Wild-card race: exercise in mediocrity

The idea behind adding a wild-card berth was, as you can guess, adding revenue. Another round of playoffs, another round of playoff money, and there would be reason for fans to flock to the ballpark in September even if their team happened to be 16 games out of first place (as is wild-card contender Milwaukee).

There hasn't been any major improvement in attendance for the wild-card contenders. The Oakland Athletics theoretically are chasing one of the extra playoff spots in the American League, and they drew 10,191 Thursday. The Houston Astros are leading the wild-card race in the NL, and they drew 12,537 the same day.


But if it isn't necessarily a financial boon, the wild-card races are notable because most of the teams involved are, by and large, mediocre. Gauging strengths and weaknesses for these contenders is like trying to pick a winner from a stable of plow horses.

Some of the usual factors in handicapping the wild-card race can be thrown out. Strength of schedule, for one. The Texas Rangers have, statistically, one of the weaker schedules remaining, but because they're a mediocre team, you cannot assume they will exploit this advantage.


In picking a wild-card winner, it's all about momentum and



* Texas Rangers: They've rebounded from their July swoon and now they've got Juan Gonzalez and Bobby Witt back. They'd have to be considered a favorite. Not the favorite, but a favorite.

* New York Yankees: Went into Boston and got bombed. If they keep losing, the pressure from owner George Steinbrenner will grow and the team will wilt. And ace David Cone is just hoping his arm stays healthy for the rest of the year.

* Milwaukee Brewers: Everybody else went out and added players, and the Brewers did nothing, plugging along with a rotation that includes four rookies. You've got to believe that when push comes to shove, these guys will fold.

* Seattle Mariners: The favorite. As part of their last-gasp run at saving baseball for their city -- King County, Wash., residents will vote on a referendum to support a new stadium next month -- the Mariners acquired Andy Benes and Vince Coleman, and rushed Ken Griffey back into the lineup. More than any other club, they have a tangible reason to succeed.

* Kansas City Royals: You can tell the Royals' ownership is taking the wild-card race seriously. Just a handful of games behind Texas and the Royals are dumping veterans Coleman and Chris James. Late owner Ewing Kauffman would've at least tried to compete.


* Oakland Athletics: Too many injuries. Mark McGwire is down, Rickey Henderson is hurt. Fading fast.

* Orioles: Yeah, they'll win it. And then Howard Stern will be elected president.


* Houston Astros: They miss first baseman Jeff Bagwell, out with a broken hand until next month. Bagwell's intensity probably will work against him, too, when he does come back. They need a big boost from the pitching staff.

* Colorado Rockies: They can be offensive monsters, and most of their remaining games are at Coors Field. If they don't win the division, these guys are in as the wild card. (Talk about a home-field advantage in the playoffs. . . . Wow. How would you like to go into Colorado for the first two games of a five-game series?)

* San Diego Padres: They've got a better chance of winning the division than winning the wild card. The bullpen must become more consistent.


* Chicago Cubs: They're the Cubs. No chance.

* Montreal Expos: Lots of infighting and not much depth. Will watch from the sidelines in October.

* Philadelphia Phillies: Sure, they'll suddenly start pitching, hitting and fielding, all those things they haven't been able to do for the past two months.

Gwynn has break, not bruise

Tony Gwynn acknowledged this week that his right big toe is broken, and not bruised as he had been saying for more than a week.

"It's not that big a deal," said the Padres right fielder, who is leading the NL in hitting. "My shoe is taped to my foot now, so my foot's not sliding in my shoe. That's what made it tough before. It's more of a problem jumping and hitting, because I hit off the front toe."


The Padres, actually contending for the first time since their fire sale, need Gwynn healthy. Last year, they hit .218 in those games he wasn't in the starting lineup.

* Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek gave Kent Hrbek a pig last weekend, when the club retired Hrbek's number. Why?

"Stelly always called me a pig," Hrbek said. "Now he gave me one." The Twins also presented Hrbek with a cow.

* Another reason baseball's great: Last week, filmmaker Spike Lee's request for a press pass to a Red Sox game was denied.

"He's not with an accredited news organization," said Kevin Shea, Red Sox publicist. Maybe Spike can call his friend Michael and get into a White Sox game.

Nevin in left for Tigers


Tigers manager Sparky Anderson plans to play Phil Nevin, just acquired from the Houston Astros as the player to be named for reliever Mike Henneman, in left field for the rest of the year. Nevin is a blooming slugger who can't field and is destined to be a designated hitter.

* The Dodgers lost veteran outfielder Mitch Webster for a month with a broken bone in his hand, and rookie Roger Cedeno is struggling. That may explain why the Dodgers reacquired center fielder Brett Butler in a trade Friday with the Mets.

* Funny how perceptions change according to need. Last year, Archi Cianfrocco failed in his attempt to convert from first to third with the Padres, the club brass thinking he didn't have enough life to play the hot corner.

This year, Cianfrocco fought his way back onto the team and has started seven games at shortstop because Andujar Cedeno is going through a miserable slump.

Ex-Cubs boost Angels

Hard to believe, but the Angels are winning despite having five -- count 'em, five -- ex-Cubs. Lee Smith, Mike Harkey, Mike Bielecki, Shawn Boskie and Scott Sanderson, all pitchers.


"The bad thing is having Cub hitters," Smith said. "Cub pitchers don't count. And some of us have swung through so many teams, maybe they don't remember we're Cubs."

* Through games of Wednesday, Red Sox second baseman Luis Alicea and Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly had plenty in common: four homers and 33 RBIs apiece. The way Steinbrenner went after Mattingly through the media was gutless, but the bottom line is that Mattingly is playing a position that requires run production and he isn't producing.

* Last week, Dave Righetti was beaten by a former protege from his days in Oakland, Todd Van Poppel.

"I was on the losing end, but I'll tell you what, I was proud of him," said Righetti, generally regarded as one of the game's better people. "The way he was mixing up his slow curve, the way he went after hitters . . . I'll root for him every time he goes out there."

* Toronto pitcher Pat Hentgen acknowledged that there have been days this year when he's so bad that he wonders if his '93 and '94 seasons were flukes.

The way Barry Bonds figures it, the injury to Matt Williams finished his chances for a fourth MVP award.


"I felt like I was close in the running," he said. "Now it's over with. There's not a whole lot to it -- until Matty comes back and I get more pitches. But it may be too late for me. Maybe not for the team, and I'll take that."

* NL president Leonard Coleman has been asked to settle a dispute between the Cubs and Astros about alleged damaged goods.

Shortly after the Astros acquired catcher Rick Wilkins from the Cubs, he went on the disabled list with a injury that required surgery. The Astros want compensation, the Cubs are saying no. Coleman, who preferred the two teams work out their differences, will make the final call.

Braves scout back at old job

Atlanta GM John Schuerholz restored Paul Snyder to his former job as scouting director. Snyder held that job when the Braves picked Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, David Justice, Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones and future Oriole Ron Gant, but when Schuerholz was hired in 1990, he demoted Snyder to special assistant.

* Monday was Halle Berry's birthday, and when your husband happens to be the right fielder for the Braves, you can ask for special gifts.


"She asked me to hit [a homer]," said Justice, who granted the request, a game-winning, two-run shot against the Marlins. "I thought I'd wait for the last at-bat to make it dramatic."

Too much beef for Gonzalez?

Rangers designated hitter Juan Gonzalez beefed up to more than 250 pounds lifting weights during the off-season, and he's convinced this has caused many of his injuries.

"I'm going to come back at about 220," Gonzalez said. "I will be in great shape. I will have more flexibility."

* Texas is a wild-card front-runner, but reliever Roger McDowell still hates the concept.

"It's stupid," he said. "All it does is create more money. This is not hockey. This is not basketball. In hockey, you have the Mighty Ducks, a kids team, making the playoffs. Baseball shouldn't be like that."


Phillies lose aura

* The Phillies are redefining the definition of utter collapse. Remember when Andy Van Slyke was traded from the Orioles to Philadelphia, and he said he was glad to pick up three places in the standings? Well, shortly after his arrival, the club fell apart.

"There was a certain confidence to this club," Van Slyke said, "an aura, that obviously isn't there anymore. You can't invent that. You can only get it done on the field. And anybody would be lying if they told you coming to the ballpark now is the same as it was in June. It's not."

Considering his 1995 experiences with the Orioles and Phillies, nTC one would hardly be surprised if he retired after this season.

* Expos manager Felipe Alou and GM Kevin Malone seem to be at odds over several matters, but they share a distaste for alleged closer Mel Rojas, who will be dumped in the off-season -- if he's not traded before then. Rojas, who is Alou's nephew, has been complaining about the way he is being used, a sure way to make your manager hate you.

* A number of black athletes, including Bill Russell, departed Boston with horror stories about the city's racism.


The Red Sox were the last team in the majors to acquire a black player, Pumpsie Green, some 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And through the years, virtually all of the city's biggest sports heroes -- Ted Williams, Bob Cousy, Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Orr, Roger Clemens -- have been white.

It is encouraging, then, to see how Boston is responding to Mo Vaughn; he has become Boston's favorite son.


The Orioles are the front-runners for the dubious distinction of being the most disappointing team in baseball this year. Some of the factors under consideration: Preseason expectations and current roster makeup.

1. Orioles. Just about everybody _ club officials, players, locaand national media and fans _ believed that at the least, the Orioles would seriously contend for the AL East title. And the Yankees were the only other team to pick up two major players in midseason (Scott Erickson and Bobby Bonilla), so it wasn't as if the Orioles have been left to die by ownership.

2. Chicago White Sox. Cleveland was picked to win the divisionbut the White Sox were thought to be a major contender for the AL Central title, and certainly a wildcard possibility. But losses of Julio Franco and Jack McDowell hurt much worse than White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf expected.


3. Toronto Blue Jays. If folks weren't picking the Orioles oYankees to win the division before the season started, then they were picking the Jays. But Toronto fell out quickly _ the Jays lacked a closer and a viable rotation _ and they dumped David Cone (which separates them from the Orioles).


The Giants hosted the second annual "Until There's A Cure Day" Sunday, when the club encourages love for the fellow man in the search for the cure for AIDS. AIDS volunteers formed a human red ribbon. Later, during the game, the Giants brawled with the Cubs, after Sergio Valdez hit Chicago shortstop Shawon Dunston with a pitch. On the first annual Cure Day, in 1994, the Giants brawled with the Colorado Rockies. "We won last year, too," said Giants manager Dusty Baker. "Maybe we need to play more (on Cure Day). We're 2-0 with two brawls." Shortstop Royce Clayton said, "It's just unfortunate it comes on a day like this. But you can't pick your days for altercations."


* After 100 games this year, the Cleveland Indians are 67-33. In 1991, the Indians' record after 100 games was 33-67.

* Seattle pitcher Chris Bosio has nine no-decisions this year, and in those, the Mariners are 0-9. Randy Johnson has eight no-decisions, and in those games, Seattle is 7-1.


* Texas third baseman Dean Palmer was hitting .330 with nine homers and 24 RBI before he tore a biceps muscle and his season ended. His four replacements have combined to hit .217 with three homers and 28 RBI.

* Twelve White Sox players have made their major-league debut this season, including eight pitchers.

* Colorado has a chance to become the first team since the 1927 Yankees to have the top three home run hitters in its respective league. The '27 Yankees had Babe Ruth (60), Lou Gehrig (47), and Tony Lazzeri (18), and the Browns' Ken Williams ranked fourth with 17.

* Minnesota's victory in the ninth inning Tuesday was the Twins' first in 59 games in which they trailed after eight innings.

* Dodgers righthander Ismael Valdes is 3-0 with a 0.34 ERA against the Cubs this year.

* The Phillies were 37-18 on June 25. According to baseball numbers guru Jayson Stark, no team has ever been 19 games over .500 at any point during a season and finished under .500, something that the Phillies likely will accomplish.


* The Oakland Athletics made 13 roster moves prior to June 30. Since then, they've made 47 roster moves.

* If you think the Orioles are losing because of injuries, consider this: The Red Sox, who have lost Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens and Aaron Sele at one time or another, have used 49 players this year, a club record.