In terms of exciting races, the 1982 baseball season is a tough act to follow. All four division battles raged well into September, with three going down to the final weekend and two to the last day.
The odds against another such windup are high, but again each division looks highly competitive. Add to this the uncertainty caused by today's frequent player movement via both trades and free agency, and it's easy to see why it's getting harder all the time to predict the outcome of the races.
Obviously the old tendency to stick with the champions doesn't work very well any more. Not only has no team repeated a pennant or World Series triumph since 1978, but only one, the 1980 and 1981 New York Yankees, has even won back-to-back division titles. And although all four defenders figure to be in the hunt again, it's certainly possible that this trend will continue.
Here's a division-by-division rundown: National League East
Philadelphia. Four teams - Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montreal, and St. Louis - have won this title in the last four years, and three went on to win the World Series. That's evidence enough that this is the game's strongest division as well as one of the best-balanced, and any of these clubs could emerge on top without raising any eyebrows. The Phillies, though, appear to have helped themselves the most, trading for second baseman Joe Morgan and outfielder Von Hayes to get the left-handed hitting punch they lacked a year ago.
St. Louis. The Cardinals have no real weaknesses, and with their speed, pitching, defense, and timely hitting, plus the experience and confidence gained by winning the division race, the playoffs, and the World Series, they should be in it all the way again.
Montreal. The Expos, after coming within one game of the World Series in 1981 , fell to third last year. Management can't seem to decide what type of manager can get this group of individuals to play up to their potential, so after trying a disciplinarian (Dick Williams) and then switching to a more easygoing type (Jim Fanning), it is now taking the hard-line route again with Bill Virdon.
Pittsburgh. The Pirates have the talent to contend in any other division, but need all the breaks to have much chance in this one.
New York. The Mets moved to strengthen their pitching by picking up Mike Torrez and reacquiring Tom Seaver, but a jump from last to fifth seems all they can hope for.
Chicago. Second-year GM Dallas Green still needs time to rebuild this franchise. National League West
Los Angeles. The awesome starting pitching (Fernando Valenzuela, Jerry Reuss, Bob Welch, Burt Hooton) virtually guarantees a contender. With Steve Garvey and Ron Cey gone, the lineup is in transition, but the Dodgers expect their best-in-the-game farm system to take care of that, with rookie Greg Brock (44 homers at Albuquerque) taking over at first base and second-year man Mike Marshall playing right field, enabling Pedro Guerrero to replace Cey at third.
San Diego. In a division where everyone has problems, and where they made the biggest off-season acquisition (Garvey), the Padres feel they can win. They were up there for a while last year before fading to fourth, so this is no pipedream - especially if Manager Dick Williams can get the most out of such individualists as Garry Templeton, Ruppert Jones, and Sixto Lezcano.
Atlanta. Only a late collapse by Los Angeles kept the Braves from blowing an apparently insurmountable lead. As it was, they had to go down to the wire, then got swept in the playoffs. They do have a good young nucleus, though, led by Bob Horner and Dale Murphy, and should be in the race again.
San Francisco. The Giants were baseball's real surprise last year, almost winning with a team that didn't look as though it had a chance. A repeat seems too much to expect, especially since this club looks weaker due to the trading of Joe Morgan and the departure of Reggie Smith to Japan.
Cincinnati and Houston. Amazingly, these teams which won the title in 1979 and 1980 respectively have slipped so badly in a few years that they seem almost certain to battle again to escape the cellar. American League East
New York. Forget that the Yankees finished one game out of the cellar in 1982. This team - like its owner - has an ''all or nothing'' attitude, and collapsed when it fell out of contention. But any club with starters like Ron Guidry and Dave Righetti, a reliever like Goose Gossage, and a talent-filled lineup beefed up by free agent acquisitions Don Baylor and Steve Kemp has to be considered a top contender. The return of Billy Martin as manager probably will help, too, for despite his faults, Billy is one of the best at running a game and has an undeniable winning record.
Milwaukee. The Brewers proved in the World Series that they're a lot more than a bunch of sluggers - displaying pitching, defense, speed, and an ability to scratch out runs when the big bats went silent. But starting the season with relief ace Rollie Fingers and No. 1 starter Pete Vuckovich questionable because of injuries is not the recommended method for launching a title defense.
Baltimore. The Orioles were torrid at the end last year in a bid to give outgoing manager Earl Weaver one more title. Whether they can keep it up for new pilot Joe Altobelli is the big question - and the answer could be yes, especially if rookie outfielder John Shelby retains any semblance of the form he had while tearing up the Grapefruit League.
Detroit. Sparky Anderson, now in his fourth year at the helm, has built a solid team that looks ready to contend and could win it all if he gets a big year out of either Aurelio Lopez or Dave Rozema in the bullpen.
Boston. It's the same old story: the Red Sox will score a lot and so will their opponents. The pitching looks bad, but that's what people said last year and they were still in the race. The Sox could win, but they could just as conceivably finish fifth - as can can be said about any of the top five teams.
Cleveland. The Indians think that should read ''six teams,'' but although second baseman Manny Trillo should help the defense and Bert Blyleven hopes for a pitching comeback, they still seem a cut below contention.
Toronto. The Blue Jays should move up one of these years, but not yet. American League West
Kansas City. The Royals have been the division's most consistent team over the last seven years, they still have a solid nucleus (George Brett, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, etc.), a bullpen ace in Dan Quisenberry, and probably enough starting pitching to get by.
California. Owner Gene Autry's talent hunt paid off in 1982 with a division championship and a near-miss in the playoffs. But with Don Baylor gone via free agency and some other big names getting a bit long in the tooth, they could have trouble repeating.
Chicago. The White Sox have solid hitting, while the acquisition of free agent Floyd Bannister bolsters the pitching. On the minus side are the continued shoulder problems of southpaw Britt Burns and a shaky defense.
Seattle, Oakland, Texas, and Minnesota. The only question seems to be in what order they will bring up the rear.