Baseball at mid-season marked by close races, individual feats

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Even before major league baseball's 26 teams began the 1985 season in April, it was agreed that this would be a year in which several players would achieve individual milestones. For example, the Yankees' Rickey Henderson has already stolen his 500th career base, and just last week Houston's Nolan Ryan, the all-time major league strikeout leader, fanned his 4,000th batter. The California Angels' Reggie Jackson, with 15 home runs, now has 518 career roundtrippers and should move ahead of Ted Williams and Willie McCovey into eighth place on the career list before the season ends, and White Sox pitcher Tom Seaver is closing in on 300 victories.

At this point it hardly seems necessary to mention that Cincinnati's Pete Rose needs 35 hits to break Ty Cobb's all-time record of 4,191.

For baseball as a whole, three close division races have generated added excitement. They are nothing at all like two of those in 1984, when the Detroit Tigers won the American League East by 15 games and the San Diego Padres the National League West by 12.

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Neither of last year's World Series participants is in first place at the All-Star break. The champion Tigers trail both the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees. The Padres, meanwhile, relinquished their lead to the Los Angeles Dodgers only several days before tonight's All-Star game in Minneapolis.

The Yankees have played well under Billy Martin, and opponents are wary of the Baltimore Orioles, who boast a long history of getting hot down the stretch and once again are managed by Earl Weaver.

In the American League West, the first-place Angels have taken control with a six-game lead over Oakland because of their pitching, a commodity that was supposed to be in short supply at Anaheim Stadium. Thanks to rookie right-handers Urbano Lugo and Kirk McCaskill, plus some outstanding work out of the bullpen by veteran Donnie Moore, the Angels are a better team on the road than any of their division rivals.

Nevertheless, it would be a bad mistake at this point to underestimate the comeback powers of the Kansas City Royals, especially with George Brett publicly proclaiming that he would like to win another American League batting title. The Oakland A's and the Chicago White Sox would be more believable as division contenders if they could somehow play better away from their home parks.

Before the start of the season, most of the division talk in the National League East centered on the defending champion Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets. Two things about the Mets were hard to ignore: 1) the club's strong pitching, and 2) the off-season acquisition of Gary Carter, probably the best catcher in baseball.

At the moment, however, the St. Louis Cardinals own the best winning percentage in the majors (.612) and are the team to beat. The Cardinals have the major leagues' first 15-game winner in pitcher Joaquin Andujar, and possibly the National League's Rookie of the Year in speedster Vince Coleman.

While few expect the Montreal Expos to remain with this group, huge amounts of respect are still due new Manager Buck Rodgers, who has kept his team in contention despite an infield composed of four former third basemen.

At the first sign of late-inning trouble in games in which the Expos are ahead, Rodgers simply goes to his insurance policy in the bullpen. That would be veteran reliever Jeff Reardon, whose 22 saves lead both leagues.

The Dodgers, one of the worst fielding teams in baseball, are suddenly in first place in the NL West after having made up 61/2 games against the Padres since June 29. While this slump has made manager Dick Williams a little testy, San Diego is never going to be far off the top with two starting pitchers the caliber of LaMarr Hoyt and Andy Hawkins.

Meanwhile the Dodgers have continued to roll, even after slugger Pedro Guerrero (15 home runs in June) was placed on the club's 15-day disabled list. To help fill the void, L.A. traded with the Houston Astros for veteran infielder-outfielder Enos Cabell, who so far has hit .389 for his new team.

Despite a mediocre start, it is amazing how many National League managers anticipate a second-half surge from the Atlanta Braves. They base this on the expected improvement by the pitching staff. And, of course, any team that can bat Dale Murphy and Bob Horner back-to-back is going to score a ton of runs.

Possibly the season's best story of a manager weathering a storm belongs to Tony La Russa of the Chicago White Sox, who is also licensed to practice law in Florida.

Long before the Yankees fired Yogi Berra and the Orioles Joe Altobelli, La Russa was rumored to be on the way out as manager of the White Sox. There wasn't supposed to be any way to save him.

Not only has Tony survived, but he's now making extra money doing magazine commercials for a national hairspray company. The advertising pitch is that Tony's hair always holds together. If only the same thing could be said for his infield!

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