Not long ago, Sparky Anderson and Joe Morgan were chatting when the Detroit Tigers met the Oakland A's. Soon after, Anderson got to rapping with Bill Buckner of the Boston Red Sox.
Both times the topic and the conclusion were the same.
All three men were long-time National Leaguers. Anderson was manager of the year in the NL, Morgan was twice league MVP and Buckner won a batting title. Their roots and identities probably will always be twined with the senior circuit even though they are now in the American League. So, the words came hard for them.
But, in the end, they all agreed there was no use fighting the facts.
"The American League now has most of the best players," said Anderson.
"As Joe (Morgan) said, 'The change has changed.' The AL has more of the top stars now, just like the National League did in the '60s and '70s. All the players know it. The scouts are all coming (to the AL) to look for players (for trades).
"Pick the final all-star team this year and how many National Leaguers are going to be on it? Two (out of nine). Ryne Sandberg and Mike Schmidt. It was the same way last year . . . And it's deeper than that. The American League has more of the everyday players with the big numbers."
From the time Babe Ruth blossomed around 1920 until the 1950s, there's almost no argument that the AL was the superior league. The '50s were a transitional decade when the NL, led by black and Latin players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente, moved toward dominance.
Now, the pendulum is swinging again, it seems. Yes, yes, you say, the NL has won 20 of the last 21 all-star games. And, until the Orioles won last year, the NL had won four straight World Series, too.
That doesn't change the hard numbers or the subjective impression that the AL now has more of the game's truly eye-catching regulars, especially the younger ones.
Almost all of the game's true power hitters are in the AL. Of the 15 players who currently have more than 25 homers, 13 are in the AL.
That's right, 13 of 15.
The NL has Dale Murphy (32) and Schmidt (30), two greats. But who else?
The AL has Tony Armas (37), Dave Kingman (34), Andre Thornton (31), Tom Brunansky (31), Dwayne Murphy (29), Lance Parrish (29), Ron Kittle (29), Dwight Evans (27), Eddie Murray (27), Jim Rice (26), Kirk Gibson (26), Don Baylor (25) and rookie Alvin Davis (25).
If, instead of making the cutoff the players who project to 30 homers, you want to know how many project to 25 for the year, it just gets more dramatic: AL 21, NL 4.
The AL also can point to Kent Hrbek (24), Harold Baines (24), Steve Balboni (24), Cal Ripken (24), Greg Walker (23), Ken Phelps (23), George Bell (23) and Mike Easler (22), while the NL can add only Ron Cey (25) and Gary Carter (24).
If you rationalize that more AL parks are good for homers, while AstroTurf NL fields favor doubles and triples, then you'd probably like to know how the NL stacks up in total bases. The results are just as embarrassing for the NL. Of the 21 players with 255 or more otal bases, 17 are in the AL.
The only two new NL names that appear on our lists are Sandberg and Juan Samuel. The AL table of stars picks up Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw and Larry Parrish.
What this means is that, in 1984, the NL can claim that it has perhaps six players, at most, who have hit with real authority. Using the same minimum criterion of 22 homers or 255 total bases, the AL can point to 26 men with punch.
When it comes to run producers, the AL has seven players with more than 95 RBI to one in the NL.
The NL has more base stealers, but the AL has its share of the best. Of the 11 players who project to 50 steals this year (i.e., 42 or more already), the AL has five.
Now where do you go if you want to make the case that the NL can hold its own in depth of quality players?
Since left field, right field, first base and third base are essentially hitter-oriented positions, let's go for the old strength-up-the-middle notion.
Well, that's where the AL really outshines the NL.
"Buckner pointed out that it seems like almost all of the good middle infielders are here in the AL," said Anderson. "The top three shortstops in baseball have got to be in the AL: Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell and Robin Yount."
Throw in Julio Franco (.298), too, as a genuine future-star shortstop.
"I've never seen a league as deep in second basemen (as the AL)," said Anderson. "Sure, Sandberg is No. 1, but you've got 10 good second basemen in the American League . . . Here you've got (Lou) Whitaker (.295), (Jim) Gantner (.300), (Frank) White (15 homers), (Willie) Randolph (.294), (Damaso) Garcia (172 hits), (Marty) Barrett (.308), (Tim) Tuefel (14 homers), (Julio) Cruz and Morgan.
"Manny Trillo was a star in the NL. He came over here and he was very ordinary."
The AL's best catchers, like Parrish, Rich Gedman (21 homers) and Carlton Fisk, stand up well against the NL array of Carter, Tony Pena and Jody Davis.
In the past, Anderson has been justly famous for his harmless hyperboles, but this time he's on the money. He even feels that the AL has superior pitching. The feeling here is that the leagues are roughly equal in pitching, with neither boasting one of its better crops.
One side can take Dave Steib, Mike Boddicker, Jack Morris and Dan Petry while the other gets Mario Soto, Rick Sutcliffe, Dwight Gooden and Joaquin Andujar. Pair off Dan Quisenberry, Dave Righetti and Willie Hernandez against Bruce Sutter, Jesse Orosco and Rich Gossage and is there really much to chose between?
No, the real difference between the leagues -- and it's now a large and undeniable one -- is that the AL has more of the best everyday players.
The result is that the AL also has more vividly excellent teams. Five of them, in fact. All in the AL East, unfortunately.
"Anybody in the AL East better hope to God they finish ahead of New York and Boston next year. If you finish a game ahead of the Red Sox, you might just finish first," said Anderson. "That Red Sox lineup will make you feel helpless. That's the best bunch of hitters, one through seven, that I've seen since the Pirates 10 years ago.
"I said to Joe (Altobelli, the Orioles' manager) the other day, 'This is some division where you can play good and finish fifth. I call it the 1-to-5 trip and I don't want to take it. Any one of these teams could play good next year, win 85 to 90 games, and finish fifth. It's the best division I've ever seen in baseball and it's not even close."
To be fair, let's point out that the NL has several promising young players who may only be a year away from the sort of stats that draw attention: Chili Davis, Johnny Ray, Von Hayes, Darryl Strawberry and Leon Durham. Also, nobody's snickering at fine players like Keith Hernandez, Jose Cruz, Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn and others.
But the AL also has plenty of prime stars whose names didn't even rate a mention yet: Wade Boggs, Buddy Bell, Willie Wilson, Rickey Henderson.
It may be hard for the general baseball fan to recognize what has been seen clearly in major league dugouts for some time: Despite the NL's staggering 20-to-1 streak in the all-star game, it's the AL -- with its beautiful old parks and its crowd-pleasing designated hitter rule -- that is moving into a era of dominance.
"The National League never wanted interleague play," Anderson said, laughing. "Now they better jump for it if they ever get the chance, 'cause pretty soon it's going to be the American League that thinks it's too good to play them."