As baseball's annual All-Star Game festivities come to an end, all four division races are ready to resume with the usual amount of unpredictability. Except for the American League East, where the Detroit Tigers have held sway by a wide margin through the first half of the season, there is no clear sense of who the winners are likely to be.
The California Angels, for example, have led most of the time so far in the AL West despite a strange inability to win at home, where they are eight games under .500. But lately the Chicago White Sox, who towroped this division by 20 games a year ago thanks mainly to a second-half surge, have been giving indications they might be ready for an encore. Indeed, the White Sox reached the All-Star break on the crest of a seven-game winning streak which has carried them into first place by a one-game margin.
There are even a few stray votes for Minnesota, whose improved pitching is often backed by strong hitting. But if the surprising Twins are to do more than just hang close to the leaders, they are going to have to win more often on the road.
While the first-place San Diego Padres have established themselves as the current favorite in the National League West it is still too early to give up on either Atlanta or Los Angeles. Both the Braves and Dodgers probably have at least one strong run left in them where they might win, say, 14 of 20 games, or even 16 of 20.
In the NL East, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia spent the first half like three guys going around in the same revolving door. If you averted your eyes for even a moment, chances are when you looked back somebody else was in front.
People who put a premium on experience are apt to go with the defending champion Phillies, since many of their key players have been in tight pennant races before. However, youth will buy you the Mets (Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Mike Fitzgerald, Ron Darling) and sentiment the Cubs, who haven't won a flag since 1945.
The Mets are hottest at the moment, with nine victories in their last 10 games and a half-game lead over the Cubs. The Phillies, despite a mild slump in the last week or so, are still in good position. And then there are the die-hards who somehow think the Montreal Expos, despite a below-.500 first half, will catch lightning in a bottle before the season is over.
Getting back to the AL East, it seems unlikely that the Toronto Blue Jays or the Baltimore Orioles, as talented as they are, can mount enough of a charge to catch Detroit in what remains of the season.
The Tigers simply have too much pitching (Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Milt Wilcox); too much clutch hitting (Darrell Evans, Dave Bergman, Kirk Gibson); and too much defensive strength up the middle (Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Chet Lemon) to come apart.
There is every indication that both leagues will have new batting champions. Dave Winfield of the Yankees appears to be running away with AL honors, and San Diego's Tony Gwynn holds the NL lead. Last year's winners, Wade Boggs of the Red Sox and four-time NL champion Bill Madlock of the Pirates, are both out of contention this season.
Cal Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles, last year's MVP in the American League, might have trouble finishing among the first five this season considering the production of Parrish, Trammell, Winfield, Baltimore's Eddie Murray, and Boston's Jim Rice. And Atlanta's Dale Murphy isn't apt to win a third consecutive MVP award in the National League, at least not the way Gwynn, Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt, and Chicago's Ryne Sandberg are hitting the ball.
Most American Leaguers seem sold on first baseman Alvin Davis of the Seattle Mariners for rookie honors, while in the NL second baseman Juan Samuel of the Phillies (because he plays every day) will probably beat out Gooden despite the young Met hurler's impressive strikeout totals and his flair for the dramatic.
Regarding the division races, we leave you with this fact: In the past five years, which adds up to 20 separate races, only the 1980 Yankees repeated as division champions the following season.