BOSTON — If Bud Selig, baseball's acting commissioner, could handpick four teams to create the best-possible season-ending drama, he might not have done better than the natural selection process accomplished via the playoffs.
The four teams that have advanced through the first of the three-stage postseason did so with flying colors. Atlanta, St. Louis, Baltimore, and the New York Yankees all scored decisive victories in the opening round and now move on to the league championship series that begin in New York tonight and Atlanta Wednesday. Each club is not only hot, it also possesses a certain extra dimension that adds to its appeal as a mid-October survivor.
The Yankees helped to revive interest in baseball last year during a memorable first-round loss to Seattle. They've blended young talents such as Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams with guys who've played on championship teams, in the persons of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and David Cone, as well as manager Joe Torre.
The Yankees, who beat the Texas Rangers, 3-1, will play the Orioles, who pushed New York to the limit in a late-season division race. New York held on, but Baltimore secured the American League's wild-card berth.
The Orioles have reunited two guys - Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray - teammates during the franchise's 1983 championship. Murray reached a personal milestone with his 500th home run this season and Ripken is known far and wide as baseball's deft-fielding "iron man." The pair lend a patina to the Baltimore roster, even if suddenly controversial second baseman Roberto Alomar may be the team's best player.
Alomar committed the worst error of his career when he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck in the regular season's last week. He apologized, Hirschbeck forgave Alomar, and an umpires' playoff walkout was averted. In Cleveland, spectators literally turned their backs on Alomar when he came to the plate over the weekend, but unfazed, the Oriole second baseman belted a 12th-inning, game-winning home run that eliminated the Indians, three games to one. Cleveland was hoping for a World Series rematch with Atlanta.
Defending champions Braves marched past the Los Angeles Dodgers who were swept 3-0.
St. Louis is a club with some patina of its own. Ozzie Smith and Will McGee were teammates on the 1982 champion Cardinals and manager Tony La Russa and ace reliever Dennis Eckersley earned championship rings in Oakland in 1989.