THE RACE IS ON
It's looking like the late 1970s and early '80s again in the American League. With the four best teams in the league—the Blue Jays, Tigers, Yankees and Orioles—the East is king once more, and pennant races don't get any better than the one that's shaping up in the division.
There was a late-September atmosphere in the East last week when New York played at Toronto and Detroit visited Baltimore, then the Yankees moved on to Camden Yards for a three-game weekend series with the Orioles. After the dust had settled on Sunday the Blue Jays had swept past the Tigers and into first place, by two games; the Yankees were holding steady, three games back, in third; and the red-hot Orioles, winners of 19 of their last 23, had moved three games closer to the lead, just five games out.
Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, whose team was in first place by itself from May 2 until last Friday, worries most about the Blue Jays. "Right now they're sitting in the driver's seat," he says. "They will do [by way of a late-season trade] exactly what they have to do to win it." New York also is expected to trade for help (Red pitcher Tim Belcher, perhaps?).
But what about Baltimore, which, after starting the season 20-29, through Sunday had won eight straight series for the first time since 1979? The Birds have turned it around with improved offense—thanks mostly to catcher Chris Hoiles, who at week's end had six home runs and 12 RBIs in his last six games—and the return to form of the league's best bullpen. Closer Gregg Olson was 11 for 11 in save opportunities this month, having given up no runs in 9⅖ innings.
The Orioles generated some exciting comebacks along the way. On June 22, in the opener of the three-game series against the Tigers, Baltimore rallied from a 7-1 deficit in the fourth inning to win 12-9. The Birds scored eight runs after the first two hitters were retired in the sixth inning and then held on for perhaps the most inspiring win in the two-year history of Camden Yards. Three nights later Baltimore trailed New York 6-0 in the fourth but scrambled back to win 7-6 in 10 innings. Before last week the Orioles had come back from a six-run deficit to win a game only 12 times in their 39-year history. "Maybe it's an omen," says Baltimore pitching coach Dick Bosman.
Don't expect Baltimore to pursue help for the stretch run as actively as Toronto or New York will, but the Orioles' call-up of outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds from Triple A Rochester last Friday might turn out to be the most important move in the division. The Orioles' first-round pick in the 1992 amateur draft, he has the potential to hit 20 home runs and steal 70 bases a season in the major leagues.
Hammonds had two singles and drew an intentional walk in his major league debut against the Yanks last Friday. After the Orioles' big comeback in that game, fellow rookie Jack Voigt smiled and told Hammonds, "They're all like that around here." The next night Hammonds had two more hits, including a homer, in another wild win, 12-10, over New York.
THE FIRE SALE CONTINUES
Third baseman Gary Sheffield is a lucky man. Last Thursday he was traded from an "expansion team" to the Marlins.
The payroll-slashing Padres, who by dealing away their high-priced talent are, in effect, starting from scratch, sent Sheffield and reliever Rich Rodriguez to Florida, a true first-year team, for reliever Trevor Hoffman and minor league pitchers Jose Martinez and Andres Berumen. The trade improves the Marlins' chance of having the best record ever by an expansion team: Through Sunday they were 34-40 and on target to better the 1961 Angels' 70-91 mark.
The National League batting champion and a Triple Crown threat a year ago, Sheffield, 24, is a devastating hitter around whom a young team can be built. The Marlins already have a brilliant closer (Bryan Harvey), solid defense up the middle and a strong minor league system. They're a good starting pitcher away from a decent rotation, and they have an aggressive general manager in Dave Dombrowski, who won't hesitate to make a trade that will help his club. Dombrowski acquired Sheffield without giving up any of his five best minor league prospects.
Meanwhile the Padres are completing one of the most astonishing housecleanings in history. Next to go will be slugging first baseman Fred McGriff. The Braves, Orioles and Yankees have shown the most interest in him, and Atlanta can become the front-runner if it will part with Triple A catcher Javier Lopez. After McGriff is sent packing, look for pitcher Greg Harris to follow, perhaps to the Giants. When the purge is complete, San Diego will have a payroll of around $18 million and a Triple A lineup surrounding the only holdover All-Star, rightfielder Tony Gwynn.
While the dismantling of the Padres obviously isn't good for the game, San Diego owner Tom Werner has been praised by fellow owners for doing what he feels is necessary in a supposedly dire financial situation. Meanwhile San Diego fans are irate (Sheffield was traded on the day he was named to the Padres' 25th anniversary dream team), attendance is dropping fast, the club is playing horribly (29-46 through Sunday), and there is little hope of San Diego's being respectable again before 1996.
The Padres now are offering to make prorated refunds to season-ticket holders who feel they were deceived by a letter club president Dick Freeman sent to them last fall. In it Freeman implied that San Diego planned to hold on to the core of its roster, but two of the players designated as keepers—centerfielder Darrin Jackson and Sheffield—have since been traded. After the Sheffield deal season-ticket holders Paul and Nancy Marshall filed a class-action suit, charging the Padres with fraud, negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract and false advertising.
PUDGE GETS NUDGED
When White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice suffered a separated shoulder on June 19, it was Mike LaValliere—not Carlton Fisk—who picked up most of Karkovice's playing time, a final signal to the 45-year-old Fisk that his days in Chicago were numbered. The end came on Monday, when the White Sox released Fisk, six days after paying homage to him on the night that he broke Bob Boone's major league record for games caught in a career (2,225).
This season Fisk hit .189, with one home run and four RBIs in 53 at bats, and he was only 1 for 24 throwing out base runners. "I know I don't look good," Fisk told the Comiskey Park crowd on his night. "I've had some doubts whether I'm still capable. I don't feel like I'm worn out or eroded. I feel like I've rusted up."
In his remarks during the ceremony, he omitted any reference to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, general manager Ron Schueler and manager Gene Lamont—men with whom he had feuded over his contract and playing time—but he did single out Karkovice among other teammates. "Ron has shown more patience than I ever could have done," Fisk said. "He's the Number One catcher, and he deserves your support. I cheer for that sucker every time he goes out there."
Giant second baseman Robby Thompson might be the most underrated player in the National League. Through Sunday he was hitting .328, making the double play as well as any second baseman in the league and occasionally hitting for power. He had never hit two homers in a game—in the majors, the minors or Little League—until June 23. Then he did just that two days in a row. He should be a starter in the All-Star Game, but as of last week he was seventh in the National League voting. No San Francisco second baseman has ever been in the starting lineup in an All-Star Game....
Expo manager Felipe Alou on the lack of velocity by Montreal pitcher Chris Nabholz, who was yanked from his June 22 start against the Mets in the middle of the fourth inning despite holding a 3-0 lead: "I could read [National League president] Bill White's signature from the dugout."
...When, on June 23, Jay Buhner became the first Mariner to hit for the cycle, the Padres were left as the only major league team (excluding this year's expansion teams) that hasn't had a player pull off the feat. Tony Gwynn hit a double, a triple and a homer in the first six innings for San Diego on June 10, but then he left the game to rest his sore left knee.
Cecil Fielder and Detroit had first covered until they ran into the Orioles, who took flight.
Sheffield pointed the way for Florida with hits in each of his first three games as a Marlin.