The baseball purists, including the purist here, hated the idea of a wild-card team, an extra round of playoffs, four more teams in the postseason. No doubt this would help chip away the integrity of the game, which already was eroding because of the labor trouble.
Well, the purists, this purist, were wrong: The first divisional playoffs have been a rousing success. Even though two of the four series were sweeps, Cleveland routing Boston and Cincinnati thumping the Dodgers, this has been a week of excitement.
Last Sunday: The Houston Astros come from behind in their game against the Cubs, but the Rockies hold off the Giants to wrap up the NL wild card. In the AL, the Angels win and the Mariners lose, forcing a one-game playoff.
Monday: Randy Johnson duels Mark Langston, a suspenseful matchup until Seattle takes over in the seventh inning, aided by a couple of bone-head plays by California. Langston and second baseman Rex Hudler have a confrontation in the dugout after the inning. Johnson finishes the game powerfully, points to the sky just as fireworks explode overhead in the Kingdome, and fans storm the field. Wonderful stuff.
Tuesday: Cleveland and Boston, delayed twice by rain, play 13 extraordinary innings. Albert Belle hits a bases-empty homer in the 11th inning to tie the game, and his bat is confiscated, cut open and checked for cork. Both sides miss chances to win in the late innings, until light-hitting backup catcher Tony Pena homers to beat Boston, his former employer. One of the great games in postseason history -- and dwarfed by the Yankees-Mariners clash the next night.
Wednesday: New York and Seattle go back and forth, through umpire controversy and fans littering the field with debris. Seattle goes ahead, New York answers. Finally, in the bottom of the 15th inning (the second-longest game, in terms of innings, in history), Jim Leyritz homers and the Yankees win; Leyritz was the guy the Mariners' Randy Johnson beaned early in the season. Baseball's symmetry was perfect again.
Thursday: A chance for everybody to catch a breath.
Major League Baseball blew its TV coverage, no question. There should have been games on Thursday, day games, all of which would have allowed the country to see all of these playoffs. But most of the baseball seen last week was exceptional.
The short opening series may, one year, hurt the best teams (it didn't this year, Cleveland and Cincinnati advancing). But the short series also forced the teams to play with increased intensity. Lose Game 1 of a seven-game series, and you know there's plenty of time to recover. Losing Game 1 in the Division Series was a killer. That's why you saw Ken Hill, scheduled to pitch Game 4 for Cleveland, throwing in relief Tuesday, why Tim Belcher threw in extra innings for the Mariners, why Colorado manager Don Baylor ran out of pinch hitters Tuesday.
They had to win, immediately. They had to play hard. They had to play good baseball to survive. For those reasons, the entire sport benefited.
La Russa's last stand?
If Tony La Russa is finished as manager of the Athletics, then he went out loudly, taking one last shot at Rickey Henderson, as well as rookie Jason Giambi, who both missed the last series with a rib-cage injury. "If they're unavailable for me," La Russa said, "we could save the hotel [bill] for the weekend. Both those injuries bother me. Is that a horrible thing for me to say? I don't think so, because I don't think I'm horrible. If you're not going to be part of it, we'll send you a Christmas card. I really detest not sprinting to the end." If La Russa comes to the Orioles, he'd almost certainly bring pitching coach Dave Duncan -- bad news for Mike Flanagan. Oakland hitting coach Jim Lefebvre will stay or try for another job (like manager of the Dodgers), but it figures Orioles hitting coach Lee May will be replaced in any event.
Forget the bubbly
When Colorado clinched the wild card, Mike Kingery and Bryan Hickerson, who do not drink, chugged bottled water. Kingery said he tried a champagne celebration once in the past. "I thought it was gross," he said. . . . Major-leaguers, like the rest of the country, tuned in to the O. J. Simpson verdict. In fact, Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields blamed the trial for the modest crowds at Chavez Ravine on Tuesday. "This might have been a little too much for L.A. today," he said, "with the O. J. verdict. They were [emotionally] done. They had to go home and regroup."
Winfield feels slighted
Cleveland designated hitter Dave Winfield was angry about being left off the postseason roster and called a news conference to announce his disappointment. Winfield planned to home before teammates persuaded him to offer his presence in the dugout during the playoffs. . . . Hideo Nomo did little this week to change the perception that he hates media attention. When asked at his news conference whether his English has improved, Nomo replied: "No.". . . The Dodgers' early playoff exit won't help Tom Lasorda's chances of returning next year. Sparky Anderson has let it be known privately that he would love the job if it became available. But cutting one aging manager loose and hiring another wouldn't make a great deal of sense.
Bodyguard didn't help
Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn retained a bodyguard for the playoffs, Nelson Mercado, a martial arts experts. Too bad Mercado couldn't protect Vaughn against Cleveland's pitching. . . A week after Barry Bonds said he was thinking about retiring, he announced that he is going to work hard in the off-season to make 1996 one of his best seasons.
When Boston manager Kevin Kennedy asked that Belle's bat be confiscated and checked for cork Tuesday, Indians manager Mike Hargrove stormed out of the dugout to challenge the decision. After his chat with the umps, Hargrove pointed a finger at Kennedy from a distance and offered a profane directive. The next night, Kennedy had to coax Hargrove into shaking hands when the two teams were introduced. "We were actually kidding around a little bit," Kennedy said. "We spoke and we're OK. Life's too short to hold grudges.". . . This could be Randy Smith's choice if he weighs GM offers from the Orioles, Expos and possibly the Tigers: With the Orioles, he would have ample resources and a little less control.
With the other teams, he would have few resources and almost complete control. "The key thing for me," Smith said, "is the working environment."
Nettles gets gate
The Padres fired third base coach Graig Nettles on Friday. Nettles had been given the job despite minimal experience in giving signs and judging outfield arms, and his inexperience hurt San Diego. He repeatedly sent runners who had virtually no chance of scoring, a development that once led to a confrontation with All-Star right fielder Tony Gwynn.
Second base search
About two second basemen coveted by the Orioles: The Astros are planning to make a multi-year offer to potential free agent Craig Biggio, and the Minnesota Twins want to entice Chuck Knoblauch with a mult-year offer. If the Orioles want Knoblauch, he would cost them major prospects; they could sign free agents Biggio or Roberto Alomar without surrendering players.
Schott in the dark
In one conversation with reporters, Cincinnati owner Marge Schott showed that she doesn't know who Randy Johnson is, said the identity of Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella escapes her, said the brown playoff tickets look like "rap concert tickets" and mistakenly referred to the Dodgers' Asian All-Star as "Homo," rather than Nomo. And we wonder why this sport is in such trouble.
Around the horn
Cubs announcer Harry Caray broke down on the air during his last broadcast this year and acknowledged that part of the reason is that he is near the end of his colorful life. "It's gotten to the point where I'm thankful to wake up every day," he said. "There's a realization where the day is coming. No one's immortal." Caray's grandson Chip has applied to replace another Cubs announcer, Thom Brennaman. . . . Jim Fregosi, droll as always, summed up his experience managing the hobbled Phillies: "I guess the best way to put it is that I started the year managing a replacement team and ended the year managing a replacement team." . . . The Phillies were displeased by the play of shortstop Kevin Stocker. . . .
A handful of baseball junkies, including several players, sat around in Fenway Park during the rainy Thursday and debated this question: Which team in baseball was the most disappointing this year? To a man, they pointed a finger at the Orioles. "How could they not win," said one player, "with all that pitching?"
By the numbers
* Colorado's starters pitched 5 1/3 and 5 innings in the first two games of the Rockies' series against Atlanta last week. A meltdown? Hardly. During the regular season, the Rockies' staff averaged only 5 1/3 innings per start, using 12 different starting pitchers.
* Despite the short season, the Astros set a club record this year by scoring 747 runs.
* Cleveland slugger Albert Belle won the home run title by 11, becoming the fifth player since 1957 to win an AL home run title by a margin of 10 or more. The last was Cecil Fielder, who in 1990 hit 51, which was 12 more than Mark McGwire hit.
* The Twins allowed 210 homers, most in the majors. The major-league record for homers allowed in a 162-game season in is 226, by the Orioles in 1987.
* Dante Bichette is only the 13th player in major-league history to hit at least .330 with 40 homers, 120 RBIs, 100 runs and 250 total bases. Bichette (.340, 40 HR, 120 RBIs, 101 runs, 359 total bases) and Barry Bonds, in 1993, are the only two to accomplish this since 1956.
* Orel Hershiser and Charles Nagy each won 16 games this year, the first time Cleveland has had two 16-game winners since 1974, when Gaylord Perry won 21 and Jim Perry won 17.