Sierra latest contestant in Comeback Week

It’s Comeback Week in baseball. Sometime in the next couple of days, Ruben Sierra will stride to the plate for the Texas Rangers, proving just about anybody can do it.

Sierra arguably has the most impressive baseball resume among this week’s returnees, who also include Tom Gordon and Deion Sanders, but he’s also likely to have the least long-term impact.

After all, it’s not as if the Rangers are in dire need of a slugger, even if Sierra were to magically rediscover the performance level that had some people mentioning his name a decade ago in the same breath with the words “Hall of Fame.” And his return to the Rangers could very well be as short as the September stint he had in Texas last year.

Sierra says he honestly believes he can be a big-time major leaguer again. Scouts are politely skeptical. He has been added to the roster because Chad Curtis went on the 15-day disabled list. He’ll have to do a lot in a hurry to avoid a return to Oklahoma City. But wouldn’t it be an odd twist if he gets his first swing Friday night, the same night the Atlantic League season opens? Jose Canseco debuts in that league for Newark (N.J.) Friday. It was Canseco, after all, who was the other key figure in the Texas-Oakland trade from which Sierra’s career never recovered. And it was the independent Atlantic League where Sierra had to go to keep his career alive a couple of years ago.

The other comebacks could very well be key elements in baseball’s most wide-open race, the National League Central. Gordon came out of the Cubs bullpen on Thursday, his first major league game after losing more than a year to injury. It wasn’t a save situation but the Cubs haven’t had one of those since Gordon was activated on Tuesday.

A dependable closer would be a huge lift for the Cubs, who have been hanging around the lead in a division that nobody seems able to take over. Defending champion St. Louis remains inconsistent with erratic pitching and the hole in the lineup left from Mark McGwire’s absence. Houston also is a team likely to improve into the second half of the season but in the meantime the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds are gaining confidence that they belong.

How Gordon handles his role will have plenty to do with how the Cubs feel about themselves. Sure, Jeff Fassero provided a boost with his April ninth-inning work. But Gordon brings better odds of long-term success, if he can and will close. And the most amazing piece of this whole scenario is that Gordon already is grumbling about his role. He’s checked in with his agent because he hasn’t been closing. He wants to close, he says, and he wants manager Don Baylor to know that.

Earth to Tom Gordon: You have a fabulous opportunity here. Don’t cross Don Baylor. Don’t cross Cubs fans, who are itching to canonize you if you become an integral part of that rarity, a Wrigley Field team with a legitimate chance. Prove you can do the job. Prove you’re back. Then talk.

Even Deion has little to say about his return to the majors. It was a Prime Time moment when he smacked three hits including a homer in his first game on Tuesday. He’s 0-for-9 since. But Sanders appears committed to baseball at a level we have never seen from him. Maybe it was his football career flashing before his eyes last fall as it became apparent that he has lost enough of a step to take him below Pro Bowl caliber.

Managers who faced Sanders during his April tour through Triple-A raved about his talent level. “Too good for the International League” was the consensus. So, it’s not the physical elements that will determine what Sanders can do for the Reds and to the NL Central race. It’s being serious enough to apply himself to a couple of elements of his game: Displaying patience at the plate and studying pitchers when he’s standing on first base.

That Neon Deion speed might not be elite-level cornerback stuff anymore. But it’s way above average on a baseball diamond. Sanders says he’s working on working the count, doing the things a leadoff hitter does best. He was jumping all over first pitches on Tuesday debut but chalked that up to the adrenaline of the moment. If he can bump up the on-base percentage and become a serious base-stealing threat, he can pump up the Reds. Leadoff man Barry Larkin left Thursday’s game with a minor injury. So, Deion could get his chance quickly.

If it works and Ken Griffey Jr. gets back into the lineup, the Reds’ chances improve. And so do their chances of using an outfield surplus to create further upgrades to the roster.

Below the radar: And Ramon Martinez quietly slips out of the major leagues. In this day of medical marvels, Pedro’s older brother is one who never could rediscover the magic after major surgery. Remember, Ramon was a star pitcher with the Dodgers and was getting better all the time. He was a staff ace. Not quite Pedro, but who is? A class act who’s had a lot to do with Pedro’s maturation as the superstar, Ramon deserved better.

One player who can’t help but go out with fanfare is Cal Ripken. The question is, when? The debate is on in Baltimore. It’s probably a bit premature but Ripken does not look good at the plate. His back problems are apparent when he runs. Scouts are shaking their heads when they watch him. There’s no easy answer.

Ripken had virtually no spring training and he chose to work into top shape on the active roster rather than tale a DL stint coming out of Florida. We can’t be sure how far back he can come and how much he has left.

He’s not hurting the Orioles — they have no heir apparent at third base — or their chances because they can’t be considered a contender.

Ripken likely isn’t sure how much longer he wants to play. Don’t rule out next year if he ends up with a decent season. He’s probably more certain he doesn’t want a victory tour. So, we could be just as shocked when Cal decides to say, “That’s all.” Just like we were when he ended his record consecutive games streak.

It’s a sensitive situation for the player and the organization. And there’s little doubt the moment of decision isn’t far off.

Chatter: Johnny Oates is out, but the Rangers are still groping. The frustration is mounting. Despite all that offense, they’re 11-17. They lead the American League in runs but also have the worst earned run average (6.72) in the major leagues and have given up six runs or more in 16 of the last 17 games. The Tigers whacked Rick Helling, supposedly one of the mainstays of the Texas staff, for five runs in the first inning Thursday. … Texas has a better record than the AL West’s bigger disappointment — Oakland — but the A’s have a better chance of righting themselves. The Rangers’ struggles are about as advertised. They hit and they don’t pitch. No surprises. But Oakland is hitting far below expected levels and the bullpen has struggled far more than anticipated. At least the A’s have the comfort of realizing their record should improve significantly merely by having many players perform at or close to past levels. The A’s had one of those charmed games on Thursday, just the kind that can turn things around. Oakland trailed 2-1 going into the ninth inning against Toronto closer Billy Koch. They got a bloop. They got an infield single. And they got a passed ball with two outs to tie the game. The A’s finally won in the 15th and the length of the 3-2 game could be even more crucial. That’s a lot of solid bullpen work after a strong start from expected ace Tim Hudson, who allowed just a couple of solo homers to Carlos Delgado. Don’t expect anyone in Oakland, or on any other team for that matter, to admit it. But when you fall a dozen games behind in April, the wild card concept removes a lot of the pressure. That extra playoff spot means teams can exercise patience. And if the A’s don’t turn it around, GM Billy Beane might be glad he didn’t cave in to Jason Giambi’s demand for a no-trade clause. At least he’s kept the option of major deals as the trading deadline nears. And if the A’s get back on track, Beane still has the option of granting Giambi the clause and getting the deal done in a heartbeat.