No pat hands in '94 shuffle REALIGNMENT'S FIRST RUN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Texas Rangers just might be the biggest winner in the Great Baseball Shuffle of 1994. Realignment took the defending division champion Chicago White Sox out of the American League West, leaving the Rangers as the team to beat in a division where everyone else seems very beatable.

The Orioles can't complain either, even though they were left in ++ the toughest division in baseball. Thanks to the extra tier of playoffs that have been added this year, they don't necessarily have to beat the two-time defending world champion Toronto Blue Jays to get into the playoffs.

Welcome to baseball's brave new world. The decision to break each league into three divisions created the new playoff tier and likely will lead to another expansion in the not-too-distant future. It is part of the game's long-term answer to the daunting economic problems that confront the sport, and it could provide a short-term advantage for those teams that are addressed for success.

"I can't lie to you . . . it helps us a lot," said Rangers manager ## Kevin Kennedy. "Getting Chicago out of this division helps all of us."

It isn't just the White Sox. The divisional shake-up also pulled the Kansas City Royals out of the West, leaving the Rangers as the only one of the top three finishers from 1993 still in the division. They figure to be the favorite when they open the season in New York on Monday, but they still have to play well against the entire league to get into the postseason for the first time since the franchise moved to Texas.

"One thing about that, it's not a lock," said first baseman Will Clark, who joins former Bay area rival Jose Canseco in the Rangers' lineup. "You still have to go out there and play extremely well to win your division.

"People say we are in a better situation. We are in a good situation, but Seattle is a good team and [Oakland's] Tony La Russa has a habit of finding ways to win and Buck Rodgers has some good people in California. By no means is it a lock."

Second thoughts

Clark, who could just as easily be opening the season with the Orioles this year, has some words of caution for any AL East contender that is taking solace in the notion that it can get to the playoffs without beating the Blue Jays. The second-place team in each league with the best record also will reach the new round of playoffs, but there is no guarantee that the second-place finisher in the deep AL East will be that team.

"You can't treat it like that," he said. "From an Orioles perspective, you can't look at the division and say that we can beat this team and we can beat that team, but we don't have to beat that team."

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond agrees. The Orioles -- and every other major-league team -- have been granted a second chance at the postseason, which should make for more big games and more excitement down the stretch, but they still need to focus on winning the division title.

"I think you have to shoot for the top spot," Hemond said, "because somebody else might win more games in another division. Nobody can analyze it accurately enough to say, if we finish second, we'll be OK."

The long fight over realignment and regionalization finally came to an end in January, but not before it sparked baseball's commissioner crisis in 1992 and pushed the owners into an extra set of collective bargaining negotiations to split up the new playoff revenue.

The result is an uneven alignment that includes two five-team divisions and one four-team division in each league. That's why it seems so logical that another team will be added to each league in the next three or four years.

The five-team American League East lost the improving Cleveland Indians and the last-place Milwaukee Brewers, but the Orioles were left with more of the same kind of competition they faced in 1993. The Blue Jays have some obstacles to overcome, but they still will enter the season as the team to beat. The New York Yankees have significantly upgraded their pitching staff and the Detroit Tigers have made substantial improvements.

"Mathematically, our chances of making the playoffs should be better," manager Johnny Oates said. "There are two less teams to beat and two more teams get in, but I never was very good with base-five mathematics."

The Rangers may be the biggest beneficiary of the divisional shuffle, but they are not the only team to find their road to the postseason possibly shortened by realignment. The four remaining teams in the National League West also benefit from the shorter stack and the departure of the defending National League champion Atlanta Braves.

"It's advantageous for a lot of teams," said Rangers pitcher Rick Honeycutt. "Look at the NL Central. Some of those teams that got out of the NL East and away from the Phillies and the Braves and the Montreal Expos have got to be saying, 'Thank goodness.' "

Braves manager Bobby Cox isn't saying that. The Braves moved out of a division that featured the most exciting race in baseball last year, but they move into a division that includes two other teams [Philadelphia and Montreal] that could beat them out of a playoff spot.

"We'll do the same things," Cox said. "It's a balanced schedule. We just got thrown in a different division. We didn't have great rivalries, but we had some with the Dodgers and Giants. Now that's gone. We're out of the division.

"I don't really like it, but the owners had to do something to get more teams involved."

The teams that benefit the most had better enjoy their advantage while it lasts, according to Honeycutt, who signed with the Rangers after enjoying the glory years of the Oakland Athletics. Everything goes in cycles.

"I think that things kind of evolve," he said. "From 1988 to '91, when we [the A's] were winning all the time, it [realignment] would not have had an effect on us. It will always be a rotating factor."

Schedule remains same

The divisional shake-up has not significantly altered the schedule. The teams in each division still play a balanced league-wide schedule, which does little to promote the kind of regional rivalries that were such a healthy part of National League baseball until the last expansion.

When there were two six-team divisions, National League clubs played 18 games against each team in their own division and 12 against each team in the other division. That could mean an extra head-to-head series down the stretch.

"That's the one thing I'm going to miss," Clark said. "In the NL West, we had 18 games against the Dodgers and 18 against Houston. It created more of a rivalry. Playing only 12 times takes that away a little bit."

Will realignment change the way fans look at the game in Baltimore? Not until the final weeks of the season. The schedule is basically the same and the contending teams in the AL East will look familiar. The difference will be in the improved quality of the lineup and the increased opportunity for the playoffs.

"It still feels the same," said shortstop Cal Ripken. "I don't think it'll seem any different until you look at it in August and see who's involved."

THE NEW ALIGNMENT

AMERICAN LEAGUE

East .. .. .. .. .... .. ..Central .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .West

Baltimore Orioles .. .. Chicago White Sox .. .California Angels

Boston Red Sox .. .. ...Cleveland Indians .. .. ..Oakland A's

Detroit Tigers .. .. ..Kansas City Royals .. Seattle Mariners

New York Yankees .. .. .Milwaukee Brewers .. ...Texas Rangers

Toronto Blue Jays .. .. Minnesota Twins

NATIONAL LEAGUE

East .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Central .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .West

Atlanta Braves .. .. .. .Chicago Cubs .. .. .Colorado Rockies

Florida Marlins .. .. .Cincinnati Reds .. Los Angeles Dodgers

Montreal Expos .. .. ...Houston Astros .. ...San Diego Padres

New York Mets .. .. ...Pittsburgh Pirates .San Francisco Giants

Philadelphia Phillies .St. Louis Cardinals

PLAYOFF FORMAT

The new divisional playoff system calls for the second-place team with the best record in each league to meet the division winner with the best record in a five-game divisional playoff series for the right to play in the League Championship Series against the winner of a similar series between the other two division champions. If the second-place team is from the same division as the division champion with the best record, then the top seed will play the division champion with the third-best record and the wild-card team will play against the division

winner with the second-best record.

Big winners .. .. .. .. .. .. ...Comment

Texas Rangers .. .. .... .. .. ..Where have all

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..the contenders gone?

Seattle Mariners .. .. .. .. ..If they can beat

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . the Rangers

San Francisco Giants .. ..It'll take a players

.. .. .. .. .. .... .strike to keep them out

Cleveland Indians .. ..Can't beat Blue Jays, but

.. .. .. .. .. .. . . .. might nip White Sox

Baltimore Orioles .. ... .Two chances are better

.. .. .. .. .. .. .... .. .. .. .. than one

Big losers .. .. .. .. . .. .. ..Comment

Philadelphia Phillies .. .. ..NL East is Braves'

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... new world

Montreal Expos .. .. .. .. ..See Braves starting

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. rotation

Kansas City Royals .. .. . ..Now must beat White

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .... Sox and Indians

Detroit Tigers .. .. .. .. .. .. .Forced to stay

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... in Detroit

Dark horses .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Comment

Oakland Athletics .. .. .. .. .La Russa might be

.. .. .. .. .. ...able to finesse four-team West

Pittsburgh Pirates .. .. .. .Leyland could sneak

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. back to top

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