Absentee stars cloud picture as baseball season opens today

You can't tell the players without a scorecard! Ever since the advent of free agency this old baseball axiom has taken on new meaning, with players riding a merry-go-round from one team to another. Now as the 1987 season opens today there's an added twist: you won't be able to pick out some of your old favorites even with a scorecard, because they aren't there!

The biggest shocker was the case of Dwight Gooden, star right-hander of the world champion New York Mets, who agreed on the eve of the season to undergo treatment for a drug problem and will be out indefinitely.

Then there are another half-dozen big-name players sitting it out until at least May 1 after failing to sign with their own clubs or to find employment elsewhere. National League batting champion Tim Raines of Montreal heads this group, which includes slugger Bob Horner of Atlanta, star catchers Rich Gedman of Boston and Bob Boone of California, longtime ace left-hander Ron Guidry of the New York Yankees, and veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander of Atlanta. Most or all of these players figure to wind up in uniform somewhere eventually, but for the moment they are conspicuous by their absence.

Finally, in addition to all these extraordinary situations there are the usual uniform switches due to trades or free agency - the biggest ones sending All-Star catcher Lance Parrish from Detroit to Philadelphia, slugging outfielder Andre Dawson from Montreal to the Chicago Cubs, World Series MVP Ray Knight from the Mets to Baltimore, and Reggie Jackson from California to Oakland, where his illustrious career began 20 years ago.

Until the 11th hour, it even looked as though Roger Clemens, who won both the Cy Young Award and MVP honors while pitching Boston to the American League pennant last year - would be among the missing. Roger and the Red Sox couldn't agree on what these feats were worth, and he left camp a month ago in a salary dispute. But he and the club reached a verbal agreement over the weekend, and while the details are still being worked out, he has rejoined the team just in time for the start of the season.

Here's how the races shape up:

NL EAST - The defending champion Mets strengthened themselves by acquiring outfielder Kevin McReynolds (.288, 26 homers, 96 RBIs). But the loss of Knight to free agency could hurt, and the absence of Gooden and relief ace Roger McDowell (physical problems) clouds the picture. If any team has the pitching depth to shake off such losses, it is the Mets. They may get a challenge, though, from a Philadelphia team that has several promising young pitchers, that bolstered its catching by acquiring Parrish, that picked up hard-hitting Mike Easler, and that still features a solid lineup led by 1986 MVP Mike Schmidt. St. Louis and Chicago, the 1985 and '84 champions respectively, also look improved, while Montreal and Pittsburgh again appear to be also-rans.

NL WEST - Veterans Dave Parker and Buddy Bell plus spectacular young Eric Davis head up a power-packed Cincinnati lineup that could give Pete Rose his first managerial pennant in his third year at the helm. Defending champion Houston is the main threat, and a superb pitching staff headed by Cy Young Award winner Mike Scott will make the Astros tough again. As usual, pitching is also the key to Los Angeles's hopes, while one can't write off a well-balanced San Francisco team that was in contention most of last season. San Diego and Atlanta look like the trailers.

AL EAST - New York, with the game's dominant hitter, Don Mattingly, heading a lineup that includes Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield, will score plenty of runs, while Dave Righetti (46 saves) may be the best reliever around. The starting pitching remains questionable, but even an ordinary staff should be able to win with this kind of support. Toronto has a similar situation: strong everyday lineup, excellent bullpen, and so-so starters. Boston, with Gedman unavailable right away and with injury problems elsewhere, may be hard-pressed to repeat. Cleveland, paced by major league RBI leader Joe Carter and second-year sensation Cory Snyder, is supposedly the hot team - but it's worth noting that while leading the majors in runs scored last year (831), the Indians also managed to give up more than any other team (841). Baltimore has a new look (Knight, catcher Terry Kennedy, second baseman Rick Burleson, and manager Cal Ripken, Sr., among others), but also has a long way to go after finishing last in 1986. Detroit and Milwaukee are up against it in this powerful division.

AL WEST - Kansas City has been the dominant team in this divison for a decade, and with a return to form of that vaunted pitching staff (especially 1985 ace Bret Saberhagen and star reliever Dan Quisenberry), should regain the title it lost to California a year ago. Last year's rookie star Wally Joyner plus strong pitching headed by Mike Witt and Kirk McCaskill should keep the Angels in the race again, while Texas, last season's surprise runner-up, also must be reckoned with. The rest of this perennially weak division (Minnesota, the Chicago White Sox, Oakland, and Seattle) will probably have to wait at least another year.

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