TOTALLY out of action at this time last year, major-league baseball now prepares to carpet October with wall-to-wall postseason games.
The regular season - shortened from 162 to 144 games because of an eight-month labor stoppage - ends Sunday. The playoffs begin Oct. 3 in four cities, with the pairings and sites undetermined at press time.
So much time has passed since the last World Series was played in 1993 that a refresher course is in order: The Toronto Blue Jays are the reigning champions of baseball. You won't see them this year, though. They have plummeted (not unlike other recent champions) and now are practically the worst team in the American League, while the Cleveland Indians - woebegone for decades - have emerged as the team to beat.
Attendance in many cities has dropped, meanwhile, and no known progress has been made toward signing a new collective bargaining agreement (both sides have vowed to play the postseason).
Boston joins Cleveland in the American League playoff, while Seattle, California, and the New York Yankees engage in a game of musical chairs in the season's final week to fill out the AL's remaining division champion and wild-card slots.
In the National League, division winners Atlanta and Cincinnati wait to see who will emerge from a crazy, three-headed race among Los Angeles, Houston, and third-year expansion franchise Colorado for the final two postseason berths.
Will eight teams in the postseason instead of four be good for the game? Will a wild-card team, which didn't win any of baseball's six division races, emerge as King of the Diamond? And can the three-phase postseason, which was delayed a year as a result of the strike, hold the public's interest until Oct. 29?
The questions hardly stop there:
Which team is hottest?
If long-term performance is what counts, Atlanta and Cleveland have held up better than any other clubs. They led their respective divisions at the midseason All-Star Game with baseball's best records and have sustained their winning pace.
Which team faces the highest mental hurdles?
Cleveland has been absent from the postseason longer than any team (since 1954), but Boston must wrestle with the bigger October monkey. The Red Sox have not won a World Series championship since 1916, yet they have come agonizingly close: In 1967, they lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals, an outcome repeated in 1975 (against Cincinnati) and 1986 (against the New York Mets). In that last series, they were one out away from winning it all in Game 6 when first baseman Bill Buckner misplayed a g round ball. The miscue let the Mets score the winning run and alter the course of events.
Atlanta, too, has some history to overturn. In 1991 the Braves made it to the World Series for the first time since moving to Georgia from Milwaukee in 1966. They lost to the Minnesota Twins in a tightly contested seven-game series in which five games were decided by a single run and three in extra innings. The next year, Atlanta entered the playoffs with baseball's best regular-season record only to lose the World Series to Toronto, four games to two.
The Braves outscored the Blue Jays 20 runs to 16, but lost four one-run games.
Who has the best pitching?
Atlanta. Few would argue this point. Greg Maddux is a cinch to win a fourth consecutive Cy Young Award, a feat never before accomplished in either the National or American League. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz give the Braves two other strong starters with big-game experience.
What are the postseason's most tantalizing possibilities?
Maybe a Boston-Cincinnati World Series, a 20th anniversary rematch. Many observers consider the '75 Series, won by Cincinnati, four games to three, one of the most exciting of all time. Another interesting possibility is a Braves-Red Sox series, reuniting the teams that once shared the city of Boston and employed Babe Ruth at the beginning and end of his major-league career. Or how about an all-Ohio World Series between Cincinnati and Cleveland? Or, for a few long shots, a Freeway Series between the Cal ifornia Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers or a Newcomers Series between Colorado and Seattle?
Which division winner has a lame-duck manager?
By prearrangement, Davey Johnson of Cincinnati will hand over the reins to his assistant and good friend, Ray Knight, when the season ends. Knight, who has never managed a pro team, is the choice of Reds' owner Marge Schott, whose baseball instincts perplex many observers. Johnson will leave with the best winning percentage among active major-league managers.
With the best team in their 19-year history, why do the Seattle Mariners have a cloud over them?
The owners may sell or move the team if the city doesn't build a new stadium with a retractable roof to replace the much-maligned Kingdome. Last week's public vote on funding the project was so close that it's still being sorted out.