In a very real sense, the Orioles' weekend series against the Minnesota Twins is just as big as the previous series against the New York Yankees because of its bearing on the wild-card race.
If the season had ended Friday night, the Orioles and Twins would have been tied for the American League wild card with a 36-28 record and would have played off for the right to join the postseason.
Now it becomes slightly more complicated.
If the Orioles won the one-game playoff, they would play the Central Division champion Cleveland Native Americans, while the East champion Yankees would play Texas.
But if the Twins won, they would play the Yankees, and the Rangers would play the Native Americans.
The divisions that receive the home-field advantage in the best-of-five series are predetermined. This season, the AL East and Central division champions have the home-field advantage,
meaning Games 3, 4 and 5 of their series will be at home.
The wild-card team can't play a team from its own division and can't have the home-field advantage. The rules dictate that the wild-card team play the team with the best winning percentage, unless the team is either from the same division or does not have the home-field advantage.
In the second round of the playoffs, otherwise known as the American League Championship Series, a best-of-seven playoff,
the team with the home-field advantage (Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at home) will be the AL East champion or its first-round opponent.
How would it work in the National League?
Again, pretending the season ended Friday, here's how it would shape up: Atlanta would play Los Angeles, with the Dodgers playing at home in the final three games. Houston, playing the final three at home, would face wild-card Montreal.
In the second round, the winner of the Atlanta-Los Angeles series would have the home-field edge.
The ex-Cub factor
The addition of Dwight Smith to a roster that already had Jamie Moyer, Rafael Palmeiro and Lee Smith gives the Orioles four ex-Chicago Cubs.
The ex-Cub factor, that's what.
What is the ex-Cub factor?
"Any team that has three or more ex-Cubs cannot win the World Series," said ex-Cub factor inventor Ron Berler, who once managed a Little League team Johnny Oates' son Andy played on in suburban Chicago. "They can get there, but they can't win."
Berler, an adjunct professor of journalism at Northwestern University, a free-lance writer and a rock musician, said 14 teams with three or more ex-Cubs have played in a World Series since the Cubs last participated in one in 1945.
The ex-Cub-ridden teams have gone 1-13, the lone exception being the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates. Berler has an explanation for that one.
"Jim Brosnan, an ex-Cub who doomed the 1961 Reds, told me that [Don] Hoak, who had been traded from the Dodgers to the Cubs [for the 1956 season], was so appalled that he never admitted to anyone he was a Cub," Berler said. "Brosnan told me Hoak was the only man to ever overcome his Cubness."
The 1981 Yankees, with five ex-Cubs, won the first two games of the World Series against the Dodgers, then lost the next four. They haven't been back to the Series since.
The 1990 Oakland Athletics were the last team to try winning with three ex-Cubs (Dennis Eckersley, Ron Hassey and Scott Sanderson), Berler noted.
While the rest of the world picked the A's to win big, Berler was confident the Cincinnati Reds would pull off the upset. Berler might have been the only one who was not surprised to see the Reds sweep the A's.
The Orioles are one of five teams plagued by the ex-Cub factor this season, joining the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals.
Dwight Smith predicts the Orioles will disprove the ex-Cub factor.
"All it means is we've got to have a lot of wins in our blood because we sure didn't win anything in Chicago," he said.
Injure the ump
American League umpires have been hit hard with injuries or other reasons to miss games this season.
Nine umpires have missed games this season, including as many as seven at one time.
Dale Ford and Vic Voltaggio are both rehabilitating from knee surgeries. Don Denkinger was sidelined by a ruptured calf muscle. Jim McKean broke his wrist. Ken Kaiser and Mark Johnson suffered from whiplash from a car accident in Boston. Tim Welke had hemorrhoid surgery. Chuck Meriwether missed a game to attend his father-in-law's funeral. Terry Craft had chest pains.
"I've never seen anything like it," AL ump Tim Tschida said. "I think the most I've ever seen at one time was four. We've been scrambling."
Triple-A umpires who have American League contracts and worked spring training games were called up as replacements.
Sleeper of the century
Roland Hemond has few peers at keeping a secret, but how in the world did he keep the rest of baseball from discovering a first-round draft choice in 1965, peers wondered.
When the first round of the draft was announced, everyone was shocked at one name because no one had ever heard of the first baseman. The California Angels, or so baseball had announced, selected a first baseman named Glen Burnie. Actually, they drafted Jim Spencer from Glen Burnie, but a clerical error resulted in shock waves rolling through scouting departments.
Hemond was the Angels' scouting director at the time. "They listed my hometown as Jim Spencer, Md.," Spencer said. "Not really. I'm kidding."
Spencer, noted for his fine glove, is a special assistant to Orioles investor Stephen Geppi, who made his fortune on comic books. Spencer watches home games with him and tutors him on the game's finer points.
Live at Riverfront
Reds outfielder Deion Sanders arrived at Riverfront Stadium in a stretch limo, rapper Hammer at his side. Hammer, a former Athletics clubhouse attendant, shagged fly balls with Sanders in the outfield during batting practice.
To say the least, Reds general manager Jim Bowden was impressed. "A lot of players bring tapes and CDs to the ballpark," Bowden said. "Deion brings the actual artist."
It starts at top for Twins
The most underrated one-two punch at the top of a batting order belongs to the Twins, who have gotten great production out of Chuck Knoblauch and Alex Cole.
Knoblauch hit his major-league-leading 30th double Friday night in Minnesota's 64th game and is hitting .323 with 41 RBIs. He had a leadoff home run last night. Cole is hitting .327 with 18 stolen bases in 22 attempts.
Not to be forgotten in the Twins' resurgence is the effect outfielder Shane Mack has had since coming off the disabled list May 3. With Mack in the lineup (hitting .315 with nine home runs and 32 RBIs in 38 games), the Twins are 26-12.
If Kent Hrbek could find a way to rediscover his power stroke, the Twins' lineup would be that much stronger.
Hrbek, who has pondered retiring at season's end, hit his third home run Wednesday. "I didn't know how to run around the bases anymore," Hrbek said after the home run. "I was tired when I got into the dugout."
President Clinton, in Kansas City, Mo., last week for an appearance, decided to sample some local fare and stopped by Gates Barbeque. Clinton was shaking hands with diners at nearby tables when one of them asked if he thought there would be a baseball strike.
"I hope not," Clinton told the diner. "But it sure looks that way, doesn't it? You wouldn't think they would with the kind of money they are making. You hate to see it because everyone's hitting so great."
Little did Clinton know that the person asking the question was a member of the dreaded media, California Angels beat writer Bob Night- engale of the Los Angeles Times, the same guy who picked the Orioles to finish last in the AL East.
Media Watch II
The Yankees, as much as any organization in baseball, suffer from a media persecution complex. If the complex ever spins completely out of
control, look for the Yankees to make a bold move and hire former major-league catcher Scott Bradley, a coach from Colorado's Double-A affiliate, to manage the Yankees. Why? Jeff Bradley, Scott's brother, is the Yankees beat writer for the New York Daily News.
Colorado Rockies second baseman Roberto Mejia, demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs on June 4, is third in the All-Star voting among National League second basemen and second among active players (Ryne Sandberg retired). Mejia received more votes than hot-hitting teammates Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks combined.
Said Walt Jocketty, Rockies assistant general manager: "When we sent Roberto out, Don and I told him he had the ability to be an All-Star at second base. We just didn't think it would be this quick."
Said Bichette: "Maybe they're mixing him up with Roberto Alomar."
Mejia's tight-fisted tendencies led to his demotion. Instead of going to the ballpark early for treatment of an injury, Mejia waited to take the team bus, reportedly because he did not want to pay the cab fare.