The New York Yankees will not be World Champions this season. In fact, they probably won't make it to the World Series. Something is going to happen to them.
Now, don't ask what. That takes the fun out of it.
"Can the Yankees lose?" is the priority question in spring training.
It is asked the same pleading way that children inquire about the tooth fairy. The '79 Yankees are going to be tough on tooth on tooth fairies.
The best news of the spring is that there may be a deep, powerful team in the American League East which is flat-out better than the Yankees - harder hitting, perhaps better managed, certainly more content, and almost as good at pitching-defense-and-speed.
And it isn't the Boston Red Sox.
The Bronx Bankers, healthy this spring and the greedy new owners of Tommy John and Luis Tiant, personify owner George Steinbrenner's brilliantly efficient theories on monopoly baseball - robber-baron capitlaism brought to the diamond.
But baseball has been on a binge of good fortune for five years. Somewhere a coven of baseball-loving witches are stirring a cauldron and sticking pins in pinstripe dolls.
They are probably wearing Milwaukee Brewer pinstripe uniforms.
It is heartening to see how the Brewers, restructured by ex-Baltimore General Manager Harry Dalton and nurtured by ex-Oriole George Bamberger, match up against New York.
Milwaukee's everyday lineup is better in most respects than the Yankees' - harder and higher hitting, younger, more versatile and up-to-a-point deeper.
The Yankee infield of Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph (.385 on-base percentage, fifth in AL), Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles is pure class. However, Chambliss has chronic thumb injury, dent is a .250 hitter, Randolphif fragile and Nettles will be 35 this year.
The Brewers answer with Cecil Cooper (.312), Don Money (.293), Robin Yount (.293) and Sal Bando (.285) - all hit, some field. The Brewer's secret weapon, however, is Paul Molitor (.273 in 521 at bats), who plays anywhere.
He lets the Brewers rest a different regular every day.
The same is true of the Milwaukee outfield - the best hitting bunch in baseball (stop screaming, Montreal and Boston) - where Larry Hisle (115 RBI), Sixto Lezcano (.292), Ben Oglivie (.303) and Gorman Thomas (32 homers) can rotate the DH role.
New York's outfield lacks power and throwing arms. Reggie Jackson's demand that he play right doesn't help the defense. Mickey Rivers in center (.265) does not use his speed enough, demands pampering, has a terrible on-base percentage (.305) for a leadoff man and is generally almost more trouble than he is worth.
On the other hand, N.Y.'s Thurman Munson is vastly better than Milwaukee's Buck Martinez-Charlie Moore catching combo. But is Munson healthy enough to catch 100 games?
Bambi's Babies led all baseball in hitting, scoring and homers last year, but baseball is still a game of pitching. There, the Yanks are frightening - to others. The Brewers sometimes scare themselves.
Sure, john and Tiant and Catfish Hunter are old and could break. Ron Guidry can't go 25-3 again. After all, nobody ever did before. And Ed Figueroa is no perennial 20-game winner. Maybe Jim Beattie, Ken Clay and Dicks Tidrow are mdeiocrities. Nobody claims that Paul Mirabella can equal Sparky Lyle as a left-handed reliever. Perhaps Goose Gossage will be overworked.
But look at the names. Look at the number of them. How can Manager Bob Lemon, who was a Hall of Fame pitcher himself, possibly mess up such a crew?
On the other hand, Bamberger, the best pitching coach in the game, may be on the verge of creating a first-rate staff. And maybe not, too.
Mike Caldwell (22-9), Lary Sorensen (18-12) and free-agent steal Jim Slaton (17-11) for Detroit might match the Yankee Big Three of Guidry-figueroa-and-John for total wins.
Jerry Augustine (13-12), Bill Travers (12-11), and healthy Moose haas make a decent-to-strong supporting cast. Relievers Billl Castro (1.80 ERA in 50 games), rubber-armed Reggie Cleveland (3.08), Bob McClure and Ed Rodriguez aren't anybody's bad bullpen - and look at the number of them. Bamberger has considerable raw material. He has never required anything more.
It may be time to say good night to the fascinating Red Sox as a great team.
Boston still has a dynamite lineup, led by Jim Rice. But it also has a parking lot full of problems.
Bob Stanley (15-2) moves in from the bullpen to replace Tiant as third starter behind Dennis Eckersley (20-8) and disappointing Mike Torrez (16-13). And Bill Campbell, fighting truly serious arm problems, tries to return as the hot Soup in the pen. Very iffy.
Carl Yastrezemski will soom be 40 years old and has lost his power. George Scott looked completely washed up last year, but has lost 25 pounds. Butch Hobson's power ought to be drained by off-season elbow surgery. Worst of all, Carlton Fisk swears his arm is in catcher's heaven.
It's hard to dope out the Orioles. If baseball were played with seven starting pitchers and designated defensive outfielder, Earl Weaver might be in clover. As it is, the game's premiere manager has too much of this, too little of that.
No team has four better starters than Jim Palmer, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Martinez and Scott McGregor, especially if Palmer stays healthy and ends his annual spring pout. Flanagan's injuries and Martinez immature head are all that keep Baltimore from having three 20-gamers.
Free agen Steve Stone from the White Sox, plus promising Florida phenom Sammy Stweart and Dave Ford cause the sort of mound congestion that make all managers wish they were arm-traffic controllers like Weaver.
When 6-foot-7 Tim Stoddard joins Don (Penthouse) Stanhouse, Tippy Martinez and Joe Kerrigan, the bullpen looks nicely crowded, too. Somebody's got to go back to Rochester.
The O's, hold onto your hats, were also third in all baseball last year with 154 homers, courtesy of Doug DeCinces (28, third in AL in slugging), Eddie Murray (27), Lee May (25) and Ken Singleton (20).
Topping that is an infield defense that made just eight (8) errors in the las half-season - surely an all-time record.
So, what's missing?
A good deal, actually. The Baltimore attack lacks that mysterious chemistry.
Unless Al Bumbry returns strongly from a broken ankle, the O's will again be in serch of a one-two hitting combo better than Larry Harlow and Rich Dauer.
The bottom of the order is as cursed as the top, with Mark Belanger, Rick Dempsey and the day's mystery left fielder contributing next to no-run production.
Oh, yes, the outfield. When you have to bring back Frank Robinson to coach "ccomunincation," you're in deep trouble.
It would take a pretty pompous prognosticator to take a firm stand on the Detroit Tigers. Without lost free agent Slaton's 17 wins, without Mark Fidrych if his arm stays bum, without Rusty Staub if the gourmet decides to retire to designated eating,the Tigers might struggle to play .500 ball and beat out improved Cleveland.
Nobody goes from 121-RBI DH to restaurateur, no matter what the stubborn Staub says.
With Fidrych and Staub, the Tigers look powerful and sassy, though still short of starting pitching. Keystone combo Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, a couple of lithe Punch 'n' Judies, join Jason Thompson, Ron LeFlore, and Steve Kemp in a stylish lineup.
Without both the Bird and Le Grand Orange, Detroit can't contend. Without either, they can't even be a winner.
At least Cleveland will be interesting, with Andre Thronton (33 homers), Bobby Bonds (31) and Gary Alexander (27) aiming for Lake Erie.
Bonds so rootless after six trades in five years that he doesn't even dig in at the plate, may team with Alexander to become the first pair of teammates to whiff 300 times in one year.
For a bad team, the Toronto Blue Jays have some credible players - Rico Carty, John Mayberry, Roy Howell. But words cannot express how bad their pitching staff is.
For some reason, few people outside of Kansas City seem to love and appreciate the rrisp, homegrown Royals.
Each year the California Angels or Texas Rangers are supposed to have bought their way to parity in the American League west.
The stand-pat Royals they are called, But if any team in the AL is ready to take a 10-victory step forward, it might well be the Royals. This is a quality team in its prime with manager in Whitey Herzog. Several Royals are due for comebacks, and a couple of young ones could blossom as sophomores. Look for a Royal romp.
Dennis Leonard (21-17), Paul Splittorff (19-13), Larry Gura (16-4) and Rich Gale (14-8) are durable 200-plus inning starters, backed by Ai Hrabosky, Steve Mingori and all-purpose insurance policy Doug Bird. Enough pitching.
The biggest K.C. change may be the absence of hitting coach Charlie Lau, who had an "ego-clash" with Herzog.
Team leaders Hal Mcrae and George Brett were Lau disciples, yet they figure to hit higher than .273 and .294 where ever Lau is.
It is just as likely that powerful Al Cowens, Clint Hurdle and Pete LaCock will rediscover the home run.
No team meddled with by Texas owner Brad Corbett is going to beat one managed by herzog. The highly-touted Rangers are mostly cheap talk.
Any clubhouse with Doc Ellis, Ai Oliver and Oscar Gamble will never want for excitement. Rookie Manager Pat Corrales may find out what Biily Hunter did last year - lynch mobs are an old Texas tradition.
With aged Bert Campaneris sent to pasture, the Rangers are committed to rookie short-stop Nelson norman - estimated age between 21 and 27 - who has one (1) career RBI.
On the plus side, The Rangers have bona fide assets. Fergie Jenkins (18-8) and Jon Matlack (15-13,2.30) could both improve with the suddenly solid bullpen of irrascible Sparky Lyle and erratic Jim Kern. Texas lost 29 late-inning leads last year.
Buddy bell will be a wizard at third, and Oliver and Richie Zisk have never failed to hit.
California's problem is that everyone seems to overestimate the value of the various Angel components.
The loss of the slain Lyman Bostock (always underrated), combined with the depletion from the Rod Carew trade, makes California a weaker team, despite the acquisition of the seven-time batting champion.
No Angle seems to have the proper reputation. Starters Chris Knapp, Don Aase and Jim Barr (from San Francisco) are all above .500 pitchers with no reps. Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana have fame far beyond their accomplishments.
The Angel batting order with Carney Lansford (.294), Bobby Grich (.251), Carew, blossoming Don Baylor, fading Joe Rudi (.256) and steady Dan Ford (.274) is attractive. But not the equal of at least eight others in basebell.
The shock among the tail enders could be Minnesota, which lost 89 games last year, then lost Carew who said he would'nt work on a plantation any more.
However, the Twins really do have the best unknown starting staff in baseball - Roger Erickson (14-13 in 266 innings), dave Goltz (15-10, 2.50), geoff zahn (14-14, 3.04) and Jerry Koosman (3.75 in 235 innings with the Mets).
The Chicago White Sox, so promising in '77 with 90 wins, have fallen back. They have several good slap hitters, but no power and no one with more than 72 RBI.
Pity the poor promising pitchers of the Oakland A's - John Johnson, Matt Keough, Bob Lacey, Rick Langford and Dave Heaverlo. How many young arms will be overworked and sacrificed for owner Charlie Finley?
The Seattle Mariners are truly hopeless. Their leading winner as 8-14 and only one player, .301-hitter Leon Roberts, hit more than 11 homers. The Mariners need their domed stadium. That way, no one flying over can accidentally look down and see such an awful sight.