No Asterisks, Please

Handicapping the races in baseball's first full season since 1993.

Baseball fans are excited. Oh, maybe not the yuppies who love the Twins when they're winning, are indifferent when they're losing, and don't really pay attention either way. But the real baseball fans, the ones who start thinking about next season in November, the ones who know about Todd Walker and Marc Barcelo, the ones who can't afford the seats where you're close enough to read Kirby's lips when he talks to the catcher... those fans are excited.

Why are we excited? Because after one season without an ending and another that was about 20 games too short, the schedule returns to 162 games. Now, some of the players complain that 162 games is too many. Who cares? One of the wonders of baseball is its day-in, day-out soap opera of injuries, lineup changes, road trips, streaks, and slumps--along with everything else that can happen when you get 25 guys together and make them compete at an extraordinarily high level for six months with only an occasional day off.

Incidentally, the more games a team plays, the better the chance you'll see its true level of ability. The Indians and the Braves would have won division titles in 1995 whether the season had lasted 144 or 244 games. But were the Dodgers really better than the Rockies? Were the Mariners really better than the Angels? The only good thing to come out of the abbreviated schedule was the wonderful playoff game for the AL West pennant.

AL EAST

1. Baltimore

2. Boston

3. New York

4. Toronto

5. Detroit

In recent years, each offseason has seen the Baltimore Orioles--fueled by the revenue stream otherwise known as Oriole Park at Camden Yards--invest in big-name free agents. All they've got to show for it over the last two seasons is a 134-122 record; it has now been 13 years since the once-proud O's tasted the postseason. This winter, Baltimore again spent a lot of money, most notably on future Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar. But even more important, they added the best manager and the best general manager of the late 1980s: Davey Johnson and Pat Gillick. Johnson skippered the Mets to a World Championship back then, and Gillick was the genius behind the Toronto Blue Jays for most of their history. After a curious exile from the game, Johnson guided the Reds to a 1995 pennant in his first full season back. He was forced to leave anyway, apparently because owner Marge Schott didn't care for Johnson's table manners. Johnson and Gillick are two of the few nonplayers who can truly make a difference in the standings. And the final standings will show Baltimore on top if they can sort out a complicated outfield picture.

The Boston Red Sox haven't won two consecutive titles, division or otherwise, since 1915-1916, when a young lefty named Babe Ruth won 41 games over the two seasons. Can they do it again? I wouldn't bet on it. At least three regulars--Tim Naehring, John Valentin and Mo Vaughn--enjoyed career years, and erratic knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is unlikely to go 16-8 again. The Sox signed Heathcliff Slocumb to finish games, but what if last year's 32-save season with the Phillies was a fluke? On the other hand, if Slocumb really is that good, and if Roger Clemens returns to form after three spotty seasons, and if Jose Canseco stays healthy enough to play 140 games, the Sox will be tough to beat.

It might be said that the New York Yankees blew their chances for the 1996 pennant last October 8. That night, the Yanks lost the decisive Divisional Playoff game to Seattle after then-manager Buck Showalter--one of the more intelligent men in the game--refused to remove a dead-armed David Cone in the eighth inning of a tight contest. The Mariners eventually won the game and the series, initiating a chain of events that ended with Showalter's being replaced by Joe Torre. Torre is one of those major-league retreads who get multiple chances not because they actually help a club but because they look the part and know all the managerial clichés by heart. Still, with prized prospects like Derek Jeter and Ruben Rivera on their way to the lineup, the Yankees' future looks good. At least, it would if George Steinbrenner weren't back to his old tricks. The first time Jeter hits a 2-for-32 skid, will King George order Torre to stick Tony Fernandez in the lineup? Yes, and that's why the Yankees won't win anything.

Four or five years ago, who would have believed that in 1995, Toronto and Oakland--the American League's dominant teams over a nearly decade-long stretch--would both finish last? Toronto's decline is perhaps the best example in baseball history of just how important a general manager can be. With Pat Gillick running the show, the Blue Jays wound up as the model expansion franchise. But now he's gone, and the Jays tied the Twins for the worst record in the majors last season at 56-88. There's hope for the future. Young players Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Gonzalez all might play in an All-Star game someday. But if the Jays finished fifth last year with Roberto Alomar, where will they finish without him?

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