Passing Bucs, and other early-season pretenders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first two months of each major-league season are filled with uplifting stories of players and teams that are well out in front of their preseason expectations.

It is a phenomenon that easily is explained by the laws of statistics and probability. The first two months of play are a limited sample, and the smaller the sample, the larger the standard deviation from the statistical norm.

If this sounds like a lot of college professor mumbo jumbo, it can be summed up with just a few simple words:

Time to get real.

The extraordinary length of the baseball schedule has a tendency to moderate the game's statistics. That's why there's always someone hitting .400 at the end of April and never -- at least not since 1941 -- anybody hitting .400 at the end of September. That's why you have to enjoy the Pittsburgh Pirates while you can.

It's fun to look at a team such as the Pirates and marvel at how they have managed to stay competitive for two months with an entire payroll that could be paid out of Albert Belle's salary. But no one seriously believes that they will be anywhere close to the top of the standings after 162 games. They represent a statistical anomaly that will correct itself over the long haul.

That cuts both ways. The Chicago Cubs lost their first 14 games of 1997 and dug themselves a major hole in the National League Central, but they were -- at least on paper -- a better team than the Pirates when the season opened. Since that 0-14 start, they have played .500-plus baseball and stand just a couple of games behind the team (St. Louis) that figures to end up on top.

Who knows? They might even win the thing.

In most cases, the standings already are beginning to reflect the true quality of the teams in each division, and the league leaders already are populated with the game's premier players. The rest will be along soon.

So, while you're waiting to see if the Orioles go into a June swoon, here are five predictions certain to come true in the weeks and months ahead:

1. The Seattle Mariners finally will start living up to their press clippings. The consensus AL West favorite has begun to play well at the Kingdome and appears ready to wrest control of the division race from the Texas Rangers. The Mariners will have a five-game lead at the All-Star break.

2. The Milwaukee Brewers will wilt under the weight of a tough June schedule and fall to fourth place by July 1.

3. The Los Angeles Dodgers will take advantage of head-to-head competition with San Francisco and Colorado to emerge as the dominant team in the NL West by mid-July.

4. Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner, whose offensive numbers were disappointing in April and early May, will be the American League Player of the Month for June.

5. San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn still will be around .400 on July 1, but he'll be around .380 on Aug. 1 and finish the season hitting .363. Can't get more specific than that.

It isn't easy looking into the future, but somebody's got to do it.

Not such a steal

The Boston Red Sox talked up pitching prospect John Wasdin after they acquired him from the Oakland Athletics in the Jose Canseco deal, but he has done nothing to live up to the advance billing.

The 24-year-old right-hander had made seven starts and 10 relief appearances through Thursday, and the Red Sox had a combined 1-16 record in those games.

Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan didn't mince words recently when he summed up Wasdin's faulty mechanics.

"He has a wild leg swing," Kerrigan said. "He swings it really wide. Body parts are spread all over the mound."

Sensitive subject

Philadelphia coach Hal McRae made himself scarce while the Phillies were in Cincinnati last week, what with rumors flying that he is the leading candidate to replace embattled Reds manager Ray Knight.

McRae knows what it feels like to be the manager on the hot seat, so he didn't want to spend too much time on the field at Riverfront Stadium.

"You're in an awkward position when your name is being thrown out to replace someone," McRae said. "I can't do anything about what's being said. I'm employed somewhere else. And it's awkward, so I tried not to be very visible, since people are saying these things. I blended in, tried not to draw attention to myself."

Neion Deion update

The simmering feud between Reds outfielder Deion Sanders D and Phillies ace Curt Schilling is far from over. Sanders still is smoking over an inside pitch that might have hit him in the neck if it had not glanced off his bat handle. Schilling remains unapologetic.

The whole thing started five weeks ago when Sanders stole second and third base with a five-run lead, then danced around at third base in an attempt to disrupt Schilling's delivery. It nearly sparked a bench-clearing brawl when Schilling allegedly retaliated on Tuesday night.

"I'm the sole provider of my family, man," Sanders said. "I have an obligation to two professional teams. To have a guy try to damage my body is inexcusable. And he's going to have to deal with it. As God is my witness, he's going to have to deal with it.

"He's going to have to see me, one way or another. I was raised a certain way. My mother always told me, 'Handle your business.' And that business will be handled."

Schilling, who outweighs Sanders by about 30 pounds, didn't appear to be in any hurry to make peace, either.

"What's he going to do, arm-tackle me?" Schilling said. "It's no mystery he doesn't like to hit." When the Cleveland Indians lost to the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday to fall a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the AL Central, it was the first time since June 11, 1994, that the Indians had been out of first place in June.

In 1996, the Indians moved into first place on April 13 and never left. In 1995, they moved into first place on May 12 and never vacated the top spot in the standings.

Welcoming committee

Indians fans were out in full force to celebrate the homecoming of prodigal outfielder Albert Belle, who made his first competitive appearance in Cleveland as an ex-Indian during a midweek series with the White Sox at Jacobs Field.

The stands were full of abusive fans, some of whom got so out of hand that six were arrested and 24 were ejected from the stadium. Belle was under intense fire in the late innings of Tuesday night's opener, dodging everything from beer to batteries, but he had the last laugh, hitting a three-run homer in the first game of the series and driving in three more runs in a White Sox victory the next night.

He also had an answer for the fans who showered him with Monopoly money in left field.

"I was waiting for them to throw out some real money," he said. "It just shows they're cheapskates."

The big shot

People are still talking about the home run that Andres Galarraga hit at Pro Player Stadium last weekend, maybe because the ball still hasn't come down.

"I was like, 'Ooh, ahh, geez, oh my God,' " Expos outfielder Larry Walker said of the homer, which was measured at 529 feet. "I could stand at second base with a fungo bat and a golf ball and I couldn't hit it that far."

Guerrero sits down

Kids do the darnedest things, but we still can't believe that a rookie would have the nerve to cork his bat. Dodgers infielder Wilton Guerrero is serving an eight-game suspension for the offense, which could end up costing him the National League Rookie of the Year Award if it's a close vote.

Familiar face

The Athletics have been impressed with right-hander Mike Oquist, who pitched 8 2/3 innings and gave up just two runs to defeat Toronto last weekend. He appears to have earned a place in the A's rotation, something he was unable to do in six-plus years in the Orioles' organization.

"I think he's the real deal," said A's pitching coach Bob Cluck. "Of course, I'm not ready to proclaim he's a starter forever. But I'm on his side. He can pitch."

Clothes make the team

Superstar Ken Griffey has been given the responsibility of choosing which uniform combination the Mariners wear during each game. He writes his decision in a small square on the clubhouse blackboard, and his teammates dress accordingly.

"We've got so many combinations I never know for sure if I'm right till I take the field, and sometimes I'm wearing the wrong cap," manager Lou Piniella said. "I wish picking the uniform and winning games was that easy."

Griffey apparently is so into the fashion thing that he is considering spending $5,000 out of his pocket for a set of new dark blue jerseys that are jersey style instead of mesh.

Say what?

A sampling of the week's most interesting quotes:

Boston Red Sox manager Jimy Williams on the loud clanging sound coming out of the new ballpark construction site behind Milwaukee County Stadium: "It reminded me of ground balls going off my glove when I played." x xTC A sign behind the visitors dugout at Jacobs Field during the series against the White Sox: "One less Belle to answer. David Justice is all torque, no cork."

Tigers manager Buddy Bell on the contrast between the contracts commanded by amateur draft choices now and when he was selected in 1969: "I signed for $2,500 and promptly went out and bought myself a baby blue Mercury Montego with an eight-track [stereo] in it."

Mariners manager Lou Piniella on the best clutch pitchers in the game: "You need a win, there's a guy in the Toronto clubhouse -- [Roger] Clemens -- and a couple of guys in Atlanta that you might go to, but Randy Johnson is there with anybody. He has great stuff, but his strength might be in his competitive nature."

The sky's the limit

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