AL batting race lacks NL's absentee ballot but little else

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

TORONTO -- The National League batting race boils down to Len Dykstra vs. the Ghost of Willie McGee. It's fascinating enough imagining a leader in the clubhouse -- the Oakland clubhouse -- but for sheer contrast, the American League race is even more of a fan's delight.

There's Rickey Henderson, the only leadoff hitter alive who cahit 26 home runs. There's George Brett, the only player alive who can win batting titles in three decades. And there's Rafael Palmeiro, the only man alive who . . . well, he's the darkhorse candidate.

Palmeiro, though, is the purest hitter of the three, according tOrioles hitting instructor Tom McCraw. Brett is "a blue-collar hitter" who is absolutely lethal with the game on the line. And Henderson embodies every scout's dream, the combination of power and speed.

"The thing that stands out to me with Rickey is his power,McCraw said last night before the Orioles' 5-3 victory over Toronto. "He's not your typical leadoff hitter. Palmeiro, his swing is sweet. It's smooth like velvet. It glides. It's effortless.

"When I think of Brett, he's like an assassin. Brett kills you. He'so clutch, he's the guy that drives that stake into you, that breaks your back. You know it. He knows it. And there ain't a damn thing you can do about it."

Brett, 37, is seeking to become the third oldest player to win batting title. Ted Williams won at the ages of 39 and 40 -- he hit .388 in 1957, .329 in '58 -- and Honus Wagner was an older 37 when he hit .334 in 1911.

Brett's 4-for-4 Wednesday night -- including not one but two triples -- brought him into a tie with Henderson at .327. Palmeiro looms just a hit or so back at .324.

* WHAT A TRIP: The Amazing A's left for Boston, New York and Seattle with a 6 1/2 -game lead, then increased the cushion to 11 by going 8-1. Defense remains the most underrated feature of this team: Oakland made one error the entire trip.

Each victory was by three or more runs. Dennis Eckersleearned only one save and appeared in only three games -- the same number as rookie Steve Chitren. "For the time of year, that's got to be as good a road trip as I've ever been a part of," manager Tony La Russa said.

Scott Sanderson earned three of the victories, and the A'scored 23 runs in those games. He has 16 wins as the replacement for Storm Davis, who had 19 last year. The A's are the only team in the majors that have used the same five starters all season -- Sanderson, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Mike Moore and Curt Young.

Kansas City, the team that was supposed to challenge themhas tried 15, the latest being the immortal Hector Wagner (and let's not forget Mark Davis, who's 7-10). San Francisco, the team it beat in the '89 World Series, has tried 14.

* READ THAT CONTRACT: Seattle's Jeffrey Leonard will earn $million guaranteed in 1991 if he makes 550 plate appearances this season; otherwise, the club can buy him out for $150,000. The latter appears likely: Leonard has started only twice since Aug. 26, and is stuck on 501 plate appearances.

Henry Cotto started over Leonard against a lefthander Tuesdaeven though he was in a 5-for-53 slump. Manager Jim Lefebvre used 16 position players Wednesday in a 9-3 loss to Oakland, but Leonard wasn't one. You'd never know he has 10 hits in his last 19 at-bats and is tied with Ken Griffey Jr. for the club lead with 67 RBIs.

Lefebvre points to Leonard's poor second-half productio(.227-0-12) as the reason for his reduced playing time, saying he's had "chance after chance." The fact is, the Mariners likely will move Pete O'Brien to left next season to make room for Tino Martinez at first. Leonard, who turns 35 a week from tomorrow, no longer fits their plans.

* HAPPY CAMPERS I: First the Mets got Davey Johnson firednow they're chipping away at Bud Harrelson, whose latest crime is chiding his players for "too much cockiness." Harrelson apparently wants the Mets to return to first place before they resume their trademark arrogance. The nerve.

Of course, there's a well-chronicled school of thought that thMets lost their edge after trading in-your-face players like Len Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell and Wally Backman. "We used to have guys who'd high-five you in the dugout and almost knock you over," Dwight Gooden said. "Now we just shake hands."

"I used to love the way we treated other teams," DarryStrawberry said. "We didn't care at all what they thought of us. We liked it more if they hated us. We'd sit in the dugout and just [curse] them. We'd say anything. Nothing was off-limits. We were a little crazy."

* HAPPY CAMPERS II: Only in Boston would a player say it'"easier" on the road when his team has the best home record in the league. But that's exactly the word leftfielder Mike Greenwell used to describe the hidden advantage of a 10-game road trip that began last night in Chicago.

Meanwhile, Wade Boggs couldn't understand the pessimistriggered by the injury to Roger Clemens. "You pick up the papers around here, and they're starting to write us off," Boggs ++ said. "A lot of players resent that. Roger is one-fifth of the pitching staff. There are four other guys. I don't feel like it's a crisis."

Boggs, by the way, needs 26 hits in his final 18 games tbecome the first player to reach 200 in eight straight seasons. The irony of the great AL batting race is that he is not even involved. Boggs and Alan Trammell are tied for fourth in the league with a .311 average.

* FREE AGENT OF THE WEEK: Cleveland outfielder CandMaldonado just turned 30, and he's batting .273 with 20 homers and 85 RBIs. He might be the type of hitter the Orioles pursue this winter, if they're indeed serious about free agency.

Maldonado, however, is hinting that he will be loyal to thIndians. One, they offered him an $825,000 contract after he batted .217 for San Francisco last season. Two, he credits much of his success to the hitting coach Jose Morales.

* YOUTH MOVEMENT BLUES: Regardless of your opinion oFrank Robinson, his adherence to the Orioles' rebuilding plan is an underrated aspect of his performance as manager. Just this week, Nick Leyva drew heat in Philadelphia because of his impatience with young players.

Leyva's frustration is understandable -- the Phillies had a six-walinning Thursday, a 12-walk game Saturday -- but it's September, and his team is in fifth place. General manager Lee Thomas shouldn't have to chew him out for yanking young pitchers too quickly, as he did after Tuesday's 5-1 loss to Pittsburgh.

* SOMEBODY'S GOT TO DO IT: Sportswriting hell is defined acovering the Cleveland Indians, which Sheldon Ocker has done the past 10 years for the Akron Beacon-Journal. Ocker is staying interested this season by keeping track of every visit pitching coach Mark Wiley makes to the mound.

By Ocker's count, Wiley had taken his lonely walk 141 timethrough Aug. 31. For what? The Indians were 33-56 in games he visited a pitcher. After he left, the next hitter was batting .333 with an on-base percentage of .448. Wonder what the Orioles did under Wiley in 1987?

* AROUND THE HORN: Milwaukee is 7-18 on Sundays anholidays. Robin Yount is hitting .165 in those games, Rob Deer .145.

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