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Home Run Central

In the boomtowns of the National League Central, where fireworks will come early and often, any game involving Junior, Sammy or Big Mac is sure to be a hot ticket

Two things made the crowd that assembled at the Cincinnati Reds'
spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 23 unusual.
One was its size: 1,845 fans, about a thousand more than the
Reds usually get for an early spring training workout, pressed
against the fences to watch centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. lope
through drills in his first official appearance in a Cincinnati
uniform. The other was the Amish man, clad in traditional garb
and sporting a long, gray beard, who joined the horde of
sunburned Northerners, leathery retirees, jittery autograph
hounds and other Reds fans whose excitement since Junior joined
the Reds has reached a near-religious fervor.

In fact, the Feb. 10 trade that delivered Griffey from the
Seattle Mariners didn't energize just one franchise. Fans and
ticket managers throughout the National League are drooling over
a schedule that includes a steady diet of the major leagues' top
three home run hitters of 1999--Griffey (48 dingers), St. Louis
Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire (65) and Chicago Cubs
rightfielder Sammy Sosa (63). In terms of the ultimate drawing
card, the long ball, the National League Central is now the
game's glamour division.

Remember the din whenever McGwire and Sosa went head-to-head
during the past two seasons? That will probably seem like a
whisper this year, when some combination of Griffey, McGwire and
Sosa will clash 38 times. Heck, any one of them will boost the
gate when he comes to town. "It's going to be fun to watch and
to have that excitement all year," says Houston Astros first
baseman Jeff Bagwell. "We don't mind playing in front of huge
crowds every night."

The division is so loaded with sluggers that Bagwell, a former
National League MVP who hit 42 homers last season and averaged
38 over the past four seasons, has become almost an
afterthought. Also overshadowed by the Big Three are such
Central boppers as Reds leftfielder Dante Bichette, who whacked
34 homers for the Colorado Rockies last year; Milwaukee Brewers
rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz, who went deep 33 times and put on a
show at the All-Star Game home run hitting contest; plus
Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder Brian Giles (39) and Cardinals
third baseman Fernando Tatis (34), both of whom had breakout
seasons in '99.

The American League West, which has only four teams, and the
six-team National League Central are the only divisions in which
every club's spring roster contains at least one player who hit
at least 30 homers last year. "I just hope I don't hurt my neck
watching balls go out," says Chicago White Sox lefthander Jim
Parque, whose American League Central club is scheduled to face
the fearsome threesome a total of 12 times in interleague play.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, whose home attendance ranked
28th among the majors' 30 teams last year, they can't cash in on
Griffey because they play the Reds only in Cincinnati this year.

Elsewhere, Griffey's change of venue is turning into a
box-office bonanza. In the two days following the trade, St.
Louis fans gobbled up more than 10,000 seats for their team's
six home dates against the Reds, who were the league's
seventh-worst road draw last year. The Griffey-McGwire showdown
at Busch Stadium on the final day of the season is already sold
out. "The two games after July 4 are always our hardest dates to
sell," says Kevin Wade, the Cardinals' vice president of ticket
sales. "This year we have the Reds on those days, and they'll
probably sell out." By Monday the Cardinals had already sold 2.4
million tickets, putting them on pace to beat the pre-Opening
Day franchise sales record (2.5 million) set a year ago.

Despite a 12-inch snowstorm in the Chicago area on Feb. 18, the
day the Cubs put single-game seats on sale, the team sold
235,000 tickets, the second-largest single-day sale in franchise
history. Roughly 40% of that rush was for the team's 12 dates
with Cincinnati and St. Louis. In Pittsburgh, where fans scooped
up 1,000 seats--10 times more than the norm--for games against
Cincinnati, the day after the Griffey deal, the Reds are
outselling all other opponents 4 to 1. The Philadelphia Phillies
sold about 6,000 tickets in three days for their three-game set
with the Reds in early May, a series for which they typically
sell about 40 seats per day at this time of the year. Three of
the Arizona Diamondbacks' six top-selling individual games are
for the Reds' visit to Bank One Ballpark in the first week of
July. For their three home games with Cincinnati last season the
Florida Marlins drew an average of 15,232 (that was 2,325 below
their season average), but at week's end three of the Marlins'
five top-selling dates for 2000 involved the Reds, who don't hit
town until Aug. 25.

"McGwire, Sosa and Griffey will capture the hard-core fan and
the casual fan," says Phillies general manager Ed Wade. "A lot
of people will come to games and stay nine innings so they can
see all four of those guys' at bats. It's good for baseball. It
will fulfill the hard-core fan's love of the game, and it could
kindle the casual fan's love for it."

On Opening Day 1997 no one could have foreseen the nation's
breadbasket becoming baseball's bread and butter. The Astros
would go on to win the National League Central with a middling
84-78 record. Four of the five teams then in the division (the
Brewers transferred from the American League in '98) would
finish with losing records. None of the Central teams were among
the top eight in the majors in payroll (the Astros, the Cubs and
the Pirates were among the 12 lowest), and only St. Louis was
among the top 12 in attendance. But when McGwire was traded from
the Oakland A's to St. Louis on July 31 of that season--he hit
24 home runs in the 51 games that remained--the transformation
was under way.

"We've certainly come a long way from being nicknamed the Comedy
Central," says Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. "One
thing that gets people's attention in this business is
superstars, and I don't think any division has superstars like
we do."

Changes of scenery and a new ballpark could make the division's
power hitters even more potent than a year ago. Griffey, for
instance, played his home games in the second half of '99 in
spacious new Safeco Field; this year he will play his entire
home schedule at hitter-friendly Cinergy Field, where,
especially on hot summer nights, the ball carries as well as it
does in any stadium not named Coors Field. "Even I hit a bomb
there," Cardinals righthander Andy Benes says of Cinergy. "My
only bomb." Everyone in the division is likely to improve his
stats now that Houston's cavernous Astrodome has been replaced
by the open-air Enron Field. Griffey, McGwire and Sosa get two
series apiece at Enron, but the biggest beneficiary should be
Bagwell, who hit 30 of his 42 homers on the road last year. A
righthanded pull hitter, he now gets to take shots at a
leftfield fence that's just 315 feet down the line. "The only
reason Jeff hasn't gotten the recognition the others have is
because he hasn't hit 50," says Astros second baseman Craig
Biggio. "The only reason he hasn't hit 50 is the Astrodome. That
place ate up 10 or 12 homers a year, easily."

What's more, the National League Central is as short on quality
pitchers as it is long on long-ball hitters. Three of the six
highest team ERAs in the National League last season were put up
by Central teams—the Cubs, the Brewers and the Cardinals. The
Astros finished with a 3.83 ERA, third best in the league, but
they traded their ace, Cy Young runner-up Mike Hampton, to the
New York Mets. His replacement at the top of the rotation,
righthander Jose Lima, surrendered 30 homers in '99. "I'm going
to give up home runs no matter where I pitch," says Lima, but he
is likely to give up even more at Enron. The biggest move the
Brewers, who were torched for 213 blasts last year, made to
shore up their rotation was to trade for righthander Jaime
Navarro--who went 8-13 with a 6.09 ERA and gave up 29 dingers
with the White Sox. The Cubs acquired Ismael Valdes and hope for
the return of a healthy Kerry Wood, and they need all the help
they can get: They are coming off a season in which they set
team records for futility in ERA (5.27) and homers allowed
(221). Says Pirates closer Mike Williams, "I'm going to walk
[Griffey]. He can't hurt me as much standing on first base as he
can at home plate."

The schedule maker didn't do these beleaguered staffs any
favors, either. The Cardinals and the Reds put the National
League in double jeopardy as they march through the schedule
nearly in lockstep. Every team in the league except the Los
Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants plays the two in
back-to-back series at least once, meaning the two-headed Junior
and Big Mac monster will appear in pitchers' nightmares in
weeklong stretches. Pittsburgh's staff may need psychiatric
treatment before the season is barely a month old; the Pirates
host the Reds for four games in late April and early May, then
go on a six-game swing through St. Louis and Chicago. "I'll be
the first one to tell you, it's fun watching those guys hit,"
says Pittsburgh catcher Jason Kendall. "I mean, you're trying to
get them out, but if a pitcher makes a mistake and they hit one,
it's kind of fun to watch. Not only do they hit home runs, but
they hit the damn things 500 feet. It's amazing."

Others aren't nearly as sanguine. "They don't [even] have to hit
a home run against you," says Royals manager Tony Muser, who
caught a break when Kansas City received an extra series with
Pittsburgh and wound up with none against the Reds. "Their
presence creates a subtle intimidation. You get a Sosa in the
lineup when you're managing or pitching a game, just his
presence will make you think differently."

Adds Houston manager Larry Dierker, "If your pitching staff
really takes a hit for a week or two, things can start to spiral
downward. You start using your bullpen more than you want to,
and that can affect the rest of your schedule."

All of which explains why, for all the excitement a homer
onslaught might generate, pitching will decide the division
race. It has been 20 years since the major league home run
champion played on a World Series-winning team (Mike Schmidt did
it with the Phillies in 1980), and only twice in the '90s did a
league home run leader's team even make the playoffs. The
Cardinals have made the most serious attempt to upgrade their
staff, importing righthanders Benes, Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile
to shore up a rotation that could also be bolstered by the
possible return from injury of righties Alan Benes (Andy's
brother) and Matt Morris. "Home runs are great for the fans,"
says Brewers general manager Dean Taylor. "Whether that
translates into wins for those teams remains to be seen."

Griffey cringed at the circus that surrounded his first days
with the Reds and said he hopes his presence won't become a
distraction to his teammates as the season wears on. Meanwhile,
his fellow National League Central sluggers would be glad to let
the newest member of the division set the early pace in the home
run race. Meeting with a small group of reporters after arriving
at camp, McGwire said, "This is the way it should be. Let Ken
Griffey deal with it this spring. Now he knows what I've gone
through the last couple of years." Adds Bagwell, "If they hit 50
and I only hit 30, but we win the division, then I'll be the
happy one."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: COVER ILLUSTRATION BY MARK FREDRICKSON COVER Power Pack With Sammy, Junior and Mac, all the juice is in the National League

CentralCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY TOM DIPACE THE MACHINE Since he was dealt to the Cardinals in July 1997, McGwire has hit 159 home runs in 359 games.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON TRADING UP Griffey should benefit from playing in hitter-friendly Cinergy Field, where the ball carries well on hot summer nights.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO GOING SLIDEWAYS Sosa has hit 129 homers over the past two seasons, but the Cubs won't contend without a pitching upgrade.

Three of a Kind

This season Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have a
chance to become the most prolific power-hitting trio ever to
play in a single division. Since divisional play began in 1969,
here are the highest season home run totals by three hitters in
the same division, all of which occurred in the homer-happy

--David Sabino


1998 NL Central McGwire, Cardinals (70); Sosa, Cubs (66);
tie: Moises Alou, Astros,
and Jeromy Burnitz, Brewers (38) 174

1999 NL Central McGwire, Cardinals (65); Sosa, Cubs (63);
Greg Vaughn, Reds (45) 173

1996 AL West McGwire, A's (52); Griffey, Mariners (49);
Juan Gonzalez, Rangers (47) 148

1998 AL West Griffey, Mariners (56); Gonzalez,
Rangers (45); Alex Rodriguez,
Mariners (42) 143

1997 AL West Griffey, Mariners (56); Gonzalez,
Rangers (42); Jay Buhner, Mariners (40) 138

1996 AL East Brady Anderson, Orioles (50); Mo Vaughn,
Red Sox (44); Rafael Palmeiro,
Orioles (39) 133

1998 NL West Greg Vaughn, Padres (50); Vinny Castilla,
Rockies (46); Barry Bonds, Giants (37) 133

Red-Letter Days

Planning a vacation around Slugfest 2000? Try one of these
Round-tripper Specials, slices of the 2000 season that give fans
a chance to max out on Griffey, McGwire and Sosa. There are
short visits to one National League Central city as well as
extended trips on which you can hook your wagon to one team and
go where the Big Three are bopping.


April 3-9 Cincinnati, St. Louis (Brewers) Milwaukee opens the
season running the
Junior-Mac ganlet

April 3-9 St. Louis, Cincinnati (Cubs) Having returned
from Japan, Sammy
pays a visit to Mac,
then Junior

April 28- Pittsburgh (Reds), St. Louis Touch 'em all:
May 7 (Pirates), Chicago (Pirates) Pittsburgh becomes
the only team in
2000 to face Griffey,
McGwire and Sosa

July 16-30 Cleveland (Astros), Houston Power trip:
(Reds), Houston (Cardinals), Astros have 14
Cincinnati (Astros), Atlanta straight games
(Astros) against the power-
laden Indians,
Reds, Cardinals
and Braves

Aug. 11-16 Chicago (Reds, Cardinals) Dream home stand at
Wrigley for late-
summer fireworks

Sept. 29- St. Louis (Reds) Junior and Mac
Oct. 1 close out season.
Will home run title
be on the line?