Mariners center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. makes the game look so easy that sometimes it's hard to appreciate all of his marvelous skills. He has been widely recognized as the best player in the game for so long that his making a run at baseball's home run record seems only natural.

He's off to a good start. As play began yesterday, he led the majors with 19 home runs, one ahead of Jose Canseco, and was on a pace to hit 66. He also had a career-best 16-game hitting streak during which he had batted .420 and raised his season average from .270 to .326.

"See the ball, hit the ball," he said. "I don't care where it goes as long as it goes out."

His hot streak started after a stopover in Cincinnati, where he took batting practice with his dad, Ken Sr., the Reds' hitting coach. "He spent some time with me, got me straightened out, then told me to get lost, he wanted to pitch to his grandson, Trey," Griffey said. "That's what he really wanted to do that day."

Dodgers Let Hough Go

The Dodgers fired pitching coach Charlie Hough last week, making him the first scapegoat for the team's 22-22 start. He was replaced by Claude Osteen, who was promoted from Class AAA Albuquerque in the hope that someone else can straighten out Carlos Perez (1-6, 6.39 ERA), Chan Ho Park (4-3, 4.68) and Darren Dreifort (5-3, 5.02). Of course, there's always the chance that the Dodgers, who spent a lot of the winter bragging about themselves, simply miscalculated their talent.

"It's really a shame when a person who is as good a guy on and off the field as Charlie Hough winds up getting fired because of how we pitched," said ace Kevin Brown, the only starter who has performed up to expectations. "We failed Charlie Hough. Charlie Hough didn't fail us."

Baker's Giant Milestone

Dusty Baker won his 500th game as the Giants' manager this week. Only Roger Craig (586) has won more since the franchise moved west. Asked how much longer he wanted to manage, Baker recalled a conversation with former 49ers coach George Seifert during a duck-hunting trip.

"George asked how long I wanted to manage," Baker said. "I told him I'll maybe manage till I'm 55. He told me, `Don't sell yourself short.' He was right. I enjoy what I'm doing. I changed my assessment that day. ... Right now, I'm only 50. This is only my seventh year. That's not much compared to a lot of managers, but I feel I'm getting better and better. If I don't manage, what am I going to do, farm everyday?"

No Minor Accomplishment

No one in baseball does his job better than Rangers General Manager Doug Melvin, who was wearing an extra-wide grin Tuesday after watching his team defeat the Devil Rays with the help of three rookie pitchers -- Ryan Glynn, Mike Venafro and Jeff Zimmerman. Glynn went 4B innings in his first big league start. Venafro pitched 3C innings for his first career victory. And Zimmerman pitched a scoreless ninth to lower his ERA to 1.42.

Melvin phoned Rangers minor league director Reid Nichols after the game to offer congratulations. "It was encouraging to see," Melvin said. "We've tried to walk a fine line here for several years, trying to win and develop young players. ... We can have some young players make an impact on the team."

After being ousted by Orioles owner Peter Angelos in 1993, Melvin went to Texas and inherited one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Six years later, the Rangers finally have a pipeline of talent and are trying to make the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.

Williams Catches a Break

The Pirates rewarded reliever Mike Williams with a two-year, $2.2 million contract. That may not sound like big money for some, but it's a motherlode for Williams, 30, who was released by the Phillies in 1996 and the Red Sox and Royals in 1997. The Pirates gave him a chance last season, and this season he has emerged as a first-rate closer, with nine saves and a 1.52 ERA. "Even when you are in the minor leagues, you hold out hope that good things like this are going to happen to you some day," he said. "But if you would have told me a year ago at this time that I'd be signing a multi-year contract, I would have had to admit it was a long shot."

His career began to turn around last year at Class AAA Nashville when he developed a quality breaking pitch. "It's a unique pitch in that it has a different arc than most breaking pitches," Pirates General Manager Cam Bonifay said. "It's made him a legitimate two-pitch pitcher and given him another weapon."

Kim Is on the Move

Arizona's top minor league pitcher, Byung-Hyun Kim, has dominated hitters in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, and was rewarded with a promotion to the big leagues. The 20-year-old native of South Korea debuted yesterday in the ninth inning against the Mets, striking out Mike Piazza to earn the save.

Other News and Notes

With Tony Gwynn, Wally Joyner and Chris Gomez sidelined by injuries last week, the Padres had just one everyday starter left from last year's National League championship team. Take a bow, second baseman Quilvio Veras. Padres Manager Bruce Bochy was so unhappy after one recent loss that he called a 17-minute postgame meeting. "I'm ticked off," he said. "I'm tired of looking at some of these mistakes. I can deal with losing if we get beat fighting. Right now, I don't see a lot of fight." ...

Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa will open a restaurant later this season. "There will be Spanish and American food," Sosa said. "It will be international with a little of everything. I like chicken and rice. ... I'm so glad everything has worked out for me and all the companies that have asked me for endorsements. They have given me this opportunity, and it's good for the Latino market, here and in the Dominican Republic." ...

In Atlanta, they're learning how the other half lives: The Braves' starting pitching is struggling for the first time in years. With John Smoltz on the disabled list and Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine a combined 7-8, Atlanta's starters are 20-14 with a 4.27 ERA -- fifth in the National League.

But don't underestimate the Braves. There's no other team capable of taking control of the National League East, virtually no one doubts that Maddux and Glavine will get straightened out, and once Smoltz returns from the disabled list, all will be normal with the team. Finally, the Braves are doing everything else well. They're scoring runs at a team-record clip (5.4 per game) and are on pace to steal 123 bases. Most impressive, their bullpen has the NL's second-best ERA at 3.19, and new closer John Rocker has converted seven of his past eight save chances. ...

The A's have been one of the surprise stories in the American League this season, but they're still a box office flop, drawing fewer than 10,000 fans in 12 of their first 24 home games. They've drawn more than 18,850 only three times. Only the Expos have drawn fewer fans this season.

WORTH QUOTING

"She called me to have a glass of red wine once, because she knows I like red wine. But I like it better when it hasn't been chilled and doesn't come with a screw-off cap."

-- Dodgers Manager

Davey Johnson, recalling his days as Marge Schott's manager with the Reds

BY THE NUMBERS

Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez (above) entered the weekend hitting .875 with the bases loaded. He's hitting .419 in such situations for his career.

The Rockies had gone 26 games without a save until Dave Veres pitched a scoreless ninth to get one against the Astros. Colorado has lost seven games in its final at-bat.

The Diamondbacks have 47 stolen bases in 57 attempts this season, the NL's best success rate.

Remember Mookie Wilson? His stepson, Preston, is making a run at the National League rookie of the year award with 11 home runs for the Marlins.

The Indians have had their projected starting lineup on the field only four times.

OOPS AWARD

When an Atlanta restaurant chain printed some team posters for distribution at Turner Field, Braves center fielder Andruw Jones was pictured standing behind Manager Bobby Cox holding two fingers above his boss's head.

Coming Up This Week

Wednesday to Friday: Major League Baseball free agent draft

Friday: Interleague play begins, with these series of note:

New York Mets at New York Yankees

Atlanta Braves at Boston Red Sox

Montreal Expos at Toronto Blue Jays

Florida Marlins at Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Anaheim Angels at Los Angeles Dodgers

Oakland A's at San Francisco Giants

CAPTION: Slugger Ken Griffey makes a 16-game hitting streak look easy. "See the ball, hit the ball," he said.