Wild-card deck deals Mets, O's different hands N.Y. comes up aces, adding Piazza, Nomo


The division race has become a runaway, with the first-place team so deep and talented that the other serious contenders have little choice but to concede the title and focus on the next-best thing -- the wild-card playoff berth.

Sound familiar? It should, because it is a fairly accurate description of the American League East and the hard reality of Orioles baseball in 1998.

It also applies to the National League East and the second-place New York Mets, who will open a two-game interleague series against the Orioles tonight at Camden Yards and play host to the Orioles at Shea Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday.

The major difference is the way the two clubs have met that competitive challenge.

The Mets have been highly pro-active, acquiring superstar catcher Mike Piazza from the Florida Marlins and pitcher Hideo Nomo from the Los Angeles Dodgers to fortify a solid club that is eight games over .500, but still 8 1/2 games behind the heavily stocked Atlanta Braves.

The Orioles, inhibited by a huge payroll and a thin minor-league system, have been able to manage only minor mid-course corrections, making little headway in their attempt to close a huge divisional deficit and compete with the second-place Boston Red Sox for wild-card consideration.

If they have taken different approaches to the same problem, it is because they are two teams in different environments, with different priorities.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos spends liberally to field a star-studded lineup each year, but the club's fan base is consistent and the focus is always the same: win the division, get to the playoffs, return to the World Series.

The Mets want to do the same, of course, but they have an added burden. They not only have to compete with a Braves franchise that has owned the National League in the 1990s, but they also have to go headline-to-headline with the popular Yankees for the heart of the city.

When the season began, both New York teams figured to be legitimate playoff contenders, but the Yankees emerged as the dominant team in the American League and are on pace to win 120 games. The acquisition of Piazza was a competitive coup, but it may have been even more important from a marketing standpoint.

The civic rivalry has been hot and heavy since the miraculous Mets won the World Series in 1969.

"It was even important for the Mets to beat the Yankees in spring training," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, who managed the Mets from 1977 to 1981. "But it's not like the Mets have made a bunch of fluff moves. They have made moves to help them. The trick will be signing Piazza, but from all indications, they think they'll be able to do that."

Yankees pitcher David Cone also has been on both sides of the Big Apple, and said he wasn't surprised to see the Mets make a splash in May. The ongoing public relations war with the Yankees is not just a product of the local media's fertile imagination.

"I believe it's very real," said Cone, who won 20 games and led the Mets to the playoffs in 1988. "It's the traditional battle for the back page [of the tabloids]. The fact that there was such an attendance increase after the Piazza deal suggests that it's real.

"There are different variables, but the Yankees getting off to such a great start probably helped push the Mets to make a big move. That created a sense of urgency."

The addition of Piazza clearly has had a positive impact on the field and in the stands. The Mets are a solid wild-card contender and -- if their record is any indication -- a far more complete team than the Orioles.

"There are similarities," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "They don't have a lot of speed. They have a little advantage in power and a little more depth on the bench."

Apparently, the Mets also have more depth in the minor-league system, or they would not have been in a position to make the big deal for Piazza.

"In order to do that, you have to have some depth and talent," Miller said. "Most of the teams getting help in the big leagues have had to give up minor-league talent to get it. If we had any strong minor-league talent, it probably would be here right now."

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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