A Disgrace of a Race

What has realignment wrought? The American League West, where a loser can be a winner
May 08, 1994

Here's how bad things are in baseball's losers' bracket, otherwise known as the American League West. In one five-day span, beginning on April 26, a wayward ambulance rushing an injured California Angel outfielder to a New York hospital was delayed at the George Washington Bridge because the driver couldn't come up with the $4 toll; the Oakland Athletics lost a game; a Texas Ranger pitcher was blown off the mound in his new stadium; the Athletics lost again; the Angels held on to first place with a record four games worse than .500; the Athletics lost again; the Seattle Mariner pitching staff allowed 10 runs on one hit over three innings; the Athletics lost again; the New York Yankees received 33 walks, eight of them with the bases loaded, in four games against two West teams; and—surprise!—the Athletics lost again.

That news of the weak was brought to you by major league baseball's owners, whose master realignment and lube job has wrought the fab faux: a division made up of the only three teams in the American League never to have played in a World Series (California, Seattle and Texas) and another team (Oakland) that's off to the worst start in its 27-year history.

Mayday! All four clubs had losing records as of the first of May. They were a combined 38-59 (.392). "My god, what a division," noted an envious Yankee outfielder, Luis Polonia. "How do you get to be in a division like that? We might have to win 100 games to win our division. In their division you can lose 100 games and still win it."

Since 1969, when divisional play began (excluding the strike-shortened year of 1981, of course), only four of the 96 divisional champions won fewer than 88 games, including a record-low 82 (against 79 losses) by the 1973 New York Mets. Division champions have averaged 95.6 wins. But this season—the first with three divisions in each league rather than two—presents the embarrassing possibility that a losing team will qualify for the postseason. It is the American League Worst that is causing that nightmare.

Mariner manager Lou Piniella dismissed such a notion, saying, "I know we'll have a winning record, and the other teams will turn it around." But A's general manager Sandy Alderson concedes, "Sure, it could happen. It could be this way all year." One big reason that it could is the schedule: There are few easy games for the teams in the West, which play only 39 intradivisional games each.

"The irony for me is that I was the only guy who voted against division realignment, because it rewarded mediocrity," says Ranger general partner George Bush. "Now, guess what? If April is an indicator, mediocrity will be rewarded."

In one typically ridiculous stretch, Seattle was 2½ games out of first place when it left for a six-game swing through New York and Baltimore; the Mariners won only twice on that road trip—and returned home just one game out. Said Piniella jokingly, "If we had a couple of rainouts, we might be in first place."

In fairness, West teams do have some excuses. For one, they haven't yet had the luxury of playing each other; not until May 5 were two West teams to pair off. For another, they've faced difficult road schedules. And several key players have been sidelined by injuries: Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Brent Gates and Steve Karsay for Oakland; Mark Langston for California; Edgar Martinez for Seattle; and Roger Pavlik for Texas.

That said, each of the four teams has serious flaws and will have as difficult a time getting to postseason play as that ambulance did trying to get Angel outfielder Jim Edmonds from Yankee Stadium to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan last week. Edmonds was struck just below the left ear by a throw from New York shortstop Mike Gallego, leaving him dazed and numb. He was fitted with a neck brace, strapped to a stretcher and whisked away in the ambulance. What should have been a 10-minute ride first went astray when the driver took a wrong turn and headed to New Jersey. "I was getting nervous," says Angel assistant general manager Tim Mead, who was riding with Edmonds. "It was crazy. Those potholes don't allow you to make up for lost time. Jimmy's in the back bouncing up and down. Plus, I was amazed how people don't pull over in New York for an ambulance. I mean, they just don't pullover."

Its lights flashing, the ambulance reached the toll booth of the George Washington Bridge, only to be stopped by an attendant who demanded the driver fork over four bucks for the toll. The driver said he didn't have any money. "We've got an emergency!" the driver insisted.

"I'm sorry, sir," said the attendant, unmoved. "I need your toll."

Edmonds, whose legs had gone numb, called out from his stretcher in the back, "What's going on? Why are we stopped?"

Mead fished out some money and paid the toll. Twenty-five minutes after it left the Stadium and after a brief visit to New Jersey, the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Edmonds, though bruised, suffered no major injuries and was available to play by the weekend.

California will need more help than that, though. Its pitching staff has been staggering, especially veteran Chuck Finley, who failed to win in his first five starts. The brightest spot has been a minor league call-up, rookie lefthander Brian Anderson, who until he lost to the Red Sox on Sunday had been practically a guardian Angel, dropping out of the sky to go 3-0. The Angels should get some assistance in a week or two when Langston and Joe Magrane, both recovering from elbow surgery, get back in the rotation.

"I'm not sure if we could contend in any other division in baseball," says California general manager Bill Bavasi, whose Angels became the first team in history to reach first place with a record four games under .500, "but, believe me, I know we're good enough to contend in this one."

The Rangers figure to contend too, especially when Juan Gonzalez, the league's top slugger a year ago, gets untracked. At week's end he was hitting .214 with runners in scoring position, had walked only four times, had been dropped to fifth in the batting order for the first time since August 1992 and had thrown the unceremonial first fit at The Ballpark in Arlington. Frustrated over a prolonged slump, he heaved a leaded batting weight through a window during a game on April 26.

Texas also needs its pitching to hold up, which it couldn't do against 50-mph winds last week; righthander Rick Helling was blown off the mound during a home game against Detroit that was eventually delayed for 45 minutes. (Had the game been called off, would it have been recorded as a blowout?) Fans were advised to take cover during the windstorm, which uprooted 10 newly planted trees around the stadium. Of more concern is the damage that has been suffered by staff ace Kevin Brown, who was battered for at least 10 hits in each of his first six starts. Said Bush, who is campaigning to be governor of Texas, "Everywhere I speak people are focused on our schools, our prisons...and our pitching."

The Mariners have the division's best pitching, though you would never guess it by their showing against New York on April 27. With two outs and nobody on base in the third inning, Seattle starter Dave Fleming walked five straight batters. Piniella replaced him with Jeff Nelson, who hit Bernie Williams with a 3-and-2 pitch before walking two more batters. "That," Piniella said, "was a two-cigarette inning. That's what I call the real wild, wild West." All told, it was a performance worthy of Little League. "Actually," said Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly, "I've never seen pitching like that in Little League. I've never seen that on any level."

Home plate umpire Rich Garcia said, "I've been umpiring for 26 years and never experienced anything like that. I thought I was umpiring a softball game. The pitches weren't even close." Two innings later New York scored five more runs on two walks, two errors, another hit batter and a grand slam. Final score: 12-2.

As rookie Roger Salkeld prepared to take the mound for Seattle the next night, teammate Jay Buhner asked him, "You do know where the strike zone is, don't you?" Salkeld proceeded to walk five batters in his 6⅖-inning performance, but he combined with Tim Davis, another rookie, to shut out the Yankees 6-0 and move the Mariners into first place. Victories in the following three games gave the Mariners 11 wins in 19 games after an 0-5 start. "I'm starting to see signs of this team playing to its level," Piniella said. "But I know this much: We've got to win our division. The only thing for sure is that the wild-card playoff team won't come out of this division."

New York saw more miserable pitching when it moved on to Oakland to play the Pathetics, who had lost 10 straight games. The A's sustained two more ugly losses to the Yankees last Friday and Saturday. The first was a 10-6 rout in which Bob Welch suffered his quickest knockout in 295 starts over 10 years—he lasted 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings—and six relievers combined to walk seven batters. The next day somebody named Miguel Jimenez walked seven batters in less than four innings as Oakland lost its 12th straight, 7-5. Even after the A's won on Sunday to end the streak, their record was 8-17, the club's worst start since the franchise move to Oakland, in 1968.

"It's been ugly," says A's stopper Dennis Eckersley, whose work has been unbecoming too. By week's end he had blown his three save chances, had been raked by hitters for a .316 average and had been booed in his home park. "I've got to come inside more," says Eckersley. "Guys are getting way too comfortable against me."

Last Friday the Athletics brought in second baseman Steve Sax from his Sacramento home for a tryout. Said Sax, who had been released on April 21 by the White Sox, "I thought I wasn't ever going to play again. I hadn't picked up a bat." The next day he was in the starting lineup and making his own contribution, albeit a comical one, to Oakland's woes. After getting caught in a rundown, Sax found himself sharing second base with teammate Stan Javier. Gallego tagged both runners. Only Javier was out, because the base belonged to the lead runner, Sax. But then Gallego told Sax, "You're out, Saxy." Sax took the bait. He walked off the bag, whereupon Gallego tagged him again to complete a double play.

This has to be tough to bear for the Athletics, who only 19 months ago were wrapping up their fourth Western Division title in five years, with 96 wins. But that's life in the American League West, where the tenants are learning to cope. "It doesn't bother me," says Ranger manager Kevin Kennedy. "I'm not embarrassed. All I want to do is win the division. All anybody will remember is who won."

He is wrong about that, of course. The owners, with the approval of the players, have rolled out this realignment model as a state-of-the-art production, a whiz-bang invention to jazz up the game. It won't look good if the first kick of the tires sends all the air rushing out. The fear is that the have-nots of the American League West are establishing a new standard in the game. These teams are doing for .500 what Mario Mendoza did for .200.

TWO PHOTOSBRAD MANGINDouble occupancy of second by Sax and Javier was one of the snafus that left Terry Steinbach and the A's holding their nose. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONOnly in the topsy-turvy West could Rich Amaral and Seattle be in first place despite a losing record. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONEven the Mariner Moose has found the going rough. TWO PHOTOSV.J. LOVEROFielding lapses by Damion Easley (top) and Gary DiSarcina bedeviled the Angels.

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