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Original Issue

How The Mighty Have Fallen

That champs-can't-repeat hex is at work but good. The Cubs, Padres and Tigers seem out of it, and only the Royals are in contention

This is the best team I've ever left Florida with. There's no comparison between this year's team and last year's.

I've never seen worse baseball than what I've been watching recently.

Tiger manager Sparky Anderson had every reason to be optimistic this spring. His club had won 104 games and the world championship last year. Sparky went so far as to call Detroit the team of the '90s. In the papers last Sunday, there the Tigers were in third place in the American League East, 9½ games behind the Blue Jays.

Their World Series opponents, the Padres, had just as much reason to be optimistic in April. They apparently had it all. Speed. Pitching, both starters and relievers. Hitting for average and power. A marvelous blend of youth and experience. But as of last Sunday, San Diego trailed the Dodgers by eight games.

Last year was the dawning of a new era for Cub fans. The Bleacher Bums had their first winner of any kind since 1945. There was no room left on the bandwagon. Whether or not to put lights in Wrigley Field for postseason play was a major national concern this spring. The last anybody checked the standings, however, the Cubs were three games under .500, 14 games out in fourth place, and if Wrigley Field did have lights, they'd be out.

As it is written in the second Book of Samuel—no, not the one on the Phillies' second sacker—"How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!" How come? Why is it that division winners go to hell quicker than you can say Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.? Well, the reasons range from complacency to trying too hard, but one thing is clear. Nobody repeats anymore.

Together with defending AL West champion Kansas City, which was hanging in there 2½ games behind California, the four division winners were a combined 34 games out of first place. The Tigers, Cubs and Padres were ranked second, third and fourth among all 26 teams in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S baseball preview, but according to the standings, they would now rank ninth, 16th and 10th. The Royals, the least ballyhooed of all the division champs, are the ones with the best chance of repeating.

Not counting the aberrational strike year of 1981, no team has repeated since '78. In fact, the combined total of games behind has gotten progressively worse each year: 42 games out in '79; 45½ in '80; 48 in '82; 54 in '83; and a record 57½ last year.

It's as if they all had signed a collective bargaining agreement with the devil.

We could win 100 games.
—JIM FREY to his troops in May.

The plot for the Cubs' riches-to-rags story sickened with each injury. Last week they lost their fifth starting pitcher. Scott Sanderson tore a ligament in his right knee Tuesday when his spikes caught in the dirt on the mound. He joined Rick Sutcliffe (shoulder, hamstring, groin), Dennis Eckersley (shoulder), Steve Trout (elbow) and Dick Ruthven (toe) on the disabled list. As Sanderson hobbled off the field, pitching coach Billy Connors had a thought. "This is like Custer's Last Stand," Connors said to himself. "And they just got the last soldier."

In the off-season Chicago spent a total of $18 million to keep Sutcliffe, Trout and Eckersley from flying the coop. Last year this trio was 39-16. This year it's 24-16. In the cases of Sutcliffe and Eckersley, they tried to come back too soon. "It shows courage on the players' part," says general manager Dallas Green, "but not good common sense." Says Eckersley, "A lot of guys feel obligated, responsible, and it's not too smart to do that."

And so the Cub pitching is in shambles. "I don't even know the first names of our new pitchers," says reliever George Frazier.

"I had very high expectations for this club," says Frey. "But then we lost Sutcliffe and [Gary] Matthews and then we lost Trout and then we lost [Ryne] Sandberg for seven or eight days and then we lost Sanderson with a bad back for a couple of weeks and then we lost [Bob] Dernier and [Jody] Davis and then we got some pitchers back but they weren't fit and each succeeding start for them they got worse, when we thought with each succeeding start they'd get better."

Frey has held meetings almost every week. Last Wednesday Green came in and exhorted the club not to give up, upon which the Cubs went out, committed an error and a balk in the first inning and lost 8-7 to the Expos. When they called up Shawon Dunston and put Larry Bowa on waivers last week, Chicago pretty much acknowledged the season was over. Last year it ended on October 7. This year it ended on August 12.

I don't think I've ever been with a club that was more team-oriented.

Hostilities broke out in San Diego last week. Centerfielder Kevin McReynolds, recovering from a bruised heel and anxious to shake a recent slump, wanted to play, but Williams wouldn't put him in the lineup. "It's a little game, I guess," said McReynolds on Tuesday. "He'll play the power game to show who's boss. Well, I'll give him a little time to play. I may walk in at any minute and say something. I don't know. Am I mad? That'd be too satisfying to him. He's tried to play Mr. Macho before. You know, 'I run the team' stuff. It's a little game with him."

Go on, Kevin, don't hide your feelings. "It's a big deal, but it won't get to me. If you've ever heard the word 'front-runner,' that's where he sits. If you look at his past, that's the way it has been."

Williams, however, did not care to answer McReynolds, and when his critic got two singles and a double on Thursday, the manager said, "McReynolds was great. He got some big hits. I hope it continues."

The Cubs blame their misfortune on injuries, but the Padres are starting to blame it on themselves. General manager Jack McKeon was openly critical of Williams for telling the team after the All-Star break to play as if the season were about to end. Between Williams' speech and the strike deadline, the Padres went from a half game out to seven games out.

To be fair, San Diego has had its share of injuries—Rich Gossage is hurt and a retread Roy Lee Jackson actually won a game last Sunday. The loss of the speed of Alan Wiggins has hurt the Padres so much that they resorted to calling up the speedy yet flighty Miguel Dilone.

But there is the Dick Williams Burnout Factor (see Boston, Oakland, California and Montreal). Sooner or later, his players turn on him, and it looks as if they're turning in San Diego.

And so are the Fates. The other day Williams had to make a quick trip to an Imperial Beach, Calif. supermarket. He took his wife Norma's Mercedes and he was in such haste that he forgot to apply the parking brake. When he returned to his car, he found that it had rolled backwards and hit another one, damaging both a taillight and the rear bumper on the Mercedes. There's a metaphor for San Diego's season in there somewhere.

In my mind I play my Tigers against my Reds all the time. You know what? The Tigers win, and it doesn't even go seven games.

Of the three teams that have fallen from grace, the Tigers are the most surprising because they held the prospect of greatness. Last year they waltzed through the American League and lost only one game in the postseason. Says Tiger G.M. Bill Lajoie, "Everybody warned me this would happen, but I didn't want to believe it. I thought we had the kind of guys who would rise above it."

Oddly enough, the Tigers have hardly used the disabled list this season, so they don't have injuries to use as a crutch, so to speak. There are still plenty of alibis to choose from, however, and the Tigers have been squeezing a few for ripeness.

Sparky thinks the players' heads have been turned. "Too much outside stuff," he says. "There have been so many appearances it's unbelievable. Where do you make your living? Baseball. If you need that piddly outside stuff when you're making the money these players get, something's wrong. Is that worth having a bad year for? The World Series will be worth $75,000, but you can forget that."

Ace pitcher Jack Morris (13-6 this season) says, "It's the hitting. Last year our extra men did the job. Fielding has cost us a few games. Our aggression level is not as high."

Darrell Evans, who has 27 homers, says, "Maybe we're trying too hard." But Willie Hernandez, Cy Young and MVP winner, says, "It's a bad attitude. When we fell behind, everybody lost the hunger to win. Now I just collect my paycheck and keep my mouth shut."

The team is very careful not to blame Hernandez, because he was the single most important Detroit player last year, but he is also the single most important reason why the Tigers are 12 games worse than they were at this time in '84. Last season he saved 32 games in 33 opportunities. In his last 10 appearances, however, Hernandez has allowed as many homers (six) as he did in all of '84, while blowing four save opportunities and absorbing three losses.

The Tigers have been besieged with all sorts of problems. Catcher Lance Parrish was signing autographs in Kansas City when someone handed him a summons to appear in a lawsuit involving a trucking firm he owns with some relatives. Outfielder Chet Lemon was ticketed for speeding on his way to Tiger Stadium, and when he told shortstop Alan Trammell about it, Trammell said, "That wouldn't have happened last year." Anderson inadvertently put on the jersey of pitcher Doug Bair, whom he had released two days before, and outfielder Kirk Gibson told him, "You could lose your job wearing that."

No wonder utility man Marty Castillo is walking around these days wearing a SAVE THE TIGERS button.

What's happened to staying power? Is it competitive balance? Nah, all you have to do is watch the Pirates. Is it because of free agency? Nah, the Orioles went that route this year and look what's happened to them. Is it because everybody goes gunning for the champ? Perhaps. The Padres' Garry Templeton swears they've been seeing only frontline pitchers all season.

The answer can be found in that Faustian tale, Damn Yankees. You gotta have heart. Miles and miles and miles of heart.

Sparky Anderson says, "We will dance again, I promise you." For now, though, the Tigers—and Cubs and Padres—are sitting this one out. You Royals had better dance as fast as you can.



Padre Terry Kennedy goes tail over teakettle, not unlike his team.



Cub pitcher casualties include (from left) Ruthven, Sutcliffe, Eckersley, Sanderson and Trout. Trainer Tony Garofalo is fine but busy.



A beleaguered Frey lets off some steam.



The injured Gossage is out of the Padre lineup, while Garvey is plain out as he fails to slide against the Braves' Bruce Benedict.



How did Sparky lose his spark? Perhaps watching Hernandez go from hero to goat.



Willie Wilson dimples the wall minus the ball against the Blue Jays, proving that even Kansas City isn't immune from adversity.