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Central Intelligence

The American League Central was supposed to be the most predictable division in baseball's new six-division alignment. The White Sox were going to win it because the Indians were a year away from being serious contenders, the Royals were only so-so, and the Twins and the Brewers were just plain bad. Well, at week's end the Central was the most intriguing division in either league.

Start with Cleveland, which hasn't finished within 10 games of first place in a full season since 1959 and has wound up closer to last place than first for the past 25 years, a major league record. Not only could both of those streaks end this year, but the Indians could also reach postseason play for the first time since '54.

The Tribe was in first place (40-25) by 3½ games through Sunday, thanks to a nine-game winning streak. Even more impressive was Cleveland's record in its new home park, Jacobs Field: With an 8-2 win over Red Sox ace Roger Clemens last Saturday, the Indians broke a club record with their 17th straight home win. Overall, Cleveland was 23-7 at Jacobs Field, including a 6-5 win over Boston on Sunday.

Six of the victories in the home-win streak came in the Indians' final at bat, including four that ended with homers. On June 16 leftfielder Albert Belle's two-run single capped a three-run ninth-inning rally that beat the Red Sox 7-6 in what was one of Cleveland's biggest wins in the last 35 years. "It felt like a playoff game," said Tribe second baseman Carlos Baerga.

"I like the way that club has been put together," Athletic manager Tony La Russa says of the Indians. The three young stars who are the Tribe's nucleus—Baerga, 25, Belle, 27, and centerfielder Kenny Lofton, 27—have become terrific players. The veteran free agents signed in the off-season—pitchers Dennis Martinez, 39, and Jack Morris, 39, and first baseman-DH Eddie Murray, 38—have brought a winner's presence. Martinez, Morris and fellow starters Mark Clark and Charles Nagy are on pace to pitch at least 200 innings each. The bench is deep and versatile. If their ragged defense doesn't drag them down and if they can pick up another lefthanded reliever, the Indians certainly could win the Central.

But what about Minnesota? The notion of the Twins' winning this division—they were in second place with a 37-29 record at week's end—still seems inconceivable, given their often horrendous pitching: a 5.76 team ERA, as well as 10 or more runs allowed in a game 11 times this season. But as La Russa points out, "When those guys get a smell [of a race], they know how to win." And no Minnesota player knows that better than rightfielder Kirby Puckett, who, at 33, is having one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career. Through Sunday he was hitting .323 with 65 RBIs.

If Puckett winds up leading the league in both hits (he had 85 at week's end, nine behind league-leader Lofton) and RBIs (he trailed the Rangers' Will Clark by two), he would become the first player to do so since Montreal's Al Oliver in 1982. Puckett is playing as hard as he ever has, and he still has a lot of fun doing so. Now it seems that many of his teammates have adopted his style of play, slashing and spraying the ball all over the park. And it has paid off. During the stretch between June 4 and June 15, which put them in contention, the Twins went 10-2, out-scored the opposition 89-48 and had five or more runs in all but two of those games.

Four of Minnesota's wins in its pivotal run came against the reeling White Sox. During a 1-9 nightmare that ended with Sunday's 7-1 win over the Angels, Chicago dropped five games behind Cleveland. Over that stretch the White Sox gave up four or more runs in the ninth innings of three games, turning leads of 6-1, 5-3 and 3-0 into losses. Closer Roberto Hernandez was blasted all three times, allowing a total of nine runs in three innings.

Hernandez's confidence plummeted when the Comiskey Park crowd booed him off the held after he was shelled by the A's in a 7-5 loss on June 15. The last Chicago closer who was booed so mercilessly, Bobby Thigpen, never recovered from it. Hernandez's stuff alone isn't good enough to overcome all the pressure—he needs that stopper's dose of confidence; so White Sox manager Gene Lamont has demoted him, at least temporarily, to middle relief. But with lefthander Scott Radinsky out for the season with Hodgkin's disease, Lamont has no other certified closer.

As one American League manager says, the Sox "don't look hungry."


Richard Ravitch, chief labor negotiator for the big league owners, arrived at the Sheraton New York on June 14 with a batch of three-color bar graphs, transparencies and an overhead projector. By the time Ravitch had finished presenting the owners" collective bargaining proposal, complete with salary cap, to representatives of the players association—554 days after the owners had voted to reopen the labor agreement—and then explained it to the media, this much was obvious: We will see Cecil Fielder fly before this turkey does.

Within two days the executive board of the players' union was discussing a strike date. A decision on a date is expected at the board's July 11 meeting, but right now the eighth work stoppage in the past 22 years seems a virtual certainty.

By taking so long to formulate a proposal, the owners jeopardized what is shaping up as a year of revival for the major leagues. Realignment, an expanded postseason and a joint television venture between baseball and NBC and ABC are just getting off the ground, and stars such as Ken Griffey Jr. are chasing some of the game's monumental records. Yet, essentially, this is what the owners told the union: We know you hate the idea of a salary cap. But we'll give you, oh, about 10 weeks to learn to like it—even though we took 79 weeks to agree ourselves on it.

The owners figure that if no agreement is reached by the end of the year, they could unilaterally impose a cap system in accordance with federal labor law. Faced with that possibility, the players' best leverage is to strike between July 16 and Sept. 1 (after one of their paydays, naturally, which fall on the 15th and the last day of each month).

The owners are offering to split their total revenue 50-50 with the players (who this year are receiving 58% of all revenue) over the next seven years, while phasing in a salary cap over four years. The owners need this, they say, to ensure the competitiveness of small-market teams.

The proposal would also eliminate salary arbitration, while granting free agency to players with four and five years of service. Freedom for such players would come with a ball and chain around the ankle, i.e., the dreaded right of first refusal by the player's current club. (Under the previous agreement there was unrestricted free agency after six years of service; such freedom would continue after six years of service under the new agreement.)

While the owners are correct in recognizing the need for a partnership with players, splitting money with the hired hands isn't enough to forge such a bond. The proposal includes no provisions to allow the players a say in how revenue is generated. For instance, the union would not be involved in the next round of negotiations for a television contract or in expansion decisions. (The players would not share in expansion fees, either.) Considering the union's complete distaste for a salary cap, this is medicine without the sugar.

Owners and players have no common ground here and—thanks to the lords' dalliance—not enough time to find one before a strike becomes the union's best option. So the players will strike while asking for nothing except what they have already. There is no indication the owners have a Plan B. Here's hoping they come up with one a trifle quicker than 554 days.

Out of Nowhere

Not every pitcher in baseball has been bombarded this year; it just seems that way. Here are four hurlers who—to everyone's great surprise—have emerged as staff stalwarts.

•Mark Clark, starter, Indians. On March 31, 1993, the Cardinals traded him to Cleveland for outfielder Mark Whiten, who then hit 25 homers for St. Louis last year while Clark was giving up 18 homers in 109‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. It looked like a bad deal for the Indians. But Clark, 26, had a good September after missing almost two months with a strained muscle in his upper back, and this year, through Sunday, he was 8-1 with a 3.76 ERA. Clark's secret: He's throwing a hard slider, and he's getting big outs when he needs them.

•Marvin Freeman, starter, Rockies. He was just a gangly, goofy, gregarious reliever for the Braves from 1990 through '93, but he has become Colorado's best starting pitcher, with a 7-1 record and 3.04 ERA at week's end. After being released by Atlanta last October, Freeman signed with the Rockies and figured to be used in middle relief. But after Kent Bottenfield broke his left hand in February, a spot in the starting rotation opened for Freeman, who quickly capitalized on the opportunity to pitch regularly. And he remains the loudest man in the clubhouse. "Look to me as the clubhouse WD-40—the lubricant," says Freeman, 31. "When it's tight around here, I like to draw attention to myself, and maybe that'll help some of the other guys relax. I love attention."

•John Hudek, closer, Astros. Waived by the Tigers last July, Hudek has proved so effective for Houston this year that he won the closer's job from Mitch Williams, contributing to the Wild Thing's release. Through Sunday, Hudek, 27, was 10 for 10 in save tries, the league was batting .123 against him, and he had 26 strikeouts in 23 innings. Always a hard thrower, he did little in six minor league seasons to suggest that he was capable of this kind of performance. But now he's making good pitches, and even Williams was so impressed with Hudek that he offered to buy him a new pair of cowboy boots.

•Doug Jones, closer, Phillies. At week's end he was leading the National League in saves (18 in 19 attempts), had a 1.80 ERA and 25 strikeouts and had allowed just four walks in 35 innings. Jones got hit so hard last year that the Astros couldn't wait to get rid of him, so last December they sent him and starter Jeff Juden to Philadelphia for the troubled Mitch Williams. After the deal was made, one Phillie all but guaranteed that Philadelphia would eventually find someone other than Jones to be its closer, because the Phils couldn't bear to watch Jones "throw that 38-mph changeup." Well, Jones, who turns 37 on Friday, is once again fooling hitters with his junk.

Short Hops

Cardinal rightfielder Mark Whiten has the best throwing arm in the National League, and he proved it again last Thursday against the Pirates. Whiten caught a sacrifice fly off the bat of Jeff King and threw the ball at least 330 feet, on a line, to home plate. Pittsburgh's Kevin Young, who barely scored from third on the play, says he heard the ball coming, claiming it "sounded liked a missile." ...

Last Friday the Yankees dropped DH Danny Tartabull from cleanup to sixth in the order after his average had slipped to .233 and his strikeouts had soared to 68 in 236 at bats. According to one Yank, sixth is where Tartabull belongs because he doesn't like the responsibility of being the lineup's biggest run producer....

Juiced Ball Note of the Week: Phillie pitcher Danny Jackson doubled, tripled and drove in five runs while raising his record to 9-1 as Philadelphia beat the Expos 8-4 last Saturday. Only two National League pitchers have driven in more runs in a game: the Braves' Tony Cloninger had nine RBIs on July 3, 1966, and the Astros' Dave Giusti had six on Aug. 21, 1966. From 1990 through '93 Jackson had five RBIs in 185 at bats.



A potent mix of young (Belle, center) and old (Murray, right) hat nut Cleveland atop its division.



Clark, who's off to an 8-1 start for the Tribe, is one of the season's pitching surprises.

Between the Lines

Power Surge. At week's end the Tigers had homered in 25 straight games, tying a major league record set by the 1941 Yankees. Detroit had hit 46 home runs during the streak, including the 11 hit this season by outfielder Junior Felix. In the same span the Pirates had hit all of 17 homers. "We're trying," says Pittsburgh third base coach Rich Donnelly. "We spend more time in the cage than Gunther Gebel-Williams."

Do the Right Thing. Because so many of their righthanded hitters were injured, the Rangers had to start three lefthanded batters—Rusty Greer, David Hulse and Oddibe McDowell—against Mariner southpaw Randy Johnson on June 15. In his previous eight starts Johnson had faced a total of three lefthanded-hitting starters. Here's why: Lefty swingers hit .194 against Johnson over the past six seasons. The Texas lefties followed form; they were a combined 1 for 9 against Johnson in the 5-2 loss to Seattle.

One for the Aged. On June 14, at the age of 46 years, five months, Marlin knuckleballer Charlie Hough threw a five-hitter and blanked the Cards 7-0 to replace Satchel Paige (46 years, two months) as the second-oldest pitcher in history to throw both a complete game and a shutout. "A mere child compared to me," Hough said of Paige. The oldest pitcher to accomplish both feats? Another knuckleballer, Phil Niekro.