Game takes balance swing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anaheim, Calif. -- The American League West was the laughingstock of baseball a year ago. The first-place Texas Rangers were 10 games below .500 when the 1994 season was cut short in August, and the balance of power throughout the league was not expected to change dramatically in 1995.

Guess again. The AL West has reached the season's traditional midpoint with the best winning percentage in the major leagues and has become emblematic of the changing face of a troubled game.

It doesn't stop there. The power structure in the AL East also was altered dramatically in the aftermath of baseball's worst labor crisis, and the National League West is so balanced that the 3-year-old Colorado Rockies and the downsizing San Diego Padres have legitimate chances to win the division.

"The owners accomplished what they wanted to accomplish, at least for now," said California Angels designated hitter Chili Davis. "They got salaries down and -- though there's still a long way to go -- their competitive balance is there, too."

That's good if you're in Anaheim, where the surprising Angels have led the AL West for most of the first half, or in San Diego or Boston or Detroit. That's bad if you're in Chicago, where the White Sox front office may have blown the season by acting too rashly during the seven-month players strike, or New York, where a string of serious pitching injuries -- possibly strike-related -- prevented the Yankees from picking up where they left off in 1994.

The result, however, is not what baseball owners had in mind when they set out to change the economic underpinnings of the game. The labor situation still has not been resolved, and the fans have not been quick to forget how a wildly exciting 1994 season was destroyed, World Series and all.

Their disenchantment has tempered the excitement that should be building in some title-hungry locations, while making it even -- more difficult to hold fan interest in the traditional attendance strongholds where highly regarded teams are not playing up to expectations. The owners wanted parity, but not at this price.

The stated intent was to create an economic balance that would allow every team to compete for quality players, but the owners succeeded only in dragging revenues down to the point where every team had less to spend. That caused an immediate and predictable drop in the average player salary, but it does not appear to be the major reason for the sudden change in the competitive environment.

That appears to be the result of the roster uncertainty that was created when both sides in the open-ended labor dispute imposed lengthy contract embargoes and compressed the amount of time allotted for signing unaffiliated players. The significance of this sudden redistribution of bargain-priced talent was amplified when an inordinate number of the game's marquee players went down with major injuries during the early months of the season.

"Balance is balance," said Angels general manager Bill Bavasi. "We've all had injuries. Of course, you'd rather not lose the marquee players, but if you gave me the choice of having those players and having a division like we had last year, or not having those players and having it the way it is now, I'd take it this way. I think this is better for the fans.

"Seeing a first-place club below .500 -- that's not good. That's not happening this year, and I think that's important for the game."

Still, the San Francisco Giants lost Matt Williams, who was putting up Triple Crown numbers when he went down with a foot injury. The Seattle Mariners lost Ken Griffey, probably the most popular player in the game. The Rangers lost Juan Gonzalez. The Boston Red Sox lost Jose Canseco. The Yankees lost Jimmy Key. That can't help at a time when the sport is trying to lure back a cynical public.

"The way things are set up, every team has a large proportion of its payroll invested in a few players," said Oakland Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson. "When you lose one or two of those players, that is a major loss. Talent is thinner, so, as a result, it's tougher to replace those players. We've seen that in our division."

In a strange sort of way, that situation tends to benefit the teams that already are in a rebuilding mode. The Angels were not expected to be a major player in the AL West, but their young roster -- with one key veteran added to the bullpen -- has grown into a legitimate contender.

No one is discounting their effort, but their ability to stay at or near the top of the standings certainly has been enhanced by the injuries that have kept the Mariners and Rangers from taking off.

The Red Sox would appear to fly in the face of this theory, taking control of the AL East despite injuries that kept Roger Clemens and Canseco from having a major impact in the first half, but it was their ability to adjust to those injuries quickly that allowed them to thrive when the Orioles and Yankees were struggling to hold their injury-riddled pitching staffs together.

"Boston had nothing going in," Alderson said, "but because they didn't have Clemens, they ended up with [Erik] Hanson and [Tim] Wakefield. That injury bred opportunity. They didn't have Canseco, so they took Troy O'Leary off the waiver wire."

Red Sox management was forced to take drastic action to preserve any hope of competing in the supposedly solid AL East, while seemingly stronger clubs in both leagues were left paralyzed by a complicated and confusing new business environment. The on-paper pecking order in every division quickly became irrelevant.

"I think that's a legitimate possibility," Alderson said. "You're distracted by the labor situation, so you're not really focused on getting ready. And then teams had players who were involved in the negotiations who clearly came in behind."

Everyone came in behind. Spring training was shortened to barely three weeks, which increased the risk of injury -- particularly for pitchers. The rash of pitching injuries occurred as expected, which diluted an already thin pool of pitching talent.

There are a few elite teams that are living up to their preseason billing, but most of them are in Ohio. The Cleveland Indians were expected to be one of the most powerful teams in the American League and arrived at the All-Star break as the winningest team in baseball. The Cincinnati Reds were favored to win the NL Central, and they are making it look easy. But it still seems clear that the economic and temporal havoc created by the baseball strike has had a dramatic effect on all but the teams at the very ends of the competitive spectrum.

"There are just too many things that point to that being the case," said Angels manager Marcel Lachemann. "From a front office standpoint, there was a large number of free agents, and you just didn't know where people were going to end up. . . . And I think the duration of the off-season, from August to April, was a factor. That just opened the door to a lot of situations you couldn't predict."

A STRIKING CHANGE

A strike-shortened 1994 season and a strike-delayed 1995 has turned the baseball world upside almost down. At the All-Star break last season, the two worst divisions in baseball were the AL and NL West. This season, the West is best in the AL and is keeping pace with the Central in the NL:

1994

Division ...... W ... L ... Pct.

AL East ..... 220 .. 210 .. .512

AL Central .. 229 .. 201 .. .533

AL West ..... 156 .. 194 .. .446

NL East ..... 228 .. 207 .. .524

NL Central .. 220 .. 209 .. .513

NL West ..... 162 .. 194 .. .455

1995

Division ...... W ... L ... Pct.

AL East ..... 166 .. 173 .. .490

AL Central .. 160 .. 172 .. .482

AL West ..... 148 .. 129 .. .534

NL East ..... 163 .. 177 .. .479

NL Central .. 176 .. 164 .. .518

NL West ..... 139 .. 137 .. .504

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