The baseball strike in finally over, and the abbreviated season starts this afternoon in half-filled stadiums all over the country. If the strike had lasted any longer it might have replaced the sport as the national pastime, and in fact strikes may already have become more a part of American life than baseball ever was.
Well, now that thing have returned pretty much to normal, everybody can get excited about the chances of their favorite teams making the playoffs in October. Unfortunately, at least in the American League, thing won't be too interesting. The league, which as long as I can remember has specialized in boring pennant races (with the exception of the Red Sox in '67), won't offer much excitement this year either.
American League East
I used to be a Yankee fan when they were winning pennant after pennant in the '50's and early '60's. Everyone I knew hated them with a passion, but I could never understand why. Now, after seeing the Orioles clean up for the past couple of years I think I now: nobody likes a team that always wins.
This year, sad to say, will be no exception. Baltimore may just be the strongest team in baseball, even without Prank Robinson, who has travelled out to L.A. to help the Dodgers in their pennant quest. Barring wholescale injuries or a total collapse, Earl Weaver's team won't have a great deal of trouble remaining on their traditional perch on top to the division. Their pitching, by a conservative appraisal, is almost strong enough to sustain the pennant drive alone, with no help form the offense.
But the rest of the team is also absurdly deep and talented. Mery Rettenmund, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell (who should rebound after a sub-par season), and a host of young talent form the minors should be enough to tie down Baltimore's fourth consecutive flag.
I wish I could pick Detroit first, but barring a miracle they don't have what it takes to beat the Birds, at least this year. The Tigers have strong pitching, led by '68 World Series hero Mickey Lolich. He finally came into his own last year, leading the league in wins (25), most innings pitched (376) and strikeouts (303). They also have 20-game winner, Joe Coleman.
Last year the Tigers led the league in homers with 179, and scored more runs than anybody except Baltimore. Norm Cash, Al Kaline, and Aurelio Rodriguez will have to repeat fine years if Detroit is to stay close to the Orioles. Otherwise the Tigers could be in trouble. Look for them to stay close, but fade in September.
I am, admittedly, not a die-hard Red Sox fan, but living in Boston for three years has sobered me up a little. This year, after trading away their lineup to the Brewers, the Sox look pretty lackluster. Sure they have Yaz, but with chest pains and all, land coming off his worst season eve. All right, they have Tommy Harper, Reggie Smith, Rico Petrocelli, and a couple of decent pitchers in roger Moret, Marty Pattin, Sonny Siebert, and Ray Culp (gasp). But where will that get them? I say, optimistically, third, but if they don't get early. It could be a long year at Fenway with the Green Monster.
That brings us to the New York Yankees, the erstwhile kings of baseball, now the reigning kings of boredom. New York has fallen on hard times, but it may stage a mild resurgence this year. The pitching is spotty, with only Mel Stottlemyre anything above average, the defense is hardly anything to write home about, but the offense, led by Bobby Murcer (the Yankees entry in the "superstar" category), Roy White and a gaggle of good young players could produce. But, alas, the Yankees are still dull, dull, dull.
Milwaukee, home of the Brewsox,--oops I mean the Brewers--won't profit by witching divisions. The bunch they got from Boston--George Scott, Billy Conigliaro, Jim Lonborg, et al, will help, but he Brewers are still an-expansion club. The only reason I pick them fifth is because Cleveland is so woefully bad that the Brewers can probably safely donate last place to the Indians.
Cleveland, poor Cleveland, will not scare anybody this year. It remains to opposing pitchers more than he does the Indian management. The sudden Sam McDowell trade brought in Gaylord Perry to anchor the worst pitching staff in the league, but Perry may not have many good seasons left. Watch for the Indians to lose, lose, lose.
Curiously enough, I did not pay much attention to this division last year since it was already a one team race about a month into the campaign. Just as in the East, there isn't much question about who will win. Oakland had the Seat pitching next to the Orioles, with or without movie star Vida Blue, and has a good offense to match. Reggie Jackson, the moody slugger, made a strong comeback last year and may do even better this year, while Campy Campaneris, Sal Bando, and Mike Epstein will produce enough runs between them to assure the A's of a second chance against Baltimore in October.
There are some who say the Chicago White Sox are the coming team. They're coming all right, but, like Detroit, probable won't mature fast enough to catch the Athletics. Dick(I remember him as Richie) Allen has arrived in town after yet another trade. He should team his big bat and salary with Bill Melton, last year's American League home run king, to give the White Sox some uncharacteristic muscle offensively. The pitching, with Wilbur Wood, Stan Bahnsen and Tom Bradley, is strong.
The Kansas City Royals may be the best expansion team in baseball, and should give the Sox a run for second place. An exciting hit-and-run style team, the royals are led by pint-sexed shortstop Freddy Patek, both a defensive and baserunning wizard, and genuine superstar Amis Otis (Why the Mets traded him I'll never know), Dick Drago and Mike Hedlund, two pitchers I have never heard of, lead a supposely sound mound staff. The Royals may surprise a few people.
The rest of the division is pretty meaningless. The Minnesota Twins are growing old and ineffective together. The California Angels should come together and win a few games but not enough to challenge the leaders, and poor ol"Ted Williams will struggle home a distant last with the Texas Rangers as he searches for some bonafide major league stars to help out Frank Howard.