Strangely enough, the New York Yankees have climbed back into the American League East race without the help of outfielder Darryl Strawberry, whose return to the major leagues has been delayed while agent Bill Goodstein and club officials attempt to work out the final details of his big-league contract.
In the meantime, the Yankees have gone ahead with a sweeping attempt to improve the chemistry of the club, acquiring 1994 Cy Young Award winner David Cone and swapping unpopular Danny Tartabull for Ruben Sierra.
Strawberry has been playing well at Triple-A Columbus and recently proclaimed himself ready to join the Yankees, but owner George Steinbrenner is insisting on contractual safeguards for the team and the player before the deal is finalized. The Boss is understandably wary of a player who filed a grievance against the San Francisco Giants for exercising a clause in his 1994 contract that allowed the team to release him for a drug violation.
It's possible that the club is having second thoughts about the original deal, put together when the Yankees were floundering and desperate for offensive help. Now that the team has turned itself around, why fix something that may no longer be broken?
The deal that sent pitcher Ken Hill from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Cleveland Indians last week doesn't figure to have a significant impact on the division race -- since it's already over -- but it is another indication that the Indians are intent on building a dynasty. Hill, a disappointment in St. Louis, further solidifies an excellent pitching staff that may need the added depth to assure a smooth ride through the AL playoffs. . . . Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone could be on the hot seat now that ace Kevin Appier has gone on the disabled list. Boone knew when he opened the season with a four-man starting rotation that he would be vulnerable to criticism if the club suffered any serious pitching injuries. The club gave the Indians a run for a while, but has lost Chris Haney and Appier to injuries.
The high-flying California Angels corrected a major organizational mistake by re-acquiring pitcher Jim Abbott on Thursday. Abbott, whose inspirational story and squeaky-clean image made him a star when the Angels made him their first-round draft choice in 1988, was traded away after the 1992 season after a long-running contract dispute. The move was a public relations disaster that contributed to the Angels' diminishing fan base and hurt a strong starting rotation. His return is another step in the dramatic organizational turnaround engineered by young general manager Bill Bavasi and assistant GM Tim Mead. The reaction in Anaheim: an unprecedented midseason run on season tickets.
It had to happen. The Philadelphia Phillies finally rebounded from a lengthy slump by sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates last week and reeling off a four-game winning streak. Trouble is, the Atlanta Braves are showing no sign of weakness. They are 20-7 in July and have enough pitching to make their eight-game division lead seem almost insurmountable. The Phillies are hoping that Mark Whiten will be energized by his return to the National League, but it will take a team-wide revival to pull back into contention for the division title. If that seems unlikely, a wild card is doable.
The Houston Astros are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have the fourth-best record in baseball but have been kept at arm's length by the first-place Cincinnati Reds. If there is a good retroactive argument for adding a wild-card team to the playoff format, the Astros are it, though their chances diminished significantly yesterday when they lost Jeff Bagwell for two months with a broken hand. . . . What's keeping the Reds out in front is their unparalleled ability to win on the road. They have the best road record in the game (29-13). . . . Cardinals left-hander Danny Jackson gave up just two runs on four hits over eight innings in Thursday's start against the Montreal Expos but still dropped to a dismal 2-10.
You don't have to look far for another reason why the Giants are struggling. Sure, the loss of Matt Williams was devastating, but if closer Rod Beck were pitching up to his normal standards, the club might only be a game or two out of first place. Beck (4-5), once considered automatic in save situations, blew his eighth save Friday, but got the job done yesterday. . . . Colorado Rockies outfielder Larry Walker was booed Friday when he returned to Montreal for the first time since leaving the Expos to become a free agent. The fans had to be even more unhappy when Walker answered with his league-leading 23rd home run.