West Is Best

April 05, 1989
April 05, 1989

Table of Contents
April 5, 1989

Baseball 1989
All My Padres
Scouting Reports
Scouting Report
Basebal 1989
Point After

West Is Best


The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
I like where it sets.
Reggie Jackson

This is an article from the April 5, 1989 issue Original Layout

After a decade of eastern bullying, baseball's worm has turned. West is best, East is least. Somebody tell Phil Rizzuto. Somebody tell the folks at Fenway Park. Somebody call Cooperstown. Right now, at the dawn of the 1989 season, the best place to play baseball is on the left side of the Mississippi. Fact: Three of the last four World Series A champions have been Western Division teams, formerly the welcome mats of the majors. Fact: Three of the four best records last year belonged to the West, courtesy of the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Dodgers and Minnesota Twins. Fact: Last year, for the first time in history, all three major awards—MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year—in both leagues went to players on Western Division teams.

The honeymoon is over. Who goes to Niagara Falls anymore? Gone are the days in the major leagues when Eastern teams could go west, pillage the towns, win 10 out of 12 and get in 18 holes a day. The American League, once a fun house for the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, is now the tough turf of the Athletics and the Twins, teams that are dominating—and getting nastier. "Everyone talked about the Mets lineup being strong," says new Twins second baseman—and ex-Met—Wally Backman, "but this one can be devastating. This one could be better."

Three of the last four American League pennants have gone to West teams, and not since 1970 has an American League club won more games than Oakland's 104 last season. Compare that with what the former beasts of the East were doing last fall. Going into September, four clubs had a chance at winning the division. The Detroit Tigers, the Yankees and the Milwaukee Brewers all caved in when it counted, leaving A the Boston Red Sox to pick up the title—89-win Boston, loser of six of its last seven games. Then Oakland had an East feast in the playoffs, wiping out the Bosox in four straight.

Over in the National League, it is true, the New York Mets are still the best. But the rest of the best of that league comes from the West, which had five teams finish above .500 last year, the first such occurrence in the NL since divisional play began in 1969. O.K., O.K., overall the East divisions did edge out the West in head-to-head regular-season play last year, but barely, 509-504. And that's counting the pitiful Atlanta Braves as a West team. If Atlanta is a Western team, Tom Mix wore garters.

And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny.
William Wordsworth

Let's face it, the nation is stepping westward at a good clip. If the exodus continues, pretty soon Philadelphia will just be 42 cheesesteak sandwiches and a guy waiting for a bus. Johnny Carson left for Burbank a long time ago, and now the best players in baseball are taking the same flight. It's a talent leak, a leak that may have started, innocently enough, on Feb. 3, 1987, when Minnesota traded four players to Montreal for reliever Jeff Reardon. The following fall, Reardon was the one who was on the mound when the Twins clinched the division, the AL pennant and the World Series.

The trend continued last year when Kirk Gibson went from Detroit to the Dodgers and won them a World Series. This year, Eddie Murray left destitute Baltimore to become a Dodger; Jack Clark, Willie Randolph and Claudell Washington abandoned the Yankees to relocate to Southern California. Bruce Hurst bolted Beantown for San Diego; Lance Parrish ditched Philly for Anaheim; and Julio Franco left sunny Cleveland for Texas, where he joined Rafael Palmeiro, who had just jetted in from Chicago. Would the last star out of the East please lock up?

Everybody's home office has just moved to Scottsdale, so why not baseball players? In today's global ballpark, your basic superstar no longer needs the Northeast to make the big paycheck, and he doesn't need Madison Avenue to cash in on big endorsements. Free agents can play where they want and still make their accountants happy. Usually where they want to play these days is California.

Among 1988 major leaguers, 21% were born in California. Of the '88 Mets, 29% were California boys. And a goodly number of other players, like Clark and Parrish, were raised in the Golden State. So why not go home again? Parrish did, and so did Hurst, who turned down more money with Boston to go to San Diego, driving distance from his hometown of St. George, Utah—and a three-hour spin to the Padres spring training camp in Arizona. The only people who don't like Hurst's deal are the folks at United Airlines.

Already, Hurst loves the new scenery. "It's strange," he said just before spring training opened. "I went outside this morning and I was able to throw baseballs instead of snowballs."

Even guys who haven't yet gone home say they want to. Darryl Strawberry has publicly declared that he wants to Dodger after the 1990 season, and he wants to take Cincinnati Reds star Eric Davis with him. Both grew up in L.A. "If a guy is looking for sunshine and warm temperatures all the time, then the West is the place to be," says Jeffrey Leonard, who recently departed Milwaukee for the Seattle Mariners and who has spent most of his career with the San Francisco Giants. "I think seven out of 10 veteran players probably would prefer playing on the West Coast."

But going west means more than never having to put away your shorts. Tom Niedenfuer was a Dodger, then was an Oriole, and is now a Mariner. He knows that when an Eastern team leaves the 80° spring-training splendor of Arizona or Florida and heads north into 30° night games, it's a body shock. "That's why there are a lot more injuries to East Coast teams than West," says Niedenfuer. Even during the off-season, western weather can be an edge. Dodgers who live in the L.A. area work out at their stadium three times a week through the winter. "That's been the difference," says manager Tommy Lasorda. "These guys have been working out all year. They've been on the field. They haven't been running indoors, getting those shinsplints and blisters."

And when summer comes? "It's a big plus that there is very little humidity out here," says pitcher Ed Whitson, who left the San Diego Padres after the '84 season, spent a year and a half in his own personal Yankee hell, and is now back in San Diego. "You stay healthier in this weather. I think players can play longer." Another plus: Because there are fewer rainouts in the West, there are fewer makeup doubleheaders during the dog days of August. "Makeup games don't pile up and tax your pitching staff," says Cincinnati manager Pete Rose.

So as long as the airplanes are still running and the fiberoptic phone lines are working, why not go where the girls all get so tan?.

I don't like the life here in New York. There is no greenery. It would make a stone sick.
Nikita Khrushchev

This is the town that once prompted then-Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan to say, "I could never play in New York. The first time I came into a game there, I got in the bullpen car, and they told me to lock the doors." In the West the ballpark patrons aren't compelled to critique your family tree on every other pitch. "L.A. fans go to the game, en-for the entertainment, pay their money and i good time," says Randolph. "They don't get too of whack. Eastern fans take it personally."

In many cases, of course, baseball players have gone west for the same reason a lot of others have gone west: economic opportunity. The decade-long dominance by the elite of baseball's East left job openings for stars in the West. All they did was fill them. "Because the teams in the West had been so mediocre so long," says A's general manager Sandy Alderson, "players saw that it didn't take much to go to the head of the class." Says Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, a tub-thumper for the Western rise: "The pendulum swung to the West because the opportunity was there."

No wonder that for the last two years the West has burned up the winter meetings while Eastern general managers have been sitting around the lobby hoping to get paged. How wild is the West to win? Perhaps the Rangers are the best example. In one Texas-sized off-season, they got a budding star, Palmeiro, in a nine-player deal with the Cubs, and then sent away Pete O'Brien, Oddibe McDowell and Jerry Browne in order to land the game's best young second baseman, Franco. Not content with stealing from, er, dealing with, the Eastern teams, they also lassoed free agent Nolan Ryan from the Houston Astros. While all that was going on, the Mets, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals were doing zippo. But the fishing was good.

In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly.
But westward, look, the land is bright.
Arthur Hugh Clough

The West has Laguna Beach, the East has hypodermic surf. The West has Spago, the East has beef-on-a-stick. The West has the A's, the East has the O's. What happened?

"Maybe the Western clubs are a little less tradition-bound," says Alderson, "more inclined to take risks." Last summer, A's manager Tony La Russa said that since all of the AL West skippers had managed only in the AL West, success in that division had become a matter of pride.

"The balance of power has been subtly shifting from the East to the West," says Texas general manager Tom Grieve, "and in the next couple of years that will show. There's no doubt that Oakland is the strongest team in the AL, and Minnesota is as strong if not stronger than when it won the World Series. The days of the AL Worst are a thing of the past."

"This division got even stronger in the off-season," says Rose of his NL West. "Almost every team picked up good players. Right now, five of the six teams [you know who you are, Atlanta] can lay legitimate claim to a chance at the title."

And if another California team is world champion this year, will anybody blink? Twelve of the last 28 titles in professional baseball, basketball and football have been won by California teams. Meanwhile, if the Yankees don't win the World Series—and even George Steinbrenner admits they're underdogs—it will be the first decade since the 191 Os that they have taken the big doughnut.

Hey, Reggie, maybe you got that rising and setting part backward.