April 03, 1988

Something is about to happen that will shake the very foundation of the American League. It has nothing to do with female umps or balk rules or George Bell being asked to return his MVP Award—which wouldn't be a bad idea, come to think of it. For years, the American League East was considered baseball's super division, while the league's western branch was the stuff of jokes. But now every team in the East seems flawed.

While most of the teams have explosive lineups, only one club has superior pitching. Be still, thy heart, New England. The BOSTON RED SOX may get another shot at that thing they haven't won since the Babe toed the turtleback for them. One night this spring former Red Sox manager Ralph Houk, now a consultant for the Twins, hunkered down in the Minnesota dugout to discuss his former team's chances. "Lee Smith, ptuey," he said, chewing a wad of tobacco, "will do for the Red Sox, ptuey, what Jeff Reardon did for us last year. Ptuey".

Smith, who got a standing ovation after his first inning at the Sox' Florida base in Winter Haven, is Boston's most intimidating reliever since Dick Radatz. Acquired—stolen would be a better word—from the Cubs for pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, Smith will revitalize a bullpen that had the fewest saves in the majors last year (16) and helped lose 27 games the Sox had tied or led after six innings.

Boston's fall from grace in 1987 may have been a blessing in disguise, because it permitted the Sox the luxury of giving playing time to four young players: Ellis Burks, who had 27 steals and 20 homers; Mike Greenwell, who hit .328 and had 19 homers; Todd Benzinger, who had 43 RBIs in half a season; and Sam Horn, who hit a total of 44 homers in Pawtucket and Boston. The Sox also have veterans Wade Boggs (.363, 24 homers in '87) and Dwight Evans (.305, 34 homers, 123 RBIs) coming off MVP-caliber years. "This is the most talent we've had in my time," says Evans, whose time started back when Gary Hart was George McGovern's campaign manager.

Roger Clemens came to camp vowing to become the first pitcher to win three consecutive Cy Young Awards. Bruce Hurst is healthy after a bout with mono this winter. Oil Can Boyd, who' proudly showed off his nine-month-old son, Baby Oil, was throwing true to his 1986 form. Jeff Sellers appeared ready to harness his 90-mph fastball.

O.K., the Sox aren't perfect. They need a lefthanded reliever, and Marty Barrett and Spike Owen don't have much range at second and short, respectively. Further, some experts believe that John McNamara might not be the right manager for this team. He guided the Red Sox to the Series in 1986, but they weren't expected to win then. This time they are.

For the NEW YORK YANKEES most of the spring was like a B movie in which the white hunter turns to his native guide and says, "It's quiet out there tonight." To which the guide replies, "Yes, too quiet." While teams like the Mets and the Blue Jays were making like, well, the Yankees, the Boys from the Bronx were, until last weekend, as clean and wholesome as characters in a Merlin Olsen TV series, and Battlin' Billy Martin seemed positively Amish this fifth time around as the New York manager. Perhaps it was his new marriage. Perhaps it was the thought of writing down Henderson If, Randolph 2b, Mattingly 1b, Clark dh, Winfield rf and Pagliarulo 3b every day.

Was this a lasting peace? Of course not. The publication of Winfield's autobiography, in which he wrote that Willie Randolph, the Yankees' black co-captain, said a black player could never be "a true Yankee," prompted the usually soft-spoken Randolph to call Winfield a liar. George Steinbrenner, who had been mum all spring, then seconded Randolph's charges.

Though New York's decorum may not be improved, its pitching may be. Expecting another miracle from Tommy John; who went 13-6 last year at age 44, might be folly, but Rick Rhoden, Richard Dotson, John Candelaria, rookie Al Leiter and Ron Guidry, who will return in May from shoulder surgery, constitute a decent rotation. And though middle relief might be a worry, at the end of the line score is Dave Righetti.

Trouble lies at three crucial positions: catcher, shortstop and centerfield. The Yankees traded for catcher Don Slaught and then found out he's not very good behind the plate. That leaves Rick Cerone, whose only good year was 1980, and Joel Skinner, who tends to let his weak hitting affect his strong defensive ability. The Yankees also traded for shortstop Rafael Santana, but Martin virtually ignored him this spring, preferring to boost the career of Randy Velarde, a good hitter with wooden hands. As for center, rookie Roberto Kelly can fly, but his career minor league batting average is only .256.

The TORONTO BLUE JAYS come from such a nice town and have such a cheery name that it seemed unseemly this spring when 1) MVP George Bell objected to a shift to DH by refusing to bat in a game, 2) Lloyd Moseby kicked and screamed about being moved from center to left, and 3) Tom Henke's agent, Craig Fenech, accused manager Jimy Williams of leaving Henke in games too long just so the club could win later in salary arbitration. Of course, you might be irritated, too, if you had blown a 3½-game lead and division title in the final week of the season.

The Blue Jays did nothing to improve themselves in the off-season, believing that they had enough homegrown talent to correct any flaws. Bell had bad knees and Moseby was erratic in center, so the Jays decided to break in two talented young outfielders, Sil Campusano and Rob Ducey. Then Toronto sent Willie Upshaw to Cleveland so that Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff could be platooned at first.

The pitching staff has led the division in ERA in three of the last four years. Jimmy Key is superb, and the bullpen of Henke, Mark Eichhorn and David Wells is still one of the best in the majors. But starters Mike Flanagan, Jim Clancy and Dave Stieb are probably not what they once were.

Can the Jays patch up their differences? If not, they won't have to worry about losing the title in the final week. They will have lost it long before then.

The DETROIT TIGERS know how to win, or at least they did before the head-on' collusion that sent Kirk Gibson to the Dodgers. "To be honest," says shortstop Alan Trammell, "I don't know what we'll do." Detroit picked up centerfielder Gary Pettis from the Angels, but he's not the answer. Gibson hit 24 homers in 487 at bats last season, but Pettis and the four outfielders who will replace Gibson in left—Pat Sheridan, Larry Herndon, Billy Bean and Scott Lusader—together hit just 17 in 1,153 at bats.

Detroit can trot out four pretty good starters in Jack Morris, Doyle Alexander, Frank Tanana and Walt Terrell, but the bullpen was so mediocre in 1987 that the Tigers had more complete games (33) than saves (31). They're still counting on Willie Hernandez, who has been a shadow of his '84 MVP self Hernandez was so peeved by recent fan and media treatment he poured cold water on a sportswriter this spring. Hernandez's outpouring of disaffection was nothing, though, compared with the cold water Gibson threw on the Tigers' pennant hopes.

There probably isn't a more productive farm system in baseball than that of the MILWAUKEE BREWERS Seven every-day starters, five starting pitchers and the bullpen ace all came from within the organization. This year's hot prospect is 6'3", 260-pound designated hitter Joey Meyer, who had 92 RBIs in only 79 games for Triple A Denver last season. He even developed a cult following this spring. After he delivered four RBIs in one game, the fans were shouting, "MVP, MVP."

Two former Brewer farmhands, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner, have switched positions because Milwaukee didn't want to risk Molitor's fragile right elbow at third anymore. Gantner, who played second last year, went willingly. (Bell and Moseby take note.) "To be honest," says Gantner, "I like second base better, but we have to have Paulie in the lineup." Indeed, the Brewers were 75-41 last year when Molitor started and 15-31 when he didn't.

Milwaukee's 20-3 start last year was a fluke, but its third-place finish was not. Watch out for the Brewers. They're only a year away.

If you wanted to spend your spring playing baseball with a bunch of former major leaguers, you could have paid $2,000 and attended a baseball fantasy camp. Or you could have wangled yourself an invitation (they were easy to come by) to the cattle call the CLEVELAND INDIANS put on in Tucson. Forty-six pitchers showed up, including former big leaguers Bill Caudill, Bill Laskey and Dan Schatzeder, to try out for a staff whose ERA of 5.28 was the worst in the league in 31 years. Manager Doc Edwards would like to use a rotation of Tom Candiotti, Greg Swindell, John Farrell, Scott Bailes and Rich (Not Ready) Yett. But Swindell had an elbow injury last year, Farrell was 6-12 with a 5.83 ERA in Triple A, and the lefthanded Bailes may be needed in the bullpen. The short reliever will either be junkballing Doug Jones or Greg Harris, the former Texas stopper who injured his arm last year flicking sunflower seeds. Don't ask.

The Indians are loaded with hitters and shouldn't have trouble scoring runs. Their new batting instructor Charlie Manuel's first assignment will be to get rightfielder Cory Snyder, who hit .236 with 33 homers in 1987, to cut his strikeouts down from a club-record 166 to 100 or so. "If we can do that," says Manuel, "I think he would hit 40 to 45 home runs." Maybe. But the Indians are going to need a lot more than that to finish higher than sixth.

The darkest moment in the history of the BALTIMORE ORIOLES came on Sept. 14, 1987. On that night, Baltimore gave up a major league-record 10 home runs in an 18-3 loss to Toronto. Those 10 helped the Orioles set another record, for most homers allowed in a season, 226, eclipsing the 224 given up by the '64 Kansas City A's. At least the front office had the good humor to make a lowlight film of the barrage to use as an instructional tool.

The O's will need a sense of humor to get through this year. Pitching was once their pride and joy, but not any longer. To give you an idea of just how bad things have gotten, the ace is Mike Boddicker, who is 36-41 over the last three years, and the No. 2 starter is Mike Morgan, who lost more games in 1986 and '87 combined than any other major leaguer.

Baltimore's demise can be traced to two other basic weaknesses: 1) too many youngsters have been called up to the majors too soon, and 2) manager Cal Ripken Sr. hasn't fathered enough players. Billy Ripken was a joy to behold as he took over at second base, alongside his shortstop brother, Cal Jr., after the All-Star break. But he was the exception to the rule.

The Orioles need time. Or, better yet, another Ripken or two in the lineup. After becoming the first man to hit a ball into the seats at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, where the Orioles played a few games this spring, Cal Sr., 52, said, "Ah, my wife, Vi, could hit one out here." Can she pitch, though?

ELEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS PHOTOBILL SMITHUnlike the Blue Jays, the Yanks were—at least for a while—as wholesome as characters in a Merlin Olsen TV series.
PHOTOV.J. LOVEROBaltimore would have a better shot if Cal Ripken Sr. had only fathered a few more players.


Boston's depth will be the difference

LF: New York Yankees

2. Rob Deer Mil.
3. Lloyd Moseby Tor.
4. Jim Rice Bos.
5. Mel Hall Cle.
6. L. Herndon—S. Lusader Det.7. Pete Stanicek Bal.

CF: Cleveland Indians

2. Robin Yount Mil.
3. B. Anderson—E. Burks Bos.4. Roberto Kelly N.Y.
5. Ken Gerhart Bal.
6. S. Campusano—R. Ducey Tor.7. Gary Pettis Det.

RF: New York Yankees

2. Jesse Barfield Tor.
3. Glenn Braggs Mil.
4. Cory Snyder Cle.
5. Mike Greenwell Bos.
6. Fred Lynn Bal.
7. Chet Lemon Det.

DH: Toronto Blue Jays

2. Jack Clark N.Y.
3. Larry Sheets Bal.
4. Darrell Evans Det.
5. Sam Horn Bos.
6. Joey Meyer Mil.
7. Pat Tabler Cle.

C: Milwaukee Brewers

1. B.J. SURHOFF Mil.
2. Rich Gedman Bos.
3. M. Heath—M. Nokes Det.4. Terry Kennedy Bal.
5. P. Borders—E. Whitt Tor.6. Andy Allanson Cle.

7. R. Cerone—J. Skinner N. Y.

3B: Boston Red Sox

2. Mike Pagliarulo N.Y.
3. Brook Jacoby Cle.
4. Jim Gantner Mil.
5. Kelly Gruber Tor.
6. Rick Schu Bal.
7. Tom Brookens Det.

SS: Detroit Tigers

2. Cal Ripken Jr. Bal.
3. Tony Fernandez Tor.
4. Dale Sveum Mil.
5. Spike Owen Bos.
6. Jay Bell Cle.
7. Rafael Santana N. Y.

2B: Milwaukee Brewers

2. Lou Whitaker Det.
3. Julio Franco Cle.
4. Marty Barrett Bos.
5. Willie Randolph N.Y.
6. Billy Ripken Bal.
7. Nelson Liriano Tor.

1B: New York Yankees

2. Eddie Murray Bal.
3. Dwight Evans Bos.
4. Greg Brock Mil.
5. C. Fielder—F. McGriff Tor.6. Willie Upshaw Cle.
7. B. Bean—R. Knight Det.

STARTERS: Boston Red Sox


RELIEVERS: Toronto Blue Jays


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