The 1998 baseball season figures to present a taxing test of a fan's--and reporter's-- memory, attentiveness and supply of Excedrin. Talk about overload. Consider:
The Milwaukee Brewers are now in the National League Central, the Detroit Tigers are in the American League Central, the Arizona Diamondbacks are in the National League West, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are in the American League East and Rupert Murdoch is in the owner's box at Dodger Stadium--when he's not in Bangkok, Beijing or Bombay.
The debut of the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays requires tracking an additional 50 players, including 20 or more pitchers, which further dilutes a diluted commodity and means a daily home run watch as Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and every biceps-buffed utility man pursues Roger Maris and the Babe.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
The answer to that question is money, of course. Naming rights are now part of almost every club's revenue stream. The Angels formerly played at Anaheim Stadium. Now they play at Edison International Field of Anaheim. The Diamondbacks will play at Bank One Ballpark, where a swimming pool in the right-field bleacher area gives new meaning to having a dip. The Devil Rays will play at Tropicana Field, which was formerly the Suncoast Dome and the White Elephant Dome, since it was built on the come and it took 10 years to land a team. In the works: Miller Park in Milwaukee and PacBell Park in San Francisco.
WHO'S IN CHARGE?
For the time being, there are five new or recycled managers: Tim Johnson with the Toronto Blue Jays, Jerry Manuel with the Chicago White Sox, Ray Miller with the Baltimore Orioles, Larry Rothschild with Tampa Bay and Buck Showalter with Arizona-- finally getting to do the job he was hired for almost three years ago. It may be undeserved, but with new ownership and the Dodgers looking to kick their frustrations of the last three years, Bill Russell seems to be on the hottest of the hot seats, particularly with bench coach Mike Scioscia coming off a successful managerial debut in the Arizona Fall League and sitting only a lineup card away.
YOU GOTTA HAVE A SCORECARD (EVEN IF THEY NOW COST $5)
In a transitory era, the 1997-98 off-season may have set a transition record. Pedro Martinez registered the biggest score when he was traded to the Boston Red Sox and became the highest-paid player with a five-year, $75-million contract. Among other high rollers: Chuck Knoblauch and Chili Davis are now with the New York Yankees, Andres Galarraga is with the Atlanta Braves, Kenny Lofton is back with the Cleveland Indians (where he joins Dwight Gooden and Travis Fryman), Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs have gone home to Tampa Bay (where they join Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez), Orel Hershiser is with the dreaded Giants, Darryl Kile and Mike Lansing are with the Colorado Rockies, Moises Alou is with the Houston Astros; Matt Williams, Jay Bell and Andy Benes are cashing checks in Arizona; Rickey Henderson has returned to the Oakland Athletics, Cecil Fielder hopes to tip the scale in the Angels' favor, Randy Myers (Toronto), Dennis Eckersley (Boston), Rod Beck (Chicago Cubs), Jeff Brantley (St. Louis Cardinals) and Robb Nen (San Francisco) are housed in new bullpens; Joe Carter and Doug Drabek are with Baltimore, Kevin Brown is the new ace with the San Diego Padres, and many of his former Florida Marlin teammates have been scattered by owner Wayne Huizenga like loose change.
THE BOTTOM LINE?
The one certainty is that the Marlins won't repeat as World Series winner, National League champion or wild card. Shoeless Joe? Huizenga's liquidation of the Marlins after buying a winner may be more scandalous.
Here's how they finish:
NL West: 1--San Diego, 2--Colorado, 3--Dodgers, 4--San Francisco, 5--Arizona. Comment: Brown's addition is big, but so is the fact that Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Wally Joyner and Brown are competing for new contracts, and the Padres are playing for a new ballpark. Runner-up Rockies should be the NL wild card.
NL Central: 1--St. Louis, 2--Chicago, 3--Milwaukee, 4--Houston, 5--Cincinnati, 6--Pittsburgh. Comment: The question in a division won by Houston with 84 wins last season is which of these teams is the lesser of the evils? The Cardinals fit the bill. They'll have McGwire for a full year, and Brian Jordan, who sets the tone, is sound after appearing in only 47 games last year because of a back injury.
NL East: 1--Atlanta, 2--New York, 3--Montreal, 4--Philadelphia, 5--Florida. Comment: The Braves should have their easiest time yet, given the generally hapless state of the Expos, Phillies and Marlins. The only interest: Can the Mets challenge the Rockies for the wild card.
AL West: 1--Seattle, 2--Angels, 3--Texas, 4--Oakland. Comment: Should be a dogfight between the top two, with the loser having a wild-card shot, but the star-crossed history of the Angels makes it difficult to pick them, although they may have the better pitching staff overall and enough offense to stay in the ring with the Mariners. Seattle has to hope that an unhappy Randy Johnson stays focused and the bullpen doesn't incinerate.
AL Central: 1--Cleveland, 2--Chicago, 3--Detroit, 4--Minnesota, 5--Kansas City. Comment: The Indians continue to look for pitching help, hoping Jaret Wright, 22, can carry the rotation as he did in October, but remain the class in the Central, where the White Sox have become a halfway house with Albert Belle, Ruben Sierra and Wil Cordero, whose pursuit and signing is a case of Bad Wil Hunting.
AL East: 1--New York, 2--Baltimore, 3--Toronto, 4--Boston, 5--Tampa Bay. Comment: Clearly the toughest division, with the Blue Jays and Red Sox vastly improved and the Devil Rays competitive, but it should again come down to a clash of the titans, with Yankee and Oriole payrolls nearing $70 million and owners George Steinbrenner and Peter Angelos always ready to ante up. Yankee depth may be the difference, with the loser likely to advance as wild card.
Playoffs: Atlanta pitching is difficult to ignore in October. The Braves don't always get it done, but should this time, ultimately beating the Yankees in the World Series.
Bet this: Murdoch didn't buy the Dodgers to be an also-ran. What changes evolve and how swiftly-- on and off the field--should be one of the intriguing stories of 1998 and beyond. Wary owners are convinced Murdoch will pay the price where and when needed.
The neighboring Padres, most concerned of all about the arrival of that potential "monster to the north," voted approval of the sale, but largely on behalf of industry unity. San Diego officials are convinced the deal would have died in secret ballot.
The uneasy mood was best captured by Padre President Larry Lucchino, who said, "All's well that ends."