Baseball season begins on note of excitement, unpredictability

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It's time for America's annual rite of spring today, as the baseball season opens in ballparks from coast to coast. Realistically, the pennant races don't figure to be as closely contested as those of a year ago, when three of the four divisions went down to the final days. And clearly, no individual story can match Pete Rose's fascinating 1985 pursuit of Ty Cobb's all-time hit record. But unpredictability is a big part of baseball's charm, and it's a safe forecast that there will be plenty of excitement from one quarter or another before it all comes to a close on some chilly late-October night in New York, Kansas City, Los Angeles, or wherever. Five games in scattered locations get the seven-month show under way today. The Cincinnati Reds, launching their 102nd season, play host to Philadelphia in their traditional National League curtain-raiser, while a second NL contest features San Diego at Los Angeles in a battle of prospective West Division contenders.

Tom Seaver, who was the subject of trade rumors all spring and is still widely expected to wind up on some other team before too long, will start his 16th opening game -- a major-league record -- when he takes the mound for the White Sox at Chicago against Milwaukee. Cleveland is at Baltimore and Boston at Detroit in two other American League openers today, with the other 16 teams in the two leagues -- including the world champion Kansas City Royals and the defending National League champion St. Louis Cardinals -- in debuts tomorrow. ``You can't tell the players without a scorecard'' has come to be a real truism in the modern era, with the combination of trades and free-agent signings creating a veritable game of musical chairs for many of the sport's top stars each season. Actually, 1986 has been pretty quiet in this department compared with most other recent years, but of course there are still a number of uniform changes to note.

Perhaps the most publicized switch is that of Joaquin Andujar, the talented but eccentric right-hander who will pitch for Oakland this year after 10 stormy National League seasons in Houston and St. Louis. A hero of the Cardinals' 1982 World Series triumph but a flop in 1983, Andujar came back to win 20 games in '84 and 21 last year but was ineffective from late August on. His temperamental outbursts in the World Series were apparently the last straw for the Cardinals, who responded by making him the first 20-game winner to be traded in more than a decade.

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Another major deal occurred last week when designated hitters Don Baylor and Mike Easler switched teams, going to Boston and the New York Yankees, respectively, in a move that may well help both clubs.

Other well-known faces playing for new teams include catchers Mike Heath, who went to St. Louis in the Andujar trade, and Ozzie Virgil, Atlanta; speedy outfielder Gary Redus, Philadelphia; and pitchers Bill Gullickson and John Denny, both Cincinnati; Steve Bedrosian, Philadelphia; Bob Ojeda, New York Mets; Ed Vande Berg, Los Angeles; and Dave LaPoint, Detroit.

The annual game of managerial musical chairs -- an event of which George Steinbrenner and his fellow owners never seem to tire -- remains in full swing, with seven teams starting out with new pilots since last season.

The Yankees are one, of course, with Lou Piniella becoming the 14th new manager (including some repeaters) since Steinbrenner took over the club in 1973. Chuck Tanner, who won the World Series with Pittsburgh in 1979, lost his job there but has caught on as the new manager in Atlanta. Toronto's defending American League East champions have a new pilot in Jimy Williams, who was named after Bobby Cox left to become the general manager in Atlanta. Hal Lanier, the third-base coach for last year's National League champion Cardinals, is the new head man at Houston; Roger Craig has taken over the reins in San Francisco; and Jim Leyland replaces Tanner in Pittsburgh. Finally, there is the strange situation in San Diego, where Dick Williams, who led the Padres to their first World Series just two years ago, abruptly quit on the first day of spring training and was replaced by Steve Boros.

Then, too, as always in springtime, every club has one or more rookies it hopes will improve its fortunes. Not every year, of course, produces such spectacular newcomers as those of the last two seasons -- strikeout king Dwight Gooden of the Mets in 1984 and base-stealing whiz Vince Coleman of the Cardinals last year. Furthermore, no one can know in any given season which ``hot prospects'' will come through and which ones will fizzle out. But this season's crop looks like a fairly strong one -- especially in the slugging department.

Oakland is high on Jose Canseco, who hit 36 home runs in the minors and five more in a late trial with the parent club last year, and who had the fans ooh-ing and ah-ing with some tape-measure blasts at training camp this spring. Milwaukee has a youngster named Joe Robidoux who hit .342 with 23 homers at El Paso. Seattle's Danny Tartabull (son of former major-leaguer Jose) blasted 43 round-trippers at Calgary. And Texas has a youngster named Pete Incaviglia who is trying to make the rare jump from the campus to the majors -- an improbable feat except that he did bang out an NCAA record 48 homers at Oklahoma State last year and looked good with the Rangers in spring training.

Tomorrow: the pennant races.

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