins used 10 catchers. The Mets and Blue Jays are continuing to talk about a deal for left-hander David Wells. The Rangers' investment in Alex Rodriguez continues to grow. The team is buying insurance in the event of a serious injury to A-Rod, and word is it will cost them about $8-million to cover $100-million of his contract.

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

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