AFTER a preseason filled with drama and controversy (more on that later), baseball 1991 begins in earnest on Monday. Over the next two weeks, the age-old tradition of Opening Day will be observed throughout the United States and Canada as the ``national pastime'' reaffirms its special place in the fabric of American life. As always, attention centers on the pennant races. Can Oakland win a fourth straight American League flag - and then redeem itself for last fall's World Series disaster, in which the A's lost four straight? Will Cincinnati's surprising Series winners turn out to be a one-year aberration - or a 1990s version of the Big Red Machine that was such a perennial power in the 1970s? How about last year's other playoff teams, Boston and Pittsburgh? Indeed, will any division winner repeat, or will we see the much more common scenario of four new champions battling it out in October?
Will there be any human dramas to match those of 1990 - such as the veteran Bob Welch, a recovered alcoholic, winning 27 games and the Cy Young Award? Or Cecil Fielder returning from self-imposed exile in Japan to blast 51 home runs?
It all begins to unfold Monday - but even before the first pitch, we've had enough headlines over the winter and early spring to fill an ordinary season.
Bo Jackson, one of the most exciting players in all of sports, was released by the Kansas City Royals amid conjecture that the hip injury he incurred while wearing his other uniform - as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders - could spell the end of his careers in both sports.
Baseball's endless war with gambling continued, as Pete Rose was barred from the Hall of Fame, while Philadelphia's Lenny Dykstra was put on probation by Commissioner Fay Vincent after testifying about playing in high-stakes poker games.
Prima donna players also had their day, with both of last year's Most Valuable Players (Pittsburgh's Barry Bonds of the National League and Oakland's Rickey Henderson of the American) engaging in spring training squabbles with management.
On the lighter side, Jim Palmer's impersonation of Ponce de Leon captivated the nation, but the 45-year-old retired Hall of Fame pitcher soon scrapped his attempt at a playing comeback and went back to his broadcasting and underwear-modeling careers.
So now the baseball season begins in earnest, and in these days of free agency and trades that means the usual battery of uniform changes.
Darryl Strawberry was the biggest name to switch teams during the offseason, taking his home run swing and sometimes-difficult personality from the New York Mets to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Other stars in new surroundings include sluggers George Bell (formerly with Toronto, now with the Chicago Cubs), and Jack Clark, who has moved from San Diego to Boston.
Two of the top speedsters have also changed uniforms: Tim Raines discarded Montreal's for that of the Chicago White Sox and Vince Coleman changed out of his St. Louis double-knits into those of the New York Mets.
How does it all add up? Based on history, the safest prediction is that few, if any, of last year's champions will repeat. Indeed, except for the current A's, no team in either league has won consecutive pennants since the 1970s, and only the 1980-81 Yankees and the 1984-85 Kansas City Royals have even managed to win back-to-back division titles. This year could be more of the same, for while all of the defenders look solid enough, each could have its hands full against one or more improved rivals.
The A's, with those those three straight pennants, a balanced lineup, and superior pitching, must be considered favorites again in the American League (AL) West. But the White Sox, who battled them all last year, think new leadoff man Raines provides the extra dimension to put them over the top. Meanwhile, California and Kansas City, last year's biggest disappointments, hope to stage the challenges that were expected but never materialized in 1990.
THE AL East race appears too close to call between Boston and Toronto, and could well go down to the last game of the season again as it did a year ago.
The National League (NL) East also looks tight - perhaps with three teams battling all the way. The Pirates are a solid club, and Jim Leyland is one of baseball's best managers, but they actually may have lost ground in the offseason with the departure of free agent first-baseman Sid Bream. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs, still seeking their first pennant since 1945, made some dramatic free-agent signings, adding slugger Bell to an already powerful lineup and fortifying their pitching with the acquisition of left-hander Danny Jackson.
The Mets are always a threat because of their outstanding pitching staff - and they feel they've at least partly offset the loss of Strawberry by adding speedster Coleman and hard-hitting Hubie Brooks from Los Angeles.
As for the NL West, it's hard to count out the team that won it all last year, but Cincinnati may have its hands full just defending its division title. The reason is that while the Reds pretty much stood pat, their main rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, now have Strawberry (37 home runs and 108 runs batted in last year) plus several other key new faces. The Dodgers, who finished only five games out of first place last year, also hope for a comeback by former pitching ace Orel Hershiser, who missed the e ntire '90 season with a shoulder injury. But with or without him, they feel they have improved enough to close the gap
The bottom line is that all of the races should be close, with Oakland, Boston, Los Angeles, and the Cubs appearing to have the edge going in - but none of them by very much.