Once again, the planets are aligned just right for the New York Yankees, who will find their way back to the World Series even though they bear surprisingly little resemblance to the magical team that cakewalked to the title last year.
The Yankees were ordained in 1998. They can thank their lucky stars in 1999.
They are the one contending team that never had to worry about facing Pedro Martinez twice in the best-of-five Division Series, since a division champion cannot face a wild-card entry from its division in the first round. The Cleveland Indians drew the short straw and now face possible elimination by an otherwise inferior team.
Martinez is the real wild card in the postseason shuffle. If he pitches the way he has for most of the season, the Red Sox have an excellent chance to dispose of the team with the best record in the league -- and smooth the way for the Yankees to return to the Series.
Here's why. The Yankees are the one team in the American League equation with real pitching depth, even if Roger Clemens and David Cone have struggled through the second half. With the Indians likely to finish with the AL's top record, the Yankees would face Texas, and should have enough arm strength and experience to defeat the Rangers and advance to the American League Championship Series.
The Red Sox look good for a first-round upset, but it would likely require Martinez to defeat the Indians in Game 1 and Game 5, which would push him well back in the Red Sox rotation for the second round of the playoffs.
Huge advantage: Yankees.
The Red Sox have just one other starting pitcher with as many as 10 victories -- veteran Bret Saberhagen (10-6). The Yankees have five starting pitchers who have reached double figures in victories, a major edge in a best-of-seven series, and would get the home-field advantage.
In the playoffs, the team with the best pitching usually wins. The Red Sox stand slightly above the Yankees in the overall pitching rankings, but the Yankees have the more balanced staff and -- by far -- the most postseason experience.
If Martinez cannot pitch until Game 3 of the ALCS, that edge becomes far more pronounced.
Right before the final game at Tiger Stadium, Hall of Famer Al Kaline approached rookie Robert Fick, who was wearing No. 25 in honor of Norm Cash as part of the closing ceremonies at the 87-year-old ballpark.
"Make history today. Hit one out like Norm Cash would," Kaline told the kid, and that's just what Fick did.
He hit a grand slam in the Tigers' final at-bat at the old stadium, nearly clearing the right-field roof in a finish right out of "The Natural."
Blowing out the candle
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the closing ceremonies at Candlestick Park was the presence of Hall of Fame first baseman Willie McCovey, who now requires a cane or walker to get around on his badly damaged knees.
"I've been assured that the next three surgeries I'm scheduled to have will do the trick," said McCovey during a news conference earlier last week. "I have three very competent doctors that will perform my next three surgeries, so I will be able to walk to home plate at Pac Bell Park on Opening Day."
The much-loved McCovey probably will be a frequent visitor to the new ballpark, because he has rejoined the Giants organization as a senior adviser to the team. He played 19 seasons with the club and worked in the front office until 1994, but dropped out of sight because of a reported falling out with the team.
Apparently, all's well that ends well. The Giants have named the body of water behind the right-field fence at the new ballpark "McCovey Cove," in honor of the player who hit more home runs at Candlestick than anyone else.
No doubt, Orioles fans are hoping that the front office can pull off a significant off-season deal to improve the pitching staff, but it isn't going to be easy with pitching at an even greater premium this winter than it was a year ago.
The free-agent market -- which featured superstars Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown, among others, last year -- will not be nearly as rich in pitching talent this winter. The Orioles figure to take a look at free-agent left-hander Graeme Lloyd to shore up the bullpen, but probably will have to make a trade to acquire another front-line starting pitcher.
Not that it is entirely necessary. The rotation features three front-line starters -- Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson -- and the club is high on young Jason Johnson. But a fourth veteran starter would greatly enhance the likelihood of a turnaround in 2000.
The most interesting possibility might be Blue Jays starter Pat Hentgen, a former Cy Young Award winner who could be made available to free up money to re-sign Blue Jays offensive stars Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green.
Blue Jays fans, cognizant that his start at SkyDome last Sunday might be his last in Toronto as a member of the home team, gave Hentgen a standing ovation as he left the field.
"I'm very appreciative of that support of the support these fans have shown my whole career," Hentgen said. "I don't know if that was my last start [in Toronto], though. I've always treated every game like it would be my last game, and if it [a trade] happens, it happens."
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays took a backhand slap at their NFL counterpart the other day, after the Buccaneers began enforcing a policy that prohibits fans from standing up in front of other fans at inappropriate times. One fan was even arrested for barking at police.
During the seventh-inning stretch on Tuesday night, the Rays made the following announcement:
"Stand we won't put you in handcuffs."
Long time coming
Outfielder Doug Glanville on Wednesday became the first Phillies player to reach 200 hits in 20 years. The last guy to do so was Pete Rose, who had 208 in 1979. The last right-handed Phillies batter to do it was Dave Cash, who had 213 hits in 1975.
Glanville made a show of it, hitting a three-run home run to help defeat the Chicago Cubs, the team that traded him to Philadelphia for Mickey Morandini.
"I couldn't have written the script any better than that," he said afterward. "It's a home run that extended our lead, it's my 200th hit and it came against my old team."
The Oakland Athletics are expected to pick up the $5.6 million option on the contract of veteran pitcher Kevin Appier, even though he entered his final start of the year Friday night with an 8.06 ERA over his past eight starts.
"I think I'll be back, and I think I'll be better," he said.
Appier has won 15 games in his first season back from shoulder surgery, but has not been particularly efficient. His 5.32 ERA is the highest of his career by far. He had never before registered an ERA above 3.89 in a full major-league season.
"My shoulder is healthy, and they tell me that the second year back from surgery is almost always better than the first," he said.
If the A's feel that the $5.6 million is too pricey, they could cut him loose, but there will be a dozen teams waiting for the chance to sign him as a free agent. It seems more likely that they'll hold onto him for another wild-card run next year, then trade him if the club isn't competitive at midseason.