It's that time again. Time to look backward, then gaze forward, furrow the brow, give long thought. And make a complete fool of yourself.
Yes, it's opening day.
To be a baseball addict in the mid-1980s is to endure total sensory overload and crystal ball burnout.
In recent years, baseball has stepped through the looking glass. What was once an orderly sport now is an intergalactic time-space rift with definite overtones of a bizarro parallel universe. As Joaquin Andujar says, "Youneverknow" what could happen. But you can't wait to find out.
What is the next name in this progression: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and Kansas City?
Those towns have come to spring training in the '80s as defending world champions. Not one was so much as a preseason favorite in its own division when it surprised the sport by winning everything.
What patterns can we see in this decade and what causes might lie behind them? If 1986 holds to form -- that is, has no traditional form at all -- then how do we predict it?
Let's assume that, except for a half-dozen franchises that lost 90 or more games last year, the talent in the major leagues is so evenly distributed (and the general level of play so good-but-not-great) that anybody can win.
That means we have 20 contenders.
No division, not even the American League East, is so strong that 90 to 92 victories might not be enough to win. And few teams are so lame they couldn't climb that high.
For example, last season the Royals, Angels and Reds won 91, 90 and 89 games. Yet all three teams were full of weaknesses. Respectively, they outscored their foes by paltry margins of 48, 29 and 11 runs -- usually the mark of a mediocre team.
Conversely, even the team that wins 100 games is not certain to be a contender the next year. The 1984 Tigers won 104; next season, 15 games out. The 1983 Orioles won 98, then finished 19 games behind. The Cardinals fell below .500 in 1983 as defending titlists.
One injury, like Dodger Pedro Guerrero's knee last week, can change a whole lineup. One bad decision, like the Yankees waiving Phil Niekro, can weaken a whole pitching staff. One emerging star, like Jose Canseco in Oakland, might rouse a whole franchise.
In such a volatile, unstable system, what factor can have overriding value?
The one variable that has been near the core of almost every successful division winner in the '80s has been -- don't laugh -- abnormally high team morale and motivation.
If nobody's much better than anybody else and everybody's overpaid, if the 162-game season bores and exhausts every player, then a sense of team purpose, of collective will, can be inordinantly important. Baseball always has been the sport in which intangibles count for the most. That seems doubly true now.
Call it the crusade mentality. Or let's just say that teams got so mad, so furious at their previous frustrations and public disappointments, that they damn well decided they wouldn't lose.
That was the central truth of the 1980 Phillies, 1981 Dodgers, 1983 Orioles and 1985 Royals. The 1984 Tigers had been nagged about being underachievers and the 1982 Cardinals were enraged over the split-season shame of 1981, which left them out of postseason play.
In almost every case, these surprise champions were managed by someone who was in the right place at the right motivational time. Dallas Green, in his only year as a manager, kicked and abused the Phillies. Tommy Lasorda, Whitey Herzog and Sparky Anderson embody the type perfectly. Joe Altobelli, in his first year, let his Orioles veterans prove they could go further without Earl Weaver's curses than with them.
As we look at 1986, who's hopping mad? Not mad at themselves (that's disspiriting), but mad at everybody else, or at fate in general? And who has the high-octane manager?
First, let's eliminate some big names. The Royals are a finished project. They have a "great young pitching staff." But who cares? Promising staffs (1983 White Sox) fall apart every year. Also, cross off the Cardinals. They say they're angry at umpire Don Denkinger, but, in their hearts, they must know they have only themselves to blame. Think of the 1979 Orioles who also blew a World Series. It's an albatross.
What about the Blue Jays and Dodgers, who both staggered when they seemed to have pennants in their hands?
The talented Blue Jays fit the mold of repeated frustration -- years of 89, 89, 92 and 99 wins without a Series ring. On the down side, the Blue Jays really looked leaderless in the playoffs and still may feel self-recriminative. Who knows if Jimy Williams has inspirational skills?
The Dodgers want to save Lasorda's bacon after his Game 6 National League Championship Series blunder. The little fat manager inspires great loyalty, especially from this nice-guy gang. Guerrero's injury could meld them even closer. If gung-ho managing means anything, then the long-scorned Reds may make this a dream year for Pete Rose. Make the NL West a two-team race with only the Dodgers mad enough to win a World Series.
Who else is steamed? The New York Mets, for sure. They're a perfect pick. Smart manager in Dave Johnson. Back-to-back years of 90 and 98 wins with only runner-up finishes to show for it. Veterans like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter will do the it's-now-or-never refrain.
In the AL, the Yankees and Angels both did a winter burn after losing tight races. Most will assume the Yankees fit our profile, and they may. However, much New York anger is directed toward George Steinbrenner, especially after the egregious Niekro release. Lou Piniella will be an emotional manager. But will he be a smart one? Tough call.
The Angels aren't impressive on paper. But they match the '80s job description. This may be Gene Mauch's last shot at a pennant with Bob Boone, Doug DeCinces, Bobby Grich and Reggie Jackson on their last legs. The only other AL West clubs that show on our radar screens are the Twins, with Ray Miller at the helm, and the White Sox, who've been in a two-season funk but now have Hawk Harrelson as general manager. The hunch here is that Harrelson, like Piniella, will not be a long-term success. Just not able to overcome a total lack of preparation for the job.
Two more clubs with sharp managers are Detroit and Baltimore, both of which still have the nucleus of recent champions. The Tigers seem angry with their cheap front office -- that's bad. The Orioles seem to understand that this may be their last chance to take advantage of Earl Weaver's return -- that's good. Like the Dodgers last season, the Orioles are an organization of enormous pride. And that pride has been squashed for two years.
So, let's handicap the "Mad But Well-Managed" sweepstakes.
The Mets versus the Blue Jays would seem the most natural World Series. But keep an eye on the Dodgers, Reds, Orioles and Angels. Lasorda, Rose, Weaver and Mauch would know what to do with a hot-under-the-collar team.