Winfield, Baker comb Ghana for baseball talent

NEW YORK - Dave Winfield thinks Ghana could produce quality baseball players.

"We know they've got some talent. We know they kicked America's behind in soccer," the Hall of Famer said Thursday before flying to Africa for a goodwill tour.

Former Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker, Major League Baseball vice president Bob Watson and former major leaguers Reggie Smith and Al Jackson also are making the trip along with New York Mets manager Omar Minaya.

"All you have to do is see the last World Cup and see how great athletes those guys were from Ghana," Minaya said, thinking back to the Black Stars' 2-1 victory last June that eliminated the United States in the first round. "You look at those athletes and you say, 'Why can't they play baseball given the opportunity?' "

Based on last year's opening-day rosters and disabled lists, 27.4 percent of the 813 players in the major leagues were born outside the 50 states. The Dominican Republic had the most of those with 85, followed by Venezuela (43), Puerto Rico (33), Canada and Mexico (14 apiece), Japan (nine), Cuba (six), South Korea (five), Panama (four), Taiwan (three), Australia and Colombia (two each) and Aruba, Curacao and Nicaragua (one apiece).

In the minors, 2,964 of 6,568 players were born outside the 50 states (45.1 percent).

Baker was especially happy to make the trip. He said his mother, F. Christine Baker, was given a trip to Ghana by his family as a present 37 years ago after she graduated from night school.

"If I was still managing, I probably wouldn't be going. It's too close to spring training," said Baker, let go by the Cubs after last season.

Past efforts by Major League Baseball in Africa included sending professional and amateur coaches to Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, South Africa, Uganda, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the commissioner's office said. The sport also has donated equipment to groups in those nations over the past decade.

MLB also gave equipment for the 2003 All-Africa games, invited players from Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa to attend its academy in Tirrenia, Pisa, and sent a coach in residence to South Africa.

Armas gets $3 million this year, and the deal includes a $5 million mutual option for 2008 with a $500,000 buyout. His 2008 salary can increase depending on his performance this year.

The Pirates expect to begin the season with four left-handed starters, and have spent much of the offseason looking for a right-hander to compete for the No. 5 spot with right-hander Shawn Chacon.

The 28-year-old Armas was 9-12 with a 5.03 ERA in 30 starts with the Washington Nationals last season. He made his major league debut with Montreal in 1999 and has a 48-60 record and a 4.45 ERA in 151 career starts.

He'd never been traded. He went from a team near his Kentucky hometown to one on the East Coast. He went from a club contending for a playoff berth to one heading for a third consecutive last-place finish.

Now he's ready to make his home in the nation's capital. Kearns agreed Thursday to a three-year contract that guarantees the outfielder $17.5 million and adds a long-term piece to Washington's rebuilding effort.

"I don't think there's going to be a better place to be very soon," Kearns said. "I feel comfortable here, and I feel good about where it's going."

Matheny's announcement Thursday that he is hanging up his catching gear after 13 major league seasons came as no surprise. He didn't play again for the San Francisco Giants after May 31 following a series of foul tips he took in the mask - and doctors warned him that he was more susceptible to even further damage if he received another blow.

"This is not a shoulder, a knee or an elbow," Matheny said on a conference call. "We're talking about the brain. ... I didn't expect this. I don't think anybody did."

In early December, Matheny underwent another extensive battery of tests at the Sports Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to determine if his symptoms had subsided. They had not.

He said that on Dec. 28 he tried to exercise and after his heart rate had been elevated he experienced the same troublesome symptoms for a day and a half, such as fatigue, memory problems and a tough time focusing and seeing straight.

The 36-year-old Matheny played his last full season in 2005, his first year with San Francisco, and earned his fourth NL Gold Glove award. He owns a .239 career batting average with 67 home runs and 443 RBIs in 1,305 games for Milwaukee (1994-98), Toronto (1999), St. Louis (2000-04) and the Giants (2005-06).

Matheny is known as a fierce competitor who often was the first to show up at the stadium during spring training, sometimes at 6 a.m. He will miss his relationship with pitchers the most.

"As my catcher and as a person he just meant so much to me," said Giants pitcher Matt Morris, who also threw to Matheny in St. Louis. "On the field he taught me how to be a professional. Off the field he taught me to be a man and a respectful person. He's going to be sorely missed by everybody.

"Unfortunately through his head trauma and concussions, it's just ending a little abruptly to him. He was a guy so hard-nosed and he wanted to play every day, so for it to end this way is unfortunate. After the blows to the head, he wasn't the same. We want the old Mike Matheny back, baseball player or not."

Now, Matheny will spend more time at home with his wife and their five children.

"It's been a fun ride," he said. "The finality of it just kind of hit today as I was signing the papers. I have been blessed beyond what I could have imagined. For me it's all been kind of a fantasy ride the whole time."

When the Giants acquired Bengie Molina during the winter meetings in December, general manager Brian Sabean said he had spoken to Matheny.

Matheny told Sabean he understood the team had to move forward with its plans for next year, with or without him.

Sabean said at the time that it made him "sick to my stomach" to replace Matheny, but San Francisco did get a front-line catcher in Molina.

"I think it's safe to say while we knew this day was going to come, you're never really prepared for the finality of it all," Sabean said Thursday. "We wish him the best. We're going to sorely miss him as an individual and as a baseball player."

Athletes sustain an estimated 300,000 concussions nationwide each year, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's concussion program. Most recover fully, but experts believe a person who suffers a concussion is more prone to one in the future.

The concussion center in Pittsburgh developed a computerized test called "ImPACT" that puts the brain to work and derives data about points of trauma - measuring attention, memory, processing speed and reaction time.

Matheny hopes his case shows that concussions happen in baseball, too, and such testing could be beneficial.

"I think all of baseball is going to learn from it," Sabean said.

Matheny plans to take it easy and has promised his family he will give himself time to heal. Doctors have told him it could still be six or nine months until he's fully recovered.

"I know Little League is probably going to be my arena right now," he said.