When it looked like a strike might wipe out the last month of major league baseball, there was significant wringing of hands over the potential loss of yet another classic season, like the one that was lost in 1994.
Calling 1994 a classic year was overstating it a bit, even though Matt Williams was mounting an assault on 61 home runs -- which back in those days, kiddies, was the record -- Tony Gwynn was chasing .400 and the Montreal Expos were on their way to their first postseason in 13 years with a pretty good team that included Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker and Cliff Floyd. Still, the races weren't much to speak of. The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, one game apart in the American League Central, were the only two good teams in the same division (the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros were battling in the National League Central, but they were only so-so), and the Texas Rangers were leading the A.L. West with a winning percentage of .456. This year's long-buried, last-place Rangers, going into Friday's game, had a winning percentage of .455.
This year's not too different. It's not a classic year by any stretch, with only two divisions being contested. But losing any part of any baseball season is a terrible thing, and even a run-of-the-mill season is better than no season at all. Isn't it nice that after all the squabbling by the owners and players, we can finally, as Bud Selig put it in his characteristically unpoetic way Friday, "return the focus back to the field."
One of the divisions that actually has a race is the A.L. West, where the Oakland A's, Anaheim Angels and Seattle Mariners were all tied for first place just last week. A lot of the pre-settlement worrying was that we might lose this fantastic three-way contest, but if we had it might have only been an accident of timing that made the race seem so good. The sizzling A's have already built a three and a half-game lead over the Angels (through Friday's games) and a five-game lead over the fading Mariners, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them waltz away with the division, though even if they do the Angels and Mariners might engage in a spirited fight for the Wild Card. Those two might be joined by the Boston Red Sox, should the Sox rebound from their post-All Star doldrums (23-24 since the break), which seems unlikely.
The other close race is in the N.L. Central, where the St. Louis Cardinals have a two and a half-game lead over the Houston Astros. This is hardly a classic pennant chase, given that neither team is particularly good. The National League is essentially the Atlanta Braves, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and everybody else. The Cardinals are leading their division, but before they beat the Chicago Cubs Friday afternoon, they weren't even on pace to win 90 games. They probably have enough to hold off Houston, and that probably won't matter once they run into Atlanta or Arizona in the postseason.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants have slightly better records than the Cardinals, and though they trail the Diamondbacks by plenty in the N.L. West, they're in a decent fight for the Wild Card spot, with the Dodgers leading by a game. The Giants, of course, have Barry Bonds, who now won't lose a precious month in his chase of Henry Aaron's still-distant career home run record. Bonds has 607 home runs, 148 shy of Aaron.
A Giants playoff berth -- it says here the Dodgers will fold down the stretch -- would surely guarantee Bonds (who is leading the league in hitting at .372 to go with his 40 homers) his record fifth Most Valuable Player award, and it would give him a chance to improve on his woeful postseason record: 27 games, .196 average, one home run, six runs batted in, .299 slugging percentage, no World Series appearances. Bonds would practically have to homer in every at-bat for the Giants to beat the Braves in the playoffs, though.
There won't be a Montreal Expos-style heartbreak in Minneapolis thanks to the settlement. The Twins, who with the Expos were targeted by Selig for elimination before this season, are running away with the otherwise pathetic A.L. Central, and they're doing it with a panache you've just got to love. Though they have a terrific bullpen, which comes in handy in a short series, they probably don't have the starting pitching to beat the A's or the New York Yankees in the playoffs. All the same, you've got to love the rebirth of baseball excitement in an area that used to routinely lead the American League in attendance, especially given the circumstances of the winter. Isn't it amazing how winning a few ballgames turns around a team's business fortunes?
While nobody's launching an assault on a hallowed record the way Williams and Gwynn were in '94, there are some pretty spectacular performances going on, and it's good news not to have them cut short. Curt Schilling, who looked for a while like he might win 30 games, which in the age of the five-man rotation is about like winning 37 games was in the olden days, is 21-4 with a 2.44 earned-run average, and has only two more walks than wins, which is just, as the young 'uns say, ill. His teammate Randy Johnson is 19-5, 2.63 after losing to the Giants Friday night. As they did last year, those two make the Diamondbacks nearly unbeatable in a short series.
Sammy Sosa gets a chance to become the first player ever to hit 50 home runs in five straight seasons. Though he sat out Friday with a sore neck, he needs just seven in the Cubs' last 29 games, which seems doable given that he's hit one for every three games so far.
And finally, thanks to the settlement, we can have an entertaining argument about who should be the American League MVP. Yankees second baseman Alfonso Soriano, a wonderful player having a breakout year, is getting a lot of support, and I think he'll get the nod because the writers who vote on the award love him the way they loved Ichiro a year ago. But Soriano shouldn't be the MVP any more than Ichiro should have been. (Ichiro, by the way, has gotten no MVP love in '02 despite the fact that until a slight fade in the last three weeks, he was having a better year this year than in '01, and he's still having a very similar year.)
Alex Rodriguez is so far ahead of Soriano, not to mention everybody else, that it's silly. A-Rod is not just having a huge year offensively, with 48 home runs, a .404 on-base percentage and a .651 slugging percentage, he's doing it while playing the most important defensive position -- well. There are those who make the argument that the MVP has to come from a winning team. I disagree with that argument. I think the MVP should be the best player in the league. But if you believe the MVP should go to a guy on a winner, I guess the trophy belongs on the right side of the Yankees infield.
With Jason Giambi.
It's fun to think about this stuff again, isn't it?