`YOU can't tell the players without a program!" The age-old cry of the ballpark vendors is more applicable than ever in these days of free agency, as players pick up their megabucks salaries and move from team to team.
Add the traditional route of trades, and each spring fans have to check anew to see whom they are rooting for. Who won, and who lost in the annual reshuffling of talent? What do the pennant races look like?
No one has all the answers, or even all the questions. But here is a sampling:
What are the prospects for the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies?
Good at the gate, dim in the field (Remember the early-1960s Mets?). But people have come to understand this situation, and fans in expansion cities are usually realistic, patient, and supportive at the ticket window - at least for the first couple of years.
Those original Mets, who averaged 108 losses a year for their first six seasons, remain the quintessential example of futility. Most other expansion teams haven't done a whole lot better, though, with only the Kansas City Royals of the late '60s and early '70s breaking the mold.
Where's my program?
No one will be asking this question more than the fans in Toronto, where this year's team will bear little resemblance to the world champions of last year. The Blue Jays have either traded away or lost via free agency four members of their starting lineup, two starting pitchers, and their ace reliever. Elsewhere, a starry collection of Most Valuable Players (MVPs), Cy Young Award winners, and batting champions has also changed uniforms. A partial list:
* Barry Bonds, National League (NL) MVP in 1990 and last year, from Pittsburgh to San Francisco.
* Greg Maddux, 1992 NL Cy Young Award winner, from the Chicago Cubs to Atlanta.
* Doug Drabek, recipient of the same honor two years earlier, from Pittsburgh to Houston.
* Wade Boggs, five-time American League (AL) batting champion, from Boston to the New York Yankees.
* Kevin Mitchell, 1989 major-league home-run and runs-batted-in leader, from Seattle to Cincinnati.
* Andre Dawson, 1987 NL MVP, from the Chicago Cubs to Boston.
* The mass exodus from Toronto: Starters Jimmy Key to the Yankees and David Cone to Kansas City; reliever Tom Henke to Texas; sluggers Dave Winfield to Minnesota and Candy Maldonado to the Cubs; infielders Kelly Gruber to California and Manny Lee to Texas.
How do the pennant races shape up?
AL East: Toronto, despite all those player losses, still holds an edge in overall talent. But the most interesting story in this division - if not in all baseball - seems likely to be played out in the Big Apple.
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is back, and his wheeling and dealing is apparent in the acquisition of Boggs, Key, and ex-California pitcher Jim Abbott. If they come through, there could be postseason action in the Bronx for the first time since 1981.
AL West: Oakland, winner of four titles in five years, is a question mark as its nucleus grows older or departs. But the A's still have enough to figure in a three-way battle with Minnesota and the improving Chicago White Sox.
NL West: By adding Maddux to a rotation that was already the best in baseball, Atlanta made itself a big favorite to become the first team since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the mid-'70s to win three pennants in a row.
NL East: Pittsburgh is going for an NL record fourth straight division title, but the Pirates are an example of one of baseball's big problems today: a small-market team with limited TV revenue trying to compete with teams in major media centers. The result has been a steady exodus of stars, capped this year by the departures of Bonds and Drabek.