AFTER a season filled with milestones, farewells, and a few pennant-race surprises, baseball heads into its postseason showcase with new and familiar faces.
Last year's World Series opponents Toronto and Atlanta are back - though the Braves had to survive a down-to-the-wire race before clinching their spot Sunday on the last day of the regular season.
These teams, replete with veterans of other playoffs and World Series, are expected by most observers to win their respective pennants and meet again in a rematch of their exciting 1992 fall classic.
Needless to say, their respective foes - the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies - will be shooting the works to upset the forecasts.
The best-of-seven league championship series begin with Toronto at Chicago tonight and Atlanta at Philadelphia Wednesday night. The World Series opens Oct. 16.
Toronto's defending world champions look strong again, though with a different cast of characters than the one that defeated Oakland in the American League playoffs and then nipped Atlanta in seven games a year ago. (See story, Page 12.)
Gone are such heroes of 1992 and other postseasons as slugger Dave Winfield, sparkplug Kelly Gruber, starters Jack Morris and Jimmy Key, and relief ace Tom Henke. But new acquisitions Rickey Henderson and Paul Molitor have turned a solid lineup into an awesome one, and these new-look Blue Jays, despite a suspect pitching staff, appear to have the overall weaponry to reach the fall classic once again.
The White Sox could prove formidable, however, as they seek to break the Windy City's long saga of postseason futility. Slugger Frank Thomas (.317, 41 home runs, 128 runs batted in) is having a terrific year, while leading Cy Young Award candidate Jack McDowell (21 wins, 9 losses) is the sort of pitcher who can carry a team.
You can't blame the fans for being pessimistic, though: Neither Chicago team has gone to the World Series since 1959. Neither has won a World Series since 1917.
In the National League the Braves are probably America's most-recognized baseball team by virtue of their 1991 and 1992 playoff and World Series exploits, plus their season-long appearances on national cable TV. They also may well be the team best structured for a short series, with the game's most imposing pitching staff and a trio of long-ball sluggers in David Justice, Fred McGriff, and Ron Gant, each of whom hit between 35 and 40 homers and drove in more than 100 runs. Indeed, if one goes by former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver's famous dictum that baseball is ``pitching and three-run homers,'' Atlanta would seem to have the perfect formula.
But the Phillies, who rose from last place in 1992 to a division title this year, intend to continue their Cinderella story.
While the Phillies may not be quite as well endowed as the other playoff teams in terms of marquee names, they do have quite a cast of outstanding ballplayers led by Lenny Dykstra, who seemed always to be on base as he paced the league in a number of offensive categories, including an amazing 143 runs, 194 hits, and 129 walks.
En route to this year's postseason, the regular season was filled with exciting memories, topped by the stirring National League West battle in which Atlanta nipped San Francisco Sunday on the final day of the regular season.
Indeed, each of the pennant races had its moments. The AL East race in particular created interest for much of the season with as many as five teams (Toronto, New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Detroit) battling on close terms for quite a while.
This year was also notable for the addition of expansion teams in Colorado and Florida. The Rockies were particularly successful, avoiding the standard last-place finish and setting a major league attendance record by drawing 4,483,350 fans to Denver's Mile-High Stadium.
Individual excitement peaked in July with Toronto's John Olerud and Colorado's Andres Galarraga threatening the coveted .400 batting average last achieved by Ted Williams in 1941. While neither could keep up that pace, they each won batting titles at .363 and .370, respectively. Another milestone occurred when Winfield, now with Minnesota after getting the hit that won the World Series for Toronto last year, reached the rare career 3,000-hit plateau. Barry Bonds of San Francisco had a monster year, hitting .336 and leading the National League with 46 homers and 123 RBIs. Mark Whiten of St. Louis had the biggest single day, tying major league records with four home runs and 12 RBIs.
Finally, the year was marked by the farewells of three of the game's greats: all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan, career .300 hitter George Brett, and Carlton Fisk, who played more games and hit more home runs than any catcher in history.