Baseball superstars: 'Who's on first?'

By , Sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Abbott & Costello were only kidding when they made up that "Who's on First" routine. How could they have known they were really writing baseball's theme song for the 1980s?

That's what has happened, though, as once again a new season opens with 100 or so players wearing different uniforms and the fans just as mixed up as Bud and Lou ever were.

Baseball has always had its share of off-season transactions, of course, but in this free agent age they've become much more frequent. Also, unlike the old days when the bigger the star, the more likely he was to spend all or most of his career with one team (Joe DiMaggio, Ted, Williams, Stan Musial, etc.), it's the superstars who are now in the vanguard of the team-hopping game. This season's crop, for instance, includes World Series heroes, home run and RBI kings, batting champions, pitching leaders -- a veritable All-Star squad right down the line.

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Outfielder Dave Winfield got the most publicity among the 1981 free agents and tradees, primarily because he got the most money (an estimated $13 million in a long-term deal with the New York Yankees). Others whose moves produced plenty of fanfare include former American League MVP Fred Lynn, 1979 major league home run leader Dave Kingman, 1974 World Series star Rollie Fingers, and All-Star catcher Carlton Fisk.

Even this list just scratchs the surface. Also moving on are Ted Simmons, perhaps the game's top all-around catcher; Bruce Sutter, generally considered the National League's best relief pitcher; All-Star shortstop Rick Burleson; pitching ace Don Sutton; ex-MVPs Joe Morgan and Jeff Burroughs; ex-Cy Young Award winners Randy Jones and Gaylord Perry; base stealing whiz Ron LeFlore and slugger Greg Luzinski.

Some fear that this constant player shuffling which has evolved out of free agency may in time erode the fan identification and loyalty which form the foundation of the game's popularity. It hasn't happened yet, though -- even with the threat of a strike clouding the issue for the second year in a row. Indeed, interest seems as high as ever as the 26 big league teams prepare for the traditional round of opening day festivities stretching over the next week and a half.

Unquestionably, the brightest spotlight is aimed at George Brett, who captivated the nation last year by coming so close to batting .400 -- a figure last reached 40 years ago by Ted Williams. Can the Kansas City third baseman, who hit .390 while leading his team to the American League pennant and earning MVP honors, go over the top this time?

Realistically, the chances are very slim, for seldom does a hitter put two such spectacular seasons back-to-back. Williams, for instance, fell off from . 406 in 1941 to .356 the next year.Furthermore, after his second best mark of . 388 in 1957, Ted again took a big tip to .328. And when Rod Carew hit .388 in 1978, he too dropped 'way off to .333 in his encore.

So Brett seems more likely to hit somewhere closer to his lifetime average of .319 than to threaten .400 again -- but of course most fans hope he defies the percentages.

Meanwhile, National League and World Series MVP Mike Schmidt also will get a lot of attention -- especially if he continues his recent trend of hitting more homers each year (a major league high 48 last season) and begins to threaten a few records himself.

The Phillies and Royals could wind up in the Series again, too, for each looms as a strong contender -- but so do several other teams in each division.

Philadelphia is expected to be strongly challenged again in the National League East by Montreal, which has gone down to the final weekend two years in a row only to finish second both times. Pittsburgh, which fell to third last season after its world championship of the year before, hopes to rebound. And St. Louis has made wholesale changes in an effort to stir up some excitement of its own.

Last year's NL West race was even closer than that in the East, requiring a one-game playoff after Houston and Los Angeles finished the 162-game regular season in a tie. The Astros finally won out, and many observers think they will do so again, but the Dodgers, Cincinnati, and Atlanta have other ideas.

One might think the defending American League East champion Yankees, further strengthened by the addition of Winfield, would be big favorites. On the contrary, they face major threats from the pitching-rich Baltimore Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers, whose sheer power throughout the batting order gives them what should be the game's most thunderous attack.

AL West defender Kansas City will be tough to beat, but Gene Autry has gone on another buying spree in California (main acquisitions: Lynn and Burleson) in hopes that his Angels can break through once again as they did in 1979. Texas hopes to join the hunt by finally playing as well as it is supposed to. And then there is Oakland, where Billy Martin led the A's to a surprising second place finish a year ago and is talking about going all the way this time.

The only new managers are Gene Michael, who moves general manager to field boss of the Yankees in owner George Steinbrenner's latest personnel shuffle, and ex-slugger Frank Howard at San Diego.

Elsewhere, several other well known field leaders have resurfaced in new surroundings. These include former Yankee and Tiger pilot Ralph Houk at Boston; Frank Robinson, now at San Francisco after managing Cleveland in the mid-'70s; and Don Zimmer, who takes over at Texas after 4 1/2 years in Boston. The presence of Robinson along with that of Maury Wills in Seattle gives baseball two black managers for the first time.

Also occupying the spotlight will be bids by various veterans to reach career milestones --his 300th big league victory. He needs 11 wins to become the 15th hurler -- and the first since Early Wynn in 1963 -- to reach the mark.

Pete Rose seems even more certain to reach another of his many career milestones this year: he needs only 74 hits to break Musial's National League record of 3,630. And several others have a shot at additional marks as the season begins today with the traditional opener in Cincinnati featuring the Reds against the world champion Phillies.

The rest of the 24 teams swing into action Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, but still that's only half of the festivities. The teams that begin on the road still have to have their own round of home openers next week featuring flag-bedecked stadiums, marching bands, attention-seeking politicians, and of course the thousands of schoolboys and businessmen who somehow find a reason to be away from their desks on the gala day.

By the time the final "first ball" is thrown out (at Oakland on April 17), the season will be 10 days old. And little more than a month later, on May 29, it could be at least temporarily halted if players and owners can't reach agreement in their negotiations.

The issue is the same one that brought them to a brink of a strike last spring -- compensation from a team signing a free agent to that player's former club. Essentially, the owners want a team losing a regular player to get a major leaguer as compensation. The players resist this idea on the ground that it turns a free agent signing into something more closely approximating a trade --thereby reducing their bargaining power.

Most observers think a compromise will be reached and a strike will be averted -- as 1980. Whatever happens, it's a good guess that players will continue changing teams more frequently than in the old days.

As for the fans, they don't seem inclined to worry about it. They just want to keep coming out to the ballpark and cheering for the home club -- even if they find themselves rooting more and more often these days for the third baseman on that mythical Abbott & Costello team. His name, in case you've forgotten the routine, was I Don't Know!

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