The constantly changing face of baseball is the dominant theme once again as the 1985 season opens in ballparks across the land today and tomorrow. The traditional pennant predictions still get some of the spotlight, to be sure. Can Detroit become the first team to repeat a World Series victory -- or even a pennant -- in this decade? Will the Chicago Cubs do it again in their division -- and maybe this time go on to capture their first pennant since World War II? Were the San Diego Padres for real? Can Minnesota or Chicago challenge Kansas City in the American League West?
There are individual exploits to be savored, too -- topped by the excitement of Pete Rose closing in on Ty Cobb's record of 4,191 hits. But most of all the game which once epitomized the status quo is notable nowadays for the new look it presents each year.
``You can't tell the players without a scorecard,'' cry the vendors. And once again in this ninth consecutive season of the free-agent era, they aren't kidding.
Bruce Sutter, the game's top relief pitcher, will be throwing his split-fingered fastball for Atlanta rather than St. Louis this summer thanks to a six-year contract worth a reported $9.6 million. Meanwhile slugging outfielder Fred Lynn continues the coast-to-coast odyssey which has taken him from college stardom in Los Angeles to MVP honors in Boston, back to California, and now back East again to Baltimore.
Then there are the annual battles of megabuck salaries and Madison Avenue hype in New York. The Yankees signed speedster Rickey Henderson and acquired Dale Berra, who in addition to playing shorstop happens to be Manager Yogi's son. The Mets countered by luring All-Star catcher Gary Carter from Montreal. And these names just scratch the surface of the parade of familiar faces wearing new uniforms via trade or free-agentry.
Outfielder Lee Lacy and reliever Don Aase are in Baltimore -- a team which apparently swapped its anti-free agent policy for one of ``If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.'' Other big names in new surroundings include starting pitchers LaMarr Hoyt in San Diego and Tim Lollar with the White Sox; star reliever Bill Caudill in Toronto; and outfielders Jack Clark in St. Louis, and Steve Kemp and George Hendrick in Pittsburgh.
Each spring also has its rookie ``phenoms,'' and 1985 produced the most incredible one of all time -- incredible in the literal sense, because he never existed. Sidd Finch, a 28-year-old mystic with a 168 m.p.h. fastball, turned out to be an April Fool's joke by a national magazine.
No, he won't be pitching the Mets' opener in New York tomorrow. That honor goes to Dwight Gooden, who in his rookie season a year ago struck out more batters per nine innings than any other pitcher in history. With a real-life ``phenom'' like that, who needs Sidd Finch?
As for the pennant races, a capsule look goes like this:
AL East -- In this strongest of all divisions, the Tigers could easily be even better than last year's world champions -- as Manager Sparky Anderson insists they are -- and still not repeat. They start out as the favorites, of course, but Baltimore and New York, thanks to those free-agent signings, both look improved; Caudill could be the bullpen stopper who finally takes Toronto's 1984 runnerups over the top; and Boston, with its usual offensive powerhouse, will be hard to contain if some of its young pitchers come through.
AL West -- The Royals won last year despite the absence of George Brett and Willie Wilson for the first six weeks plus numerous other problems. On paper it should be easier this time around. Minnesota, a surprise challenger last season, could be the main threat -- though the Twins won't be able to ``sneak up'' on the rest of the divison the way they did last year. The White Sox, of course, still have the nucleus of the team that ran away with the division the previous year, so can hardly be counted out, but everyone else appears along for the ride.
NL East -- Will Carter be ``the final piece in the puzzle,'' as Mets' manager Dave Johnson predicts? Given last year's second-place finish, it's a good possibility, but the Mets still have some problems, including a no-name infield which hardly looks like that of a pennant winner. The Cubs are probably the main threat, while believe it or not Pittsburgh, which finished last a year ago, could be a dark-horse threat if Hendrick and Kemp produce the expected offensive improvement. The Phillies will score runs, but their aging pitching staff is a question mark. Montreal and St. Louis will obviously miss Carter and Sutter, respectively, but both of these teams also have a strong enough nucleus of established players and solid pitchers not to be counted out.
NL West -- Atlanta, a team that was good enough to win this divison in 1982 and finish a close second in '83, should be very tough with the addition of Sutter -- which not only gives the Braves the game's premier reliever, but also releases hard-throwing Steve Bedrosian for starting duty. The Padres, though, ran away with this division by 12 games a year ago -- and any time a team is that far in front, it has to be favored to repeat. The Dodgers always rate at least an outside chance because of their pitching, but a win by any of the others (Cincinnaati, San Francisco, and Houston) would be a big surprise.