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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : With Only Three to Beat, Dodgers, Angels Love Plan

In September of their long seasons, the Angels and Dodgers received heartening news Thursday. They became instant contenders as major league owners, including their own, approved realignment of the American and National leagues into three divisions each and expansion of the playoffs from four to eight teams.

The Angels will play in the American League West with the Texas Rangers, Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners. The Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals are moving to the AL Central.

The Dodgers will play in the National League West with the San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies. The Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros are moving to the NL Central.

It hasn’t been decided yet in which division the Atlanta Braves will be playing, but the only thing that should matter to the Dodgers is that it won’t be the West.

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A four-team division presents far fewer complications than seven, particularly when the Braves, or the White Sox and Royals, aren’t among the four.

“Where we were looking at ’95 to be competitive (for a division title), now we’re looking at next year,” Angel Manager Buck Rodgers said from Detroit.

“You take Chicago and Kansas City out, and it figures you’ve got to be closer. Everyone’s time scheme is stepped up.

“Obviously Texas will be the main club now, but everyone is going to feel they’re not that far away.”

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Fred Claire, the Dodgers’ executive vice president, was more cautious.

“Have our chances to get to the postseason improved?” he said. “Yes.

“Is there a difference without Atlanta, Houston and Cincinnati in the division. Of course.

“But whatever the alignment is, it doesn’t change our direction. We still have to make improvements, still have to perform, still have to get better.

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“You can’t say we need to do less, because ultimately we have to beat all the teams to achieve our true goal (of winning a World Series).”

The Dodgers and Angels will also still have to beat all the teams to win their four-team divisions.

The leagues will still play what is called a balanced schedule. The Dodgers, for instance, will still play 12 or 13 games against every other team.

In the current scheme, every team plays more games out of its division than within. With the smaller divisions next year, every team will play even more games out of its division and is even more apt to be playing inter-division games in September, with the race or wild-card berth on the line.

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Nevertheless, the owners were reluctant to go to an unbalanced plan that might force many to give up profitable rivalries. The Angels, for instance, still draw their biggest gates when Detroit, Boston and New York are in Anaheim.

Those teams will be coming as they always have, but the results will now produce something of a different ledger.

Neither the Angels nor Dodgers would be in the hunt for a division title or wild-card berth if the divisions had been realigned and the playoffs expanded for ’93, but it is obvious that a four- or five-team race can be reshaped more quickly, the wins and losses having a more dramatic impact, no matter who the wins and losses are against.

That’s the point. The owners are hoping to stimulate late-season interest with six division races and a playoff plan that allows for a wild-card team with the next-best record to qualify.

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George W. Bush, general partner of the Texas Rangers, was the only owner to vote against it Thursday, saying he represented the “silent voices of the purists” and that history would prove him right.

Perhaps, but in mid-September of the current season, you have the four division leaders and only five of the other 24 teams within five games of the division lead. How exciting is that? Fifteen teams are 10 or more games out. Some of that stems from their own mismanagement, but a tighter race in a smaller division may encourage some to be more aggressive.

Bush and the purists will say that winning a four- or five-team division isn’t as meaningful, but the dynamics of a tighter race by a smaller field might provide new meaning. It’s worth a look, and this still isn’t hockey, where 16 of 24 teams qualify for the playoffs, or basketball, where 16 of 27 make it, or football, where 10 of the 28 qualify.

Talk about cheap.

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“I’d be concerned if we were watering it down like they do in other sports, but I don’t see that here,” Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said. “I think this is great. I think it’s going to be exciting.”

Rodgers agreed, saying he thinks it fits two bills--fan interest and team incentive down the stretch. “I used to be a die-hard traditionalist, but I think this is about the best thing that could happen to the game,” he said.

Lasorda and Rodgers are biased, of course. Their chances are significantly improved by a realignment that will be approved by the players union as soon as an agreement is reached on how the players will be paid.

As a steppingstone to the more teams and more jobs of expansion, it’s everything the union wanted when it informed the owners that it would not approve expanding the playoffs by staying in the current alignment and adding the second-place finisher from each division, a plan, the union said, that compromised the integrity of the races.

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New Order

A look at the alignment adopted by baseball owners, pending approval by the Major League Players Assn. The three division winners in each league, plus the team with the next-best record, would advance to an expanded playoff format: NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST DIVISION

* Dodgers

* Colorado Rockies

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* San Diego Padres

* San Francisco Giants CENTRAL DIVISION

* TBA

* Chicago Cubs

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* Cincinnati Reds

* Houston Astros

* St. Louis Cardinals EAST DIVISION

* Atlanta Braves*

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* Florida Marlins*

* Montreal Expos

* New York Mets

* Philadelphia Phillies

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* Pittsburgh Pirates*

* AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST DIVISION

* Angels

* Oakland Athletics

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* Seattle Mariners

* Texas Rangers CENTRAL DIVISION

* Chicago White Sox

* Cleveland Indians

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* Kansas City Royals

* Milwaukee Brewers

* Minnesota Twins EAST DIVISION

* Baltimore Orioles

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* Boston Red Sox

* Detroit Tigers

* New York Yankees

* Toronto Blue Jays

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One of these teams will be put in Central Division. The National League will determine placement within seven days.

* REALIGNMENT

Major league baseball owners break with tradition and approve formats for three divisions in each league and expanded playoffs. A1

* THE NEW (TV) DEAL

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A six-year pact with ESPN will bring baseball owners much less money and viewers about half as many games. C8


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