BASEBALL is a game of threes: three strikes and you're out; three outs and the other guys are up; even legendary manager Earl Weaver's pet winning formula featuring ``three-run homers.'' And the number 3 is very much in evidence with the 1994 season beginning next week.
Toronto will be bidding for a rare World Series ``threepeat,'' an achievement seen in baseball only twice in the last half century. Atlanta also seeks its third Series appearance of the '90s, though not in a row and hardly with as much success.
Individually, San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds and Atlanta pitching ace Greg Maddux go for historic ``threepeats'' of their own. Bonds could become the first player to win three straight Most Valuable Player awards, and ditto for Maddux in the Cy Young Award sweepstakes.
Whatever happens on the field, 1994 is assured its place in history with the realignment of each league into three divisions, creating a third tier of postseason action.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same - as evidenced by the usual array of familiar faces in new uniforms through trades and free-agent signings.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this annual game of musical chairs is Rickey Henderson's personal ``threepeat'' with Oakland. Last August, Rickey's second acrimonious split with the A's looked like something out of ``Divorce Court.'' But after his brief flirtation with Toronto (just long enough to pick up a second World Series ring), baseball's premier leadoff man and all-time base-stealing king reconciled with the A's and is back for a third tour of duty in Oakland.
Two key members of Philadelphia's National League pennant-winning team also find themselves in new surroundings: Left-hander Terry Mulholland, 12-9 with another win in the Series, was traded to the Yankees. And ace reliever Mitch Williams, who saved 45 games but is best remembered for giving up Joe Carter's Series-winning homer, was dealt to Houston.
In other major moves, ex-Giants slugger Will Clark signed with Texas, while Baltimore picked up former Rangers outfielder Rafael Palmeiro and ex-Cincinnati third baseman Chris Sabo.
Here's a capsule look at the races in the six realigned divisions.
American League East: Even without Henderson, who was basically ``rented'' as playoff and World Series insurance, Toronto boasts an awesome batting lineup. John Olerud, World Series MVP Paul Molitor, and Roberto Alomar formed the first trio from one team to finish 1-2-3 in the batting race in this century - and join Carter (33 home runs, 121 RBIs) to form a '90s version of ``Murderers' Row.'' The Blue Jays' pitching may not be as strong as it once was, but with that firepower it doesn't have to be.
Baltimore's new owner Peter Angelos shelled out some $45 million for Palmeiro, Sabo, and other free agents, but the Orioles will still be hard pressed to threaten the Jays - though they could snare the new wild-card playoff spot. Any other team emerging as a season-long contender in this division would be a major surprise, though the Yankees may have enough pitching and balance to make things interesting for a while.
American League Central: With unanimous MVP Frank Thomas anchoring a solid batting order and Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell heading up an imposing pitching staff, the Chicago White Sox should have little trouble in this division. Cleveland has a new ballpark and one of the game's rising young stars in Albert Belle, but probably not enough overall talent to menace the White Sox.
American League West: The new ballpark Texas is unveiling is smaller than the old one, and it isn't hard to figure out why. With Will Clark joining home run champ Juan Gonzalez in the middle of the lineup, and with Jose Canseco back after missing most of 1993 with an injury, the Rangers have a 1-2-3 punch that should produce enough runs to offset the team's suspect pitching. This sets up an interesting duel with Seattle, which can't match all that thunder, but which appears more balanced with Ken Griffey Jr. leading a reasonably potent offense and fireballer Randy Johnson heading up a solid pitching corps. Then there are the A's, who plunged from first to last a year ago, but hope to rebound with Henderson back and slugger Mark McGwire returning after missing most of 1993 with injuries.
National League East: Atlanta, despite its playoff loss to Philadelphia, is still considered the best team in baseball over a full 162-game season. On paper, no one can touch the Braves' starting rotation of Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz, while Fred McGriff and David Justice power a solid offense. The Phillies, on the other hand, got hot at the right time and perhaps played a bit over their heads a year ago. Montreal, a young team on the rise, adds the year's top rookie prospect - first baseman-outfielder Cliff Floyd - but still appears out of Atlanta's league.
National League Central: Houston gets a break via realignment after the struggling the last few years in a division dominated by Atlanta and San Francisco. St. Louis, coming off a third-place finish in the old NL East, looks like the other main contender, with Cincinnati next in line.
National League West: On paper, they can mail this one in for San Francisco right now. The Giants won 103 games last year only to finish second to Atlanta. Now with the Braves gone, their opposition consists of a San Diego team that lost 101 games, Colorado's expansion club (95 losses), and a Los Angeles team that was only .500. If the Giants, even without Clark, don't run away with this division there ought to be an investigation.