Baseball at midseason marked by tight division races

One reason why major league baseball attendance continues to rise sharply in a nation having trouble with its economy is because most teams now promote, as someone said, as though they were the latest supermarket on the block. Considering the number of ballpark giveaways, fans could partially clothe themselves by simply showing up on promotion dates.

But an even better explanation for the significant crowd increase has been the excitement generated so far by the closeness of this year's four division races. Only in the National League West is a third-place team (in this case, the defending world champion Los Angeles Dodgers) more than 31/2 games off the top.

Spectators are also intrigued by the former have-not teams that have suddenly found pitching and defense to go with their hitting or vice versa. New managers have also played a tremendous part in the turnaround of the Atlanta Braves and the San Diego Padres.

In Atlanta Joe Torre, who was let go by the New York Mets at the end of last season because he reportedly had trouble communicating with his players, has been selling aggressiveness to the Braves as though it came three runs to the pound. The way Torre has juggled a superb bullpen, without actually wearing anyone out, may yet become the standard by which all future relief corps are handled.

When Dick Williams arrived in San Diego from his last managing job in Montreal, he almost immediately began accomplishing wonders with a team that never before seemed to know where it was going.

''The first four or five weeks Williams was here, I didn't know whether I could stand him for a season or not,'' said veteran Padre pitcher John Curtis. ''The way he pushed players around and the way he'd lift a pitcher at the first sign of trouble didn't make him any friends, I can tell you that. He's close to nobody on this ballclub, and that's the way he wants it. But he made me a better pitcher and the Padres a better team. And when you're a player and you start to count up the wins, you soon forget about that other stuff.''

At this week's All-Star Game break, Atlanta was 51-33 in the NL West, with San Diego two games behind. The third-place Dodgers, with only one reliable fireman in their bullpen (left-hander Steve Howe), will probably have to settle for a major league attendance record of around 2.7 million.

In the NL East, the Montreal Expos, in fourth place, are only four games in back of the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies, who are only one percentage point ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

In third place are the surprising Pittburgh Pirates, who six weeks ago couldn't pick up a ball without dropping it, a bat without breaking it, or a glove without putting it on the wrong hand.

In the American League East, the Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles are all jammed into the same revolving door. The Brewers, who have hit 67 home runs in the 36 games since Harvey Kuenn replaced Buck Rodgers as manager, are in first place on the strength of having lost one less game than the Red Sox. At Milwaukee's present home run pace, the Brewers will eclipse the New York Yankees' AL record of 240 set in 1961 by 32.

However, of these three teams, Baltimore probably has the best pitching, plus there's the added incentive of wanting to give Manager Earl Weaver another World Series appearance before he retires at the end of the season. Despite what you may have read, Weaver is popular with his players, including pitcher Jim Palmer.

While most major league scouts consider Boston's personnel to be a cut or two below that of Milwaukee or Baltimore, the respect his players have for Ralph Houk as a manager tends to cancel that out in their minds. Even if Boston doesn't win the division, the Red Sox think Houk should be AL Manager of the Year.

Ordinarily a next-to-last-place team wouldn't be mentioned in a story like this. But when that team is the defending AL champion New York Yankees, who have been surrounded by turbulence since the beginning of the season, who can resist?

''There is no way the Yankees are going to come back and make a run at their division in what remains of the season,'' one veteran New York player told me. ''We have the talent, but not enough guys care anymore. I could tell you enough wrong things about this team to fill a book, but I've already said too much.''

In the AL West, it is probably going to remain a three-team race among the California Angels, (currently in first by one game), Kansas City Royals, and the Chicago White Sox. While the Seattle Mariners have amazed everyone with their staying power so far, they really don't have the depth to make it last.

On paper, Kansas City looks like a slightly better balanced team than either California or Chicago. But if the Angels' pitching remains sound, and sluggers Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor, Fred Lynn, and Bobby Grich should also have explosive second halves, the Angels could win.

Still no one should underestimate the White Sox, who can score a lot of runs and are as hungry as any players in the league. Chicago also has power and two stoppers in pitchers LaMarr Hoyt and Britt Burns. Baseball standings/batting and pitchng leaders (Including all games before the All-Star break) National League East W L Pct. GB Philadelphia 47 38 .554 -- St. Louis 48 39 .552 -- Pittsburgh 44 40 .524 2 1/2 Montreal 43 42 .506 4 New York 40 47 .460 8 Chicago 36 53 .404 13

West W L Pct GB Atlantic 51 33 .607 -- San Diego 50 36 .581 2 Los Angeles 46 42 .535 6 San Francisco 42 46 .477 11 Houston 37 48 .435 14 1/2 Cincinnati 33 53 .384 19 Batting Average

AB R H Pct. Oliver, Mont 315 47 101 .321 Pena, Pitt 276 30 88 .319 Knight, Hou 325 47 103 .317 Carter, Mont 284 53 89 .313 Landreaux, LA 237 43 74 .312 Jones, SD 285 55 89 .312 Madlock, Pitt 299 49 93 .311

American League

East W L Pct. GB Milwaukee 48 35 .578 -- Boston 49 36 .576 -- Baltimore 44 38 .537 3 1/2 Detroit 42 41 .506 6 Cleveland 41 41 .500 6 1/2 New York 39 42 .481 8 Toronto 37 47 .440 11 1/2

West W L Pct. GB California 49 37 .570 -- Kansas City 47 37 .560 1 Chicago 45 37 .549 2 Seattle 45 41 .523 4 Texas 35 46 .432 11 1/2 Oakland 38 50 .432 12 Minnesoto 28 59 .322 21 1/2

Batting Average

AB R H Pct. Wilson, KC 259 33 89 .344 Hrbek, Minn 292 48 97 .332 Harrah, Clev 323 67 107 .331 Yount, Mil 318 56 105 .330 Bonnell, Tor 246 39 80 .325

Home Runs National League -- Murphy (Atl.) 23; Kingman (Chi.) 21; Carter (Mont.) 19; Honer (Atl.) 18; Thompson (Pitt.) 17; Clark (SF) 17. American League -- Thomas (mil.) 22; Thornton (Clev.) 20; Jackson (Cal.) 20; Cooper (Mil.) 19; Oglivie (Mil.) 19. Runs Batted In National League -- Murphy (Atl.) 62; Oliver (Mont.) 60; Kennedy (SD) 57; Clark (SF) 57; Carter (Mont.) 55; Kingman (NY) 55; Diaz (Phil.) 55; Thompson (Pitt.) 55. American League -- McRae (KC) 79; Thornton (Clev.) 68; Cooper (Mil.) 68; Luzinski (Chi.) 65; Hrbek (Minn.) 61. Pitching (11 decisions) National League -- Lollar (SD) 10-2, .833; Robinson (Pitt.) 10-3, .769; Robers (Mont.) 10-4, .714; Sutton (Hou.) 9-4, .692; Montelusco (SD) 7-4, .636; Valenzuela (LA) 12-7, .632. American League -- Vuckovich (Mil.) 10-4, .714; Zahn (Cal.) 10-4, .714; Burns (Chi.) 9-4, .692.

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