For a decade, fans have tapped their toes impatiently waiting for the American League East to generate a three-, four- or even five-way race that could make every pennant scuffle before it seem elementary.

Since 1975, when the AL Beast began defining itself as the game's most interesting neighborhood, several fine chases have developed. The Yankees and Red Sox gave us one for the ages in '78 and the Orioles and Brewers approached that level in '82.

Still, given the fact that the five best records in baseball in the 1980s all are owned by AL East teams, it seems remarkable that the division has avoided a massive sustained logjam.

The promise of tangled chaos, the possibility for pandemonium, always has stayed just beyond our reach. What we daydream about is some elevated version of the final weeks of the 1967 season when the AL standings looked a berserk pretzel.

Let's not jinx the whole thing, but this might be the year the AL East maxes out on mayhem. If a stage could possibly be perfectly set, that's what's happened so far in 1985.

First, the world champion Detroit Tigers had to show true vulnerability. No more of this 35-5 foolishness. The Tigers' dreary 27-24 start cheered up the whole division. Better still, their problems were real. Larry Herndon and Chet Lemon stopped hitting home runs. Rookie Chris Pittaro solved nothing at third. Alan Trammell's two winter surgeries made him mortal. Milt Wilcox's arm, Juan Berenguer's stomach and Aurelio Lopez's head undermined the pitching staff.

And Sparky Anderson, bless his white head, sounded cranky and spoiled when he complained about how his players were making fat-cat mistakes.

That's what you get when you won't pay wise old Gates Brown enough to keep him as a coach and you give one of your lesser players a glass World Series ring just because he wasn't on the roster all year.

"I've seen better rings around the collar," said Kirk Gibson of Bill Scherrer's bauble. "We never said it was a diamond," grumped the Tigers' brass.

Lucky for the Tigers, they traded for Walt Terrell (8-2) as an insurance policy. He's saving Detroit's life.

Next, it was vital that a new team arrive as a bona-fide contender. Thank you, Toronto Blue Jays.

Their 38-19 start had everybody doing a crash course on "Who are George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez and Jimmy Key?" Didn't we just learn Lloyd Moseby, Willie Upshaw and Dave Stieb? With that deep, but erratic bullpen of Bill Caudill, Gary Lavelle, Jim Acker and Dennis Lamp (5-0), the Blue Jays almost looked like party killers. Until they lost six in a row.

Thanks again, Blue Jays.

On top of all this good stuff, here come Billy and Earl.

No two talent-soaked teams ever needed help at the top more than the Yankees and Orioles. Why pay millions for Rickey Henderson and Ed Whitson or Fred Lynn and Lee Lacy, only to turn them over to Yogi Berra and Joe Altobelli?

This spring Berra said he was planning to give speedster Henderson "the red light to steal anytime."

Altobelli, asked about his reading habits, said that, until he got around to "Balls" by Graig Nettles, he'd only read one book for pleasure in his life -- "The History of the Detroit Red Wings."

Let's just say that the Yankees and Orioles play a slightly brighter brand of ball these days under a pair of somewhat less gentlemanly managers.

Some young Orioles pitchers, for example, have been surprised to learn that a manager cannot only attend the pregame meeting to decide strategy, but that a manager might even be concerned with what pitch you threw and when.

Just when it seemed that matters couldn't get any better, the Boston Red Sox decided to win17 of 19 games. You remember the Red Sox. Used to have a team back in the late 1970s. Well, they're back. This time with pitchers.

Maybe Oil Can Boyd, Roger Clemens and Al Nipper aren't going to make the league roll over and put its paws in the air, but they might keep the body Fenway warm until September.

The last 100 games of the AL East season are going to be interesting for another reason as well. The AL West.

The folks over in the patsy circuit aren't as awful as usual. In fact, the East has only a 14-game edge over the West in head-to-head games this season.

This is vital because for a wild four- or five-way race to develop, it's imperative that nobody win 100 games. One or two teams could win that many, but history says that a fabulous tangle is going to occur only if everybody meets in the 93-victory vicinity.

And that's where the East seems headed. As soon as anybody gets headed over .600, he gets pulled back to earth.

"We could have a classic race this year," Dave Winfield of the Yankees said this week, "but none of the players want it to work out that way.

"We all want it to be just us."

This year, the players of the AL East probably aren't going to have their way. For once, maybe the fans will.