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