At the moment, the American League East is big-league baseball.
More of the best teams and the best players call the AL East home than can be gathered together in all the rest of baseball combined.
This division is such an embarrassment of riches, such a superfluous waste of competition, that fans barely know whether to applaud or bemoan this state of affairs.
Over the past seven years, the five best cumulative records in baseball all have been built by AL East teams.
An all-star team from this division probably could put together more impressive stats, more Hall of Fame credentials and more marquee punch than a comparable squad from the majors' other 19 teams.
How about a team of Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Aurelio Lopez and Willie Hernandez of Detroit; Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray, Mike Boddicker, Scott McGregor and Storm Davis of Baltimore; Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw, Dave Stieb, Doyle Alexander and Bill Caudill of Toronto; Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, Dave Righetti, Phil Niekro and Ron Guidry of New York, and Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Mike Easler, Tony Armas and Rich Gedman of Boston.
And that's only from five teams, leaving out the likes of Milwaukee's Cecil Cooper and Robin Yount, and Cleveland's Bert Blyleven and Andre Thornton.
Instead of grumbling about the injustice of five AL East teams finishing with better records last year than the AL West champion, let's anticipate the marvelous potential of 1985.
Because the Tigers won the East by 15 games, the rest of the gang immediately spent the winter getting better. Yes, that's right. The best division ever may also have improved itself more than any division ever did.
The Baltimore Orioles, world champions in 1983, were so upset by slipping to fifth that they spent $12 million for three free agents. Now, instead of having a terrible platoon in center field, a thin bullpen and a vacuum at the top of the batting order, the Orioles have a trim and enthusiastic Fred Lynn in center, an impressive-looking Don Aase in the pen and (when he returns from a hand injury in May) a .300 hitter to ignite rallies in Lee Lacy.
As if that weren't enough, the Orioles' farm system has delivered a new power DH (Larry Sheets), a young righty with a 0.00 spring ERA (Ken Dixon) and a third baseman (big Fritz Connally, acquired in a trade from San Diego).
The Toronto Blue Jays already had youth, starting pitching and power. What they needed was a bullpen. So, the club (whose team record for saves was 11) traded for Caudill (45 wins-plus-saves) and lefty Gary Lavelle (19).
In the process, the Jays got rid of powerful but moody Cliff Johnson (16 home runs), swift but fragile Dave Collins (60 steals) and overrated Alfredo Griffin, a shortstop who combined no range (fewest assists per game among regulars at his position) with a .248 on-base percentage.
With top prospect Tony Fernandez at short all season and Len Matuszek (from Philadelphia) adding lefty DH power, the Blue Jays easily should surpass their 89 wins of '84. How many more? The Jays lost 15 games last year when they led in the eighth inning.
You didn't think that George Steinbrenner would stand idle and watch all this, did you? The New York Yankees now have Henderson, who may someday be remembered as the greatest leadoff man in history, in center field plus a new pitcher, Ed Whitson, fresh off winning 14 games for National League pennant-winning San Diego.
The Yankees may have traded some of their future for Henderson, but they gave up little of their present.
The Boston Red Sox, who had the most feared batting lineup in baseball after a midseason trade for clutch man Billy Buckner, improved for '85 by doing nothing. For once, the Red Sox didn't panic and trade their young pitchers. Instead, they are determined to let Roger Clemens (9-4), Al Nipper (11-6) and Oil Can Boyd grow up in Fenway Park. To help their staggering bullpen, they switched lefty Bobby Ojeda (12-12) to relief and traded for much-injured veteran Bruce Kison.
Even the Tigers refused to help their foes by standing pat. They got just what they needed -- a bulldog righty in trade, Walt Terrell, to back up Milt Wilcox, who had shoulder surgery. And whatdaya know, Wilcox has come back just fine. So, now, the Tigers have even more starting pitchers.
Even though Sparky Anderson hardly needed more hitters, he's got a 21-year-old switch-hitter named Nelson Simmons who may have as ferocious-looking a 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame as Walter Payton of the NFL's Chicago Bears. Someday, Simmons will break a seat back with a Tiger Stadium home run.
All this obviously means that five AL East teams will end up in a tie with 105 wins, right?
No, there are weaknesses. So great are the strengths in the division that the only way to handicap is by the reverse process of spotting flaws.
First, the Yankees can't win. Not enough pitching. You just can't beat all these powerhouses with a starting rotation that includes a 46-year-old knuckleballer (Niekro), a former flamethrower who needs a changeup (Guidry), a 30-year-old vet who's only once won a dozen games (Whitson) and a comeback pitcher with arm trouble (John Montefusco).
Besides, the left side of the infield looks ordinary, at best.
The Red Sox could win. (Who wouldn't wish for a Red Sox-Cubs World Series?) But they also seem vulnerable in such dangerous waters. Clemens and Nipper (currently out with an ulcer) had a combined record of 20-10 last year -- but can either win 20 by himself? If they can't, who can? Boyd, Ojeda and Bruce Hurst all were 12-12 last year. You can't win this division without a trio of starters who have the potential to match the 54-27 record of Morris, Petry and Wilcox in '84.
The Sox are better, but not good enough. Also, almost every Boston hitter had a near-peak season last year.
That leaves the Tigers, Blue Jays and Orioles as the only clubs with three key ingredients of a 100-win season: a trio of 17-20 game winners, a 175-homer lineup and a deep bullpen.
Baltimore is the long shot. McGregor and Boddicker have looked fine in Florida, but Storm Davis seems to have misplaced his confidence. Dennis Martinez and Dixon may compensate for the loss of injured Mike Flanagan (out until August), but a .600 season from Davis is mandatory.
Orioles Manager Joe Altobelli has tried so many exhibition combos that he is in danger of transmitting the sense that he can't conceptualize a strong lineup, then stick by his decisions. Like Yogi Berra in New York and John McNamara in Boston, Altobelli may be a manager less special than his team.
In the '80s it has been the hungry, rising teams that have succeeded, while nothing has failed like the memory of success. Already the Tigers have shown cracks. Whitaker agreed to try to play third base, then changed his mind, annoying Manager Sparky Anderson, an old-school disciplinarian. Also, catcher Parrish, the team linchpin, still has shoulder problems and is slated to be a designated hitter against lefties. Finally, the word this spring has been that Trammell, after both knee and shoulder surgery, may not be able to start in the field day after day.
These Tigers, because of their 35-5 start last year, never have had to win a long neck-and-neck pennant race. You never know which teams can handle it.
The Tigers look only slightly stronger than the defending AL champion Brewers did in 1982 or the Orioles in '83.
Remember the Big Blue Brew Crew? This year Milwaukee could finish last. Baseball's law of the '80s is flux.
This spring's popular pennant pick is Toronto, and wisely so.
The Blue Jays are young and greedy, feel they've been overlooked too long and have plenty of experience. Bobby Cox is a sharp bench manager who could look very smart with a top bullpen. Outfielder George Bell has joined Moseby and Upshaw as a blue chip middle-of-the-order star.
Even the Jays, however, have their worrisome points. Just as the Orioles prospered in '82 and '83 with overachieving platoon players, so Toronto has been stealing with the stats it has gotten from the third base, catcher and DH spots in the order.
Finally, the Blue Jays had only one player on the 15-day disabled list in '83 and one in '84. No team is that lucky with injuries. Toronto is due for some sprains and maybe worse.
This division will be far more fun to watch than to pick.
Let's hold our breath, close our eyes and predict: Toronto, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, New York, Milwaukee, Cleveland. Next: the AL West