There's a rare long line for major postseason awards Bonds, Thomas most valuable?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Time flies when you're having this much fun.

It has been 26 weeks since the start of the baseball season, 227 days since the opening of spring training if you want to be more precise. And now it gets real interesting.

Even though the seasons are like average games, too long, they invariably produce periods of individual and collective brilliance. This one has been no exception.

From the early, but futile, pursuits of a .400 batting average by John Olerud and Andres Galarraga to the sterling race to the wire by the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants, 1993 has provided many moments to remember.

It being an expansion year, many wondrous feats had been predicted, some outlandishly so. If nothing else, Olerud and Galarraga proved just how difficult it is to hit .400 -- with or without pitching staffs diluted by expansion.

At the end, the batting champions were left with splendid seasons, but nothing close to the .406 mark recorded by Ted Williams in 1941, the last time anyone has topped .400. In fact, by the time the last pitch is thrown late this afternoon, the performances by Olerud and Galarraga will, for the most part, be overshadowed by other robust accomplishments.

Some of those achievements will be duly recognized in coming weeks as the various awards are announced, stretching baseball to a 12-month activity. Between now and the start of postseason play (Tuesday in the American League, Wednesday in the National League) all ballots must be submitted for awards given by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Seldom have there been as many legitimate contenders for the major awards -- the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young -- in both leagues. Here's a rundown from this perspective:

AL MVP

Of the four major playing awards, this one is likely to be the most lopsided, but not because of a lack of candidates. The Toronto Blue Jays have four of their own -- Olerud, Joe Carter, Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar -- but none figures as the winner. Juan Gonzalez and Rafael Palmeiro have had sensational years for the Texas Rangers.

You can make a strong case for Seattle's Ken Griffey and many will argue that catcher Mike Stanley and outfielder/DH Danny Tartabull of the New York Yankees deserve consideration. Boston's Mo Vaughn and Cleveland's Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga have been standouts.

But it was Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas who put the "Big Hurt" on the American League this season. He has been the league's most consistently productive hitter in a lineup that provided only modest support.

Prediction: The support for the Toronto contingent will be split enough that Thomas will win in a landslide, with the rest tightly bunched in the top 10.

AL Cy Young

There are not as many candidates here as there are for MVP, but any absence of quantity is made up for in quality.

The two most imposing candidates, Chicago's 6-foot-5 Jack McDowell and Seattle's 6-10 Randy Johnson, bring the biggest numbers to the voting booth. McDowell is tops in wins (22) and shutouts (four), Johnson the runaway strikeout leader (308).

But Kevin Appier of the Kansas City Royals (a league-leading 2.61 ERA) and New York's Jimmy Key (3.00) have been the stingiest pitchers over the course of the season.

And there are others. Toronto's Juan Guzman doesn't have a lot of decisions, but the best winning percentage (14-3, .824), while Pat Hentgen has enough wins (19-8), but a middle-of-the-road ERA (3.77).

The records of Johnson and Appier gain added weight because their efforts came on teams that played close to .500 most of the season.

Prediction: McDowell's overall numbers will prevail, although Appier is most deserving.

AL Manager of the Year

In a year that has followed preseason predictions almost to the letter, there isn't a surprise candidate. Lou Piniella, whose Seattle team was hurt all year, and the Yankees' Buck Showalter, guided teams that made the most significant improvement.

But somewhere along the line, despite his team's obvious talent, Toronto's Cito Gaston has to be given some of the credit for a third straight division title despite a pitching staff that was in shambles most of the season.

Prediction: This time Gaston gets his due, edging Piniella.

AL Rookie of the Year

This one's a no-brainer. California's Tim Salmon wins in a walk.

AL Comeback Player of the Year

The mere fact that he played the game with an artificial hip is enough for Bo Jackson to qualify for this honor.

NL MVP

As illogical as it sounds, an eight-game losing streak by his team might have decided the outcome of this race. When Barry Bonds went into an early September funk, his team went right along with him.

When he came back, so did the Giants. Is any more testimony needed?

This figures to be a two-man scramble between Bonds and Philadelphia's Lenny Dykstra, but again not because there aren't other worthy candidates.

Atlanta presents Ron Gant and David Justice as a formidable one-two entry. But it should be recalled that the Braves' offense didn't jell until Fred McGriff came to town, so the first baseman may very well be the MVP on his own team. And don't overlook the contributions of shortstop Jeff Blauser.

Matt Williams and Robby Thompson were overshadowed by Bonds, but instrumental in the Giants' turnaround. Ditto for Darren Daulton and John Kruk with the Phillies.

The Cardinals might not have stayed in contention until midseason without Gregg Jefferies or Todd Zeile.

The Expos' no-name bunch was sparked by Marquis Grissom, and the Cubs could've closed up shop without Mark Grace.

Prediction: When everything is taken into consideration, it's impossible not to go with Bonds.

NL Cy Young

This looms as the toughest of the four major calls.

The Braves alone have three bonafide contenders in Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery, and the Giants have two in John Burkett and Bill Swift.

Houston's Mark Portugal and Pete Harnisch have had great years on a mediocre team and Cincinnati's Jose Rijo has been outstanding for a team that has been so bad manager Davey Johnson probably wishes he hadn't made a comeback. Toss in Philadelphia's Tommy Greene and Chicago's record-setting relief specialist Randy Myers and you have an overflow of talent.

Prediction: The race goes to the swiftest at the beginning as well as the end -- and Swift has the overall best combination of numbers.

NL Manager of the Year

With apologies to Jim Fregosi, who is the perfect match for "Our Gang" in Philadelphia, how could anybody other than Dusty Baker win this one?

Fregosi has done a marvelous job with the Phillies, and Felipe Alou again had the Expos in the hunt, at least for a while.

Both of the expansion managers, Don Baylor in Colorado and Rene Lachemann in Florida, deserve recognition.

And, for no other reason than he managed to escape the Mets, let's not forget Jeff Torborg.

Prediction: Baker an easy winner over Baylor and Fregosi.

NL Rookie of the Year

When it comes to first-year players this season, it's all Southern California. Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza is another no-brainer.

NL Comeback Player of the Year

Colorado's Galarraga led the league in hitting. Nothing else need be said.

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