AL East survivor will have trouble if it meets up with White Sox

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While most of the attention in the American League, at least in these parts, is centered on the Eastern Division race, the biggest story might be the Chicago White Sox.

Although the overall power has shifted to the AL East (28 games over .500 going into today's games), the White Sox look to be the league's best bet for the World Series. The AL West leaders have by far the best balanced pitching staff in the league.

Jack McDowell and Alex Fernandez give manager Gene Lamont two bona fide aces to anchor the starting rotation, and Roberto Hernandez has developed into a reliable closer.

The Red Sox have led the AL in team ERA all year (3.63 before play yesterday), but with Roger Clemens struggling and Jeff Russell on the sidelines, the White Sox are now a close second (3.90).

And the most important thing is that the White Sox have all of their pitching in order, with the exception of Tim Belcher. The right-hander, obtained as this season's "hired gun," as David Cone was for the Blue Jays a year ago, has been a disappointment. It's something he's aware of.

"They're probably starting to wonder if they should have done the deal to begin with," said Belcher, who is 3-5 with a team-high 5.66 ERA since being acquired from the Cincinnati Reds.

The White Sox obtained Belcher to give them a veteran starter with good late-season credentials, but so far it hasn't worked.

Before this year, Belcher had a 16-7 career record in September, but he was 0-3 in his first three starts this month. It's likely he'll be dropped from the rotation if the White Sox make the playoffs, because Lamont has said he'll go with four starters. Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez will back up McDowell and Fernandez.

What makes the situation worse for the White Sox is it appears they overpaid. Belcher can be a free agent at the end of the year, and one of the young pitchers the White Sox traded to get him, right-hander Johnny Ruffin, has looked good.

Nevertheless, the White Sox don't lack for pitching depth, something that can't be said for any of the AL East contenders. They also can put the "Big Hurt" on anybody with Frank Thomas having a spectacular year.

Barry Bonds, Juan Gonzalez, Fred McGriff, John Olerud, and Andres Galarraga have commanded a lot of the attention this year, but a growing number of baseball people will tell you that Thomas is the best all-around hitter in baseball. When you combine his home run (41) and RBI (126) totals to his batting average (.322), it's hard to argue the point.

Rangers to go down fighting

Texas manager Kevin Kennedy isn't ready to concede to the White Sox, but the Rangers need to close some ground before their three-game series in Comiskey Park next weekend.

"We're down to 'no-looking-back time,' " said Kennedy. "It's likbeing in the 15th round of a heavyweight championship fight -- we're going to go out and go for it, win or lose."

The difference is the Rangers need a knockout, while the WhitSox only have to hold on to gain the decision. And Kennedy has already decided that he won't go for the knockout with Nolan Ryan.

You'll recall that Ryan and Robin Ventura triggered a brawl in Texas last month when the White Sox third baseman charged the mound after being hit by a pitch.

"I don't want to take the risk of getting them all riled up," Kennedy said, explaining his decision to rearrange his pitching rotation.

The White Sox, meanwhile, are not going out of their way to change anything for the Texas series. The ace, McDowell, is not scheduled to pitch.

What about Dalton?

With the presidents of both leagues, Bobby Brown of the American League and Bill White of the National League, in their final year, and the commissioner's chair still empty, baseball has a serious leadership problem no matter what the executive council says.

With that in mind, you have to wonder why a talent like Harry Dalton sits at a desk without duties until his contract with the Milwaukee Brewers expires. Dalton was fired as Brewers general manager after the 1991 season and, although he's still listed as a club adviser, nobody asks for his advice anymore.

"Harry Dalton is a very bright man, with a lot of good ideas," said one high-ranking American League official who asked not to be identified. "I'd make him the league president in a heartbeat."

Dalton is a young 64, but some will say his age works against him. However, that's prime time for most executives.

What appears to be working against Dalton is his relationship with Bud Selig, the Milwaukee owner who is heading baseball's executive council. Once extremely close, the two are said to rarely communicate these days, which is a sad reflection on the nature of the game.

xTC "People don't know how much this game has changed," said the AL official. "Everything you do now is dominated by your financial statement."

Once his contract with the Brewers expires, Dalton undoubtedly will be able to land another job in baseball if he so desires. He started as an assistant minor-league director for the Orioles before becoming general manager and then moving on to the California Angels and Brewers in the same capacity.

With 35 years of experience, it would seem that the AmericaLeague could do a lot worse than consider Dalton for its presidency.

From prime time to part time

One of the few Atlanta Braves who hasn't been heard from lately is Deion Sanders. The "Prime Time" man is playing a part-time role because of the effects of an upper respiratory infection and the play of Otis Nixon.

Used primarily as a pinch hitter and pinch runner, Sanders ilooking ahead to the World Series.

"My time will come," he said, "There's still a lot of baseball left."

Sanders' best opportunity will be in the World Series, which hused as a showcase last year.

Hopefully we'll get to the Series and I can DH," said Sanders. "It has always been my dream to be a designated hitter."

Bell's defense

George Bell, who has been a contributor for the White Sox in the second half, has a point he wants to make with the league president. Bell says he knows it's a lost cause, but he has appealed his two-day suspension for charging Boston right-hander Aaron Sele after being knocked down by successive pitches.

The reason Bell says he's appealing is because he has a speeche wants to deliver to Brown. This, in essence, is what he has to say:

"They [the Red Sox] have been throwing at my head since 1985. This is 1993 -- that's nine years, and he [Brown] ain't done anything.

"If he's going to do nothing, somebody is going to get hurt. I'm not afraid. I got a lot of guts and if somebody is going to hurt me, I'm going to hurt him real bad and he won't play again."

Canadian home cookin'

Remember when the Red Sox had the best home record in baseball? They are now fifth best in the AL East.

Only the Brewers (38-39) and the Tigers (42-35) had a lowehome-field winning percentage than the Red Sox (41-30) going into yesterday's play.

The team with the current best home record is . . . drum rollplease . . . not the Braves, Giants or Phillies, but the Montreal Expos.

The NL East's second-place team is 51-23 after last night's 5-loss to Philadelphia.

IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS OF THE WEEK

* OK, so who won the pool on when George Steinbrenner would become a disruptive force?

* How come nobody (yet) has mentioned Lou Piniella as a candidate for the American League's Manager of the Year award?

* Can Mike Timlin make a difference for the Blue Jays down the stretch?

* How happy do you think the Mets are about the Braves joining the NL East? (One headline in a New York tabloid: "It's Wait Til Next Century For Mets").

* Where do the Expos keep finding all that young talent?

* Are the Orioles and Jeffrey Hammonds taking a big gamble that the talented outfielder doesn't need surgery?

4( * Who's the National League MVP now?

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