Because the strengths of the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets were widely misperceived last season, the relative potency of those two teams still is not clear.
Everybody and his brother is picking the Mets to blitz past the snakebitten Cubs this year. It's the spring's trendy prophecy. The arguments in its favor are as seductive as they probably are misleading.
What's generally not grasped is that the Cubs were a much better team than the Mets in 1984. Although the Cubs finished only 6 1/2 games higher in the standings, they outscored opponents by 104 runs. New York (and this might be the flashiest overlooked statistic of last season) scored 24 fewer runs than opponents.
In the American League, Kansas City has gotten the raspberry for being the only team to win a division title while being outscored. If the Royals were lucky to win 84 games while coming out 13 runs on the short end, then how blessed were the Mets to win 89?
The left arm of Jesse Orosco and the high-tech brain of Davey Johnson are only part of the reason the Mets were 11-1 in extra-inning games. The other part is one-time-only good luck. The real Miracle Mets might have been the '84 aggregation.
It's indisputable that the Mets are significantly better this year with Gary Carter as catcher and cleanup man. Also, new third baseman Howard Johnson has some punch. No one contests the potential of Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and George Foster to duplicate the 92 homers they hit last year.
Finally, Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling, who totaled 29-18 in 64 starts last year, should win 35 or more this time in 70 outings.
What is ignored, however, in the general and well-founded enthusiasm over General Manager Frank Cashen's rebuilding project is that the Mets still have huge holes.
New York's middle infielders hit a total of seven homers last year. Even with Carter, the Mets probably won't hit more than 125 homers, which is merely good.
And after Gooden and Darling, the pitching rotation falters. Walt Terrell (3.52 ERA in 215 innings) has been traded and pudgy sophomore Sid Fernandez has had an awful spring. If Bruce Berenyi (12-13, 4.45) doesn't win 15, the Mets staff could struggle.
The final irony is that, while the Mets were buoyed by the low expectations of '84, they could now be haunted by the unrealistically high hopes for '85. If the team doesn't start fast, second-year players such as Gooden and Darling could feel a lot of pressure and the Flushing Four in the middle of the order -- Carter, Strawberry, Hernandez and Foster -- could start having ego problems. Foster is aloof, Carter an image-polisher and Strawberry was deeply moody last year.
Despite all this, the Mets have the talent to win about 90 games again. And that could be enough, because the Cubs don't figure to win 96 again.
It's improbable that the Cubs will get career-best seasons again from Rick Sutcliffe, Ryne Sandberg, Gary Matthews, Bob Dernier, Keith Moreland and Leon Durham. The pressure on Sandberg, Sutcliffe and Durham will intensify.
Sandberg went from an obscure .265 hitter to MVP. He tailed off late (.250 in September), and the guess here is that, in the rest of his career, he will not come within 50 of the 331 total bases he had in his dream year.
What's a man's encore after a 16-1 season? Especially when he loses the possible pennant-clinching game, then signs a gargantuan contract. The Cubs' TV color man, Steve Stone, might understand the predicament Sutcliffe faces. Stone won 25 games one year, four the next. Like Sandberg, Sutcliffe is very good. But he's nowhere near his '84 performance.
The most unfairly burdened Cub is Durham. And not because of his historic error in playoff Game 5. One national magazine predicted this spring that he someday soon would hit 45 homers with 145 RBI. Many Chicagoans say similarly silly things. Durham, always injury- and strikeout-prone, had pro highs of 23 homers and 96 RBI last year -- and that includes the minors. The North Side should rejoice if he matches those stats. Durham never has totaled 35 homers in consecutive years.
Will the Cubs miss Tim Stoddard (10-6)? Will Dennis Eckersley (10-8, 3.03) continue to prosper in Wrigley Field or revert to his over-the-hill look from his Boston days? Will Steve Trout (13-7) continue improving or, now that he's a multimillionaire, revert to his Dizzy walkabout days?
What about the aged left side of the infield, where Larry Bowa is a nonperson and Ron Cey, at 37, hardly can be asked for 97 more RBI?
So, you say, if 88 to 90 victories gets a team into the NL East race, doesn't that mean that the Philadelphia Phillies or even the Pittsburgh Pirates have a far better long-shot chance than most think? Yes, it does.
The Phillies have the best combination of speed and power in baseball, but their pitching was poor last year. The Pirates had the game's best ERA last season, but had the worst power-speed package in the league. If the Phillies get some pitching or the Pirates find a couple of hitters, they could challenge.
The Phillies have been rebuilding since their ancient '83 World Series team was scattered by Paul Owens. The new Phillies are coming along fine.
They led the league in homers last year (147) and, now that they have Jeff Stone for a full year, should go from second to first in the league in steals. They swiped 186 last year. Look for Mike Schmidt, in the best shape of his life at 35, to return to his 45-homer, 120-RBI level if he plays 150 games.
It's doubtful Phillies pitchers will do the job. Jerry Koosman and Steve Carlton, who worked 224 and 229 innings last year, respectively, are 42 and 40 years old. Al Holland got fat in '84 and lost 10 games. He needs bullpen help from Bill Campbell. If Charles Hudson were to fulfill the promise he showed in '84 and Shane Rawley were to have a 15-victory year (conceivable), the Phillies might contend all season.
More unlikely than the Phillies finding pitchers is the Pirates discovering hitters. They added George Hendrick, Steve Kemp and Sixto Lezcano, but Bill Madlock's body seems to have died and, unless Jason Thompson rebounds, nobody figures to hit 20 home runs or drive in 90 runs.
Look out for rookie Mike Bielecki (19-3 at Hawaii) and comeback man Jose DeLeon to keep the Pirates' pitching strong.
The Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals have no chance. Both teams are at the unraveled finish of failed projects. The underachieving Expos are a thing of the past. Carter, Warren Cromartie and Al Oliver -- The I Team -- all are gone. Steve Rogers (6-15) is history. Andre Dawson didn't turn out to be Willie Mays. None of those brave, young pitchers proved more than pretty good. And the legacy of atrocious middle-infield defense and mildly disappointing relievers remains intact.
The Expos' latest comedy routine on the double play might be Hubie Brooks at short and Vance Law at second. Both were hard-pressed when they played third.
The Cardinals are just too sad to watch. As much as anyone, blame back-room power broker Lou Susman, attorney for antediluvian owner August A. Busch. Last winter, he handled the negotiations with Bruce Sutter that let a man who'd just won or saved 50 games with a 1.54 ERA -- one of the greatest seasons in baseball history -- go to Atlanta.
The Cardinals owed Sutter the kind of $9-million deal that the Braves gave him for services already rendered -- i.e., the 1982 St. Louis world championship in which he was the central figure.
Hopefully, the Cardinals lose 100 games, and Whitey Herzog, after he is fired as team scapegoat in May, will catch on with an American League East team -- perhaps Baltimore, where his best friend, Hank Peters, is general manager -- and restore his White Rat reputation.
Then, perhaps, someone can ask Busch how good the beer tastes.
A rare confident prediction -- this one might even be dead right -- 1 through 6: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal, St. Louis.
Next: National League West.