The Sun God vs James Loney

VERO BEACH, Fla.- This spring James Loney at the bat has been as he has so often, like Perry Mason, solving everything that comes his way. At first, as always, he's been James Bond, cool, unruffled, adroit. Thursday, he ventured into right field and became Inspector Clouseau.

      Clouds had departed for other precincts when the Dodgers faced the Cards and the sun was at its majesty. One could see why ancients chose to worship it. And Loney was dispatched into the field where it glared at its fiercest.

   James had played a handful of games out there before but always at night. And here he was, staring straight into the radiance. Thus, in the first inning when a ball headed his way, he knew it was coming but as it blended with the crowd as background, exactly where? He took a step back, then raced in as it looped outward.

   Second baseman Jeff Kent loped back and looked like he might have a play but Kent was celebrating his 39th birthday that day and you can't really expect a man that venerated to move with all that alacrity. He pulled up and watched James' onward charge.

  Loney moved valiantly forward and arrived at the same moment as the ball which trickled downward to the ground.

  In the second inning, another fly arose, then twisted toward foul territory, hanging up there like a grapefruit in a nearby citrus grove, waiting to be plucked. James dashed in that direction, the ball descended; both arrived but in separate locales.

  Later, with Takashi Saito making his first appearance of the spring, another fly drifted toward right. Reasonably well hit but in the park- somewhere. Loney moved in a bit but the ball sailed overhead. He traveled frantically backward but once again showed up too late. It became a double.

  Meanwhile back at the plate, he was the master of his domain. Four trips up, three singles and a walk. A day of perfection there. Which is why, of course, they're trying to see if he can play the outfield. He is, after all,the batting champion of all the minors with a .380 mark last year. Why send him back again. To hit .400?

No, they'd love to get that bat in the lineup but there's Nomar at first. So, they sent him out to right, cruelest of fields on that day where the final score was Sun God Ra 3, Loney 0.

  There seems to be  groundswell of opinion that the answer to this is trot Garciaparra across the diamond to third and get Loney back to first, especially considering the fact that Wilson Betemit has been playing so badly so far and that his challenger Andy LaRoche hasn't been bad but hasn't been all that good, either.

  Nomar played some third when he was with the Cubs and probably could do rather well there, especially when you consider how he picked up first so quickly. That infield could potentially turn out so strong defensively that the pitchers may get up a petition for it.

  Manager Grady Little is not one to panic, though . It's still too early to consign the other third basemen to the dumpster. Or, for that matter, to say that Loney can't play the field. After all, James is a skilled athlete and a diligent worker. So, he'll be sent out there again.

  Maybe, for the sake of all concerned, that should be in some of the four night games scheduled this spring. Or, if it must be in the daytime, put him in left where the sun is at his back.  Or, perhaps, James can sacrifice something to Ra. Say, a glove?

  As the ancients knew, it doesn't pay to mess with that powerful object up there.

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