Halfway there

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's hard to believe, isn't it? The 1991 season is halfway through, and it feels like only yesterday Jim Palmer was talking about a comeback.

All right, all right, that was yesterday, but the season has sped along at an amazing rate. You'll just have to take my word for it.

The All-Star break is upon us, which is a perfect time to pause and reflect on the first three months of the 1991 season. If you're a fan of baseball in general, it has been an interesting ride. If you are a straight-party-ticket Baltimore Orioles fan, it has been a half-season on the blink. But there is one thing it hasn't been, and that's boring.

The Orioles were supposed to be a legitimate contender in the American League East, but they will spend the three-day break in sixth place, grateful that the Cleveland Indians finally had the decency to act like the Cleveland Indians and take their rightful place at the bottom of the standings.

The Toronto Blue Jays stand atop baseball's weakest division and recently improved their starting rotation with the acquisition of knuckleballer Tom Candiotti. The Boston Red Sox were expected to be right up there with them, but that was back when signing free agent Jack Clark was still considered a wily personnel move.

In the West, the Oakland Athletics are finding that a four-peat will be no easy task. They have dropped into the middle of the pack, which is tightly bunched behind the surprising Minnesota Twins and the suddenly scary California Angels.

The National League is in danger of having a very uneventful September, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates threatening to run away with their respective divisions, but a lot can happen between now and then.

For the moment, the Pirates are overpowering a very weak NL East, and the Dodgers in the West are riding a very hot pitching staff. There is no reason to expect any of that to change, but NL president Bill White seems adamant about playing out the rest of the schedule, anyway.

No one can predict the future (except those psychics with the 900 numbers, of course), so there's no sense looking ahead. But hindsight is 20-20, so here's a look back at some of the highlights and pie fights of the past few months:

Palmer returns

Hall of Famer Palmer may have been middle-aged crazy, but he captured the hearts of the mid-life-crisis crowd with his improbable comeback attempt in spring training.

The Orioles invited him to camp -- originally out of a sense of obligation, perhaps -- and turned the thing into a public-relations coup.

Camera crews came from far and wide to witness the wonder of it all. Palmer came up a little short on velocity and eventually came up with a hamstring injury before calling an end to his comeback -- for the moment.

Bo's hip

The Kansas City Royals shocked the baseball world when they waived multisport superstar Bo Jackson, who came to spring camp on crutches after suffering a serious hip injury in an NFL playoff game.

Royals doctors predicted that Jackson never would be the same, so the Royals decided to cut their losses and save a few million dollars.

Bo knew better, of course. He insisted that he would come back and play, perhaps even this year. The Chicago White Sox took him at his word and worked out an incentive-laden, multiyear contract.

Jackson hasn't shown up in the outfield at Comiskey Park lately, but he can be seen in the latest Nike commercial.

Glenn not close

Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis suffered nerve damage in his neck swinging at a pitch in an exhibition game, and the club hasn't fully recovered.

The Orioles figured to depend heavily on Davis, one of baseball's premier power hitters, to provide offensive leadership. Cal Ripken has filled the run-production gap with his best start ever, saving the club the indignity of reliving the 1988 season.

Davis hopes to be back soon, but there still is no timetable for his return to the lineup.

Ryan rolls a 7

Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan made the Toronto Blue Jays his seventh no-hit victim, adding to a pitching resume that

includes more than 300 victories and 5,000 strikeouts. He could get into the Hall of Fame on any of those three accomplishments. Taken together, they ought to just throw out the five-year retirement rule and put up his plaque right now.

The importance of being Frank

Frank Robinson looked as if he might be Orioles manager for life after a fun-filled 1989 season in which the club's fortunes took a dramatic U-turn. But all good things must come to an end.

There were plenty of reasons why the 1991 season started to unravel so soon, not the least of which were the loss of Davis and the lack of effective pitching, but the club needed someone to fall on his sword.

Expansion derby ends

The National League finally chose Miami and Denver from a list of six finalists for the two new expansion franchises that will begin operations in 1993, but not before a newspaper in each of the six candidate cities quoted an unnamed source saying that city was a front-runner.

The big loser was St. Petersburg, Fla., which built a domed stadium just for this occasion. The rest of the finalist cities jumped through a lot of hoops, but none of them will have to make payments on a $100 million stadium while it waits for the next major-league expansion, which doesn't figure to come until after the millennium.

Greed is good dept.

It's amazing what a fuss people will make over $190 million. The jTC $95 million-per-team expansion fee was so high that the American League -- which already expanded and kept all the money for itself -- insisted on a piece of the action.

The National League, citing precedent, resisted the notion that the money should be divided among 26 teams instead of 12. The American League, citing any reason that came to mind, threatened to withhold approval of the expansion cities until an accommodation was made.

Commissioner Fay Vincent settled the dispute, giving $42 million to the American League owners, many of whom had the audacity to complain about it. Gordon Gekko would have been proud.

Fan abuse

Baseball was struck with an epidemic of fan abuse. Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Dibble hurled a ball into the stands and injured a fan, though he was wasn't aiming at anyone in particular. Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle singled out a spectator and tried to imbed a baseball in his chest.

Both players were admonished for their childish behavior. Trying to injure the paying customers is considered bad business.

The crash of '91

Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra, who came under scrutiny after he wrote a five-figure check to pay an old poker debt, didn't engender much sympathy when he was seriously injured in an alcohol-related automobile accident.

Dykstra was at the wheel when his car veered off the road and slammed into a tree. Teammate Darren Daulton also was injured in the crash, though not as badly as Dykstra.

Managerial merry-go-round

Robinson was one of five managers fired during the first half of the season. The Chicago Cubs fired Don Zimmer and the Montreal Expos fired Buck Rodgers during the same three-day period in which the ax fell on Robinson.

The Royals already had replaced John Wathan and the Philadelphia Phillies sent Nick Leyva packing in what would turn out to be an impressive baseball-wide display of scapegoatism.

Incidentally, none of the five teams with new managers has staged a dramatic turnaround. Only one, in fact, has shown even mild improvement -- the Orioles.

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