The only sure thing in this division is that the California Angels will finish last. With no clear favorite among five contenders, and with the confounding question of where the fast-improving Seattle Mariners fit in, figuring out the rest of the West is a challenge. When a division race is this jumbled, it's sometimes best to go with a superstar who has the ability, charisma and enthusiasm to elevate the play of his team as no other player can. In this case that player would be centerfielder Kirby Puckett of the MINNESOTA TWINS.
"If we had lost Kirby, I wouldn't be sitting in the stands during games, I'd be hiding in a private box," Twin general manager Andy MacPhail says with a laugh. He signed Puckett, a free agent in the off-season, to a five-year, $30 million deal in December. "I didn't realize how much he meant to Twins fans.
"Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the ['91] World Series; he left, and our fans didn't care. Frank Viola was booed at home his first start after winning the Cy Young [in '88]. But people have come up to me all spring and said, 'We're so glad you signed Kirby.' Our fans are more optimistic than I've ever seen. Ticket sales are higher than ever."
And that's true despite the loss of two other top players, pitcher John Smiley and shortstop Greg Gagne, to free agency. The starting rotation beyond Kevin Tapani (16-11, 3.97 ERA) and Scott Erickson (13-12, 3.40) is a concern, but two of the best pitchers in Florida this spring were Minnesota's young, hard-throwing righthanders Pat Mahomes and Willie Banks. The left side of the infield won't be terribly productive with Scott Leius at shortstop after two years at third base and a Mike Pagliarulo-Terry Jorgensen platoon at third. Also, first baseman Kent Hrbek struggled all spring in his comeback from surgery on both shoulders.
But none of this seems worth fretting over when Puckett is bouncing around the clubhouse, smiling, full of life. "I can't imagine what it would be like if Kirby wasn't here," says outfielder Randy Bush. "How can you drag an ego in here when Kirby is here? He has no ego. Everything we do starts with him." Puckett (.329, 110 RBIs in '92) plays the game correctly and passionately, and his teammates fall in step. In fact, Twin infielder Jeff Reboulet wears a T-shirt that says GO AHEAD, BE LIKE MIKE. I WANNA BE LIKE PUCK.
In mid-March, when four baseball writers were asked to predict the winner of the American League West, each one named a different team. One writer selected the OAKLAND ATHLETICS. "Someone picked Oakland?" said an American League coach. "What idiot did that? They have no chance. Their pitching stinks. If they win, [manager Tony] La Russa should go straight to the Hall of Fame."
If La Russa goes anywhere, pitching coach Dave Duncan will deserve to go with him. There were only four dependable arms in camp, and three of those were over 35: Bob Welch (36), Ron Darling (32), Rick Honeycutt (38) and the best reliever ever, Dennis Eckersley (38). Upward of a dozen other pitchers were still vying for six spots last week.
Among the starter candidates were Bobby Witt, who, since injuring his rotator cuff May 26, 1991, has been 10-18 with a 5.02 ERA in 38 starts; Storm Davis, who won 19 games in 1989 and has won just 17 since; and Bob Milacki, who didn't last five innings in seven of 20 starts with the Baltimore Orioles last season.
Bidding for a spot in either the rotation or the bullpen were Kelly Downs, who is 9-0 in relief the last two years but who was only 5-5 after the A's picked him up last June, and Shawn Hillegas, who was 1-8 with the New York Yankees last year.
Among the candidates for the bullpen were Goose Gossage, who was a rookie in 1972 when the average major league salary was $17,000 and one of his teammates was Moe Drabowsky; Joe Boever, who has a 14-31 lifetime record (though he did have a 2.51 ERA with Houston last season); and Edwin Nunez, who was released by the relief-poor Texas Rangers.
Impressive group, huh? Nevertheless, Duncan is a master at salvaging a staff from such a menagerie. Count on La Russa, Duncan and a high-powered offense to keep Oakland in the hunt—again.
Andy MacPhail says the only team capable of winning the West division by 10 games is the CHICAGO WHITE SOX, because they have a load of talent at the major and minor league levels plus the wherewithal to get whatever else is needed to win. He's right. But the White Sox also are the team most likely to cave in as a result of distractions, conflicting egos and bad defense.
The most unsettling factor is Bo Jackson, whose amazing comeback from hip-replacement surgery has been inspiring but, through no fault of his own, has created a circus. His hitting (.367 this spring) won him a roster spot, but he has no position to call his own—rendering him the most famous pinch hitter in baseball. Will he be content in that role? Will his teammates tire of the media talking up Bo instead of them? When Bo takes a turn at designated hitter, will it upset the American League's premier DH, George Bell?
Jackson isn't the only rehab project on the team. Although shortstop Ozzie Guillen (knee) and rightfielder Ellis Burks (back) have had good springs, they must be monitored warily, as must fifth-starter candidate Dave Stieb (elbow).
And Bo's comeback isn't the only upsetting situation. Forty-five-year-old Carlton Fisk, who is 25 games short of setting the major league record for most games caught, thought he was being slighted during contract negotiations this spring, and he won't be happy playing sporadically behind Ron Karkovice. And second baseman Steve Sax, whose defense is worse than ever, will be miserable after losing his job to Craig Grebeck.
"We have a logjam," says Chicago manager Gene Lamont, knowing there aren't enough at bats to keep everyone happy. He's got one more problem: After 20-game winner Jack McDowell, the rotation (Kirk McCaskill, Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Stieb or Rod Bolton) doesn't include anyone who looks like a 15-game winner.
Not much has happened to the TEXAS RANGERS this spring, except...new shortstop Manny Lee had visa problems, couldn't get out of the Dominican Republic and missed the first two weeks of camp; new second baseman Bill Ripken introduced himself to right-fielder Jose Canseco, who said, "What are you doing here?" unaware that Ripken had joined the team as a free agent in February; 20-game winner Kevin Brown injured a rib, jeopardizing his Opening Day start, which might go to free-agent newcomer Craig Lefferts; Kenny Rogers, who has a career ERA of 6.17 as a starter and 3.32 as a reliever, was handed a spot in the rotation; new manager Kevin Kennedy said Canseco might pitch in a game this season; Canseco said Kennedy could use any of his cars, anytime; first baseman Rafael Palmeiro had his tonsils removed, sidelining him for 2½ weeks of camp; the rotation was juggled so that Nolan Ryan could start an exhibition game before 50,000 at the Astrodome on April 2, the first stop on a farewell tour to end all farewell tours; Lee injured his rib cage, leaving 20-year-old Benji Gil, who hasn't played above Class A, as the probable Opening Day shortstop; no set-up man for new closer Tom Henke emerged, so Seattle reject Mike Schooler was plucked off the waiver wire; no established centerfielder or leadoff man was found; and DH Julio Franco, who missed most of '92 with tendinitis in his right knee, developed tendinitis in his left knee.
This team has the frontline talent to win the West, but spring training was so uneven, so disruptive, that it's hard to imagine the Rangers getting their act together before July.
According to Hal McRae, "Of all the jobs at the ballpark, managing is probably the least desirable—unless you've been established for five or six years so you can do things your way, or you're earning real good money. I'm not possessed. I'd like to be successful, but I don't have to be. I'd be happy doing something else in the game. If I ranked what I'd like to do, first I'd be a player, second a hitting coach, third a manager."
McRae never really wanted to manage the KANSAS CITY ROYALS, which has been obvious in his 1½ years on the job. After last season he told his players that as badly as they had played (72-90), he had managed just as poorly. Nevertheless this year's camp has run smoother, the players say, and McRae is more comfortable in his role. "I'm having a great time," he says. "The last two years I didn't like it. But I gained experience; I got some players."
A busy and expensive off-season—the acquisitions of shortstop Greg Gagne, second baseman Jose Lind and pitcher David Cone will cost Kansas City $31.1 million over the next three years—upgraded the defense and the pitching, making K.C. a mild contender. But the Royals didn't sufficiently improve an offense that hit just 75 homers last season (52 fewer than the league average).
So here's a suggestion: Since McRae would rather be a hitting coach, and is widely regarded as one of the best, why not let him go back to that job? He would improve the offense, and the Royals could hire someone like Davey Johnson to manage the team.
During a horrid stretch of pitching this spring by the SEATTLE MARINERS, reliever Norm Charlton was asked how new manager Lou Piniella would react if the same thing occurred during the regular season. "He would blow up...I mean blow up," said Charlton, who pitched for Piniella when both were with the Cincinnati Reds from 1990 to '92. "He would walk out to the first base line and explode. Pieces of Lou would be everywhere."
But Piniella's demanding nature and combustible personality are just what the Mariners need. In general this team has lacked direction, sitting back and waiting for something bad to happen to it. That has all changed with Piniella's arrival. He turned a country club camp into a working camp where no player's job was safe.
Piniella will get help from new starter Chris Bosio (16-6, 3.62 with the Milwaukee Brewers) and Charlton, both of whom bring toughness to what was a pitiful pitching staff last year. "I like Lou's style," says Charlton. "He yells a lot. I wish he'd yell more." Don't worry, he will. But Piniella also will teach this team about pride and self-respect.
Spring training had been under way three weeks when rookie pitcher Pete Janicki of the CALIFORNIA ANGELS walked through the clubhouse with an ice pack on his shoulder. "Who's that?" said infielder Rene Gonzales. "I've never seen that guy before in my life." Rookie first baseman J.T. Snow pointed to Janicki's locker, which was 15 feet away, and said, "Gonzo, he's been here since the first day."
Such is life with the young, rebuilding Angels, a team of new faces. Snow, outfielder Tim Salmon and second baseman Damion Easley are heralded first-year players, but there are other newcomers who will be counted on—like rookie outfielder Ty Van Burkleo, who played 4½ years in Japan and flies kites, and sophomore pitcher Julio Valera, who receives $15,000 every time he passes a body-fat test. Even pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, who at 32 is the youngest in that job in the majors, is new.
At least everyone knows Angel owner Gene Autry, the famed singing cowboy. This spring Autry was approached by a man outside a hotel in Tempe, Ariz. "I've got all your records," the man said. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rogers."
RIPKEN'S DEFENSE OUGHT TO CATCH THE EYES OF TEXAS, IF NOT OF CANSECO
BO WENT ALL OUT WITH THE GLOVE, BUT WON A JOB IN CHICAGO WITH HIS BAT