Royals also line up with new look OPENING DAY '94


Their 1994 season has not even begun, and the pressure already is on the Kansas City Royals. They can identify with the prevailing win-it-now attitude in Baltimore, because they also have made major improvements and they, too, play in a city that is hungry to recapture its past baseball glory.

The similarities do not end there. Both teams enter their season-opening series today at Camden Yards hoping to break out cleanly after getting off slowly a year ago.

The Royals, who brought back memories of the 1988 nightmare on 33rd Street with their 1-16 start in 1992, opened last season with nine losses in their first 11 games. They finished 10 games behind the division-winning Chicago White Sox, but who knows how much a stronger start might have affected the outcome of the American League West race?

No one in Baltimore has to be reminded that the Orioles won just five of their first 18 games and had to come back from the worst record in the majors to make a run at the world champion Toronto Blue Jays last year, so it is just as important for the upgraded Orioles to hit the ground running this season.

"They have a lot of talent, but we have a lot of talent, too," said Royals Opening Day starter Kevin Appier. "Hopefully, we'll go in there and have a good series and get off to a good start. It's not essential, but we're in a strong division and coming out of the chute fast would definitely help our chances."

The new American League Central brings together two of the top teams from the old AL West with the rebuilt Cleveland Indians and the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins. The Chicago White Sox are the preseason favorite, but the Royals appear to be in a better competitive position than they were a year ago.

"This is the best club I've had since I've been here as manager," says Hal McRae, whose club challenged its record for exhibition victories this spring.

Future Hall of Famer George Brett has retired, but the Royals added veteran outfielders Vince Coleman and Dave Henderson to a team that was a couple productive hitters short of being a real contender in 1993. If all goes well, Kansas City should parlay a solid starting rotation, strong defense and improved offense into a legitimate bid for either the division championship or the wild-card berth in the new playoff format.

The same could be said for the Orioles, who added Sid Fernandez to the starting rotation and put Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo into a lineup that scored a respectable 786 runs last year.

"I like what they did," said Royals first baseman Wally Joyner. "I've always liked Chris Sabo. He's a gamer. I played with him on the USA team in 1982 and have always been a great fan of his, and one of the big weaknesses the Orioles had was at third base. Palmeiro? I haven't seen Will Clark play in person in about five years, but I would take Raffy over Will Clark, because I've played against him and I've seen the kind of numbers he can put up.

"I think, on paper, they're strong. They've got good pitching when they're healthy. That's a big key. If they have a healthy season, they are going to be in it all the way to the end."

The Royals did not undergo the kind of wholesale changes that made it such an exciting winter in Baltimore, but they made a couple of key acquisitions and hope that they can grow the rest of the way into the playoffs. Rookie Bob Hamelin, who hit 29 home runs at Triple-A Omaha last year, appears ready to contribute in the majors. So does outfielder Phil Hiatt, who struggled at the plate in a part-time role last year.

"I think we're much better," Joyner said. "I think everybody has become comfortable with their roles on the team. If our pitchers stay healthy, we'll score runs and catch the ball for them. The biggest problem we had last year was scoring runs and - with Vince Coleman and Dave Henderson - we've addressed that problem."

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