Being a fan of the American League West could soon become a form of reverse snobbery, like Andy Warhol's infatuation with pro wrestling or Princess Di deciding she wants to go bowling.
Who can win the AL West? Well, the New York Yankees figure to have a pretty decent farm club at Columbus. They'd be a good bet.
But, since the Columbus Clippers play in the International League, how about the Seattle Mariners?
Doesn't this division deserve to be represented in the playoffs by a team that has never had a winning season and plays in a dingy domed stadium?
If not the Mariners, then why not Minnesota? Wouldn't it be justice if the Twins won a flag the year after Calvin Griffith finally sold the team? Besides, how can baseball do without a manager (Billy Gardner) named "Slick" in the playoffs?
Why can't we root for two teams that have average salaries under $100,000 a man? Anybody can win in a division where all the shortstops on the seven teams combined hit only 26 home runs; Cal Ripken of Baltimore had 27.
More on Mariner and/or Minnesota Madness anon.
Actually, the AL Least, as the West is often called, is a tough race to call. Just as the AL East is too good to have a clear favorite, the West is too gawdawful.
The AL West has about it a true twist of the perverse. The teams with the most skill have the least heart and the clubs with some pizazz often can't chew gum and hit the cutoff man at the same time.
The most talent belongs to the Chicago White Sox. Did last year and does once again. Few question that. But how can you love a team that wins 99 games one year, looks like a minidynasty, then rolls over the next year, winning only 74?
That .154 percentage drop is the biggest in baseball since 1949; and the White Sox didn't even have an excuse. Chicago was the worst team in baseball in close games (17-32 in one-runners), the worst in coming from behind (only 29 such wins) and the worst at being blown out by more than five runs (27 times).
Some special booby prize should be sent to Rich Dotson, Floyd Bannister and (since traded) LaMarr Hoyt for going 41-44 in a season in which staffmate Tom Seaver, at age 39, could manage a 15-11 mark.
Adding Ozzie Guillen at shortstop and Bob James in the bullpen, plus a team rebound from the shame of '84, may well put the White Sox back in the playoffs. But do they deserve it?
The Kansas City Royals are the defending champions. But they are also probably the worst team in the history of baseball to finish first. Nobody else ever got outscored for the season and ended up with a new flag for its pole. The Royals may have George Brett and Willie Wilson available for the full season, but what's going to happen to the rest of the Royals' suspect crew now that the league has had an offseason to put them under a microscope?
The Royals have spirit and smarts, plus promising young pitchers like Mark Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen. But didn't K.C. use up a decade's worth of luck last year?
The California Angels can still put the division's most glamorous team on the field -- that is, for the Game of the Week. Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Bob Boone, Brian Downing and Tommy John seldom all make it out of sick bay on the same day.
Gene Mauch has returned as Angels' skipper. He has a tough task. Mauch, looking at his team's weakness up the middle, said of his catcher Boone (.202), his shortstop Dick Schofield (.193) and his center fielder Gary Pettis (.227), "The offense could improve 100 percent if those guys improve 30, 30 and 40 percent."
The Texas Rangers shouldn't be a bad team. They just are.
It's not easy for an organization, in a few years' time, to give away the following pitchers in trade: Bert Blyleven (19-7 in 1984), Doyle Alexander (17-6), Mike Smithson (15-13), John Butcher (13-11), Ron Darling (12-9), Dave Righetti, Rick Honeycutt, Walt Terrell, Ray Fontenot and Len Barker.
What tradition. That's what 12 managers in 13 seasons will do for you.
Even with their silly deals and dumb free agent buys -- last winter the Rangers spent $5 million to get old Cliff Johnson, Burt Hooton (3-6) and certified ding-a-ling Dave Rozema -- the Rangers look pretty good on paper.
Yes, but when is Arlington Stadium going to get a paper field?
In Oakland, the poor Athletics still are paying the long-range price of Billy Ball in the early '80s. Ex-manager Billy Martin burned out one whole generation of arms with his complete-game binge. The wave of young pitchers who had to follow in the wake of this wing carnage were pushed too fast to fill the void and either lost confidence or came up lame.
Oakland had the worst earned run average in the game last year. The staff that had 94 complete games in 1980 had 15 last year. After trading reliever Bill Caudill, the A's pitching should be even worse now.
That leaves the Twins and the Mariners. Minnesota's the mild upset pick with Seattle the possible miracle.
If Minnesota, eliminated on the final weekend of last season in a game in which the Twins blew a 10-0 lead, does win the West, it will be no thanks to the club's new ownership.
Griffith always said, "I'm proud to be called a dinosaur." But what is new boss Carl Pohlad's reason for not getting a reliever over the winter to help Ron Davis, who squandered 15 save chances last year, including two vital games when a title might still have been won? When a team won't spend for the last piece of the puzzle in a weak division, when will it open its wallet?
Except for the bullpen, the Twins are a young and talented team. Only Detroit and Baltimore had a trio of starters who won more games than the 46 of Frank Viola, Smithson and Butcher. Kent Hrbek and Tom Brunansky had 59 home runs between them. Rookie Kirby Puckett solidified center field. Tim Teufel and Gary Gaetti bring good bats to second and third base. Mickey Hatcher hit .302 and Dave Engle is a decent backstop.
That's a lot of pluses. Of course, the Twins desperately need a shortstop, but who in the West doesn't? If big lefty Curt Wardle (0.69 ERA at Orlando) makes the jump to a bullpen spot, the Twins should contend again all year.
Baseball's mystery team could well be Seattle. True, the Mariners won only 74 games last year. True, they are built on youngsters. True, you'd never bet real money on them. But they could be fun.
The rotation of Mark Langston (17-10), Jim Beattie (12-16), Matt Young and Mike Moore has potential. Ed Vande Berg, smoke-throwing Edwin Nunez and Salome Barojas could become respectable in the bullpen.
The Seattle batting order is built around kids like Alvin Davis (116 RBI), Ken Phelps (24 homers in 290 at bats), Phil Bradley (.301) and veterans like Al Cowens, Steve Henderson and Barry Bonnell. Spike Owens can play short just fine, thanks, and second baseman Jack Perconte blossomed at 30 (.294).
Obviously, the Mariners need major luck to contend. Like a comeback from Gorman Thomas or the discovery of a third baseman who wanders down from atop Mount Rainier.
However, if the AL West isn't ripe for weirdness, what division ever was? This season's mad-hatter choice would be a pennant playoff between the American League's two expansion teams of 1977: Toronto and Seattle.
However, the more rational finishing order would be: Minnesota, Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, California, Texas and Oakland.