The way it was for more than 40 years is the way it is today: all discussion of American League baseball begins with the New York Yankees.

What God hath not wrought, George Steinbrenner has bought.

The owner's gold has joined together a club that even the might of the 27 Yankees might not tear asunder.

Can these Yanks break the record of 111 victories in a season? It's possible, especially with 25 games against Seattle and Toronto.

The Yankee batting order is not merely a Murderers Row, but a Rogues Gallery of Thieves as well.

The lineup includes the league's reigning Most Valuable Player. Thurman Munson; home run champion. Graig Nettles; slugging champion. Reggie Jackson, and top run scorer, Roy White. Add to that the flashpower leadoff man, Michey Rivers (.312), who vows he will yet steal 100 bases in a year.

Has anyone been forgotten? Just the cleanup hitter, Christ Chambliss.

Yet this batting order is not the Yanks' best weapon. Pitching is.

Manager Billy Martin can chose among five starters who have each won 19 or more games in a season. Catfish Hunter, Don Gullett, Ed Figueroa, Dock Ellis and Ken Holtzman may surpass any pitching rotation in Bronx history.

The bullpen ain't had either. Sparky Lyle calls himself "the first pitcher to appear in 500 games and never throw a fast ball for a strike." But the slider artist also has more official saves (175) than anyone in history.

It appears only the Yankees can stop the Yankees Contract disputes, an abrasive manager, a meddlesome owne, jealousy among stars, demanding fans, and the nit-picking limelight of New York media all are potential corrosive agents.

If the Yankees somehow fail to match last year's 97 victories, the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians might make it a race.

The Beantowners have improved their hitting with George Scott at first, their bullpen with million dollar Bill Campbell, and their morale with excellent manager Don Zimmer.

If Fred Lynn, Calrton Fish, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice hit well, the Bosox have an attack more powerful, if less swift, than the Yanks.

But Boston has manholes at second and third base, and almost no lefthanded pitching. Boston's righthanded staff of Luis Tiant, Fergy Jenkins, Reggie Cleveland and Rick Wise must all excel, since lefty Bill Lee appears finished.

Look for Reggie Cleveland, 30, pounds lighter, to become a valuable winner. He's always had a rubber arm.

The Indians have superb pitching but no power. Jim Bibby (13-7), Pat Dobson (16-12), Dennis Eckersley (13-12), Al Fitzmorris (15-11), Wayne Garland (20-7), Dave LaRoche (2.25 ERA) and Jim Kern (10-7) may not be immortals, but look at the number of the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]

If manager Frank Robinson still had himself batting cleanup with hitters-for-average Rick Manning, John Grubb, Rico Carty and Buddy Bell in front of him, this team might be tough. But Carty's 13 homes last year equal the total by the next two highest Indians. That's pathetic. Cleveland will lose a world of 3-2 games.

One of 4977's surprise teams may be the Baltimore Orioles. They haven't fallen as far as most people think.

General manager Hank Peter's strategy of feathering the Oriole nest for the future, while other teams spend themselves into bankruptcy, may not have ruined the present. The Birds' three top rookies - second baseman Rich Dauer, pitcher Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor - could be among the best in baseball.

True, the O's have the worst catching in baseball. (A trade, any trade, is mandatory.) Third base is still in Doug DeCines' disappointing hands, and the outfield is cluttered with .250 hitters.

But if Lee May has 109 RBI again and Ken Singleton can hit .300, the Oriole offense may be adequate. If not, look out below.

Detroit, Milwaukee and Toronto should make the bottom rungs of the Al East memorably bad.

The knee surgery to Mark Fidrych could take the heart out of the Tigers and their fans. Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub can hit and John Hiller is a serious relief pitcher, but that's it. Without the Bird's excitement, the pitching-poor Tigers may roll over early.

Milwaukee needs the kicks in the pants, that new hitting coach Frank Howard will administer. This lack-adaisical last-place bunch gained clubhouse lawyer George (Boomer) Scott on Boston. That's good.

The Brewers' Sixto Lezcano tore up the Puerto Rican winter league (.363) and that usually foreshadows a .300 season. Robin Yount can "pick it" at short, while Bill Travers and Jim Slaton are solid young pitchers. But the rest of the pitching, the defense and the managing are poor.

However, the Brewers can't finish last again. Toronto has taken out a long-term lease on the celler by drafting a cast of beardless no-names that makes every other expansions team in history look star-studded. No Blue Jay player hit more than four major-league home runs last season. Now that's an expansion team.

The American League West should be a madhouse. Kansas City has slipped just enough so California and Texas can dream of snatching the division pennant.

The Royals, who took the Yanks to the ninth inning of the fifth game of the playoffs last year before losing are being sold short right and left. Everybody suddenly loves the Angels - Gene Autry's free-agent sweepstakes winners. Don't bet the house against K.C. just yet.

It's true that Royal manager Whitey Herzog may have lost his best pitcher, injured Steve Busby, forever, and his left fielder may have to be a rookie named Joe Zdeb. And K.C. lost 15 game winner, Al Fitzmorris in the expansion draft.

But the Royals have a potentially lethal weapon in slugger John Mayberry, who slumped to .232 last season.

Herzog has moved batting champ George Brett (.333) to leadoff, followed by Hal McRae (.332) and Amos Otis (.279). The idea is simple. If Mayberry, still only 27, rebounds to his 34 homer, .291 form of 1975, he'll drive in 120 runs. And the Royals could have the most potent first four hitters in baseball - not excepting New York, Boston and Cincinnati.

Of course, the folks who bat after those first four are very suspect. All the more reason the Royals had roger marls working exclusively with Mayberry in their spring camp.

The Royals have speed, up-the-middle defense and a smoking bullpen led by Mark Littell. But is there enough starting pitching? Dennis Leonard, Doug Bird, Paul Splittorff and a cast of retread starters like Jim Colborn and Marty Pattin hang tough.

California now has six big-name players - Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana, Bobby Bonds, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich - guaranteed to make the turnstiles spin.

Several of these Angels, however, have their halos on a little crooked. Say it softly: "They're overrated."

Ryan, for all his strikeouts, is still a wild, .500 career pitcher who led the league in losses (18) and walks (183) last year.

Bonds, Rudi, Baylor and Grich all have undeniable skills, but none is a top run producer. Over the last five full seasons (only four for Baylor), these Angels have had remarkably low RBI averages: Bonds 77, Rudi 84, Baylor 63, Grich 58.

Perhaps together, with speedster Jerry Remy put among them they will lift each other.

The Angels' free agent gold has built a glamor team, but there are still gaps. The catching is downright sad. Right field belongs to one Bruce Bochte. Behind Ryan and Tanana the starting pitching is up for grabs. The bullpen? What bullpen.

After all those years at second base, can Grich play a top shortstop? Where should Bonds bat?

It is a long way from 76 victories and last place in batting, runs and home runs to a division pennant. The Angels may find the gates to heaven locked until their rich farm system fills a half dozen holes.

The Texas Rangers, before their manager was beaten up by his own utility man, were looking good. Can the Rangers overcome the splintering effect of the Lenny Randle-Frank Lucchesi fight?

The Rangers, after getting five men for slugger Jeff Burrouhs in trade, and signing free agents Bert Campaneris and Doyle Alexander, have a new, solid look.

Pitching starter Bert Blyleven, Gaylord Perry and Alexander should appreciate a remodeled infielded with Toby Harrah at third. Campaneris at short and rookie Bump Wills at second.

With spray-hitting Mike Hargrove at first, promising Roy Howell as DH and Claudell Washington in left field, the Ranger attack is respectable though short on power.

The Rangers have some of everything, especially speed, but they lack a strong suit. Hello, third place.

Minnesota, thanks to tight-fisted owner Calvin Griffith has dropped off the pace. Even Gene - Manch's managing can't overcome an owner who loses the best reliever in baseball (Campbell) and makes nary a trade.

Mauch continues to get the best out of Rod Carew and a cast of interchangeable, 275-hitting hustlers. But even Mauch can't survive without pitchers.

The shock in the West this year may be the sight of the Oakland A's hanging near 500 and perhaps grabbing fourth place.

Owner Charlie Finley has tried to dismantle his team for the sake of a buck, but he hasn't managed to sell his pitchers. Vida Blue and Mike Torrez finished 1976 as strongly as any pair in baseball. Even if young Paul Mitchell and Mike Norris don't panout. Doc Medich and Stan Bahsen are still around.

The A's will be dull and powerless, but they are still ahead of the lost Chicago White Sox and Seattle. The Chisox have nothing. The Mariners have less.

Seattle's pitching is so disreputation that venerable Diego Segui has been summoned to help. If Segui is clobbered, fans may quote Coleridge: "Be hold the ancient mariner. He stop-peth one in three."