Once the major-league baseball season ends Sunday, there's not much time to catch one's breath before the playoffs begin Oct. 1. To digest this season's diamond developments takes time and space - but let's give it a whack:
Best team: Based on winning percentages, Atlanta and Cleveland. The Indians sold out every home game before the season started and were the first to clinch a division title.
Worst team: Detroit. The Tigers are winning at a .335 clip and are 36 1/2 games out of first place. (Through games of Sept. 21). By comparison, the 1962 Mets, one of the worst teams of this century, had a .250 winning percentage.
Most-improved teams: Based strictly on a comparison of winning percentages between last year and this, the St. Louis Cardinals have made the greatest strides, followed by the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos.
Hottest September teams: Cleveland, Montreal, Los Angeles, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. Seattle recently gained seven games in the standings in eight days, partly from feasting on the faltering Texas Rangers in the American League's Central division race.
Steepest decline: California. The Angels descent to baseball purgatory (i.e. last place) began a year ago when they squandered a huge lead over the Seattle Mariners and eventually lost the AL West in a special one-game playoff. This year the team's winning percentage has dropped roughly 100 percentage points. Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Boston have experienced the next biggest dips.
Most consistent hitter: San Diego's Tony Gwynn. At the moment, he's shy of the needed at-bats, but if he goes to the plate enough this week Gwynn could win his third straight National League batting crown and his seventh overall. His current average is .355.
Biggest non-story: Contract negotiations. Yes, the ones that have been going on more than three years. Reportedly the two sides (owners and players) are on the verge of inking a new deal that would ensure labor peace into the next century. "Wake me when it's over," probably expresses the sentiment of most fans.
Best players (read MVP candidates): In the American League MVP race, talk centers around Texas outfielder Juan Gonzalez, Baltimore second baseman Roberto Alomar, Cleveland third baseman Jim Thome, Cleveland outfielder Albert Belle, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, and Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez. In the National League, the top candidates are San Diego third baseman Ken Caminiti, Los Angeles catcher Mike Piazza, Atlanta infielder Chipper Jones, and Colorado first baseman Andre Galarraga.
Attendance: According to the most recent available statistics, average major-league attendance has risen from 25,260 to 26,425 during the past year, roughly a 5 percent increase.
Suspended: Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, for 2-1/2 years. First suspended three years ago for inflammatory public remarks, she did it again, saying "Hitler was good in the beginning" during an ESPN interview.
Leading comeback players: Two of the most intriguing personal revivals involve New York Yankee teammates Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. The pair played for the the Mets in 1986, when New York's National League club won the World Series. Both have have rebounded from drug-related suspensions. Gooden tossed the only no-hitter of his career early in the season, and has generally pitched well until running out of gas near the end. Strawberry also hit the wall in September, but not until he'd gone from the minor-league St. Paul (Minn.) Saints to the Yankees and flashed some of his old home run power. Ryne Sandberg retired in 1994, returned to the Chicago Cubs and has had a productive year at the plate despite a low batting average. Two courageous in-season comebacks were made by the Dodgers' Brett Butler and the Yankees' David Cone. Both valiantly returned after much-publicized surgeries. Butler, however, broke his hand attempting to bunt in his fifth game back and was shelved for the rest of the season.
Retirements: Ebullient Tommy Lasorda, the dean of major-league managers, called it a career midway through his 20th season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lasorda guided the club to four pennants and two World Series titles, in 1981 and '88. Former Dodger shortstop and coach Bill Russell replaced Lasorda. St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, perhaps the most acrobatic infielder to ever play the game, is hanging up his glove when the season ends. Vision difficulties following a beaning late last season led Minnesota's popular outfielder Kirby Pucket to trade in his uniform early in the year for a broadcasting job.
Most interesting fashion: Toronto catcher Charlie O'Brien received permission late in the season to use a mask similar to those worn by hockey goalies. O'Brien says the mask offers better vision and more protection.
Staying put: Despite noises about moving, the Astros now plan to stay in Houston. Club owner Drayton McLane reportedly will sign a 30-year lease to occupy a new retractable-roof stadium that will replace the Astrodome.
Border crossing: With the Republican National Convention in San Diego, the Padres headed south for a three-game August series with the New York Mets in Monterrey, Mexico. It marked the first time regular-season dates were scheduled outside of the United States or Canada. None of the games was a complete sellout, but there was great enthusiasm.
Most exciting new star: Seattle's Alex Rodriguez, who most likely will lead the majors in hitting. He broke Robin Yount's record for extra base hits by a shortstop.
Best encore: Boston's Mo Vaughn is having another monster year and is only a few homers shy of surpassing the Triple Crown numbers by Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Vaughn has a .326 average, 41 homers, and 133 runs batted in compared to Yaz's .321, 44, and 121.
Peek ahead to '97: Next season interleague play will debut, and the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into the majors will be celebrated.
Strikeouts in a nine-inning game: Boston's Roger Clemens equalled his own record by fanning 20 Detroit batters in a Sept. 18 shutout. The effort was special in many ways, including the fact that it occurred 13 years after Clemens originally set the mark against Seattle. The no-walk masterpiece tied Cy Young's career Red Sox records of 38 shutouts and 192 wins and underlined that in any given game, Clemens (10-12) is still one of baseball's best hurlers.
500 career homers: Baltimore's timely acquisition of Eddie Murray from Cleveland allowed him to hit his 500th homer with his original major-league club. Murray became the 15th player to reach 500, but only the third who also has at least 3,000 hits, a distinction he shares with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
3,000 hits: Paul Molitor of the Minnesota Twins used a triple on his major-league leading 211th hit of the season to reach 3,000. He became the 21st player to achieve this milestone, but the first to do so with a three-bagger. Molitor followed fellow Twin Dave Winfield into the exclusive 3,000-hit fraternity. Winfield grew up five blocks from Molitor and played for the Twins when he collected No. 3,000 three years ago on the exact same day (Sept. 16). Winfield's landmark hit occurred at home, though, while Molitor's came on the road in Kansas City.