The American League West is no longer baseball's joke division.
In fact, with the down-and-dirty A's, the nouveau riche White Sox, the Vida-Blue-revived Royals, the hidin'-in-the-sagebrush Rangers and even the star-crossed, filthy-rich Angels, this division not only has respect, but also might produce its second World Series representative since 1974.
Each contending team seems to embody a sort of minor moral parable:
The Oakland A's prove how far one man's baseball intelligence and fire can take an acutely limited club. Billy Martin knows that doing one or two things superbly is more important than being free of weaknesses. With a durable starting rotation and the sport's best outfield, he has bought time to patch his club's many infield and relief-pitching holes. If their starters hold up--a major "if"--the A's may be their league's best Series bet. The no-holds-barred A's are now both feared and hated by foes. Which is just what Martin wants.
The Chicago White Sox, this season's emerging power, demonstrate how, in this free-agent era, a mediocre club can become a contender almost instantly with an open wallet and a few smart moves. Baseball's owners don't like to face the sort of healthy upward mobility that's been demonstrated in recent years by clubs such as the White Sox, Brewers, Tigers, Cardinals and Expos; it undermines their argument that a team's athletes and its profits should not be allowed to contaminate each other.
The Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers prove how difficult it is for a winning team to learn how to lose, and how equally hard it is for a losing club to forget the knack of defeat. Last season, the Rangers had the second-best run differential in the AL, outscoring opponents by 63 runs; the Royals were outscored by eight runs. Yet, after the strike, the Royals managed to get into the playoffs by memory while the Rangers folded, also perhaps, by memory. Now, with an inspired trade that nabbed Blue in exchange for mediocrities, the Royals can contend again. Meanwhile, after a typically Ranger-like deal in which Montreal hornswoggled them out of disgruntled Al Oliver, Texas should find a way to finish safely below expectations again.
The marvelously messed-up Angels illustrate how consistently baseball is able to reject the advances of foolish suitors who would try to win her with money bereft of judgment. With former MVPs such as Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Fred Lynn and Don Baylor, plus all-stars such as Rick Burleson and Bobby Grich, the Angels make a wonderful team picture. Unfortunately, they don't make a team. That's because a "team" has traditionally included starting pitchers and, except for career losers Ken Forsch and Geoff Zahn, California has neglected to buy any. The Angels managed the amazing trick of outscoring their opponents by 23 runs for the season, yet finishing fourth and seventh in the two seasons. In his only full "half" as manager, Gene Mauch, a smart man with an inexplicable gift for failure, continued to show his touch, clinching last place on the final weekend.
Assuming that the amply talented Angels and Rangers will be unable to shake the sense of front-office and ownership slapstick that has enveloped them, the West race should pit the A's kicking, gouging and stalling against the Royals' aging stars and the exuberance of the White Sox.
As soon as A's Coach Art Fowler completes his project of "working with" Tom Underwood--a euphemism for indoctrination into pitching's black arts--Oakland may finally have a left-handed starter to complement the uniform grit and excellence of Steve McCatty, Mike Norris, Rick Langford and Matt Keough. Toss in 6-foot-5, 22-year-old reliever Dave Beard and you've got a staff that's intimidating when healthy, but potentially vulnerable to sore arms. However, Martin's A's seem inoculated against arm miseries. Can you sell your soul in exchange for immunity to tendinitis?
Until this week, the Royals looked like a depressed, do-nothing club that was simply going to watch itself slide. When you go from the Series to 50-53, how can you stand pat? Then, suddenly, The Little Blue Machine traded three young disappointments, named Chamberlain, Martin and Hammaker, to the Giants for one big Blue certainty. Durable, determined Vida, 32, had the sixth-best ERA in the NL last season (2.45) and he quickly makes the Royals' ancient starting trio of Dennis Leonard, Larry Gura and Paul Splittorff look a lot less geriatric. Add righty reliever Scott Brown, gotten from the Reds for Clint Hurdle, to Dan Quisenberry (1.74) and you have a staff that could give Royal fans one more thrill.
Despite all this, the team with the paper potential to shock all of baseball is the White Sox. This little-known band was third in both leagues in runs scored last year, then added hitters Tom Paciorek (.326) and Steve Kemp while only losing Chet Lemon. Throw Carlton Fisk, Bill Almon (.301), Greg Luzinski and Ron LeFlore into this mix and spontaneous combustion is likely.
The young pitching, fourth in the AL in ERA, is already good and if it gets better, then nobody in the West will keep pace. If Britt Burns and Steve Trout win 35 between them, then the competent Lamps and Dotsons behind them will suffice. If they don't, Chicago's weak bullpen, defensive blunders and tendency to the scatterbrained can derail Tony LaRussa's plans.
If the Durham Bulls and Alexandria Dukes played an exhibition game dressed in the uniforms of the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners, even the umpires wouldn't notice the difference.