Baseball superstars: 'Who's on first?'
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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.