Just three months ago, baseball seemed boringly predictable, just as it often does on the eve of Opening Day. Why even play out the season?
Obviously, the Yankees were the best team in the game -- by one of the widest margins in decades. What could possibly stop them from repeating as world champions? If they were, perhaps, the greatest team in history before they added Roger Clemens, what were they now? Case closed.
The Yanks would waltz to the American League East title with distant pressure from the Orioles who, for $84 million, presumably had bought the wild card. Unless the free-spending Angels, with Mo Vaughn, got that spot.
The National League pennant seemed wrapped up, too. The Dodgers had purchased it with Kevin Brown's $105 million contract. With a wizard like Davey Johnson managing and Kevin Malone as general manager, the Dodgers were an overmatch. Oh, those silly Orioles, how could they let two such brilliant fellows escape?
The Dodgers' eminence merely underlined the obvious. Only ultra-rich teams could compete in 1999. Last year's NL pennant winner, the Padres, had been broken up for want of funds and would probably finish last. Teams in small markets or with ugly ballparks such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia couldn't be winners, much less compete for a title. Even traditionally great franchises such as the Red Sox and Giants, if they lacked top-tier spending power, were doomed to be .500 teams.
Individual honors were no less a foregone conclusion. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey were so far beyond the rest of the known universe in home run power that nobody else needed to be considered. As for pitchers, Greg Maddux, Brown and Randy Johnson were, by miles, the cream of the National League while Clemens, winner of five Cy Young awards, including the last two, was the king of the American League.
What a cheerful consensus.
Of course, as also happens so often, the smart money was not only wrong but so far off the mark that it's hard to imagine. Baseball has its flaws but, more than any other sport, it has one delicious attraction: The game defies you to take it for granted. Blink, and the whole scenario has changed.
As we hit baseball's traditional Fourth of July midpoint, it's perfectly plausible that the World Series could be played between the Red Sox and Reds. Or the Indians and Diamondbacks. Or Rangers and New York Mets. But the Yankees might not be in it.
At this moment, almost nobody thinks the Yankees are clearly the best team in baseball. "It's official," said Paul O'Neill when the Yankees were struggling last month, "we're not going to win 125 games [counting postseason] again." The Indians have a better record by three games and are on pace to score more runs than any team ever.
Even if the Indians aren't able to pull off a trade for Toronto's David Wells -- who was the Yankees' own ace last year -- Cleveland still might be favored in the playoffs. What of Clemens? His ERA is over 5.00, his hamstring and mechanics are on the fritz and the league is batting a healthy .284 off him. He's 8-2, but he's no Rocket right now.
The Dodgers' pennant may have to wait, too, since they're in last place in the NL West. Twenty-two teams have better records! Three of L.A.'s highly touted starters -- Chan Ho Park, Darren Dreifort and Carlos Perez -- have absolutely stunk, with a collective ERA near 6.00.
Johnson is bending over backwards to take the blame for catcher Todd Hundley's weak-hitting, horrible-throwing season, saying he rushed him back too soon from an injury. "It's my fault," says Johnson, who, if nothing else, learned one lesson from Earl Weaver. When you win, say it's the players. When you lose, say it's on you since it's your job to figure out a way to win -- no matter what.
Recently, the Dodgers' Perez even fell for the hidden-ball trick. "I felt like I was stealing something and running out of a store," said Giants first baseman J.T. Snow after slapping the ball on the wool-gathering Perez.
Who thought that the supposedly impoverished Padres -- playing without injured Tony Gwynn -- would be, until they lost last night, the team with a 14-game winning streak while the Orioles would be in last place, gagging on a 10-game losing streak? Who would believe that Harold Baines, B.J. Surhoff, Cal Ripken, Charles Johnson, Jeff Conine and Will Clark would have higher slugging percentages on July 4 than a healthy Albert Belle?
Individual performers have been just as hard to predict. Barring a miracle, McGwire is not going to hit 70 homers this year, though he's on pace to hit 50 for the fourth straight season. However, Jose Canseco is on a pace to hit 59. It's Sosa, on track for 64 homers, rather than Big Mac, who might duplicate his '98 dream season.
Who imagined that Toronto's Tony Fernandez and Cincinnati's Sean Casey might win the batting races? The easiest, not hardest, starting pitcher in the NL to get a hit off is the usually sublime Maddux. However, Kent Bottenfield is on track to win 25 games. For which team? Three months ago, how many fans even knew he was a Cardinal?
Perhaps the most unexpected feat of all, in the wildest era of hitting since the 1930s, is that a pitcher is halfway to 30 wins. The Red Sox's Pedro Martinez (15-2) has suddenly adopted the role of Lefty Grove several generations ago. When Grove went 31-4 in 1931, his ERA was 2.08 in a league in which the ERA was 4.38. That differential between Grove and merely mortal pitchers was what helped him be almost unbeatable. Now, Martinez -- almost a reincarnation in pitching style of Satchel Paige -- has an ERA of 2.02 in a league in which the ERA is over 5.00!
Can Pedro win 30? In a five-man rotation, he'll probably get only 34 starts. If he gets 30, would it be as remarkable as McGwire's 70?
At least some things are normal. There was a no-hitter in one of Randy Johnson's starts. But it was pitched against the Big Unit -- by virtually unknown Jose Jimenez.
Every season has its share of fabulous seasons by obscure players. But 1999 seems intent on setting some sort of record. One of the best stats for quick identification of monster seasons is to add a player's slugging average and on-base percentage. For example, Surhoff, who is among the AL's leaders in hits, has a combined total of .936, which is exceptional.
Yet here are some of the unheralded everyday players with even higher marks in this all-around offensive category: Brian Giles, Bobby Abreu, Geoff Jenkins, Ron Belliard, Jason Kendall, Mike Lieberthal, Bruce Aven, Fernando Tatis, Henry Rodriguez, Luis Gonzalez, Butch Huskey, John Jaha and Brian Daubach. Team identifications will not be provided. Part of the fun is realizing you don't even know where half of them play.
Whenever you look for certainty or quick, easy answers in baseball, you fall on your face. Who thought that young, hustling teams -- all exciting, but all with losing records -- could inspire 20 to 33 percent attendance jumps in supposedly moribund markets such as Kansas City, Oakland and Detroit?
In three more months, baseball will have shocked us again. We just don't know how. For example, pitcher Jim Abbott, in the NL with the Brewers, must take his regular at-bat now. Pretty tough without a right hand? He's already gotten two hits, including a clean two-RBI single to center this week. Don't sprain your brain trying to figure out what happens next. You can't. So just sit back. Let the second half -- the amazing, befuddling, delightful long summer of baseball -- wash over you.